Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Back in 2005 we wrote about Zagat’s attempt to put together a regional coffee survey based on their famed user review methods. An acquisition by Google and eight years later, that was the last anyone had ever heard of it. Until now.
Zagat has since published their first ever coffee survey. This coincides with their recent hot and heavy lust for improved search engine rankings, with Zagat spewing out a steady stream of coffee-themed blog posts brandishing inane, list-driven, come-on titles such as, “The 10 Most Annoying Coffee Trends” or the wholly derivative/regurgitative “What Your Coffee Drink Says About You.” (Kill me now, please.)
Zagat titled their 2013 study Caffeine Buzz: Hottest Coffee Shops Around the Country, and yet much of its content left us wondering if they’ve been sitting on this data for eight years. For example, just examine the 2013 Zagat reviews for San Francisco.
They list Blue Bottle Coffee among their nine Bay Area selections — but none of the other “usual suspects”. However, they chose to include the ever-underwhelming, Starbucks-slinging Carmel Bakery in the coffee wasteland of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They mention Napa’s traditional but surprisingly good Model Bakery — but ignoring that a Ritual Coffee is around the corner and making no mention of how Model Bakery is one of the few places in the entire Bay Area to offer Caffé Vita coffee. (And for those of you in L.A., good luck finding Handsome Coffee or Portola Coffee Lab, let alone the countless barista award winners from Intelligentsia.)
Unfortunately, despite the SF Gate‘s notion that Zagat has finally caught on to the coffee zeitgeist, we see no evidence that Zagat has given coffee any more serious thought than they did back in 2005. The Zagat survey’s baked-goods-leaning, ambiance-heavy, and coffee-oblivious reviews of the few places that do make their short list only prove that.
The new Google-owned Zagat seems to believe that its future lies in a daily stream of bubblegum blog posts about local coffee. But since Zagat loyalists expect some sort of review guide to anchor things, Zagat exhumed their 8-year-old research and quickly threw it up on the Web.
We’ve written about coffee in India before, but this Sunday’s piece in The Seattle Times is one of the best-researched, most thought-out pieces we’ve seen on the subject in the mainstream Western media: As India gains strength, so does its coffee | Special reports pages | The Seattle Times. At least on the growing side of things. (Coffee consumption in India is another story that’s poorly reported globally. The Seattle Times‘ Part 1 was dubious and a bit patronizing.)The article notes the long history of coffee growing and coffee consumption in India, dating back to the 1600s. This while most of the Western media has treated the news of Starbucks‘ recent entry into India as if the American fast food chain was on a mission to liberate the uncouth India masses from their coffee ignorance. (This is a little like introducing potatoes to Peruvians.)
The article also does a great service by introducing Sunalini Menon, who was formerly the head of quality at the Coffee Board of India and is credited with much of Indian coffee’s quality gains. Of particular interest is the controversy Ms. Menon raises by suggesting that robusta, when handled properly, should be eligible at Cup of Excellence competitions.
Over the past several years, far and away some of the best robusta we’ve ever tasted has come out of India. In India, robusta can be handled like the most precious of arabica beans, and we often love what a measured dose of it does to round out an espresso blend. (Insert the *gag* *spew* *hack* of professional tastemakers here.)
Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.
If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.
That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)
All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.
And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)
But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.
Two months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.
The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.
First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.
However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.
Pod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.
Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.
To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.
Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.
Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.
As if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”
Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.
After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)
While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.
This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?
Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.
Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.
The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.
This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.
All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.
Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.
Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbucks‘ home Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.
This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.
Sometimes life surprises you when what seem like different compartmentalized aspects of it suddenly cross over. Such was the case today where, at one of the more famous technology start-up conferences here in San Francisco, I stumbled across a team building prototype coffeemaking equipment who were performing demonstrations. The company is SF-based Blossom Coffee Inc., and they’re building what they believe is the rightful successor to the Clover brewer — which just a few years back, over the period of several months, essentially entered and left the premium coffee world like a comet.
First: a little background. You see, my “day job” is doing entrepreneurial work to get an education technology start-up off the ground. The coffee thing is largely a rather indulgent hobby with occasional fringe benefits. And the TechCrunch Disrupt conference focuses on technology start-ups with the lofty intent of “disrupting” many of the existing ways of doing business. It’s part wannabe terrorist camp — with targets of economic business models instead of the soft bodies of civilians — and part religious revival — with many attendees trying to prove their worthiness to be a part of, and not subject to, the destruction ahead that leads to salvation within the next “regime”.
Like Blossom Coffee, on Monday I was pitching my start-up on the conference showroom floor. But today (Wednesday) the conference devoted the floor to hardware companies of all kinds.
Attending a conference like this is a bit of a geek fest. Think of all the nerds in school who weren’t cool enough to start bands, so they started companies instead. Despite the thick layer of hubris at events like this, there are typically a few great ideas, many so-so ideas, and the majority are things none of us will probably ever see again in two years. And to peel off any self-important luster even further, you have to remember that building Web sites and mobile apps in SF today is a bit like building cars in Detroit was some 50 years ago.
