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.

Trip Report: Josuma Coffee and the Ancient Quest for Malabar Gold

Posted by on 01 Nov 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting, Robusta

One of the greatest espresso blends on the planet has remained something of a Bay Area secret for the past 23 years. It is almost certain to remain such, as popular tastes have moved on to single origin espresso shots to the pour-over-device-of-the-month to today’s quality-regressive fads being heralded as the forefront of coffee: cold brew (hello, 17th century Kyoto, Japan), nitro coffee, and bored mixologists treating coffee as if it were merely a Torani syrup flavor.

Or to paraphrase Nick Cho: “Second Wave wolves in Third Wave sheep’s clothing“.

The non-descript office of Josuma Coffee Company (center) Melind John works their La Marzocco inside Josuma Coffee Company

All of which makes Josuma Coffee Company and their flagship Malabar Gold blend seem like dinosaurs of a lost age. But if you enjoy an espresso of balance and technical precision, Malabar Gold is a tall order that few American espresso purveyors have been able to match.

Disappointed by virtually all pre-blended green coffee supplies designed for espresso, I first encountered Malabar Gold about a dozen years ago as a home roaster. Buying from off-beat green sources such as Hollywood, CA’s The Coffee Project, the proprietary nature of the Malabar Gold blend strikes you as a false industry secret. For example, purchasing from The Coffee Project requires you to claim your status as a home roaster and not an industry professional.

This makes more sense when you understand Josuma Coffee’s business. Founded by Dr. Joseph John in 1992, they company pioneered the Direct Trade model with India coffee growers a good decade before Intelligentsia came up with the term (and two decades before Intelligentsia became Peet’s Coffee & Tea). They promote themselves largely through industry trade shows and today walk an even balance (i.e., 50/50) between their roasted and unroasted greens coffee businesses.

Josuma Coffee's Malabar Gold blend - roasted Monsooned Malabar from a family's kitchen in Bangalore, India

Visiting the Josuma Coffee Company

Over the summer Dr. John’s son, Melind John, invited me down to Josuma’s modest “headquarters” in a Redwood City office park. They had been importing approximately 6 to 7 containers of green coffee from India each year — which most recently has grown to about 9. They store their green coffee in some three different Bay Area warehouses (mostly in the East Bay) and roast in South San Francisco on Mondays.

Their coffee continues to be almost exclusively sourced from India, and most of their blends consist of 3-4 sources. However, Josuma has more recently started seeking out some coffee sources outside of India to aid the flavor consistency of some of their blends and to help round out their offerings to customers — many of them cafés — to provide them with a complete coffee sourcing “solution” as it were.

Pulling a shot at Josuma Coffee Company Naked portafilters at Josuma Coffee Company

The Josuma Coffee Company espresso The Josuma Coffee Company cortado

I’ve found knowledge about India’s coffee to be staggeringly poor in the West. For one, there’s often a presumption that India is purely a British-inspired tea-drinking nation. In South India, there are at least as many, if not more, coffee drinkers than tea drinkers — plus a tradition of it dating back to the 17th century. In 1670, India became the first location in the world outside of Arabia (i.e., Ethiopia, Yemen) to cultivate coffee when the Indian Muslim saint, Baba Budan, smuggled coffee beans from Mocha, Yemen to Mysore, India in what was then considered a religious act.

I joked with Melind that I had encountered the name “Malabar Gold” on multiple occasions around Mysore (officially Mysuru today). But instead of finding the mythical coffee blend, I only encountered locations of a popular chain of jewelry stores.

A photo I took of one of the Malabar Gold jewelry stores in Mysore, India Inside Bangalore's Coffee Board of India: a display featuring some of the local greens

The great majority of coffee consumption in India isn’t of the “specialty” variety, but that’s also true of the rest of the world. Even so, India — with the Coffee Board of India — have invested heavily in growing and testing quality coffee. That includes wet- and dry-processed arabicas, the unique Monsooned coffee, and some of the highest quality robusta in the world (something you learn as a home roaster if you like a little quality robusta in your espresso blends). And 98% of India’s approximately 250,000 coffee growers remain small growers.

