Starbucks

Archived Posts from this Category

San Francisco gets a disloyalty card, but we kinda still don’t

Posted by on 21 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Local Brew, Starbucks

If you’re not aware of the disloyalty card concept, it originated a couple years ago in the UK from former world barista champ, Gwilym Davies. The kicker is that it’s supposed to be the opposite of a customer loyalty card, where consumers are given financial incentives for repeat business. Like the kind you get from the big chains such as Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee.

The SF Disloyalty CardInstead, the informal disloyalty “card” offers financial incentives for consumers to sample the coffee at a variety of independent coffee shops in town — using something of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink informal honor system. The concept has since been mimicked in Seattle, Atlanta, Calgary, and elsewhere, and now it’s apparently come to San Francisco: San Francisco Gets a Dis*Loyalty Card | ShotZombies. Participants in the SF card program include Stable Café, Epicenter Cafe, Coffee Bar, Sightglass, Ma’velous, Farm:Table, Four Barrel, and Ritual Roasters.

The idea has not only spread around the world, but it has even earned a few accolades of genius marketing from a few notables in the industry. We may have groaned in full-facepalm position when Gwilym Davies started spouting from the Gospel according to the Third Wave after winning the WBC crown. But he deserves credit for coming up with a cute concept. But beyond a cute concept, that’s where we never really quite got it.

What dampens our enthusiasm for the concept is that it just moves the goalposts a little further back — rather than refute them altogether. So instead of locking repeat consumer zombies into one chain, we spread them over a few more cash registers. It essentially suggests replacing a monopoly with a cartel. To be truly effective, a program should encourage people to go beyond even the boundaries of something like the participants on a disloyalty card. But then again, we’ve gone beyond boundaries that any sane person ever should…

UPDATE: March 2, 2011
Here’s a curious refinement on the disloyalty card concept: Explore Chicago’s Independent Coffee Shops with Tour de Cafe – Chicagoist. Here the emphasis is on making it a $20 pre-paid card.

UPDATE: Sept. 13, 2011
Toronto’s version of the $25 pre-paid card has been renewed for a second year with new participants (and a few drop-outs): Indie Coffee Passport returns for year two.

UPDATE: Jan. 10, 2014
Three years later in Washington D.C., would you believe there are still people treating this idea as if it’s ingenious and brand new?: Curious coffee drinker? This (dis)loyalty card is for you. With dozens of cities creating disloyalty cards over the past several years (more recently Boston and Baltimore), one can only conclude that the surprised reaction over D.C.’s disloyalty card just proves how these programs have mostly failed in obscurity for all previous markets.

Trip Report: Citizen Cake

Posted by on 18 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Let’s hear it for counter-programming. Starbucks made good on last year’s Plenta threat this week, announcing a new beverage size that targets the gluttony market, called the Trenta. As in Godzilla vs. the Trenta. Taking advantage of a news lull, Starbucks’ press onslaught has the media lapping it up. So naturally, we’re going to talk about the return of Citizen Cake.

This is the long-awaited revival of Elizabeth Falkner’s since-defunct Hayes Valley original namesake shop. Opening in November 2010 on the spot of the former Vivande Porta Via, it’s decorated with a lot of black-painted wood with red highlights. Inside there’s a bar with stool seating and a number of black wooden tables and booths for more formal dining. However, the pastries are, not surprisingly, showcased in front.

Let them eat Citizen Cake Pastries inside Citizen Cake

The staff here are, well, rather quirky — even by SF standards. They operate a rather restaurant-pedestrian UNIC Phoenix Twin behind the bar to pull shots of Equator Estate Coffee. We’ve long been ambivalent about Equator Estate coffees served in a retail environment; the lack of quality controls at the customer delivery end have produced an inordinate amount of underwhelming cups, given their industry regard. But in this restaurant-like environment, it’s surprisingly decent — though not great.

The resulting shots have a thinner but healthy-looking darker brown crema. It has a limited body and not much sweetness, despite its rather short two-sip serving size. With a darker, heartier herbal flavor of cloves, there is limited brightness in the shot. Served in classic brown ACF cups.

The milk frothing here is dodgy at best, and they also offer coffee in metal French presses. But at least unlike their former Citizen Cupcake location, they’re not hinging their business on the health of a record store.

Read the review of Citizen Cake.

The Citizen Cake UNIC Phoenix Twin The Citizen Cake espresso and sketchy-looking cappuccino

Clover has got your Hario V60 right here, pal

Posted by on 01 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

In what’s starting to look like a Spy-vs-Spy-like dance between a Starbucks acquisition and the unStarbucks set, Starbucks’ Clover Equipment Company’s latest move is the Precision Pour Over: Clover Pour Over « Why Not? Coffee. (Courtesy of Seattle’s Why Not? Coffee.)

Why Not? Coffee shows us a prototype of the Clover Precision Pour Over at Roy Street Coffee and TeaAs we left off in our story, the once-independent Clover Equipment Company made waves with its brewer back in 2007. With its splashy introduction on the market, half lead by its fictitious price tag, lot of people bored with the espresso routine saw brewed coffee as fertile new ground for coffee exploration. But then Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz discovered it, got his hands on it in 2008, and said he was taking all the toys for himself and didn’t want to share.

Many independent cafés were suddenly locked out of the device, and others still thumbed their nose at the machine’s “sell-out” to Starbucks. In retaliation, many independent cafés replaced thoughts of the Clover brewer with an obsession over Hario V-60s drippers — essentially exhuming the 1908 invention of the Melitta coffee filter with a little spit shine.

Clover vs. unStarbucks cafés: a new Cold War?Clover’s latest move is a prototype that co-opts the Hario V60 in a new design that stay’s true to Clover’s hands-off, mass-production mission. Between that and even Williams-Sonoma now carrying the Hario drippers (a jump the shark moment?), we can only wait and see how the unStarbucks set will counter.

Any way it goes, there’s still no end in sight for the filter drip faux arms race — with coffee consumers caught in the crossfire.

The ever-popular Starbucks customer archetype article is back!

Posted by on 21 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Starbucks

Fourth from the left: the writer archetype of those typing Starbucks customers?If we had to come up with a top 10 list of overdone coffee-themed articles in the media, one of them might have to be the top 10 coffee shop customer archetypes. BusinessWeek joined the fray in this week’s issue: Coffee Kinesiology – BusinessWeek.

BusinessWeek asked a panel of behavioral experts to evaluate and report on the “taxonomy of the 10 most common Starbucks waiting-line stances.” The study stuck to Starbucks (you mean there’s coffee anywhere else?) and to a lone Manhattan location (you mean there’s anywhere else?) to come up with their research. They also came up with ridiculous quotes about coffee costing $5.50; apparently inflation has hit the ever-popular $4 coffee myth.

That said, we still prefer the Five Types of Morning Coffee Crazies. Though earlier this week, Flavorwire posted a suitably racist version: Flavorwire » Stereotyping You By Your Starbucks Order.

Espresso in the Azores (São Jorge & Pico)

Posted by on 16 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

It had been eleven years since I last visited the Azores. A remote archipelago of Portugal, this small group of volcanic islands — isolated in the middle of the Atlantic — is the very verdant-but-austere birthplace of my in-laws. Since my last visit, Portugal converted from the escudo to the Euro, tying the country more closely to other Western European standards of living. A number of Azorean emigrants to America found its spartan island lifestyle of stone houses and no utilities now forgiving and modern enough to move back. And I started coffee ratings Web site.

A blog post was inevitable.

“I think the Azores must be very little known in America. Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them.”
–Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), 1877

Sunrise on Pico, the mountain on Pico island Old vineyards protected by volcanic rock walls on Pico island, overlooking Faial island

Statue of Henry the Navigator in São Roque, Pico, overlooks São Jorge island across the channel Side street in Lajes do Pico, Pico

“You’re going to the Ozarks”?

Mention the Azores to most people, and they might think you’re talking about the Ozarks. Discovered in the 1400s by Portuguese explorers, the isolation and remoteness of these islands gave rise to resilient settlers and, later, some value as a transatlantic weigh station. Some locals still speak Portuguese with an accent that might be more familiar to a 15th century Portuguese explorer than a 21st century lisboeta.

Past and present homes near Calheta, São JorgeHowever, there are a few references to these islands in popular culture. Besides an economy predominantly based on agriculture and fishing, the Azores once supported an active open-boat whaling economy until the practice was outlawed in 1984. Herman Melville, in his infamous 1851 novel Moby-Dick, wrote about the many hardy whalers from these islands aboard Capt. Ahab’s Pequod — a ship that almost gave Starbucks its name until a co-founder vetoed it in favor of the Pequod’s first mate. (You knew there had to be a coffee tie-in somewhere.)

“No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores.”
— Herman Mellville on the crew of the Pequod, Moby-Dick, Chapter XXVII

Turning their underdeveloped remoteness in the Atlantic to an advantage, these islands have more recently begun to focus on ecotourism. One can often think of the Azores as Portugal’s equivalent to Hawai’i, but a Hawai’i long before its tourist economy appeared. In one of the world’s better examples of economy conversion, open-boat whaling has given way to open-boat whale watching. Meanwhile, the maritime themes that inspired Moby-Dick still live on in local imagery, the names of commercial establishments, and even a local version of the mobile coffee cart.

Backside of the Moby Dick II mobile café in Lajes do Pico Easy whale access to the Moby Dick II mobile café in Lajes do Pico

A symbol of Lajes do Pico whale watching at sunset Portuguese brickwork in front of the Moby Dick II café, Lajes do Pico

Of Pico Island & São Jorge Island

The presence of whales and the history of whaling is most acutely felt on the Azores’ Pico Island. In addition to visiting Pico (a first for me), I spent more extensive time eleven miles across the ocean channel on my return to nearby São Jorge Island (aka, Land of My In-Laws). This narrow, 35-mile-long island has only about twice the land mass of San Francisco and is home to a mere 10,000 residents — plus some 20,000 cows who contribute to the island’s famous cheese production.

São Jorge from Sete Fontes - as seen on the Ocean Mist WordPress theme - with Pico behind Some of São Jorge island's many bovine residents

If the Azores are remote to begin with, the quiet island of São Jorge is even more isolated — even if some bloggers might unknowingly recognize its distinctive landscape from a semi-popular WordPress theme. In the previous season of his food/travel TV show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visited São Jorge and dined in the tiny fishing community of Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo — a town that is still only accessible by foot, by fishing boat, and (only just recently) by ATV. Mr. Bourdain wrote of the village, “Totally remote, no power, no running water, no TV, no phone … gorgeous. Best meal of the trip but hairy getting there.”

“When I say this place is isolated, I mean end-of-the-world isolated … 2100 miles from New York City, 900 miles from Portugal, and God only knows how far from anything resembling civilization. It feels about as far from any place as you can possibly be.”
–Anthony Bourdain on Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Island; No Reservations, Season 6, Episode 4

Fajã dos Cubres and Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo and its lake filled with the local amêijoas, or clams

Church at Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Hydrangeas are abundant on the Azores and are a regional symbol

Changes since 1999

For centuries, São Jorge, like the rest of the Azores, has been characterized by austere, maritime frontier living carved into rock and sea … and by its self-sufficient country folk living in simple-but-immaculate dwellings overlooking beautiful green cliffs and blue ocean. But there were noticeable changes since my last stay. Some of these changes were welcome progress. Other changes — particularly those from expats returning from America with a little too much cash to flaunt — weren’t as good.

In 1999, many buildings in the main village of Velas looked worn and run down. Today they show signs of reconstruction and a fresh coat of paint. A number of municipal buildings and facilities have been either modernized or recently constructed — newly paved roads, modernized island airports with free Wi-Fi (sometimes the only place on the island), investments in wind power, etc. In 1999, the Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo looked largely abandoned, in slow decay, and “governed” by feral children (Lord of the Flies style) whom I then jokingly called “The Children of the Clams” — in reference to the locally famed amêijoas de São Jorge clams that come only from its tiny lake. Today there’s an influx of people, adults even, with a number of surfers who have since spruced things up a bit and made it their home.

Shoreline of Velas, São Jorge, with modern municipal building and Pico in the distance Residences in Velas, São Jorge

From the same seaside cabin I stayed in 11 years ago along the tiny Porto dos Terreiros, I again heard the familiar yet bizarre nighttime call of the cagarro, a regional seabird. But on Friday nights that sound is now mixed with the sounds of Portuguese karaoke down at the new unnamed bar at the shore.

Surprisingly, the food has gotten much better here too. Dining in the Azores has always been a regular repeat of the same, limited, local-but-good menu items. However, this time I got the sense that the global standards and awareness for food quality have somehow made their way ashore here: the food seems more flavorful and slightly more varied than it did 11 years ago. I even encountered the publicized concept of do prado ao prato — or “from the meadow to the plate”.

Cafe Restaurante Velense in Velas attracts fishermen to its bar Espresso set up at the Cafe Restaurante Velense bar in Velas, São Jorge

O Borges café in Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo is popular despite the broken espresso machine A Torrié espresso shot, Cafe Restaurante Velense, Velas, São Jorge

Island Coffee Standards

The coffee, on the other hand, has not changed much at all. You can look at this as either good or not so good. Combine this with the islands’ isolation, and exploring the coffee here becomes a bit of an anthropological study — not entirely unlike chain-free Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are virtually no chain stores of any kind on the Azores.

The coffee stasis here can be considered “good” because the local standards were never half-bad to begin with. This is Portugal, after all, where the tradition of good coffee and a public obsession over it is almost as strong as Italy’s. The stasis here is also good because the convenient, quality-stunted, environmentally regressive consumer fad of single serving coffeemakers has not yet arrived from continental Europe.

An Azores home coffee ritual: Sical and a Moka potYet clear opportunities for improvement exist. While the Azoreans drink their café several times a day as a fact of life and a matter of social discourse like any other good Portuguese citizen, there is something of a cultural split over milder coffee served at home in the morning and the more serious, big pants coffee served in the afternoon or evening. Morning coffee at home is often café cevada (café de cebada in Spanish) — a sort of mild, granular instant coffee made primarily from grain (literally: barley) and typically served with larger quantities of milk. While not terrible, it’s not at all like the serious coffee served in homes from Moka pots (and the occasional pour-over) later in the day. All separate from the many commercial cafés selling the various Portuguese coffee drink staples — from the bica (the typical espresso shot cost €0.50, or about $0.70) to café pingado to the garoto to the galão.

The more cautionary tale when being invited to someone’s Azorean home is that it’s customary to break out delicious pastries but also the family moonshine — typically a homemade angelica fortified wine or an aguardente brandy. Often very good, often served from a re-purposed liter-sized plastic soda bottle, and often something to make one pace themselves and their social calendar.

Azorean espresso machines and coffees

Nicola - if only it weren't just available on TerçeiraLike any other import, the distribution of roasted coffee and espresso machines is severely limited in the Azores. Portuguese machine manufacturers, such as Fiamma, were far more prevalent than in continental Portugal — despite the occasional two-group La Spaziale. And while we’re huge fans of Portugal’s Café Nicola coffee, it is essentially unavailable on the islands of Pico and São Jorge. The much busier, more cosmopolitan Azorean island of Terçeira hosts a number of Nicola-branded cafés — plus the lone international airport in the area — but that almost seems wasted on the locals; as a local saying goes, “Terçeira drinks tea, São Jorge drinks coffee.”

On the islands, Sical is the king of coffee — both in cafés and on retail store shelves, in whole bean and ground forms (5 Estrellas Clássico at €6.90/kg, or about $4.35/lb). I repeatedly came across Sical so often that I got music stuck in my head — disturbingly, it was the otherwise-unintelligible opening chants in the French Tecktonik remixes, and 2007 Eurotrash fad, of Yelle’s “A Cause Des Garçons.” While not necessarily poor coffee, Nestlé acquired Sical in 1987, and nothing of artisan value has ever survived in Nestlé’s mass production clutches. Otherwise, there were a number of Torrié cafés and the occasional Delta Café.

While it is generally quite difficult to find poor espresso on the Azores, it is next to impossible to find a café that stands out from the crowd as anything exemplary. Hence why all the café reviews are left here as a list rather than individual blog posts. About the only stand-out you might find are the places that end-to-end grow their own green coffee (rather unique for Europe), process the beans, roast them, and serve them to their café customers — a true bean-to-cup example, as it were. Café Nunes, in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes, being one such example.