That said, this year the conference attempted to emphasize both more international start-ups (I never knew so many Brazilian consumer wine Web sites existed) and start-ups featuring hardware products. Hence Blossom Coffee.
Coffee hardware start-ups are hardly new. The Clover Equipment Company was certainly one such example. Recent notable examples also include a Kickstarter project for a PID-controlled espresso machine and, like a bad acid flashback of 1998’s joke Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol, an espresso machine that takes orders by SMS texts.
Talking with Blossom President, Jeremy Kuempel, we connected over our past experience taking thermodynamics classes in engineering college. Except when Jeremy learned the Ideal gas law equation of PV=nRT, often demonstrated by illustrations of pressurized gas in a piston, Jeremy immediately thought to put coffee in the cylindrical chamber. Pretty cool.
The primary goal of the Blossom Coffee brewer (the “Blossom One Limited”) is to succeed the Clover brewer in its degree of digitally configurable, stable temperature control. With a +/-2% accuracy from 160-212℉, it may not be coffee sous-vide just yet — but it’s getting there. Using two highly functional prototypes with La Marzocco group heads, Jeremy and team were experimenting for passersby at the event with some 16 pounds of coffee from Highwire Coffee Roasters. In addition to demonstrating some of the visual “romance” that’s important to high-end pressurized brewing equipment, Jeremy also hinted at some of the WiFi-enabled digital reading and control features planned for the brewer (recipe downloading, fleet management, etc.).
Alongside the working prototypes at their station was a rather sexy finished casing for the proposed end product, as they currently are only accepting pre-orders. They are initially targeting small, high quality coffee chains of some 5-10 stores each. And the taste in the resulting cup seemed promising.
We’ve seen attempted successors to the Clover brewer before — even from Clover. Now we may love our old school pour-over coffee, but anything that gets us to think once again about moving beyond the 104-year-old practice of manual pour-over brewing in today’s cutesy name of “slow coffee” (blech) is a welcome addition in our books. Traditions are good; having few viable alternatives after over a century is not. That’s not so much “slow coffee” as “inertia coffee.”
Thus we hope to find a Blossom brewer soon at a coffee shop near us.
If so, these Blossom guys are more clever than we thought; they’ve made an insider’s joke that knows all too well what buttons to push for a news item to propel itself across the Internet via meme theory. Send in the trolls!
Yesterday’s Seattle Times wrote up a decent piece on Kent Bakke of Seattle La Marzocco fame: Business & Technology | Local coffee world reveres this pioneer | Seattle Times Newspaper. Mr. Bakke’s history with espresso heralds back to the late 1970s when he began importing and distributing La Marzocco machines from Italy.
Things were quiet until 1984, when Starbucks came calling for his machines and a Peet’s Coffee in San Francisco soon followed suit. (Over the years, Seattle Times columnist Melissa Allison has proven herself unable to write an article about coffee without devoting large portions of it to Starbucks, and, well, this one is no different.)
After buying 90% of La Marzocco in 1994, he helped ramp up the local La Marzocco factory in Ballard, WA to the point where they were manufacturing 140 machines each month. Then in 2004, things came crashing down when Starbucks decided to throw in the towel on quality while trying to keep up with their rampant growth plans — ultimately replacing all their “grown up” espresso machines for push-button Verismo jobs that required little more than trained monkeys to operate.
La Marzocco has since recovered somewhat, even if it is currently under competitive pressure from the likes of Synesso (lead by former Bakke employee, Mark Barnett) and Slayer. The article also attempted to make out a La Marzocco controversy over the pricing of the GS/3 prosumer home machine in 2008. However, despite some rumblings from a few devoted loyalists with a lot of cash, that episode adds little weight to the story. In the world of espresso, the consumer market is virtually ignored if not outright dismissed by much of the professional espresso world.
Today’s L.A. Weekly featured an interesting bio-piece on father and son L.A. espresso pioneers, Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink. You might recognize the Pasquini name for some of their excellent home espresso machines. But the Pasquini family is credited with first introducing espresso to the L.A. area.
La Marzocco did a wonderful job convincing people that only certain machines can make a good coffee. … They did a wonderful job convincing the [specialty] barista that that is the state of the art.
It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment — less to their equipment-building prowess, and more to La Marzocco’s marketing ability to build anxieties and insecurities within specialty baristas.
Which explains a little of the ambivalence we feel when we witness the likes of a Sightglass fawning over the latest coffee toy fads on the market. It’s one thing to be enamored with trendy equipment. But it’s another to rely on it as a cover up for a lack of sweat and hard-work that goes into optimizing with the equipment you’ve got.
We smelled a familiar rat the first time we read it: I Am Jonathan’s Starbucks Card: A Social Payment Experiment (With Free Coffee) | TechCrunch. A programmer/writer publicly offers up his Starbucks Card as a social experiment for people around the world to contribute to and withdraw from his pre-paid Starbucks account. It just sounded too conveniently like the Starbucks’ Pay-it-forward-gate of a few years ago, where media outlets took the bait hook, line, and sinker in different markets over the period of several years.