David Schomer doesn't kid aroundMelind demonstrated some of their own roasts with the two-group La Marzocco FB80 they crate over to trade shows, complete with naked portafilters. Whether straight up espresso shots or Melind’s favorite cortado option, the shot quality was unmistakable.

As quality espresso pioneer and “dinosaur” David Schomer (of Espresso Vivace fame) said at the recent Portland Coffee Fest about Malabar Gold: “This is the only other espresso I’ll drink. And you can quote me on that.” So we will.

The Definitive Top 11 Bay Area Coffee Roasters, according to Thrillist

Posted by on 04 Oct 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

In a CoffeeRatings.com first, we encourage you to check out an article published earlier this week on Thrillist: The Definitive Top 11 Bay Area Coffee Roasters.

Thrillist pulls off a useful piece rating Bay Area coffee roastersYes, it is that Thrillist — the same one that gave us such cringeworthy coffee listicles as “19 Things You Didn’t Know About Coffee” (who doesn’t love an article that starts by presuming you’re ignorant?), “The 8 Best Coffee Cities in America, Ranked” (which again begs the question: what is a “coffee city” anyway?), “12 Ways You’re Making Coffee Wrong” (you ignorant slut), and the gold mine that is “Every Coffee Shop Chain’s Pumpkin Latte, Ranked“.

It is also an article to which I contributed as a reviewer. Author Jack Houston pulled together an end product that is quite good, and the list is one I can comfortably endorse… down to the top spot ranking of the frequently overlooked Chromatic Coffee.

The Untold Backstory: The Challenge of Getting Qualified Opinions About Roasters

What is also noteworthy is the untold story of how this listicle came to be: the challenge of creating it in the first place. Mr. Houston started soliciting input for the piece in early July of this year. The reason it took three months to publish was, to quote Mr. Houston, “whether it was affiliations with certain roasters, distaste for the scene (had multiple people tell me they couldn’t think of any, let alone 11), reluctance about attaching their name to rankings, travel or just a plain lack of knowledge, it’s been difficult to find people willing to speak on Bay Area coffee.”

Given both the quantity and quality of Bay Area roasters available, this should be more than a little concerning. On the one hand, you have the “our friends and partners at ___” cronyism of a Sprudge — a Lake Wobegone land where every roaster mentioned is above average, and yet no one dares to utter the suggestion that one might be better than another.

On the other hand, you have industry people careful to avoid conflicts of interest — or at least unwilling to risk hurting the feelings of business partners and associates. However, I also suspect that more than a few in the industry have not done enough to comparatively study more than a handful of (competitive) area roasters outside of controlled cuppings for singular origins and/or focused industry events. As a contrast to similarly qualified palates in the wine industry, I get the impression that wine professionals are generally more keenly aware of what everybody else is up to.

Pete Licata getting his nose in there for RoastRatings.com RoastRatings has been offering public scores of roasted coffee

The result is the author spent months scrounging enough souls who were both qualified and brave enough to go on record with a qualitative ranking of Bay Area roasters. For all the lip-service given to consumer education and transparency of quality scoring, etc., honest public discussions of comparative coffee quality still seem taboo in many contexts. Which is why we hope exceptions such as Pete Licata‘s RoastRatings.com will hopefully shatter some of that. (Kenneth DavidsCoffeeReview is also in that category, but they continue to keep much of their content hidden behind a paywall.)

Another backstory oddity about the article is that a number of the reviewers included Counter Culture Coffee in their lists, which Mr. Houston correctly pointed out is anything but a Bay Area roaster.

Our Own Roaster Rankings in the Raw

Thrillist's compilation of Bay Area roaster reviewsOddly, I quite often come across educated coffee professionals convinced that I only drink espresso or that I only follow espresso culture. This despite the fact that 12 years ago I deliberately registered the coffeeratings.com domain and not espressoratings.com. (Pete Licata, eat your heart out.) This despite a Tasting Methodology page off of our home page, describing why I chose espresso as a yardstick, that hasn’t changed in 11 years. This despite being a home roaster for over 15 years — and that our Twitter avatar for the past few years is of a Madras-style South Indian filter coffee with “CoffeeRatings.com” written in Devanāgarī.

All said, the biggest challenge of comparatively ranking coffee roasters — compared with prepared espresso — is that there are many more uncontrolled variables when comparing two roasters head-to-head: their green bean sources are different, their roast styles vary, but also the eventual brewing and preparation steps are out of their hands.

And while I never professed to be a coffee cupping expert, scientific measurement and comparison has been in my blood for a long time. By the age of 16, I was quantitatively comparing chemistry samples in a professional lab (albeit for industrial adhesives). By the age of 18, I was performing similar comparisons in a professional food lab (for a spice company). So the general practice was somewhat old hat to me before I started formally and quantitatively reviewing espresso shots 12 years ago.

But because of the great lack of common controls to compare roasters as opposed to espresso shots, I was forced to be less “scientific” in my approach for the Thrillist article. I succumbed to a much more primitive, overly subjective scale of whatever seemed to generally please my palate for home use coffee. And particularly at the moment of being asked. A week or two later, and I may have snuck Andytown or even Josuma Coffee in my list.

For the complete record, here’s how I filled out my “ballot” form for the Thrillist piece:

List your favorite Bay Area coffee roasters, starting with No. 1 (most favorite) to No. 11 (11th most favorite).

  1. Barefoot Coffee Roasters (San Jose)
  2. Why? These guys have always had great coffee shops, but it’s the coffee itself that’s the star. When using their roasts at home, they regularly produce subtle and surprising flavors I’ve been able to create with the coffee of few other roasters. Even if I sent some to an Intelligentsia loyalist friend of mine in Chicago who called it “dessert coffee”.
    Signature drink: Guatemala Finca Hermosa

  3. Scarlet City Coffee (Emeryville)
  4. Why? Jen St. Hilaire exhibits a great deal of skill and experience as a roaster. She has even taught a few big names among roasters in the industry today. And yet she continues to follow her own path, aware of but not swayed by the many roasting fads and trends that surround her. She primarily roasts to develop the sugars inside the beans so that they are fully caramelized, creating fully developed roasts that avoid the sour fruit flavors so adored by many of today’s roasters. The coffee world desperately needs more women like Jen.
    Signature drink: Warp Drive Espresso Blend

  5. Blue Bottle Coffee (Oakland)
  6. Why? James Freeman’s company has been pioneering new ideas about quality coffee in the Bay Area for over a decade now. They offer some excellent single origins and Cup of Excellence coffees in addition to OK blends, and do so in a rather impressive range of origins and styles. And despite their skyrocketing and bloated growth fueled by venture capital and M&A, at least for now the quality has remained very high.
    Signature drink: Mexico La Cañada Cup of Excellence

  7. Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (San Francisco)
  8. Why? Co-founder Trish Rothgeb may have coined the coffee term “Third Wave“, but her roasts exhibit an accumulation of coffee roasting knowledge and experience –- rather than a knee-jerk reaction purely defined by rejecting the fads of previous “waves”. Whether selective single origins or solid blends, this is what Third Wave coffee should be once it evolves beyond being such a conformist, angst-ridden teenager.
    Signature drink: 1Up Espresso Blend

  9. Four Barrel Coffee (San Francisco)
  10. Why? Founder Jeremy Tooker anguishes over the details. When he started up his shop’s roasting operations six years ago, I had pointed out some of the rough patches and he would send me heartfelt emails always seeking thoughts about how he could improve. Today the results of a lot of obsessing and optimization speak for themselves, as they’ve dialed in their quality on roasting styles that suit them. It’s heavy on fruit and acid and a bit lighter on body and breadth of flavor profile, but they’ve hit their stride with a good vein of green sources from Africa and Central & South America.
    Signature drink: Rwanda Cotecaga Bourbon

