Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
If 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Now 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.
A 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.
|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|
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.
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.
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.
South 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.
The 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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
|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|
The danger of April Fool’s jokes is that sometimes you don’t know when they’re actually joking. Take Starbucks‘ announcement today of their new 128-oz Plenta beverage size: Starbucks Listens to Customer Request for More Sizes | Starbucks Coffee Company.
Either Starbucks has developed a seriously acerbic, cynical streak about their customers — or they are blissfully unaware of how much of a self-parody they have become. We’re reminded of the frightening Carmel Coffee House that once literally sold coffee in units of time under a menu item called “the two-hour mug.”
Thanks to a helpful reader who today pointed out this find to us: Just Bottled: “Firelit” Blue Bottle Coffee Liqueur – Ünnecessary Ümlaut. If Starbucks is good enough for the booze bottle, why not Blue Bottle Coffee? Apparently that’s the question asked by the folks behind Firelit, a new coffee liqueur made from Blue Bottle beans.
Just five years ago, Starbucks branded itself with Jim Beam to create its own coffee liqueur. (Curiously, you can no longer find it on the Starbucks Web site.) Back then, a lot of people still thought of Starbucks as a luxury brand rather than a ubiquitous commodity, so slapping on the Starbucks name (supposedly) upped the liqueur’s street cred. Co-branding being such a universal practice in product marketing, the Starbucks name featured no fewer than three times on the front of the bottle.
Fast forward to today, and now we have the Firelit guys seeing an opening with the small-batch and local angle — popular with a number of discriminating consumers these days — leading them to produce a coffee liqueur with Blue Bottle branding. With the Starbucks brand now sitting somewhere just this side of McDonald’s, this move suggests the possibility for more co-branded product marketing using notable small-batch coffee roasters.
Still, we did have to ask ourselves if this story was even coffee-relevant enough to post here. (Including last week’s coffee inhaler story going around everywhere this week.) We haven’t sampled the product, which hits local retail shelves later this week. But once you process great coffee with alcohol and other ingredients and suspend it in a bottle with a shelf life of several years — as opposed to the two week shelf life Blue Bottle requires of their bean resellers — just how much will the choice of beans really matter besides branding?
Hence why we liken this product idea to using your best straight-sipping tequila to make strawberry margarita mix.
Stirring a bit of the coffee world today is this piece from TIME magazine: Stumptown Coffee vs. Starbucks: Portland, Seattle Rivals – TIME. If Josh Ozersky’s headline of “Is Stumptown the New Starbucks — or Better?” seems oddly familiar, it’s because his article conceptually (and shamelessly) recycled Ethan Epstein’s piece for the New York Press from last June: “Totally Stumped” — an article that lead Eater to run with the headline “Stumped: Is Stumptown This Decade’s Starbucks?” Mr. Ozersky may have won a James Beard Award for food writing, but talk about a strange coincidence.
One major difference, however, is that the TIME article goes all third wave on us. Our years-long annoyance with third wave fiction aside, there’s something outright creepy about mainstream media stumbling cluelessly into social trends years after the fact in an attempt to explain them to us. It made us rethink their headline as, “Is TIME the new 60 Minutes — or Worse?” — given how reading the article made us feel like we were watching Mike Wallace introduce the World Wide Web to a 60 Minutes audience circa 1999. (We may be fans of 60 Minutes, but its track record of reporting on cultural phenomena years after the fact was exceptionally poor.)
In any case, Trish Rothgeb created a mutating monster that must be stopped.
The TIME article also alludes to, but does not deliver on, the Portland vs. Seattle coffee turf wars going on lately. This would have been a much more interesting angle, although it is only a regional (and not national) story, e.g.: A Tale Of Two Cities: Portland’s Coffee Culture Swipes Seattle’s Crown. Could you imagine an amusing piece invoking a comparison with the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry? With Duane Sorenson playing the role of 2Pac and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as “Biggie,” The Notorious B.I.G.
Today’s The Globe and Mail (Toronto) featured an article on the coming growing pains for Vancouver’s Caffè Artigiano: Coffee chain tackles expansion conundrum – The Globe and Mail.
