Trip Report: Ohori’s Coffee Roasters (Cerrillos Rd., Santa Fe, NM)

Posted by on 26 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This is a difficult trip report to author. Because on the one hand, we have to pay respects to what Ohori’s Coffee Roasters pioneered in Santa Fe, NM. But on the other hand, we have to call out product failures as we experience them.

Susan Ohori founded this two-store chain in 1984. She learned to roast from Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and introduced commercial fresh-roasted coffee to Santa Fe.

Road sign for Ohori's Coffee at the edge of Cerrillos Road Ohori's Coffee Roasters on Cerrillos Road

Like Peet’s, Ohori’s Coffee started as a take-home bean sales store. Also like Peet’s, as consumer preferences changed over the years, it evolved into a retail coffee beverage shop. This was particularly innovative in Santa Fe, where communal “third places” are rare and most social gatherings take place in private homes. Susan Ohori sold the company to her longtime accountant in 2002, and the tiny chain has operated rather consistently to this day under the “newer” ownership.

This location on Cerrillos Road was the second retail shop they opened, and of the two it is designed to be more of a social gathering space. As I entered, even without knowing Ohori’s Peet’s origin story, I felt like I was in another Peet’s chain café. There are four café tables offering sparse seating in a vast space with tall ceilings with exposed wooden framing. There’s a service counter setup with a heavy emphasis on bean and leaf sales that looks lifted out of the Peet’s interior design catalog. And as for the roasted coffees themselves, many hearken back to a flavor profile of dark roasted ashiness popularized by Peet’s some 40 years ago.

There’s a wall of merchandising (cups, machines, Chemex and pour-over paraphernalia), and the art on the walls here is generously showcased without commission.

Insider Ohori's Coffee Roasters... or is this a Peet's Coffee? Ohori's merchadising wall

As for the retail coffee service, they may have dated roots but have not missed out on many coffee fads. They offer pour-overs, buttered coffee for those most recently into Paleo snake oil, and as a sort of health thing they avoid syrups and artificial sweeteners. Ask for a flat white, which is still not yet on the menu, and they will know how to make you one.

Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli machine, they pull espresso shots in a short paper cup (what’s that the deal with that?) with a creamy-looking medium brown crema of a smooth texture that’s relatively thin. There’s a definite ashy edge to the cup: it’s very harsh with a flavor combination of smoke and ash. This is not a pleasant espresso, and we have consumed hundreds of cups of outright rot-gut espresso before.

And yet Ohori’s has won the “Best of Santa Fe” by the Santa Fe Reporter for 7 of the last 10 years, and even the New York Times recently recommended this location in a 36-Hours piece. At first this lead me to believe that many local fans of the place must rarely ever drink the espresso straight here.

Nuova Simonelli machine at the Ohori's Coffee Roasters helm The Ohori's Coffee Roasters macchiato and espresso

But if that were only the case. The milk-frothing here is dishwater-like: thin with irregular bubbles, producing what seems like little more than milk-flavored air. My wife found the macchiato to be simply undrinkable and abandoned it after the first sip. She never does that. I tried it and sympathized with her assessment. I’ve never experienced this at a Peet’s Coffee, for example.

Thus we can’t be sure that the coffee adoration here is rooted in local loyalty, nostalgia, or layers of milk and natural sweeteners that disguise the raw taste of their espresso. There may be other product lines worth trying besides their straight espresso and macchiato. Ohori’s offers medium- and even light-roasted coffees, even though they believe you often need a medium roast to at least develop the coffee’s flavor more fully — of which I am generally in agreement.

But when the core espresso is this dubious for a best-in-town consideration, something is clearly wrong. And I would be the last person some might accuse of being a Third Wave apologist. Unless you are a die hard, dark roasted Peet’s Coffee fan, we have to recommend that you seek your coffee elsewhere in Santa Fe.

Read the review of Ohori’s Coffee Roasters on Cerrillos Rd. in Santa Fe, NM.

Trip Report: Holy Spirit Espresso (Santa Fe, NM)

Posted by on 23 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Here in that other SF, this postage-stamp-sized espresso kiosk has a very outsized reputation, and why not? The husband and wife team of Bill and Helen Deutsch got their espresso start in Seattle back in the early 1990s era of ubiquitous coffee carts. They brought that same spirit to Santa Fe and have been operating here since 1993.

Which makes Holy Spirit Espresso akin to an archeological find designed to puzzle future anthropologists; it’s like finding 1990s Seattle espresso cart DNA in the middle of the New Mexico high desert. And like an origin story, its name is the English name for the town.

Outside Holy Spirit Espresso Yes, this is inside the tiny Holy Spirit Espresso

Out in front of the cart cubbyhole are four four metal chairs and two small tables along the sidewalk with a lone parasol above them. Inside is essentially a parked mobile cart dominated by a two-group Synesso machine (formerly a La Marzocco) — surrounded in a bizarro motif of various postcards, photographs, foreign money, and travel tchotchkes covering every one of the few square inches inside the tiny space.

There’s even St. Drogo, the patron saint of coffee. (He’s also the patron saint of ugly people, but we’re not going to infer anything from that.)

View from the outdoor seating in front of Holy Spirit Espresso St. Drogo on the Holy Spirit Espresso ceiling

Caffé d'Arte coffee in an Astoria grinder and a collection of, uh, stuff inside Holy Spirit Espresso Collection of money and backlit images at the Holy Spirit Espresso ceiling

Using old Astoria grinders and very-Seattle Caffé d’Arte bags of coffee, Bill or Helen pulls a shot with a medium brown striped crema of modest thickness. The doppio ($2.25) is filled extra high in the cup. It has an old world Italian-leaning flavor profile of mild tobacco smokiness, spices, and some woodiness and is served in mismatched ceramic cups without saucers when you ask “for here”.

The milk-frothing is dense, not too airy, and with uneven microfoam bubbles. Posted as a “Best of Santa Fe 2012” winner, Bill was awarded for best local barista. No matter when, they’re still pretty good and you have to do something right for such a tiny business to remain in operation this long.

Read the review of Holy Spirit Espresso in Santa Fe, NM.

Helen Deutsch behind the Synesso controls at Holy Spirit Espresso The Holy Spirit Espresso espresso and macchiato

Trip Report: 35° North Coffee (Santa Fe, NM)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting, Starbucks

This central Santa Fe coffee house resides in the Santa Fe Arcade on the 2nd Floor. Opening in December 2015, it was developed as a new coffee house “concept” by an area restaurant group lead by Gerald Peters called Santa Fe Dining Inc.

Yes, apparently coffee has become a restaurant theme in America, with this concept being self-described as “full-service third wave coffee house”. Which only underscores how the term third wave has become the modern coffee equivalent of the hackneyed gourmet label from the 1980s.

Entrance to 35° North Coffee from inside the Santa Fe Arcade War Room seating opposite the main entrance at 35° North Coffee


A Brief History of the Word Gourmet… or Third Wave By Any Other Term

We’ve been mocking the wannabe hipster use of third wave for a decade now, so most of you are probably glad we’ve largely given it a rest over the years. But ten years later and we’re still surprised that so many relative newbie coffee lovers come to its defense — and so much so that desperate marketers continue to use it.

For the many Millennials who were too young to know the 1980s, a little social history lesson about the term gourmet may provide context. As Wikipedia notes for the word:

In the United States, a 1980s gourmet food movement evolved from a long-term division between elitist (or “gourmet”) tastes and a populist aversion to fancy foods.

Sound anything like the many curmudgeons today who seem offended by the mere existence of “fancy coffee”? Also note that this transformation followed the establishment of supposed “second wave coffee” stalwarts such as Starbucks and Peet’s.

The 1980s saw the popularization of many otherwise commodity foodstuffs to an elevated status with an obligatory gourmet label. Orville Redenbacher became synonymous with gourmet popcorn. Jelly Belly popularized the concept of gourmet jelly beans. Lather, rinse, repeat. Thus at the time, the word gourmet became a sort of shorthand nudge-and-wink to let consumers know that this wasn’t your father’s foodstuff and that its distinguished quality commanded a higher price.

Compared to our coffee wave, your coffee wave is tough and chewy.

Problem was that the term gourmet wasn’t backed by any real definition, guarantee of quality, nor certification. This left the barn doors open for every profit-minded copycat and charlatan to rush in and lay claim to its meaning.

Thus today the term gourmet has since been relegated to downmarket product come-ons in the aisles at commodity goods stores such as Wal-Mart; meanwhile the premium quality/price vanguard has moved on to terms like artisan. Just this week at the ABQ Sunport (airport), I walked up to a Comida Buena with bold “gourmet deli” branding that served me a soggy croissant sandwich wrapped in tin foil and left under a heat lamp for who knows how long. What does gourmet really mean when this happens?

The same is true today of third wave coffee, which has become an unqualified label boasted by wannabes in an attempt to claim some sort of false legitimacy. Meanwhile, virtually all of the top-quality roasters and coffee shops in the world distance themselves from the term. What does third wave really mean when this happens?

When Food Entrepreneurs Extend to Coffee

Which brings us back to the 35° North Coffee concept. Their slogan, coined by restaurant vet and manager Rob Rittmeyer, is “Find your latitude”. Its name refers to Santa Fe’s latitude as well as the number of grams of coffee used in their pour-overs.

As part of a concept restaurant chain, the food gets a bit more of the attention here. They serve beignets, a croque monsieur, and banh mi sandwiches as a sort of French-influenced theme — even if French is a poor choice for a coffee affiliation.

Accessed from inside the mall, there are five nicer faux marble café tables along a back booth and a marble rear counter with a half-dozen stools. There’s also a separate seating room (the “War Room”) with more and larger tables across of the main entrance. The kitchen, and its vent, are massive: these are clearly food people. And the food sensibilities don’t stop with edibles, as they even offer (as is creative coffee in New Mexico) an oatmeal latte: complete with actual oatmeal, brown sugar, and granola as influenced by Colorado ski bums.

Roaster behind the service counter obscuring the La Marzocco Linea at 35° North Coffee Coffee menu at 35° North Coffee

They do roast their own coffee on-site with all the space they have, but any labeling of blend, coffee origin, or other pedigree is virtually absent from a supposed third wave coffee house. They offer drip, pour-overs (supposedly single origin, but how could you tell?), nitro coffee, and espresso service. And yes, they even offer something called a “Latitude Adjustment”: a nod to the Paleo snake oil types seeking a Bulletproof Coffee(tm) knock-off.

All said, they use the three-group La Marzocco Linea behind the counter on shots of their “dark roast blend” to produce an even, medium-to-darker-brown crema of decent thickness. Whatever wave they are supposed to belong to, I have had identical coffee experiences in the late 1990s. But to their credit the espresso body is good, and despite being served in a short paper cup the results are better than expected. It has a darker flavor profile of herbal pungency with some tobacco but no ashiness.

Read the review of 35° North Coffee in Santa Fe, NM.

Vast kitchen space inside 35° North Coffee The 35° North Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Humble Coffee Company (Albuquerque, NM)

Posted by on 17 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Opening in August 2014, this independent coffee shop is a casual space located in the strip-mall avenues of NE Albuquerque. It’s in an odd part of town (like what isn’t odd in ABQ?) … located in something of a no-name neighborhood.

However, just a mile and a half further down Lomas Blvd. NE this weekend will be the sixth annual Southwest Coffee & Chocolate Fest at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds — a 135-vendor consumer coffee and chocolate event that has inspired more than a few New Mexico roasters and cafés. Yes, this is a true Southwestern coffee fest and not the grotesquely bloated, shark-jumped SXSW affair simultaneously going on in Austin, TX.

Entrance to Humble Coffee Company from Lomas Blvd. NE Inside Humble Coffee Company and their UNIC Stella di Caffè machine

Driving eastbound on Lomas Blvd. NE, you can’t miss it for the dayglow orange painted building out front — a space (and a Web site) it shares with Baker Architecture + Design. Pull into any one of its five parking spots in the front lot, and you’ll notice a couple of café tables on the sidewalk out front. There are a few simple café tables inside for seating.

There is a turquoise-painted, weathered wood counter with a three-group UNIC Stella di Caffè machine for serving their espresso shots. No pour-overs here, folks, but they’re also known for their cold brew — as is required in these high desert parts. Bottles of which also make an appearance on their wall of coffee merchandising.

They promote their heavy use of local food and drink producers (e.g., Rasband Dairies for milk, etc.), and they’ve ventured into burritos and pastries such as the notorious “pie tart” — a sort of less unnatural version of the Pop Tart.