And just as every other media outlet on the planet picked up this story (here, here, here, here, and here — for example), who was already on top of the hoax? None other than occasional CoffeeRatings.com reader, Andrew Hetzel, noting how the programmer/writer’s public relations & app company, Mobiquity, has performed heavily promoted work on behalf of Starbucks, etc.: Starbucks and the ‘Starkbucks’ Jonathan’s Card Viral Marketing Campaign | coffee business strategies.
Conspiracy theorists may be one of our bigger pet peeves. But if you know any of the history here, this readily fits a pattern that has gone back for years — just with a new tactic. And now, as then, someone points out that calling out the authenticity of this clandestine marketing operation diminishes all the goodwill behind the effort. This smokescreen retaliation came from the same playbook for every Starbucks-seeded “pay it forward” story in the local presses not long ago.
Another of the unmistakable fingerprints is Starbucks’ complete lack of acknowledgment that the phenomenon even exists. Most other supposedly social-savvy businesses would pick up on such a story and highlight it as a feel-good for their legions of loyal customers. But with Starbucks, instead there’s deafening silence — as if they’re more worried about ensuring the credibility of the story by distancing themselves, rather than acting as an agent of promoting its supposed feel-good causes.
For all the feel-good altruism to be defended here, why is Starbucks completely turning its back on the story? If questioning the story’s authenticity hurts the altruism behind it, where does Starbucks’ complete silence on the matter fall on the “you’re either with us or against us” spectrum? And even more suspicious, this week Mobiquity took down all content on their Web site indicating their Starbucks affiliation after the story broke. (Screencaps saved fortunately by Andrew, and shown here.) And please do read Mr. Hetzel’s blog for gems like all the pro-Starbucks comments on his post that he traced back to corporate IP addresses within Starbucks Inc.
No matter what, you have to admire the Starbucks marketing team for their savvy in pushing the envelope on effective social marketing. Over the years, Starbucks has benefitted from a number of seemingly independent citations in the press affiliating the Starbucks brand with feel-good stories of local altruism. One of their greatest strokes of genius is suggesting that questioning the authenticity of these stories is a vote against altruism. Who could be against that? It’s almost as genius as the religious argument that a lack of scientific evidence is a foundation for religious faith — and hence a requirement for being a truer believer.
This has to be one of the most clueless stunts we have ever seen anyone perform in the name of the professional quality coffee trade. Coinciding with the first London Coffee Festival, some ad wizards came up with the genius idea of having 100 UK baristas churn out a Guinness World Record 12,005 espressos in one hour. Worse still, they celebrate this orgy of mass-produced gluttony as if it were an accomplishment rather than an embarassment: Newswire / UK Baristas Smash Aussie World Record At London Coffee Festival 2011 – Beverage/Wine – Allegra Strategies | NewswireToday.
It’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a better definition of the ol’ *facepalm*. Here we have a quality-focused industry of small independents struggling to find relevancy in the face of corporate coffee behemoths such as Starbucks. To those ends, they have turned to the language of artisan coffee, individual pour-overs with an attention to detail, the term “craft coffee,” and flowery, self-congratulating prose about the so-called Third Wave.
Instead, what we get is a competition that honors espresso-making like a factory that mass-produces vats of industrial lubricant. And Lord knows nothing says “quality” like “quantity”. Even better: quantity rushed to the point of setting world records.
Apparently, much of the discredit goes to Jeffrey Young, Managing Director of consultancy Allegra Strategies, who revels at the UK besting Australia in the PR Hall of Shame: “This record is a tremendous achievement and really shows the rest of the world London’s leadership in artisan ‘Third Wave’ coffee culture. London offers best-in-class food and coffee with many visitors coming here to learn from trends in this great city.”
Thank you, London. Apparently someone forgot to mention that the Third Wave is about how you can produce over 140 gallons of espresso in an hour.
It’s been a while since we posted something specifically about Starbucks. Yes, they still exist. Their CEO, Howard Schultz, is currently promoting a book, published yesterday, called Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul.
If you mentally have to go back to the Clinton administration to remember when Starbucks last had something resembling a soul, you are not alone. But Schultz’s book message is that Starbucks was in financial dire straits with the economic collapse, and it is now making the most triumphant of comebacks. Apparently if you fall into a 20-foot-deep financial sinkhole for a few years, and in the last year you manage to climb your way five feet back up the sinkhole wall, that’s cause for a new book about your miraculous comeback. Even if you’re still stuck in a 15-foot hole compared to where you were a few years ago.
Along with this book release, this month Starbucks celebrates their 40th anniversary. Meanwhile, Peet’s Coffee & Tea has signage up celebrating their 45th. In the spirit of Starbucks buying out anybody who attempts to outdo them, it’s hardly a surprise that there are now rumors about Starbucks buying Peet’s.
Today the comic newspaper, The Onion, put their spin on Starbucks’ anniversary with this infographic: Starbucks Is 40 | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source. Some bullets of note: