What great chefs can tell us about good coffee

Posted by on 10 May 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Is René Redzepi gonna school us on coffee? Roast Magazine believes so.The short answer: absolutely nothing.

Still reading? OK, here’s the long version. So what made me lob such an incendiary, sweeping, and judgmental hand grenade? This past week I came across this headline from Roast Magazine‘s news feed: Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine – Coffee Recommendations From the World’s Greatest Restaurant Chef.

The post cites a Telegraph travel article that’s completely innocuous. But it’s the loaded presumptions behind Roast‘s headline that forcibly poked me in the eye and compelled me to respond.

Because, you see, I’ve never trusted a great chef’s opinion about good coffee. And I’ve come to believe that I probably never will. This is yet another example of why all journalistic efforts and awards that classify coffee as some mutant, orphaned subdivision of food seem misguided and wholly inadequate.

Most great chefs are quite poor at even desserts — at least when compared to their hired gun pastry chefs, for example, they often reach for odd savory creations given palates that are often clueless at how to deal with sweet. Thus it shouldn’t be of great surprise that most great chefs are outright lame when it comes to quality coffee. The continually sad state of restaurant coffee being additional supporting evidence.

So why does public perception seem convinced of the complete opposite?

The Celebrity Chef as Martha Stewart

Because chefs eat better than you ever couldIn recent years, food has firmly become a form of entertainment, and the highest profile chefs have morphed into something strangely akin to lifestyle consultants. As the social status of celebrity chefs has risen, so has a sort of cultural belief that these chefs have come to represent all things fine dining and living — each of them harboring great secrets of a modern illuminati. So much so, today our popular culture is immersed in this mistaken fantasy that chefs always eat out better than you, eat at home better than you, and even vacation better than you. (Yes, there are even absurd apps based on the premise that chefs eat better than anyone else on the planet.)

The reality is that even the best chefs often have terrible diets, have no time to eat well, chain smoke, marinate themselves in hard alcohol, and even shoot up with a little smack or crank now and then. (I’m looking at you, Anthony Bourdain.) And yet consumers seem overly willing to make a misguided mental leap: that just because someone is qualified to make a meal for King Louis XIV, they must therefore eat and live it up like King Louis XIV (though maybe on a slightly leaner budget).

So when American super-chef, Thomas Keller, says he can often be found eating at an In-N-Out Burger, that might help elevate public esteem for the cult favorite burger chain. But that says more to me about Thomas Keller than it says about In-N-Out Burger — which is, quite disappointingly, just another mass-produced, paper-hat, greasy-burger-on-a-bun fast food chain of a slightly different hue. It might also explain why the coffee at Mr. Keller’s restaurants is so poor.

Of Chefs and Coffee

A few years ago when we dined at Keller’s notorious French Laundry, we noted how the espresso there scored lower than a Starbucks at the SFO airport. A good friend of this Web site who ranks high in the local coffee industry (who shall remain nameless) also dined there this past weekend and reported pretty much the exact same disappointing coffee experience. And that’s quite consistent with the poor coffee service we’ve experienced at virtually all of Keller’s restaurants.

But it’s not just Keller.

Top Chef's Ladma Lakshmi says, 'Bring on the Nespresso!' Wolfgang Puck's approach to quality coffee: pre-grind it and shove it in a pod

On an episode of Dangerous Grounds in Rome this season, superchef Mario Batali sent Todd Carmichael to Tazza d’Oro to experience what he thinks is the best Italian espresso, period. Now I love Tazza d’Oro. A major inspiration for this site was the battle between the locals in Rome’s centro storico for who had the better espresso — Tazza d’Oro or Sant’Eustacio il Caffè. But as good as it is, there’s a lot of local legend and historical folklore behind Chef Batali’s choice.

Mr. Carmichael eyeballs Tazza d’Oro’s roasting operations and notices all the Brazilian coffee produced by mechanically harvested megafarms, suggesting how he could do better. And as I recently concluded, even the best espresso from a recent trip to Napoli — a city known even more for the quality of its Italian espresso — could not crack SF’s Top 15. Even look at the Batali-owned U.S. locations of Eataly: there are Lavazza cafés in the U.S. where any Eataly in its native Italy would never consider hosting them on the basis of Lavazza’s vast size and pedestrian quality.

Chef Batali has an impeccable palate for Italian food. But his taste for coffee seems clearly borrowed rather than personally developed. Though who can blame him given everything else he has to obsess about? Even if his habits of hanging out with that vapid sea hag in $1,000 yoga pants, Gwyneth Paltrow, and his trademark I’ve-given-up-hope footwear might suggest that not all his tastes are winners.