For those unfamiliar, Caffè Artigiano still represents the best espresso shot we’ve ever had — produced by the hands of barista savant, Sammy Piccolo. Pulled in 2003, years before the Third Wave supposedly even existed, it was an abject lesson for how all the espresso-making automation in the world could never replicate Sammy’s quality control. (He tossed out the first two espresso shots he attempted to make for us — aka, sink shots.)
For the seven years since the Canadian Barista Championship has been in operation, Caffè Artigiano has had a virtual lock on the winners. So you have to figure they generally know what they’re doing. The article interviews Kyle Straw, the current Canadian barista champion and the store manager at Caffè Artigiano’s Hornby location/mothership.
Much like its American counterpart and one-time bean supplier, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Caffè Artigiano has grown to a number of cafés in its Vancouver backyard and now seeks more continental expansion. There are currently rumors of future locations in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Just don’t expect a Starbucks-like expansion at all costs.
Forget the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games next week. We’d go back for Caffè Artigiano. First the 2006 Winter Games in Torino and now Vancouver? We can only say that Sochi, Russia has a lot of great espresso to live up to for the 2014 Winter Games.
Has it really been a couple weeks since our last third wave rant? A few years after we thought this topic was dead and buried, lately newbie third wave coffee articles have been cropping up in local newspapers like teenage vampire profiteers. London, Oakland, and now Vancouver: Indie cafés perfectly poised to quench coffee aficionados’ palates – The Globe and Mail. What makes this incarnation worth pointing out is that it attempts to colorize the progression of coffee standards as an independent café vs. chain store debate.
Helping to cement our theory that the phrase “third wave” has been co-opted exclusively for marketing purposes, the article makes no mention of coffee consumers as part of this “third wave” — only coffee purveyors. And as usual, all this talk of distinct coffee waves seems oblivious to an outside world where “Himalayan rock salt” has become part of grocery store vernacular. We’ll even overlook that the article’s cited Piccolo brothers have been making outstanding coffee since a decade ago.
But what’s different here are suggestions that small mom-and-pop coffee houses, the ones that were nearly exterminated at the hands of big coffee chain stores, are making something of a comeback.
We see things quite differently. Rather than being about indie-vs-chain coffee shops, this is just the natural progression of a continuous rise in consumer expectations for coffee quality. Many mom-and-pop coffee shops died at the hands of big chains because they sat on their laurels and languished from poor quality and poor management. All it took was a coffee chain that thought a little about improving their coffee quality and consistency — while also replacing the flea market furniture and cleaning up their bathrooms — to put many mom-and-pops out of business.
But as these coffee chains grew (and grew and grew), their quality could only plateau at mass production standards. And in extreme cases such as Starbucks, their quality even declined as their business volume and number of employees ballooned out of control. This opened a major gap for a handful of independents to raise the quality bar further.
But here’s the major catch: do not mistake the independent status of these notable new cafés as a revival of the mom-and-pop coffee shop. If anything, opening an independent café is more challenging than ever. In fact, the only way that new independent cafés can remain viable in this environment is to differentiate themselves through higher quality standards.
In our espresso ratings for San Francisco over the past few years, we’ve noticed the great number of new cafés that typically break in the Top 40 rankings. However, we also noticed very few new café openings that rank below that. The reason being that the big coffee chains will chew up and spit out any new independent café that does not differentiate itself with some of the best coffee out there.
As chain coffee stories continue to expand (e.g., Peet’s Coffee & Tea has grown new outlets like a metastasized cancer over the past 2-3 years), the notable rise of these quality independent cafés is less about a better business environment for independents and more about the fact that they honestly have no other choice to survive.
It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on without some additional numbers. For example, the ubiquitous Canadian coffee & donuts chain, Tim Hortons, is still growing in Toronto — so it’s not clear if these independents are yet eating into the market for chain coffee shops.
You also need a sense for the city’s baseline of annual independent coffee shop openings and closings before, say, a decade ago. And regional markets will also differ based upon their saturation and customer demand for higher-end coffee.