Looking below on the tiny village of Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge Café Nunes in Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge

Inside Café Nunes, Fajã dos Vimes Café Nunes espresso, Fajã dos Vimes

Coffee plants behind Café Nunes, Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge Communal gather at a café in São Roque, Pico


Name Address Island Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Aeroporto de São Jorge Café Aeroporto de São Jorge, Estrada Regional R1-2a, Fajã de Santo Amaro São Jorge 6.50 6.00 6.250
Águas Cristalinas Rua das Poças, São Roque do Pico Pico 5.80 6.20 6.000
Café Ilhéis Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Urzelina São Jorge 6.90 6.80 6.700
Café Nunes Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Fajã dos Vimes São Jorge 6.70 6.50 6.600
Cafe Restaurante Velense Rua Conselheiro Doutor José Pereira, 5, Velas São Jorge 5.40 6.00 5.700
Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo Largo do Cais, 4, Calheta São Jorge 6.00 6.20 6.100
Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo Av. do Livramento, Velas São Jorge 6.40 5.20 5.800
Fornos de Lava Travessa de São Tiago, 46, Santo Amaro São Jorge 6.60 6.20 6.400
Lajes Airport Café Aerogare Civil das Lajes, Pedreira – Lajes Terçeira 7.30 6.20 6.750
Manézinho Restaurante Caminho do Açougue, Urzelina São Jorge 6.40 7.00 6.700
Moby Dick II Rua Manuel Vieira Soares & Rua Engenheiro Arantes Oliveira, Lajes do Pico Pico 7.20 6.80 7.000
O Milénio Snack-Bar Rua do Corpo Santo, 21, Velas São Jorge 6.70 7.00 6.850
Pastelaria Aroma & Sabores Rua do Capitão-Mor, 9, Lajes do Pico Pico 7.10 7.00 7.050
Restaurante Castelinho Caminho das Ávores, Urzelina São Jorge 6.70 6.80 6.750
Restaurante Lagos Largo de São Pedro, 2, Lajes do Pico Pico 6.70 7.20 6.950
Restaurante “O Baleeiro” Rua São Pedro, Topo São Jorge 6.70 6.80 6.750

Coffee is entertainment, but good coffee needs “soul”

Posted by on 24 Aug 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Please repeat after me: “Food and drink is entertainment.”

What do I mean by that? Public tastes in entertainment change. We no longer attend social dances or go to the circus. In fact, if someone probably heard their neighbors were doing that, they would hide any of their small children. And instead of seeing the latest Elia Kazan flick or reading the latest Truman Capote novel, we watch Netflix DVDs and play videogames.

While we certainly went to restaurants, drank coffee, and maybe even tried Korean food in the past, back then it was more…functional. But in our popular culture of today, these are primary forms of entertainment. Instead of seeing the latest Tennessee Williams play, we seek out the latest Korean BBQ truck. Today’s shared cultural experiences are as much about retail food and drink establishments as they used to be about music or literature. And coffee today is definitely part of that.

This recently published “syphon-worship” music video illustrates how much entertainment has become inseparable from coffee appreciation today.

Food-as-entertainment-as-food

Food-as-entertainment is heavily reflected in our consumer culture. Not only has the Food Network established a sizeable and lucrative audience, but there’s enough of a feeding frenzy to encourage Bravo and the Travel Channel to join the fray. Not so coincidentally, just as television has swelled on the reality TV fad in response to a writers’ strike and the appeal of lower production costs, retail food and drink is undergoing a similar fad in response to our current economic times.

The SF Street Food Festival - or is that a bag of Blue Bottle Coffee?Take the whole street food thing. We now have fanfare such as the second annual SF Street Food Festival. Now there’s some great food to be had from pushcarts, taco trucks, and bicycles rigged with flamethrowers. But there is a definite entertainment element to it all — the kind that suggests, “This would be tasty in a restaurant, but it’s ten times more fun eating it over an open sewer!”

A couple years ago, and also not by coincidence, we jokingly called coffee’s equivalent to this fad the “Malaysian street food experience“. To the idealist, the theme is about focusing so much on the product that you’re allowed (if not encouraged) to offer as few customer amenities as possible. To the cynic, the theme is about charging the most money for the least amount of investment under the guise of exclusivity. Then throw in the dreaded hipster consumerism label if you will.

Coffee’s Broadway Dreams

As if to continually demonstrate how New York remains years behind on the current coffee culture, just today the New York Times published an article on the stripped down coffee bar theme: The New Coffee Bars – Unplug, Drink Up – NYTimes.com. The article follows a bit more of the idealist’s perspective — with a hint of cynicism suggested only in mentioning New York’s latent Wi-Fi backlash. This theme, already overworked on the Left Coast, is probably a bit too new for New York to pick up on the (*groan*…don’t say it!) irony yet.

Thus it’s probably a bit too telling that today a related post from another New York publication, The Awl, impressed me more: Knock It Off With All The “Pairing,” Okay? – The Awl. Why I appreciated this cynical rant more than the Times piece is probably best summarized by quoting some of it:

The current passion for anything to do with food and drink, cooking, regional cuisine, taco trucks, and so on is fun, and I certainly don’t mean to bag on that. Of course it is great to try, and maybe like, new things, and delicious things. But the fussy, mincing habit of attempting to create demand with a sniffy insistence on things like “artisanal” cheese or soda, coffee brewed in some Japanese contraption for eighteen hours, etc., is manipulative and artificial and stands in opposition to the fun part of sharing good things together.

If you have to ask if it's food, is it really all that nourishing?Their use of “manipulative and artificial” particularly resonated with me. My wife knows a thing or two about food and cooking, and she’s had a tremendously insightful statement about the molecular gastronomy fad of recent years — back when we still wanted to play with our food at restaurants but had the bank accounts to frequent El Bulli. She noted that while the playfulness of its techniques made the food fun and entertaining, to have any lasting qualities the food has to have soul.

Real soul. Not soul-by-numbers. Isley Brothers soul, not Michael Bolton soul. The first time I attended the SF Blues Festival was also the last. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I regularly listened to blues singers wailing over how they lost their jobs, their women, and their self-respect. Instead, I shudder to this day thinking about those grassy hillsides of Ft. Mason, suffering through a blues singer’s laments over recycling. Recycling! Sorry, but the “My Curbside Recycling Program Doesn’t Pick Up My #2 Plastics Blues” just rings hollow and oh-so-wrong.