As David Kinch, chef at Manresa, once said about coffee: “I focus on the caffeine.” Which, if coffee were analogous to wine, would be like saying, “I focus on the alcohol”. Connoisseurs indeed.

The French Laundry espresso: why, just why? Mario Batali and Todd Carmichael at Tazza d'Oro's roasting area

Of Chefs and Sommeliers

Speaking of that ever-popular wine analogy, let’s turn our attention to great chefs and their relationship to wine. Food and wine are like the yin and yang of fine dining. Yet nobody corners great chefs to ask their personal opinions about their favorite wines — so why would coffee even be relevant? Sure, said chefs will be asked about pairing wine with food. But almost never are they asked about their independent opinions about wine.

Why? Because all the respectable wine snobs know that’s not where these chefs excel. When Wine Enthusiast visited Chef Redzepi’s Copenhagen dining scene a few years ago, it failed to even mention wine anywhere in the article. A curious omission for a wine-obsessed magazine.

Because everything in America is better by the jug-fullIn 2007 Wine Spectator interviewed Thomas Keller and did an exceedingly rare thing: they asked him directly about his wine preferences. Did he wax about the lush qualities of his favorite vintage of Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru? No, instead he noted that his favorite wines were young Zinfandels — big fruit bombs, often heavy on alcohol, that were once most commonly known as “jug wines” not all that long ago.

There’s nothing wrong with young Zinfandels or having preferences for inexpensive wines. This isn’t to suggest that great chefs have disproportionately philistine tastes when it comes to wine (or coffee). But professing favoritism for what was once associated with wine’s misery market is hardly what the public expects when seeking the sage wisdom of Thomas Keller’s “distinguished wine palate”.

Poor, poor Mario's liverAs for Mario Batali, he promotionally offers his name on a “Mario Batali Selection™” line of wines — curated by Mario and typically offered in the $15-20 range. But nobody believes that’s what he chooses to drink. In fact, Chef Batali seems too preoccupied having his team of ghostwriters come up with new material for his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine“What I’m Drinking” — where each week Chef Mario celebrates new ways to damage his liver through the versatile elixir of hard liquor.

What Chef Redzepi, Chef Keller, and Chef Batali — and many great chefs like them — all have in common is knowing the limits of their own tastes and opinions outside of food. What they all have become quite good at is knowing how to delegate, choosing surrogates whose opinions they trust: whether that’s a pastry chef, a sommelier, or someone in charge of the coffee service at their restaurant.

Celebrating the Coffee Specialists

All of which isn’t to say that René Redzepi has no taste for decent coffee. Coffee Collective is a Copenhagen, if not world class, coffee institution. But the loaded pretext here is that because Chef Redzepi knows how to forage and make the world’s most delicious moss, that somehow this qualifies him as some kind of coffee oracle. This when his coffee palate is likely far less informed than some 28-year-old local Copenhagen bike messenger who still lives with his parents. I’d rather hear that bike messenger’s opinion about coffee. However, Chef Redzepi has earned his respect and celebrity for what he’s accomplished with food — even if he hasn’t earned it for all things related to taste.

Being an outstanding chef does not bestow any magical abilities to divine good coffee from bad, just as being a certified Q grader doesn’t qualify you as an expert on modern Scandinavian cuisine. So let’s stop pretending that chefs are something they’re not — as if being the executive chef at the best restaurant in the world isn’t enough. They can barely cope with wine or dessert, let alone coffee.

Perhaps if we stop insisting that our food savants must also be multi-disciplinary Renaissance men and women in all matters of taste, we might start deservedly recognizing the coffee specialists for what they truly excel at.

UPDATE: August 21, 2014
We’ve added an update to our original Noma Restaurant coffee post. It cites a recent article on Noma’s coffee service plus a 47-minute presentation video of René Redzepi at the last Nordic Barista Cup.

Curiously enough, Chef Redzepi opens the presentation by giving complete credit to his head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, for Noma’s coffee program and suggests that Mr. Kleppe should give the talk. Chef Redzepi then proceeds to monopolize the presentation — with Mr. Kleppe standing on stage nearby.

Mission Accomplished: Mankind’s first major step towards the disposable café

Posted by on 06 May 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Starbucks

When not on my best of days, I’ll be the first to admit that I can sometimes be a sarcastic jerk. But even the most acrid sarcasm can be neutralized by a shocking dose of absurd reality. Case and point with this story in today’s Daily Mail: Grower’s Cup, World’s first DISPOSABLE ‘coffee machine’ lets you brew on the move | Mail Online.

You see, there’s long been a lot of consumer environmental angst when it comes to single serving coffee made from pods and capsules. That angst is not at all misplaced, but it’s largely viewed from the wrong end of the telescope. Virtually all discussions that cite the environmental impact of coffee pods obsess exclusively over recycling. Meanwhile, they throw “reduce” and “reuse” under the bus — completely ignoring them.

The Grower's Cup: the next dimension in environmental coffee atrocities

If we remember our Environmentalism 101, the ranked order of efficacy is this: reduce, reuse, and then recycle. Thus the great environmental atrocity of pod coffee machines isn’t throwing the pods away. It’s that, by design, these coffee systems seem to maximize the amount of materials extraction from the earth, materials processing, machine energy consumption, manufacturing waste by-products, excess packaging and shipping weight, and additional transportation fuel consumption with each and every serving of coffee. The introduction of coffee pods created incremental new demands for all of these, where none existed prior for “traditional” coffee formats.

To sarcastically illustrate this point over the years, I often go from zero to ridiculous in one sentence: that if they manufactured an entire life-sized, pop-up, disposable Starbucks with every coffee serving, the entire system would earn a green “pass” by most consumer definitions if the disposable Starbucks were made of recyclable materials. Imagine a cardboard Starbucks with 1,800 square feet of indoor space, including cardboard men’s and women’s bathrooms, thrown away with every serving of coffee. Can you recycle it? Say “yes” and planet earth and a choir of bluebirds will thank you.

It ruins the joke if they really do that...So imagine my shock and horror — and the death of my sarcasm — when I learned that the first step towards creating the disposable Starbucks had already been made with the 2012 introduction of the world’s first disposable coffee machine. Sure, you could say that the proliferation of pop-ups marked the first introduction of the disposable café, but the holy grail here is the single serving disposable café.

Homer facepalm indeed…

Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily

Posted by on 05 May 2014 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s Stanford Daily published an article on the Stanford Coffee Symposium that we held this past weekend: Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily. In addition to the featured speakers mentioned in our earlier post, the event showcased espresso drinks and coffees meticulously prepared by Mr. Espresso, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Centro Agroecológico del Café A.C. (CAFECOL, from Mexico), Coupa Café, and Café Venetia — plus an overall event coffee service provided by Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

James Freeman of Blue Bottle presents 'The Last Mile' of coffee Students at the Stanford Coffee Symposium, 2014

Vendors serving coffee at the Stanford Coffee Symposium One of the coffee evaluation sessions at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Exclusively for the event, Richard Sandlin of Fair Trade USA (and the Bay Area Coffee Community) and Stephen Vick, green coffee buyer for Blue Bottle Coffee, jointly developed a custom coffee evaluation session where some 200 students tasted three very different coffees from different regions — each personally sourced by Stephen and prepared by Blue Bottle baristas. Richard and Stephen encouraged the students to identify & associate flavor descriptors for each coffee and compare their tasting experiences with those of their own.

I was pleasantly surprised that the Stanford University team transformed the classic, 1938-built Stanford Graduate School of Education building, with its modest power & water supply, into something that could support an event of this size: with modern espresso machines and a demanding cupping-like event with three different hand-crafted coffees served simultaneously to some 70 people in three shifts.

Mr. Espresso at the Stanford Coffee Symposium Coupa Café and Café Venetia at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Blue Bottle bariste prepare coffee samples for the coffee evaluation session - in chambray of course Stephen VIck (left) and Richard Sandlin (right) explain the coffee evaluation session to attendees

Although I was mostly busy helping to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes, I still managed to learn quite a bit about coffee history, the coffee genome, the impacts of coffee on labor and certification practices in Latin America, and how to measure biodiversity and its effects on coffee production. That said, my favorite event logistics non-sequitur of the day had to be: “I found out that the golf cart wasn’t stolen.”

A big thanks to everyone who helped pull off a educational, fun, and highly caffeinated celebration of coffee that also increased our mindful appreciation of it.

Barefoot Coffee Roasters' truck at the Stanford Coffee Symposium CAFECOL at the Stanford Coffee Symposium representing growers from Veracruz, Mexico

Detailed notes from the coffee evaluation session at the Stanford Coffee Symposium A Mr. Espresso macchiato at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Trip Report: Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop (Mill Valley, CA)

Posted by on 27 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Long before there was Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso continually wrestled with the “last mile” of retail coffee delivery. All their quality efforts sourcing, roasting, and blending coffee could be undone by poor storage, an inexperienced barista, or a poorly maintained espresso machine. By opening Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso could take more direct control of that last mile and better showcase their coffee.

Equator Estate Coffees is another local roaster that hasn’t quite yet had the retail coffee outlet to truly show them off. This was a particularly nagging issue for us on CoffeeRatings.com, where over the years we noted their industry accolades but were continually challenged to find just one among dozens of example outlets where their roasts didn’t underwhelm us.

Entrance to Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop Rear patio at Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop

Equator co-founder and master roaster, Brooke McDonnell, sometimes took to the comments on our blog posts to debate the variances in personal tastes. She was right that personal tastes vary, and none are necessarily more “right” or “wrong” than others.

Sure, we’ve been known to pause over the likes of Stumptown Coffee Roasters — who while clearly in the upper echelon of coffee quality always seemed to rank in the lower end of that class. Someone certainly has to, so why not them?

But if Stumptown marked a natural statistical outcome when forced to jockey for rankings within subjective personal tastes, Equator represented nothing short of an anomaly for us. Ultimately, we had more or less come to the conclusion that our perception-of-quality disparity had less to do with our own coffee palate and more with their relatively loose controls over the supply and delivery chain at the retail end.

Seating inside Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop Cashier and retail walls inside Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop

Opening in June 2013, Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop represents a joint venture where the roaster finally got their own “reference quality” coffee bar. Located at one of the main divides in Mill Valley between traffic into “downtown” and traffic towards Muir Woods and the California Highway 1 beaches, this red-painted wooden shack at the head of a part-gravel parking lot beckons surfers and coffee lovers alike. It seems like an odd place for a surf shop (Proof Lab, in back): sandwiched between the Bothin Marsh and Coyote Creek with no sign of sand for miles. But the surfers (and boarders) come.

There’s a cement patio in front, enclosed from the highway by standing surfboards and a surf-board-inspired outdoor table. The rear entrance to the building has seating among white-painted metal café tables and chairs — and a surfboard table. Inside there are several small wooden café tables set against a wall of Hurley surf advertising. (With surfboards in the rear.) One wall is dedicated to retail sale of various coffees and home brewing equipment.

Using a red, two-group La Marzocco Strada machine, they pull shots with a mottled, textured crema of a medium and darker brown. It looks robust and organic, has a decent body, a full aroma, and a well-blended flavor of herbal pungency mixed with some spices, heavy cherry-like fruit (perhaps just a touch too much fruit for my tastes), and some honey-like edges. Served in white logo Espresso Parts cups with very necessary sparkling water on the side.

It’s a solid cup. It has great visual appeal and seems like it has all the ingredients for excellence. However, you might say the enigma continues a little: as good as it is, it still falls on the weaker side of excellence with still some room for improvement.

Read the review of Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop in Mill Valley, CA.

Operating the Strada inside Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop The picturesque Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop espresso

Trip Report: Flywheel Coffee Roasters (Upper Haight)

Posted by on 22 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

Haight Street has taken decades to emerge from its Summer of Love bender. Despite locals declaring “the Death of the Hippie” and the end of an idealized Haight-Ashbury by October 1967, runaway teens and drug addicts continued to flock to the neighborhood seeking social escape while lacking any support networks.

By the time I first visited the area in the late 1980s, the stories of wars between drug dealers, crime epidemics, and kids on LSD falling to their deaths out of Victorian windows had long since vanished. But the chronic problems of homelessness and drug addiction remained. Other than seeing live music at the I-Beam or experiencing the camp of Rock & Bowl (now Amoeba Records), this part of the neighborhood was something you generally avoided after dark.

Stanyan St. entrance to Flywheel Coffee Entering Flywheel Coffee with service bar on the left

Today, things are very different. In place of the sketchy Cala Foods (whose closing was celebrated by locals), there’s now a Whole Foods. Gentrification hasn’t scrubbed everything clean, but at least the Golden Gate Park area across the street no longer looks like a refugee camp from a condemned methadone clinic.

And located in a large, tall space adjacent to the Whole Foods parking lot — at what used to be the San Francisco Cyclery — is Flywheel Coffee Roasters, opening in April 2012. They have added to the growing coffee legitimacy of the Upper Haight by roasting their own beans — using a Portuguese Joper Roaster in the back.

The space has a sunny entrance with tall windows facing west over Stanyan St. Inside there is counter seating along the windows, simple stool seating at taller tables, and several other tables indoors. Out back there’s something of an enclosed deck that’s exposed to a little bit of the occasional outdoor breeze. Up wooden stairs is a low-ceiling space with a bit of coffee roasting supply storage.

Coffee menu and drippers at Flywheel Coffee Joper roaster at the rear of Flywheel Coffee

The laptop zombie quotient is on the high side here (ah, the price of gentrification). This gives it a rather cavernous, library-like feel. They offer cold brew drippers ($4), syphon-brewed coffee ($5), Hario V60 pour-overs, and a new three-group Faema Enova for espresso drinks.

They pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema of some coagulated thickness. It tastes of cloves and other, deeper herbal pungency without much spice nor tobacco: it’s actually a rather narrow, limited flavor profile with little roundedness. This perhaps reflects their usual choice of single origin coffees from Colombia, Kenya, Ethiopia, etc. Served in black Espresso Parts cups with a short glass of mineral water on the side.

It may be far from the better espresso shots in town. However, that a decent coffee house serving decent coffee could exist here was difficult to imagine 25 years ago. At least that much is progress, and we always have a soft spot for truly independent cafés.

Read the review of Flywheel Coffee Roasters in the Upper Haight.

Service bar inside Flywheel Coffee The Flywheel Coffee espresso

Espresso nel caffè: Rai 3 Report

Posted by on 07 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Robusta, Starbucks

As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)

This nasty shot of an unclean espresso machine in Napoli won't qualify as coffee pornThe 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.

There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.

How a coda di topo should not look...The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.

Luigi Odello on ReportThey visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.

Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.

UPDATE: April 8, 2014
Effective communication often changes behavior. In response to Rai 3′s Report yesterday, a Campania region commissioner has come to the defense of the region’s espresso: Campania Report, Martusciello: “Il caffè napoletano è una eccellenza”.

Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.

UPDATE: April 14, 2014
Antonio Quarta, president of the Associazione Italiana Torrefattori (AIT, Italian Roasters Association), commented on the Report in today’s paper: Quarta: «Il caffè fa bene, ma è importante che sia di qualità». In short, he notes that the SCAE has its own high professional standards, but that applying them to every gas station and airport serving espresso in Italy doesn’t exactly tell the whole story either. He’s a little defensive, as you might expect, but investigative journalism thrives on finding worst-case scenarios and drawing much more widespread conclusions from them.

Trip Report: Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar (Upper Haight)

Posted by on 25 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

This original Stanza Coffee location opened in April 2012 with the explicit purpose of showcasing coffee roasted from outside the Bay Area. As such, it’s unfortunately another example of a coffee shop that has defined itself in the negative: i.e., not by what it does and what it stands for, but rather its identity is wrapped up in what it does not do.

We’re big believers that the best coffee shops — or the best of anything, really — simply chart their own course instead of reacting to what others are doing. Defining your own identity as a foil against what others are up to unwittingly puts your own business strategy into your competitors’ hands. That’s driving from your rear-view mirror.

But if anything, that we now have coffee bars specializing in exclusively imported coffee is a healthy sign for local roasters.

Entrance to Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar along Haight St. Inside Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar with laptop zombies drooling at the counter

Seating at the front of Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar La Marzocco at Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar's service bench

Formerly the confectioner, Coco-luxes Haight Street Boutique, this is a small space along Haight St. with dark raspberry walls, dark wood, beat-up upholstered black chairs, and tables in front converted from the tops of barrels. Further back past the short service counter is an almost diner-like lunch counter where laptop zombies crouch over electrical outlets, sucking much of the life out of the place.

Offering a rotation of roasted coffees from elsewhere, on our visit they were serving Counter Culture Coffee and Intelligentsia for espresso or Hario V60 pour-overs.

Using a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/80 at the bar, they pulled shots of Intelligentsia’s Black Cat that came with a very even, medium brown crema. While it smelled like it could have been an undetonated brightness bomb, it pleasantly (and not surprisingly) was not: a softer Black Cat flavor of some mild spices and some herbalness in a rounded balance. They serve it with a short glass of still water on the side of their white notNeutral cups.

Despite its good qualities, it is far from the more flavorful and best espresso shots in town. With a mission to showcase roasts from outside the area, they modestly live up to the task but do not take it over the line of excellence. It’s hard to say if the results would be significantly better if they focused more on themselves and looked over their shoulders a little less.

That said, we continually wish we could conveniently sample more coffees roasted outside of the area. We’ve been fans of the multi-roaster concept for years — from Ma’velous through the defunct likes of Café Organica. Hopefully Stanza Coffee will continue to fine-tune their operations to better showcase these imports.

Read the review of Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar in SF’s Upper Haight.

Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar staffers at the La Marzocco The Stanza Coffee & Wine Bar espresso

Trip Report: Linea Caffe (Mission District)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

This coffee shop opening in Sept. 2013 received an almost inordinate amount of fanfare. It still gets some of it. One of the latest examples being the New York Times Travel section with a recent piece by their former coffee scribe, Oliver Strand.

Andrew Barnett (of Ecco Caffè fame — now Intelligentsia SF — and currently the Good Food Awards and Cup of Excellence judging) established the coffee side of the operations, starting with his own micro-batch coffee roasts. So there’s some definite reason to get excited about that.

Entrance to Linea Caffe from 18th Street Linea Caffe at the corner of 18th St. & San Carlos with sidewalk seating along the latter

Frankenstarter

But here’s where things get convoluted. Grafted onto this perfectly good coffee bar is GreenSalads.org. Overlooking the folly of naming your brick & mortar business after your electronic address (e.g., “1800 Flowers? But I only need a dozen.”), they serve salads that read like a checklist of 2013′s most trendy and overdone ingredients: kale, quinoa, Brussels sprouts. Is a cauliflower salad in the cards for 2014? It’s honestly hard to tell if the menu here is meant as a self-parody of SF salad menus or not.

But wait — that’s not all. Also grafted onto this place is Lt. Waffle, offering sweet and savory Brussels-style waffles. One even garnered local 7×7 cover press as the #1 item of their “The Big Eat 2014″ list of 100 things we absolutely must eat before we die. (I know I’m holding off on including that DNR in my advanced health care directive until I eat one.) The salad and waffle offerings come courtesy of Anthony Myint, who partnered up with Mr. Barnett while he was a regular customer at Mr. Myint’s Mission Chinese Food.

We may be established fans of Mr. Myint’s Commonwealth and certainly of Mr. Barnett’s coffee. But the resulting café is a bit of a Kickstarter Frankenstein: an odd fusion of waffles, salad, and coffee with the feel of a schizophrenic food consignment shop.

Even so, that hasn’t deterred SF foodies any. Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, the restaurant world has been downsizing their menu ambitions while simultaneously upsizing their revenue-per-plate on lunch fare for the common man. Out are top-dollar amuse-bouches, tasting menus, and culinary foams. In are glorified comfort foods: pimped out burgers, pizza, grilled cheese, and salads offered at twice the price we used to pay, and demonstrating less than half of the culinary creativity pre-2008.

If SF diners proved financially apprehensive about splashing out for a new BMW, they’ve proven more than happy to spend almost as much on a tricked out Honda Civic. The fetishized $4 toast was only a matter of time.

GreenSalads.org - or is that Lt. Waffle? Who knows Linea Caffe's La Marzocco Linea

About that coffee…

But enough about salads and waffles. While good, we’ll leave those details to Mr. Strand’s quoted restaurant review. The coffee side of the house has its act in order even if it doesn’t quite “wow” for the area. It’s a small corner space with virtually only outdoor sidewalk seating along San Carlos. Inside the wide windows open out to the street and there’s a tiny bench for two.

Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea namesake and Mazzer grinders, they pull shots of espresso with an even medium brown crema and a potent aroma. It’s two-sips short and has a moderate body with a flavor profile of some spice and a slightly bright fruity edge. Served in red Heath cups for espresso (white for caps), Illy spoons, and sparkling water on the side.

Things get a little more unusual when milk is involved. Their macchiato has a dense and creamy milkiness that borders on cappuccino territory, despite its diminutive size. It comes with a latte-art heart. We do like the fact that Linea ruffles some coffee fad feathers in not offering any drip coffee options at the small bar here.

Read the review of Linea Caffe in the Mission District.

The Linea Caffe espresso The Linea Caffe macchiato: the abundance of thick milk even blurred our visual focus

Coffee, Academically — and announcing the Stanford University Coffee Symposium

Posted by on 08 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

I’ve had a long, strange history with academics. Before succumbing to the dark side of money-plundering dot-com entrepreneurs, I worked in scientific research labs at The Johns Hopkins University and at Stanford University. It was also a joint graduate PhD program in bioengineering at UC Berkeley/UCSF, with a focus on neuroscience, that first brought me out to the SF Bay Area some 25 years ago.

Thus the idea of academia is something I know well, albeit with ambivalent feelings. For me, there’s always been an inherent conflict between the practicality of “real world” grounding and the legitimate need to follow intellectual pursuits to advance any field of interest — whether that be neuroscience or coffee — even at the risk of building ivory towers.

The University of Coffee in Trieste, ItalyThat people in the coffee industry today swear by using measuring scales, monitor things like total dissolved solids (TDS), and continually experiment with this pressure control or that pre-infusion time are all baby-step examples of the need for an academic approach — the building of a more comprehensive coffee science, as it were.

UC Davis Coffee Center

And yet while you can earn a PhD in Coffee Science from the University of Trieste (Italy) studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy, in America you can’t even earn so much as a bachelor’s degree in the field. So it’s with encouragement that we read yesterday’s announcement: UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow – Our Region – The Sacramento Bee.

UC Davis Coffee Conference - March 11, 2014If you don’t know UC Davis, they are an amazing ag (and veterinary) school. As just a personal example, a fellow Chicago native and husband of a lifelong close friend of the family, Chris Carpenter, moved from Chicago to Napa years ago to earn a masters in Horticulture from the viticulture and enology (i.e., wine) department at UC Davis. He’s now earning 100-point scores as a winemaker and recently served four years as chairman of the board for Slow Food USA. If you can judge an academic program based on the success of its graduates, and you should, UC Davis is no slouch when it comes to food and drink.