Window view from inside Honest Coffee Company Seating inside Honest Coffee along with a listing of their local providers

Step right out to a counter stool that belongs in New Mexico Looking back past Humble Coffee's service counter to their wall of coffee merchandise

Their coffee — while private labeled as Honest Coffee — is roasted by Prosum Roasters in town. They also feature a guest roaster as an alternative, and on this visit it was Arizona’s Cartel Coffee Lab. (Speaking of artisan Pop Tarts…)

Pulling a shot of a three-bean Central American/Ethiopian blend with a darker roast on it, they served the shot a little hot with a modest body and multi-colored crema that thinned out. The flavor was a bit weaker on first sip but oddly strengthened with greater concentration towards the bottom of the cup — with chocolate, some caramel, some woodiness and a bit of cherry brightness for a darker roast espresso.

Served in a quadrilateral-cut wooden block with two holes for a sparkling water glass and the espresso shotglass. It’s particularly a New Mexico thing. Milk-frothing here can be a little uneven, but the quality is generally good.

It’s a good introduction to New Mexico’s newer breed of coffee shop, which we’ll review more over the coming weeks.

Read the review of Humble Coffee Company in Albuquerque, NM.

Roasted coffee for sale at Humble Coffee - including guest roaster Cartel Coffee Lab Humble Coffee's jug o' cold brew

The Humble Coffee espresso The Humble Coffee macchiato

Trip Report: Temple Coffee Roasters (Downtown – Sacramento, CA)

Posted by on 23 Feb 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

When it came to coffee in Sacramento during the 1990s, Java City ruled the earth. Starbucks made their imprint like every other market in America, but Sacramento was Java City. Even longtime Sacramento coffee institutions like The Weatherstone — now part of Old Soul — once fell under the Java City spell in the years since its 1974 opening.

Java City eventually closed all of their retail locations by 2012 to focus on wholesale bean distribution. As local coffee entrepreneur, Sean Kohmescher, put it: “Java City’s lack of focus on its retail end hurt its café location(s)”.

Approaching Temple Coffee Roasters in downtown Sacramento Inside Temple Coffee Roasters, downtown Sacramento

Who is Mr. Kohmescher? The founder and original barista of Temple Coffee Roasters, which was established in 2005 in Midtown Sacramento. Exemplifying Sacramento’s newer generation of independent coffee roasters that first came to prominence in the mid-2000s, Temple has since expanded to several Sacramento area shops (including one in nearby Davis, CA) and a nationally recognized roastery.

This downtown location opened in early 2006. Located between the homeless encampments/tents in Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Plaza and the random screams of doorway-dwelling street people along the K Street Mall (an area that has always been a little sketchy), this shop attracts a decidedly student-oriented clientele.

Out front there’s fenced-in sidewalk seating, consisting of a long wooden counter and chairs under parasols along 9th St. Inside they painted the ceiling ducts black, left crude cement slab floors, with a painted coffee menu on the cement block rear wall espousing espresso, French press, and pour-over options (using clear Hario V60s).

Students zoning out along the side-wall bench at Temple Coffee Roasters Downtown Temple Coffee Roasters' wall o' mersh

They have two long, live-edge wood tables for shared seating plus a side bench with various students plugged in to earbuds and laptops. On the opposite wall is a significant wall o’ merch (pots, drippers, brewers, T-shirts, beanies, mugs). They offer a plethora of roasts for sale, and for their espresso at the time of our visit they offered their Dharma Blend, Ethiopia Limmu Burka Gudina, and a Colombia San Jose decaf in different grinders.

Ordering an espresso with their Dharma Blend, they served it from a four-group La Marzocco Linea PB. Despite the stripped-down environment, they brought the espresso to our seat with a small wooden tray containing the espresso in a white notNeutral demitasse and a small glass beaker of sparkling water. Thoughtful and classy. It came with a mottled darker and medium brown crema with a good coagulation and thickness.

Ample roasted coffees for sale at Temple Coffee Roasters along with their La Marzocco Linea PB The Temple Coffee Roasters service counter, backed by their menu

The flavor is “dark” with a full-bodied mouthfeel: there’s molasses, chocolate, and caramel. As an espresso I didn’t get much of the stated cherry, but as a macchiato the cherry comes through more. This is a robust, untrendy espresso that still believes in dark, body-driven complexity — a well-blended coffee that’s just about as good as you can get anywhere. Their milk-frothing is dense and quite good also.

Read the review of Temple Coffee Roasters in Downtown Sacramento, CA.

The Temple Coffee Roasters espresso from a serving tray The Temple Coffee Roasters macchiato

Some blends are created equal: Allann Bros. Maestro’s Blend

Posted by on 30 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

With the National Felon League coming to town for SuperBloat SuperBore SuperBowl 50, and the entire Bay Area overrun with corporate sponsorship, it’s a good time to shelter in place with some good coffee, right?

Allann Bros. Coffee Maestro's BlendThankfully the folks over at Allann Bros. Coffee in Albany, OR shipped us a pound of their Maestro’s Blend for evaluation. Founded in 1972 by their Roast Master, Allan Stuart, Allann Bros. Coffee opened a chain of eight coffee houses beginning in Ashland, Oregon — ye of the Shakespeare Festival fame.

When it comes to bean stocks, they claim to have developed Direct Trade partnerships and use of only high-altitude grown varietals. They fire-roast their coffee in a 1939 Jabez Burns Roaster and apply post-roast blending. Allann Bros. notes that the Maestro’s Blend is their most popular, signature espresso blend, describing it with a “dark, smoky flavor, coupled with a buttery crema and nutty flavor”.

Visually, it’s a seriously scary dark roast with what seems like enough surface oil to comb your hair in the reflection. It probably has an Agtron reading in the 25-30 range, which is akin to a Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend. This ain’t your conformist Third Wave coffee roasted with a brief puff of hot air just this side of grassy.

As such, it will elicit knee-jerk reactions much in the same way a light New England roast did for many Berkeley coffee fiends in the 1980s. But being a long-time believer in the versatility of coffee among its various roasting styles and brewing methods, I wanted to check out any of its merits.

Dark roast and heavy oils on the Maestro's Blend Tiny 51mm portafilter with some Maestro's Blend grinds

Brewing it many times as an espresso with my usual Mazzer Mini and Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine, it produced a rather healthy crema: generous, albeit not too coagulated. The resulting cup had a crema with a swirl of darker and medium brown crema. Buttery? Perhaps.

It had a decent but not remarkable body, and one would expect more body from coffees roasted in this style. Flavorwise, there wasn’t any ashiness or even bitterness. However there was a notably dryness to the palate — a kind of astringency. As expected, sweetness was mostly an afterthought with barely discernible caramelization of sugar starches of a molasses-like quality. It’s a pungent cup with a flavor dominated by tobacco and smoke, and I couldn’t pick up much of their nuttier flavor descriptors.


Allann Bros. Coffee
Blend Aroma [info] Brightness [info] Body [info] Crema [info] Flavor [info] Overall
Maestro’s Blend 6.0 5.0 7.0 8.0

6.0 6.40

Ultimately as a pulled shot it looks much better than it tastes. Which isn’t a bad taste by any means, but it isn’t very flavorful either. And while there’s some balance for the flavors that are actually present in the cup, it lacked large parts of coffee’s flavor spectrum.

It’s unfortunate when the best things I can say about a coffee are more about the negative qualities it lacks rather than the positive qualities it possesses. Unsurprisingly, the coffee serves better as a complement to steamed milk than straight on its own — and there’s a place for that among coffee styles. But I couldn’t find enough qualities that distinguished it from most other dark roasted blends, which is always a challenge.

Although it has one thing going for it: compared with Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, it costs about a third less.

Pulling a shot with the Maestro's Blend An espresso pulled from the Maestro's Blend

Coffee’s Fake Revolution

Posted by on 15 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

A quote in the subhed of Modern Farmer‘s recent article about coffee flour kind of summed it all up for me: “Given the rapidly advancing state of coffee technology…”

Wot?!

iPhony: Smart phones for dumb coffeeI understand that coffee product marketers have a vested interest in injecting a measure of planned obsolescence and general FUD in your preferred coffee choices — trying to equate the evolutionary trajectory of quality coffee with the exponential technology curve of the smartphone. That’s kind of their job. But an agricultural webzine?

The sad part is that they are not alone in this. And yet for over 1,000 years, humanity has followed the essentially unchanged ritual of roasting and grinding coffee beans, extracting a beverage from the grinds with water, and serving it.

Some men hope for revolution but when you revolt and set up your new government you find your new government is still the same old Papa, he has only put on a cardboard mask.
— Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man

Chemex? Invented in 1941. Pour-over coffee? Invented by Melitta in 1908. Cold brew? Originally called Kyoto coffee, its origins date back to 17th century Kyoto, Japan and the Dutch traders who probably introduced it there. Vacuum pot coffee? Wannabe technogeek webzines with names like Jismodo go full-on circle jerk over their high-tech “Walter White in Breaking Bad” chemistry set looks, but even these devices date back to 1830s Germany — almost a century before the discovery of Penicillin.

Even literal attempts to directly connect the rise of the smartphone to the rise of quality coffee fall horribly short: i.e., the proliferation of smartphone-enabled coffee brewers that invest the bulk of their manufacturing and purchasing costs in useless busy-box application controls and virtually none of it on making better coffee.

So just what is so “rapidly advancing” here? Other than hype and repackaging old brewing methods as “new”.

Selling frozen pizza back to the Neapolitans

Another example yesterday came from Condé Nast Traveller: How a Famous Chef Is Helping Cold Brew Coffee Go Global.

Cold brew coffee: not invented hereI can look past for a moment that cold brew is essentially the Colt 45 of quality coffee (without Snoop Dogg) and that you can get better coffee extractions with hot water and a gym sock. I can even look past that Stephanie Izard is a great chef but yet every chef affiliation with a coffee project has proven meaningless and mediocre at best.

But I’m really looking forward to a Wyndham Grand hotel opening in Kyoto, Japan where they can convert the grossly ignorant public to this great new beverage they’ve invented called “cold-brew coffee.” This is not even about PC bros ranting about cultural appropriation: this is outright cultural theft. And then selling it back to the inventors as if it were their own creation.

Same circus, different clowns.
— Anonymous

Whether it’s the promotional materials of coffee purveyors or the so-called journalists who write about them, the only evidence I have for any real revolution is that the educated and intellectuals seem to have fled the premises. Our historical ignorance about coffee only seems to have become worse over the years.

So I implore all of you who even attempt to do this for money: research what you’re doing. Before you tell us that your client or some Young Turk has just invented sunshine, please understand the context and recognize the history and the innovators who may have come long before. Do only that much, and you just might be the coolest thing since an alien Scarlett Johansson drove a rape van around Scotland.

Trip Report: Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 02 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Founded in 2009, Asado Coffee Company first opened in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood — the same neighborhood that served as Intelligentsia’s birthplace some 20 years ago. Founder Kevin Ashtari started the business by roasting his own with a makeshift roaster: a rotisserie motor rotated a drum over a barbecue grill.

Things blew up in 2010 when Chicago Magazine named theirs the city’s best cup of coffee, and the independent weekly Chicago Reader named them best coffee roaster. Kevin later took on a partner, Jeff Liberman, upgraded to a 12-kilo roaster, and they’ve since expanded with roasting operations in each of three Chicago area cafés. However, they still focus on somewhat unusual, small coffee farms around the world and only roast two days worth of coffee at a time.

Walkway towards Asado Coffee Roasters, Pickwick, in Chicago Front door entrance to Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

One of their newer locations is this historic Loop building, though you might say it’s more of an anachronism than an actual Loop building. Called the Pickwick Stable, it is located in a tight, private alley once called Pickwick Place. This tiny (19 ft x 19 ft) building sits nestled and recessed between two skyscrapers, the Gibbons Building and the Steigler Building. It survived the 1871 Great Chicago Fire — serving as a horse stable and restaurant at various periods throughout its lifetime. It remains one of downtown Chicago’s oldest and smallest buildings.

The long passageway leads up to rather large sign exclaiming “COFFEE”. There is outdoor seating among metal tables and chairs in the alleyway, which would be a great urban respite if not for visiting during the sleet storm of Winter Storm Goliath (and the typical Chicago weather between November and April). The only sheltered seating was a lone chair inside the building next to the service counter.

Entrance to 22 E Jackson when it was Colonel Abson’s Chop House in the 1890s Asado Coffee Roasters' chalkboard menu

Have I mentioned that the place is tiny? Like Spella Caffé in Portland tiny. Their chalkboard menu displays their offerings of drip, pour-over (no batch-brewed here, folks), coldbrew (trendboys be trendboys even in a winter blizzard), and espresso drinks — plus scones, alfajores, and other pastries. They also offer some of their limited roasts for direct retail sale.