And that’s the problem with a lot of new coffee experiences I’ve had these days. They may have to survive in a world that expects entertainment from their coffee. We’re enthralled and entertained with the latest super-expensive espresso machine, the pour-over method of the month, and the single origin coffee that surprises us by tasting like it comes from the wrong continent. But if the coffee doesn’t have soul — if it’s just going through a checklist of expected stereotypes as a means of fabricating soul — I may as well be in a Starbucks with better coffee.

Trip Report: Prima Cosa Caffe

Posted by on 17 Aug 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Starbucks

Near SF’s Flatiron Building (yeah, we got one too), this one-time Starbucks kiosk arguably put the then-next-door All Star Cafe & Bakery at 550 Market St. out of business in its first year of existence. Yet despite morning lines of commuters waiting for their lattes, and an overworked crew of three in tight quarters with an overworked Verismo machine, Starbucks abruptly closed up shop here.

Entrance to the Prima Cosa Caffe kiosk Adornments in the tight Prima Cosa Caffe

The Prima Cosa Caffe cappuccinoIn came Giorgio Milos, Illy‘s head barista and a former Italian champ, to help reopen this space as an Illy-branded café a couple months back. It’s a real improvement for the location, as the old All Star Cafe even beat out the Starbucks that once resided here. But even so — it painfully seems that you still can only do so much with Illy coffee in America.

They offer espresso, panini, and pastries — plus cans of Illy (with Francis Francis machines) on display in the modern, tight space. There’s a lone iron bench on the sidewalk in front, but that’s it for seating. Using a seriously polished, chrome, new, two-group La Carimali machine, they pull shots with a textured medium brown crema that look generally good. But the crema here lacks a real thickness and volume — as you can classically expect from exported Illy coffee.

It has a generally bolder flavor than most American Illy shots: bolder spice and a sharper bite to it without much of the typical woodiness. Served in Illy-logo IPA cups. The milk frothing here shows some care. But as the photo illustrates, the results can be a little suspect.

Read the review of Prima Cosa Caffe.

Prima Cosa Caffe's shiny La Caramali machine The Prima Cosa Caffe espresso

Espresso in Cape Town, South Africa

Posted by on 01 Aug 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Quick!: name a city that’s surrounded by the exquisite natural beauty of mountains and seas, with brightly painted houses that decorate quaint neighborhoods, with great food everywhere you turn, with a nearby wine country consisting of hundreds of vineyards and many nationally renowned restaurants, with hipsters who frequent farmers’ markets in transitional neighborhoods, with a diverse racial mix from black to white to Indian to Southeast Asian, with the nation’s most vibrant gay population, with a touristy waterfront featuring seals on piers and a ferry that takes you to a famous prison island, and with a whole lot of really good coffee.

Why, it could only be Cape Town, South Africa.

Alright, that was a trick question: San Francisco’s Pier 39 has sea lions, not seals per se. But the point being that for anyone from our fair city, many aspects of Cape Town will seem very familiar. But there are also significant differences.

Cape Town from Table Mountain Cape Town and Table Mountain from Robben Island

Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighborhood Cape Town's Victoria Harbor

Familiar and not

World Cup events in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront on the day of the Final, July 11, 2010If you’re talking liberal laws, it’s probably not a major surprise that gay marriage is legal in South Africa. What may be more of a surprise is that, for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the South African constitution had to be temporarily suspended around the soccer stadiums for FIFA security purposes. (We can’t say enough good things for how festive the South Africans were as hosts to the World Cup, btw.) Years of abuses under Apartheid made many personal searches — ones we’re quite accustomed to in the U.S. — illegal. The 14-year-old South African constitution is one of the most liberal in the world.

On the other hand, there’s the old local joke that rock and roll never dies, it just tours South Africa. (“Hey, was that really Bryan Adams I just saw in town the other day?”) And given the nation’s history of economic disparity and its 25% unemployment rate, there are the major issues of poverty and security.

Cape Town's FIFA Fan Fest for Germany vs. Argentina, July 3, 2010 Nelson Mandela mural along Church Street, Cape Town

Soccer fever hits Cape Town for the World Cup

Some expected us to witness crushing poverty and aggressive homelessness in Cape Town, but it’s hard to say that it is any worse than SF. In the month we spent around Cape Town’s central business district (CBD) — a.k.a. the City Bowl — we were approached by all of one person for money. Yet security is a big concern among the locals and it’s an even bigger industry.

Even with all the truly great options in town to satisfy any SF food snob, food is handled a bit differently here. Some of the best sushi in town can be found in Italian restaurants — sushi being a decidedly California thing in Cape Town, and less of a Japanese thing. Which also explains why the grocery stores sell flour tortillas under the name “California wraps”. (To make matters worse, in turn, one of the more famous Italian restaurants in town has a German name.) This theme of playing a bit fast and loose with labels and names will again come up with coffee later in this post.

Beach mansions in Cape Town Springbok, the national animal (and a tasty one at that), in the fields hours outside of Cape Town

To be a young black man anywhere, including Cape Town, has its issues Only the World Cup tourists needed this sign of etiquette

Coffee standards in Cape Town

Speaking of coffee, like Italy or Australia or New Zealand, the baseline quality standards in South Africa are clearly better than in the U.S. You can walk into just about any random store and trust that you’ll get a rather acceptable espresso, whereas this practice is still ill-advised even in San Francisco. But, as in places such as Italy, examples of very good espresso are a rarer find — even in the biggest cosmopolitan cities. But with a little research and a few contacts, we were able to identify some of the best places in Cape Town.