UC Davis just formally announced their Coffee Center and their first Coffee Center Research Conference, which will take place this coming Tuesday, March 11. All initial steps, but definitely promising steps in the right direction. Unlike their world-famous viticulture program, for example, the question still remains whether such an ambitious scientific initiative can truly thrive so far from origin for an ag school — rather than in a place like Kona, Hawaii. Greenhouse coffee can only go so far in vitro.

Much of their conference agenda, like their Coffee Center, seems focused on the microbiology of coffee. However, there are also talks on coffee genetics and sensory evaluation — the latter naturally tapping into the university’s expertise on the subject in the wine world.

TED 2014 Coffee Service

Coincidentally, a little over a week from now the 2014 TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and there promises to be continued servicing of TED attendees by various luminaries of the professional coffee world. Recall that an invitation from TED is what inspired the now-defunct Coffee Common.

TED 2014TED fashions itself as a sort of intellectual gathering of big minds and big ideas for the betterment of the world. Sounds great for the academic and scientific advancement of good coffee, right? But if you thought I’d be a fan of TED, you could not be more wrong.

Fortunately I was able to attend a past TED conference on the tab of an ambitious dot-com entrepreneur rather than having to fork over the $7,500 hazing price myself. (I.e., “Your hedge fund must be this large to ride this attraction.”) TED has done an amazing job of marketing and self-promotion, and I felt I should have every reason to support TED and its aims on the surface. But I found the TED event and organization to be intellectually shallow and ethically dishonest.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famed author of The Black Swan, once famously called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Part of that is the event’s general preference for infotainment over substance, as exemplified in its famous 18-minute videos that run like infographics set to moving pictures — optimized for people who prefer to be entertained rather than informed.

How most TED attendees view its coffee serviceMore objectionable to me were many of the event attendees themselves. They seemed fixated more on asserting or reaffirming their own special status in the world by the company they keep — or, perhaps as Mr. Taleb would put it, by those circus performers they invite to entertain them. Imagine The Great Gatsby, but with ostentatious material wealth replaced by grand displays of intellectual vanity.

The professionals of the coffee world are some amazing, impassioned, bright people capable of making their own brave decisions of free will. Yet I cannot help but feel that TED has cynically invited many of them merely to exploit for a premium event coffee service, helping the world of TED to maintain their personal façade of elitism in the process. I wish the best for the attending coffee pros and only hope they come out unscathed, unlike myself.

The Stanford Coffee Symposium

Location of the 2014 Stanford Coffee SymposiumMuch closer to home, about a year ago Stanford University Professor of Biology, Virginia Walbott, approached me to help co-organize a Stanford Coffee Symposium to be held in the spring of 2014. Prof. Walbott organized a similar, highly successful event for chocolate in May of 2011, tapping into both the university (Depts. of Biology, Latin American Studies, Economics, etc.) and industry (Scharffen Berger, Monique’s Chocolates, etc.).

Our goal for the event is to balance some higher-minded academics with a practical, consumer-friendly grounding in what makes coffee enjoyable and fun. (Read: check your self-congratulatory intellectual elitism at the door!) To be held Saturday, May 3 at the Cubberley Building of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford Continuing Studies just published its course catalog entry last week:

WSP 172 – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between
https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/course.php?cid=20133_WSP+172

Registration is now open at $195 per student with a deadline of April 26. The featured speakers and topics thus far are as follows:

  • From Tree to Bean to CupJames Freeman – Founder and CEO, Blue Bottle Coffee [see their blog post]
  • The History of Coffee – Denise Gigante – Professor of English, Stanford
    How to Evaluate Coffee Flavors (includes a tasting session) – Richard Sandlin – Fair Trade USA (SCAA cupping trainer ninja and co-founder of the Bay Area Coffee Community, I might add)
  • Caffeine and Health: Myths and Mysteries – Christopher D. Gardner – Professor, Stanford School of Medicine
  • Colombian Coffee Landscapes – Eric Lambin – George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor, Stanford Department of Earth System Science; Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Coffee in Veracruz: Linking Quality of Coffee to Quality of Life – Madeline R. Weeks – Fulbright-García Robles Scholar
  • Fair Trade and Sustainability – Christopher Bacon – Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University
  • Coffee Genome and Defense Against Pathogens – Lukas A. Mueller – Assistant Professor, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell
  • Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Costa Rica – Chase D. Mendenhall and Daniel Karp – Department of Biology, Stanford

In addition to the planned talks there will be various Bay Area coffee vendors and an interactive tasting session. My current challenge? Following a location visit last Tuesday, I’m now working with the university to get sufficient power into the 1938 building to run sufficient numbers of espresso machines and grinders.