Using a three-group spring-lever driven Mirage Idrocompresso (their standard among all outlets), they pull shots of their Especiales blend with a lightly speckled medium brown crema with lighter thickness but decent density. It’s a long cup. Too long, actually, but it still manages not to be runny.

Retail shelf and rear area of tiny Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick Working the three-group Mirage at Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

The Especiales is Asado’s lone blend: a mix of their two Mt. Meru Tanzania coffees (one a peaberry), each roasted at a medium and at a cliché-busting dark level. The result creates a body-forward, almost Brazil-like taste which is refreshingly distinctive, a little retro, but of unquestionable quality. Asado prides itself on seeking out unusual small lot coffee farms to work with. Combined with their roasting styles, they thankfully ignore many of the monolithic Third Wave clichés.

The milk-frothing here is velvety, but beyond excessive. Their cappuccino comes in what’s arguably a serving bowl that’s nearly the size of your head, suggestive of 1980s wannabe French cafés that focused more on bladder-busting than flavor. Or at least coffee flavor; I never understood why some coffee shops see to adding a sprinkle of coffee flavor to their cappuccino as they would nutmeg or cocoa.

It’s an awesome, historic location with great coffee and a solid espresso. But for milk-based drinks, the resulting coffee flavor is washed out in a sea of milk — so we recommend avoiding those.

Read the review of Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick in downtown Chicago, IL.

The Asado Coffee Roasters espresso The Asado Coffee Roasters cappuccino

Conceding failure in running out of market growth ideas, Starbucks stays with coffee

Posted by on 04 Dec 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Sometimes the headline gives all the spin you need to know. Our spin here is on the same story published yesterday in the NY Times Business section: Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs – The New York Times. Except we’d like to think our spin has a slightly different, less investor-relations-for-PR take.

The good news for Starbucks is that they’ve returned to financial growth after years of stagnation. But make no mistake about Starbucks’ brand extension failure after failure in getting here. They’ve failed at virtually all of their major market expansion attempts beyond coffee: movies and books, music, beer & wine, food (ZOMG, BBQ?). These failures are major blows to Starbucks’ continued growth plans. Because just like their mature fast food brethren, Starbucks has reached a saturation point with their core (coffee) products.

The New York Times drinks the Jim Cramer Kool-Aid

For example, let’s compare Starbucks with Taco Bell. Starbucks is expected to maintain same-store sales through the old marketing hack of continually introducing new products, such as cold brew coffee or the Chestnut Praline Latte. (Hence why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee.) This is their equivalent of when Taco Bell introduces DareDevil Loaded Grillers in Mild Chipotle, Hot Habanero and Fiery Ghost Pepper flavors. But to truly grow their business, Starbucks needs to do more than just coffee. In Taco Bell terms, this is akin to their recent mad foray into breakfast menus.

A Chestnut Praline Latte by any other nameThus reading that “Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs” through their Starbucks Reserve program is akin to defeat. Eight years ago we pondered Starbucks introducing “Starbucks Select” concept stores as part of their eventual desire to claw their way back into the quality coffee market — the very market they so wantonly abandoned for the mass-market race to the bottom over a decade ago. This would be like Taco Bell saying that they are going to focus more on up-market tacos for growth.

Thus instead of expanding into new categories, Starbucks is retreating to its original basics. But with the commodity-quality coffee market already saturated and its growth stagnating, Starbucks is now seeking growth by going up-market and competing with smaller, more nimble, and ever-more established independents in a higher quality market they conceded long ago. Except since it is Starbucks we’re talking about, it is more likely aiming to compete with the indie-turned-corporate darlings of Stumptown or Intelligentsia.

Keep reading the NY Times piece, and you’ll encounter absurdities such as, “Starbucks’s size gives it an edge in securing the best beans. They can do what the smaller competitors can’t.” Oh really? As a bigger company, they are actually at a disadvantage at dealing with smaller family farms producing higher quality beans. For them, working with Starbucks is akin to trying to do business with NASA. And for Starbucks, dealing with such small, piddly providers is grossly inefficient and expensive compared to the supply chains they’ve optimized to supply tens of thousands of global coffee shops with near-identical products.

The piece even ends with an ode to mobile payments and delivery services — which have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with quantity, convenience, and transaction volume.

It just goes to show you how the same data can be interpreted so differently, depending on your perspective. Even if Jim Cramer would be proud.

If I must: late thoughts on Peet’s buyouts of Intelligentsia and Stumptown

Posted by on 08 Nov 2015 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

Unless you’re wearing a tinfoil hat and staying off the grid (except for this blog), you probably know that Peet’s Coffee & Tea — through JAB Holding — bought out both Intelligentsia and Stumptown last month. Predictably, there was much hipster angst on social media (as if that isn’t the whole point of social media), and at first I didn’t see the need to cover the story again.

After all, it is essentially an updated rehash of a post I wrote four years ago. This time around there was an enormous amount of mainstream media coverage as well. But prodded some here, there’s probably another chapter on this topic.

Todd Carmichael once likened Duane Sorenson to Che Guevara, whom is now in a full-on T-shirt sales phaseSome of the mainstream media have come to the defense of the acquired, noting the dual standards of how an Instagram sells for billions of dollars to Facebook and its founders are congratulated while Intelligentsia and Stumptown are showered with “sellout” scorn on social media.

However, most Silicon Valley startups scale by merely replicating data and code. With many leveraging Metcalfe’s Law, these businesses naturally improve the customer experience with scale. Contrast this with the business of coffee, which scales through the much higher friction of skilled labor and quality coffee sourcing.

These two factors are subject to a sort of inverse Metcalfe’s Law: the bigger the scale, or the more customers they serve, the poorer the quality of what they serve. Starbucks didn’t dumb down their baristas and throw out their La Marzocco machines for brain-dead, push-button Verismos because it would improve their coffee quality. They did it out of the necessity to scale to thousands of outlets in the face of a dearth of skilled baristas to hire en masse (and less expensive ones at that).

Show me the hockey stick growthThus do not be fooled by any of the founder rhetoric about how joining Peet’s provides access to better supply chains and whatnot. I cannot think of a single coffee purveyor that has improved with scale — at least from the consumer’s perspective of a quality end product. Investors and shareholders are a different story, however. It’s also worth remembering that Starbucks’ scaling genius was in getting millions of people who don’t like coffee to believe that they did — through flavored milkshakes and the like.

But I don’t begrudge the founders of Stumptown and Intelligentsia for taking a great risk in the marketplace when much fewer cared as much about coffee quality, for making a great product, for working hard at it, and for growing their businesses. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and for helping to popularize better coffee. I thank them heartily, but make no mistake: effectively this is their stop. This is where they get off.

The House that Intelligentsia builtYou could argue Stumptown got off earlier than Intelligentsia. While Intelligentsia was still producing barista champions, Stumptown was already downgrading itself as a bottled coffee purveyor as its founder preoccupied himself with becoming a restauranteur. Stumptown counter-intuitively went beyond producing wholesome basics to embarking on the packaged foods path of processed, shelf-stable consumables — just as much of the food world was headed in the opposite direction. In other words: more pumpkin spice latte in a can, less Cup of Excellence.

Why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee

In fact, the world of coffee today seems obsessed with the brewing-gadget-of-the-week and “new and exciting” coffee beverage concepts as a complete distraction from the basic quality of the fundamentals. These fads and come-ons hint at the side-show desperation of coffee in the 1980s when the emphasis was on faddish gimmicks such as flavored coffees (French vanilla, mocha creme, hazelnut whatever, anyone?).

When you see this associated with coffee, run!Every time I see the words “new” or “innovation” associated with coffee, I know they have completely lost the plot. Those are the marketing buzzwords of factory production and packaging. Coffee is an agricultural product, and there’s a reason why we don’t seek out “new” and “innovation” when buying other agricultural products such as asparagus or pork.

“New” beverage concept introductions such as cold brew and nitro coffee (another thing to thank Stumptown for) are just a page lifted from the Jack-In-The-Box food fad marketing playbook for the Spicy Sriracha Burger. May as well package nitro coffee in a cardboard box along with an action figure from the next Star Wars movie and call it a Happy Pack. Offer good while supplies last.

I do hope both Intelligentsia and Stumptown have a ways to go still under their new ownership. But then I look no further than Starbucks and how its buyout strategy of competitors with better product played out. Whether Torrefazione Italia, Teavana, or the Clover Equipment Company, Starbucks seems to have taken a deliberate scorched earth approach that ultimately eliminates consumer access to better end product.

Thus I recommend fans get their Intelligentsia and Stumptown fixes while they still can, because there really is only one direction for them to go from here.

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