A few things come to mind specifically about the espresso here. WEGA machines are ubiquitous. The coffees tend to emphasize more rich-bodied flavor than the wilder, bright coffees you may come to expect from Africa, but there are exceptions. And the cappuccino here almost always comes with a very Portuguese dusting of cocoa powder; you quite literally ask to have for one without it.

And somewhat contrary to an earlier post of ours, you can find the cappuccino quite often on café menus — even perhaps moreso than flat whites, and especially at the cafés that are a little less obsessed about their coffee. However, most places do treat the cappuccino and flat white interchangeably. Which leads us to our next topic of discussion…

Cappuccino at Espresso Lab Microroasters Origin Coffee Roasters' drink menu

Camps Bay and the 'Twelve' Apostles, suburban Cape Town Hout Bay from Chapman's Peak, suburban Cape Town

South Africa’s wine analogy: coffee-flavored wines

After spending a month in South Africa, it made sense that this is the nation that gave us “red espresso” — or Roobios tea. Even if you like the tea, as we do, the term “red espresso” comes off as unnecessarily deceptive and has never sat well with us. Just because you can stick something into an espresso machine does not make it espresso. Which reminds us a little of eggspresso — or should that be “yellow espresso”? And yet “Red Cappuccino” is also a registered trademark.

Now if you thought coffee’s wine analogy was a bit over the top, over the past several years South Africa has developed something of a niche market for coffee-flavored wine. They’ve been growing wine grapes around Cape Town since 1655, but it wasn’t until 1925 that a Stellenbosch professor crossed the fragile pinot noir grape with the heartier cinsault (known locally as hermitage) to create a local cultivar called pinotage.

In 2001, noted pinotage maker Diemersfontein Wines came out with the original “coffee chocolate pinotage”, and they’ve popularly released one every year since. Meanwhile, imitators came to the fore in the form of Cappupinoccinotage from Boland Cellars, Café Culture from KWV, the Vrede en Lust Mocholate (a malbec), etc. The original Diemersfontein coffee pinotage wine maker, Bertus Fourie — literally nicknamed “Starbucks” for that reason — has moved on to Café Culture and now Barista Wine (we are not making this up), where he holds the title of “Head Barista” and their Web site offers a Nespresso Le Cube D180 sweepstakes.

Stellenbosch wine country, outside of Cape Town The Vida e Caffè in Stellenbosch

Coffee pinotage is sometimes called the red wine for coffee addicts, and it certainly doesn’t come without some controversy from the purists, but it’s really more the red wine for coffee drinkers who don’t like red wine. That said, there’s room for everybody’s tastes. We’ve long stated that Starbucks’ stroke of genius was in convincing millions of customers who don’t like the taste of coffee that they actually do. While coffee pinotage doesn’t use any actual coffee for flavoring, the taste aims for the consumer are the same.

Wall of coffee cups at Mugged on RoelandNow despite all the wine-growing activity around Cape Town and a number of its very good wines, many South African wines are still (IMO) global underachievers and/or acquired tastes. Having tried a 2007 Diemersfontein coffee pinotage and a 2009 Barista pinotage, we were reminded of all the beer + coffee combinations that have failed over the years … the “coffee stouts” where the results were second-rate as a beer and second-rate as coffee, rather than something better than the sum of its parts.

Of course, we live in a diverse, global culture that sometimes wants their wine (or beer) to taste like coffee, their coffee to taste like chocolate and hazelnuts, and their chocolate to taste like bacon. So why not skip the middleman and market bacon wine? Sure, it might be a curious novelty to hear Céline Dion perform an album of songs by fellow Canadians Death from Above 1979, but it’s no stretch to presume that it will optimally satisfy neither fans of Céline nor Death from Above 1979.

As Oscar Wilde famously once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” This South African dimension to the coffee-wine analogy largely fails coming from a different angle.

Now why don’t we do that?

Origin Coffee Roasting's three stories of coffee heavenA little more towards the authentic in the African continent, in the category of “now why don’t we do that in America?”, we did enjoy the occasional Ethiopian coffee ceremony — even if it originates on the continent’s opposite side of the equator. At a restaurant such as Cape Town’s Addis in Cape, we enjoyed an odd mix of Frankincense, popcorn (?!), and coffee served from a Jabena pot.

While the coffee undergoes some of the oldest and crudest handling and brewing known to man, the resulting cup is quite flavorful. Perhaps more importantly, the ceremony uniquely resonates with coffee culture, capturing much of the wonder that’s truly native to coffee without the creatively lazy marketing contortionists who squeeze coffee’s square peg into wine tasting’s round hole through the mutant coffee cupping fad in America. But alas, Californication applies to coffee cupping here just as it does to sushi and flour tortillas in South Africa.

At the coffee chain level, Vida e Caffè serves as an example of how Starbucks and even Peet’s fall short. Even Woolworths W Café serves both espresso and cappuccino in a paper cup that run circles around Starbucks.

While at the “artisan” end, there are places like TRUTH. that seem to go through the Third Wave motions, but with much success. And then there are places like Origin Coffee Roasting, who not only broke quality coffee ground in Africa in 2006, but they established a roasting and training operation that most American coffee entrepreneurs have only talked about. And then there’s Espresso Lab Microroasters, who show some of the most cohesive and comprehensive vision for what a quality coffee operation could be — while making espresso as good as anything in SF.

The wine may have room for improvement compared to what San Franciscans are used to, but everything else about Cape Town makes it a fantastic and compelling place to be — including the coffee.