That said, I’m genuinely excited about the event and hope many of you will be too.



UPDATE: April 6, 2014
The Sacramento Bee featured some of the research coming out of the UC Davis Coffee Center: UC Davis geneticist tries to build a better cup of coffee – Food & Drink – The Sacramento Bee.

Another expert look at the espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 03 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Maybe it’s just me, but Napoli has come up a lot since I posted our survey of the espresso there two weeks ago.

Over the weekend I attended the comedic play Napoli! at SF’s American Conservatory Theater. I can’t remember a play where coffee played such a central role in every scene. Then last night, Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). Like any good Neapolitan, he even thanked soccer player and Napoli patron saint, Diego Maradona:

Both works of art come recommended, btw.

However, last week we also came across a great contrarian article (in Italian) about the espresso in Napoli by Andrej Godina: ANDREJ GODINA A NAPOLI – Un viaggio, una giornata alla scoperta del presunto mito del caffè di Napoli. In it, Mr. Godina tours Napoli to sample the local espresso and is mostly left with a bad taste in his mouth.

Andrej Godina prepping machines at the Nordic Barista CupChances are you don’t know Mr. Godina, but it’s fair to say he has credentials. He earned a PhD in Science, Technology and Economics in the Coffee Industry at the University of Trieste studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy; he is an SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) Authorized Trainer, Master Barista, and Barista Examiner; and he works at Dalla Corte — an espresso machine manufacturer in Italy whose lineage brought about the E61 group head and the company La Spaziale.

Rather than follow a quality guide, like a Bar d’Italia, he and his barista trainer, Andrea, arrived in Napoli by train and began choosing a number of coffee shops at random. In short, they found them all quite terrible despite the legend of Napoli’s great coffee — which goes back the the 18th century and is even supported by some of Illy‘s own research conducted there.

Oily beans in a grimy grinder in NapoliHe discovers minute-and-a-half (i.e., over-) extractions, stale coffee, burnt coffee, dirty cups, grinders with oily build-up, and bitter and astringent espresso. He also dispenses a lot of the folklore behind why Napoli espresso is so “good”: it’s the water, it’s the special roasting process, etc. He even takes a pot shot or two at caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), the Neapolitan caffettiera coffee maker (la tazzulella), and the zucchero-crema. After tasting some dozen espresso shots, the best he could rate them was a 4 out of 10 — with a 6 being acceptable.

It’s one hell of a condemning indictment. Is it fair? In our reviews, it’s true that we targeted many quality caffès with advance research. But we also mixed in a number of places at random and didn’t find them to be too far off the mark. (Save for one horrid exception in the guest breakfast room of a Napoli hotel.) Mr. Godina also dismissed Gran Caffè Gambrinus with a 4/10 rating — which we found to be quite good, even if nothing in Napoli would crack our Top 15 list for San Francisco.

A random restaurant espresso at the Il Monastero restaurant in the Castello Aragonese, IschiaIt just shows that a lot still comes down to individual tastes and preferences. While Mr. Godina and I may agree on how good Illy can be in Italy, his company is located in Milano — which we’ve long lamented as one of the most underachieving coffee cities in Italy with many places serving the Dunkin’ Donuts of Italian espresso. Mr. Godina also rates an espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venezia as one of the best he’s ever had. Historical, absolutely, but we would never consider the espresso quality at the likes of Caffè Florian worth writing home about.

We stand by our assessment that the random espresso in Napoli beats the typical baseline quality standards at any other city in the world to which we’ve been (and we’ve been to a lot). But as Mr. Godina’s article proves, opinions will vary.

UPDATE: March 26, 2014
It looks like the Milan newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has picked up on Mr. Godina’s story: La sorpresa: a Napoli un caffè pessimo – Corriere.it. A series of these vignettes about the coffee across Italy seems planned for a coming video report on Rai 3.

UPDATE: April 2, 2014
And the intrigue continues to build: Aj: Press release – Andrej Godina’s reply: ready to debate with other expert coffee tasters. Mr. Godina is accused by some of slandering the coffee in Napoli, while his defense is that he’s raising awareness of better standards across all of Italy. This is all good, popcorn-munchworthy stuff, folks.

UPDATE: May 13, 2014
Mr. Godina takes his coffee tasting tour to the Trieste of his graduate school days and discovers much better espresso: SCRIVE ANDREJ GODINA – Ma anche nella mia Trieste… Ecco il diario, tutti i voti, le valutazioni, l’analisi degli errori nei principali bar del capoluogo giuliano, even awarding the historic Caffè San Marco in Trieste an 8.8 score.

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