Jabena, Frankincense, popcorn - an Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Addis in Cape TRUTH.coffeecult kiosk in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront

Woolworths surprising W Café Vida e Caffè espresso with Portuguese pasteis de nata


Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
95 Keerom 95 Keerom St. Gardens 6.40 7.00 6.700
Blue Cat Cafe Shop 10a, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 6.60 5.00 5.800
Bread Milk & Honey 10 Spin St. Gardens 7.30 7.50 7.400
Café Chic 7 Breda St. Gardens 3.40 4.50 3.950
Cookshop 117 Hatfield St. Gardens 7.10 7.80 7.450
Crème Café & Espresso Bar Shop 11, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 4.60 5.00 4.800
Deluxe Coffeeworks 25 Church St. City Bowl 7.40 7.80 7.600
Depasco Café Bakery Shop 5, Buitenkloof Studios, 8 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Espressamente Shop number F&B1, Cape Town International Airport Cape Town Intl Airport 6.90 7.20 7.050
Espresso Lab Microroasters 373-375 Albert Rd. Woodstock 8.60 8.80 8.700
Fego Caffé Shop No. 6160, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.80 6.00 5.900
Jardine Bakery 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.70 6.80 6.750
Jardine Restaurant 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.90 7.00 6.950
Melissa’s The Food Shop Shop 6195, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.20 5.50 5.350
Mugged Style Cafe (aka “Mugged on Roeland”) Shop 1, Perspectives Building, 37 Roeland St. East City 6.70 7.00 6.850
Origin Coffee Roasting 28 Hudson St. De Waterkant 8.20 8.00 8.100
Osumo 49 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Saeco Caffè 15 Orange St. Gardens 6.70 7.50 7.100
Sevruga Restaurant Shop 4, Quay 5, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 6.80 7.00 7.200
Tribeca Bakery 106 Main Rd. Kalk Bay 7.40 8.00 7.700
TRUTH.coffeecult Depot Dock Rd., V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.60 5.50 6.550
TRUTH.coffeecult Roasterspace 1 Somerset Rd. Green Point 7.40 7.20 7.300
Vida e Caffè Wembley Square Gardens 7.00 7.50 7.250
Vida e Caffè Shop 6100, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.00 6.80 6.900
Vida e Caffè Shop 1, Mooikloof, 34 Kloof St. Gardens 7.00 6.80 6.900
W Café 72 Longmarket St. City Bowl 8.00 6.20 7.100

Trip Report: Vida e Caffè @ Wembley Square (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 16 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

One of the most important, and most tragic, stories of human history since the age of the Portuguese explorers is the story of Colonialism. Today the vestiges of Colonialism are apparent everywhere from globalization to the impact of slavery and race relations around the world. For example, to look at the history of Cape Town, South Africa, is to look at the Dutch East India Company and the forced migration of slaves not from Africa but from southeast Asia — i.e., primarily modern day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Fast forward to modern times. It has been less than two decades since South Africa has been free from apartheid, and the “Rainbow Nation” has done a remarkable job at overcoming cultural differences and burying grudges over the many wrongs of the past. (Contrast this with, say, the recent history of the Balkans.) Fortunately, Colonialism in South Africa today has been reduced to more of the corporate variety. Take retail coffee chains, for example.

Vida e Caffè seating inside Wembley Square Approaching Vida e Caffè in Wembley Square from behind

Last month, coffee colonialists Starbucks blew their vuvuzelas to announce their arrival in South Africa in time for the 2010 World Cup. It was as if to tell the many global tourists to the Rainbow Nation, “Don’t worry. We will save you from the scary coffee backwaters of South Africa. Rest assured that good coffee will be made available during your stay, thanks to us — your Starbucks rescue team.”

Not unlike South Africa’s Commonwealth sisters, New Zealand and Australia, Starbucks lacks a presence here partly because a typical espresso in South Africa is better than most of what’s typically available in a Starbucks haven, such as the U.S. Hence Starbucks’ announcement elicited little more than a yawn from the locals.

Another reason why this wasn’t news was because smaller regional chains, such as Vida e Caffè (“Life and Coffee” in Portuguese), have captured the market with better coffee and a far more relevant environment. Vida e Caffè is one of the best local chain examples — branding itself through a Portuguese theme, bright red colors, and a lively, youthful image. In American cultural imagery parlance, think artsy, ethnic skateboarders gone hip hop. This is not the café chain for anti-social laptop zombies.

Vida e Caffè customer beneath their beverage menu - with WEGA Nova Some of the common Vida e Caffè branding found at all their outlets

Vida e Caffè @ Wembley Square Review

This installment of Vida e Caffè is located in the high-security Wembley Square mall. “High-security” is sort of redundant in much of South Africa, but this place takes it to another level. For those who recall the transformation of SF neighborhoods such as the eastern Mission District — where, in the 1980s, metal bars and gates once covered every street-side window and door along Bryant St. — imagine going in the complete opposite direction.

Typical private residence wall in Cape Town's relatively nice Gardens DistrictSouth Africa takes its security so seriously, to an outsider it feels like a cross between paranoia and a people under siege. Barbed wire and electrical fences are as ubiquitous as the security systems advertising “Armed Response”. Half of Cape Town’s 3.5 million residents seem employed as private security. Yet despite the ominous signs of eminent danger, and despite the country’s criminal reputation, in reality there are rarely signs that the alarm is justified. A 1970s New York felt far more dangerous. Whether their cultural response is overkill is good fodder for a separate debate.

Armed Response is the only kind of response in townThe newer Wembley Square mall, frequented by the perfect bodies entering and leaving the Virgin Active gym inside, is built like a fortress. Pedestrian entry is next to impossible to find at street level, and where it does exist there are interlocked double security doors. But once inside the fortress, in a small mall court, you’ll easily recognize Vida e Caffè by the red plastic tables and chairs along with logo parasols (what for in an indoor mall, we still don’t know). High-energy baristas/servers decked in Vida e Caffè gear will shout out the orders in their ethnic tongues while Brazilian samba plays overhead.

Using a four-group, white WEGA Nova machine, they pull shots that are also decidedly Portuguese. It has a thinner layer of a medium brown crema and a somewhat thinner body. The flavor profile is weighted more in the tobacco end of the spectrum, though they are quite excellent at producing dense microfoam with their milk. Served in a Vida e Caffè-logo Protexca cup with a 70% Lindt chocolate on the side. A decent deal at R10.50.

Read the review of Vida e Caffè at Wembley Square in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Vida e Caffè espresso in Wembley Square The Vida e Caffè cappuccino in Wembley Square

Espresso in Seattle

Posted by on 27 May 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

We wrap up our brief series on Seattle’s espresso and coffee culture with a few observations.

First, it had been way, way too long since our last visit. Twelve years in fact. Which is all the more ridiculous given the kind of coffee tourists we’ve become. It was 15 years ago that I attended graduate summer classes on the UW campus (in the U District), and for the occasion I grew a goatee to mock many a stereotyped Starbucks barista in its birthplace. (Ultimately the joke was on me, as 15 years later I still sport that goatee.)

Seattle Center, looking down E Harrison St. from Capitol Hill Local characters that aren't homeless in Seattle's Pioneer Square

Is Seattle still relevant to great coffee?

Back in 1995, despite its availability elsewhere at the time, espresso and espresso drinks (lattes, etc.) were a quintessential Seattle thing. Espresso Vivace already had 7 years of experimentation and innovation under its belt, and Starbucks had opened its first East Coast outlet just two years prior in Washington, D.C.

But just a decade later, people started looking to cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles for the next shiny new thing in coffee — with Seattle suddenly treated like some quaint, outdated reminder of coffee’s past. Interest in good coffee mutated into something that today looks more like interest in the next gimmick or fad for making good coffee: single origin espressos, the Clover, naked portafilters, cuppings, toys and gadgets, etc.

Today it isn’t enough to make good coffee. You have to invent something, or be new to the market, to get noticed — which isn’t something always equated with Seattle’s coffee culture. Restaurants suffer the same fate, as a quality stalwart like Masa’s is almost always passed up for the hot new place that opened last month or for a kitchen that starts cooking with liquid nitrogen and lasers. (Though given Masa’s espresso quality, perhaps lasers and liquid nitrogen might improve their coffee service.)

Seattle icon: the pink Elephant Super Car Wash Another Seattle icon: buskers in front of the original Starbucks

Ironically, it was Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) roasting over at Seattle’s Zoka who first coined the term “Third Wave“. But within just a few years, the coffee industry largely hijacked its meaning for marketing purposes, shoving Seattle out of any potential spotlight once again. Meanwhile, Seattle found its coffee relevancy publicly questioned as “second waver” Starbucks convinced more and more reluctant believers that it became just another mass-production fast food chain.

Sure, Seattle as a city earned a reputation for coffee quality that was not commensurate with the typical place down the street. Because, let’s face it, most of the coffee served in Seattle is godawful. But this is essentially true for any city outside of, say, Italy and Portugal. What matters for our reviewing purposes is what’s available at the top end.

And from what little we recently tested, Seattle isn’t missing a beat. With the exception of maybe Zoka and, understandably, Caffè Umbria, most of the espresso shots we had exhibited a rather “modern” New World flavor profile. Oddly, it was the local invasion of Portland’s Stumptown that was a no show — with a larger, weaker shot that didn’t quite make the grade, given expectations.

No visit to the Fremont District is complete without saying 'hi' to the troll Vladimir Lenin, famous resident of the Fremont District

The Seattle espresso bar habitat

Synesso machines were all the rage in town — not surprising, given that Synesso is a Seattle-based manufacturer. And Melitta/pour-over bars were quite common. However, single origin espresso shots — and even the option for different roasts for your shot — seemed underrepresented in Seattle compared to what you find at the top end in San Francisco.

The quality at the top end is on par with SF. Yet Seattle still has the coffee culture down in spades by comparison: baristas regularly know their customers by name (and more importantly: know their preferences), and so many of the top places in town roast their own. And Seattle has Vivace, which is truly a cultural treasure for the American espresso lover.

We wish we could have reviewed many more places in our short time in Seattle, but long ago we made it a policy to never sample more than four espresso shots in one given morning or afternoon. Anything more than that, and the flavor profiles start blending together and we stop trusting our senses. Not to mention the caffeine jitters. But Seattle was so tempting that we had to bend our rules a bit, reviewing shots in two separate “shifts” on the same day.

Readers may be surprised that I typically consume an average of only about two espresso shots per day. So after the first shift, I literally developed an eye twitch. But it was nothing like my first visit to the (long gone) Café Organica in 2005, where I downed four successive shots to sample all their blends and paid dearly the rest of the day. This time, after a few hours and some hydration therapy, I was rather proud of my caffeine tolerance after being so out of practice.

Coffee sacks on the floor of Caffé Vita We tried to get in the Fremont Kuma, but it closes early and we were in caffeine detox


Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Cafe Juanita 9702 NE 120th Pl. Kirkland, WA 7.30 7.20 7.250
Caffè Umbria 320 Occidental Ave. S Pioneer Square 7.10 8.20 7.650
Caffé Vita 1005 E Pike St. Capitol Hill 8.30 8.00 8.150
Espresso Vivace Brix 532 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.60 8.80 8.700
Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar 321 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.80 7.00 7.900
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 616 E Pine St. Capitol Hill 7.40 8.00 7.700
Trabant Coffee & Chai 602 2nd Ave. Pioneer Square 8.10 7.50 7.800
Victrola Coffee and Art 411 15th Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.20 8.20 8.200
Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea 129 Central Way Kirkland, WA 8.10 8.20 8.150

« Previous PageNext Page »