  11. Chromatic Coffee (San Jose)
  12. Why? This art-inspired group of roasters is relatively new on the local roasting scene, but in a short time they have made a major impact. They custom modify everything about their “coffee delivery systems”, from roaster mods even down to the dissolved solids in the water they brew with at their Santa Clara café. Their single origins and blends are inspired, tweaked, and frequently taste a bit different than the rest -– often aiming for “liveliness” in the end product. Applying what they call “The Radio Approach”, they’ve taken the Scandinavian roasting style and darkened it somewhat to account for the greater hardness of the water here.
    Signature drink: Papua New Guinea Kunjin

  13. Flying Goat Coffee (Healdsburg)
  14. Why? “The Goat”, as the Sonoma County locals refer to it, is often overlooked in the Bay Area due to its remote North Bay locations. But for some 23 years under co-founder and green coffee buyer, Phil Anacker, they have exhibited excellent quality and a longer tradition of seasonally rotated coffees. Style-wise, they’ve long aimed for a bean sweetness and body to wean their customers off of demanding milk, but more than anything they’ve specialized in adapting the roasting style to the qualities of a given bean supply they are working with.
    Signature drink: Panama Finca Don K

  15. Mr. Espresso (Oakland)
  16. Why? Since their founding in 1978, they’ve adopted a traditional oak wood roasting style inherited from their Salerno roots and its nearby — and globally recognized — Naples, Italy coffee culture. This alone is akin to finding a Bay Area sushi place that serves real baran leaves instead of the green plastic cutouts to which we’ve become accustomed. While the roasting profiles that predominate here may not be in vogue today, they exhibit great balance, care, and quality. The newer local chain of Coffee Bar shops showcases their quality along with some of their single origins. And whenever I’ve attended (or organized) coffee events where they have served, I invariably line up for more shots of theirs than anybody.
    Signature drink: Neapolitan Espresso blend

  17. RoastCo (Oakland)
  18. Why? Originally promoted by the Bacchus Management Group as “by the restaurants, for the restaurants”, RoastCo has expanded their vision of small batch, microlot roasting exclusively for the restaurant industry to include other “projects” and even home subscriptions. Using a 1960s cast iron Probat, they source their beans from farms or co-ops and aim for more fully developed roasts with a balance between acidity and sweetness.
    Signature drink: Kenya Nyeri

  19. Highwire Coffee Roasters (Oakland)
  20. Why? The three friends who founded this roasting business in 2011 are perhaps too humble for their impressive coffee pedigrees. The short version of their roasting approach is probably “balance” -– which is probably the inspiration for their name. They aim for balanced coffees that walk that highwire between the origin characteristics of the bean and a roast that brings out a fully developed coffee. They partly achieve this through cupping constantly. When it comes to espresso blends, they adhere to an approach of dividing each bean source for either “hot blending” or “cold blending”, typically optimizing among no more than three bean sources to dial in the right balance.
    Signature drink: Ethiopia Kochere

  21. Ritual Coffee Roasters (San Francisco)
  22. Why? Fairly or unfairly, Ritual could be stereotyped for roasting a lot of coffee that tastes like baked apple pie. Adhering to a rather strict lighter roasting style, they excel at bright, acidic coffees with origins typically in Central America, South America, and Africa. Floral and citric flavors often predominate. And while they may not be at their best when they venture outside of this profile, they know where their strengths are and execute to it very well.
    Signature drink: Fazenda do Sertão, Brazil

Trip Report: Iron Horse Coffee Bar (Union Square)

Posted by on 07 Sep 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Opening earlier this year, this daytime coffee cubbyhole/pop-up might remind you of the Cafe Lambretta chain of miniscule coffee shops that dot the South of Market. But instead of Blue Bottle Coffee they serve Ritual Coffee Roasters.

As a daytime front to the Romper Room bar, they also offer the option to spike your coffee drink as a variety of caffè corretti (Italian for corrected coffee). All of which seems suitable for a bar, even if it now seems to follow the current fad of serving coffee in formats that degrade or mask its core quality — e.g., nitro brews, coffee cocktails, partially extracted cold brews with two-week shelf-lives — under the false pretense of “craft coffee”.

Iron Horse Coffee Bar resides in the daytime entrance of Romper Room Service counter inside Iron Horse Coffee Bar

You’ll find Iron Horse Coffee Bar in the pedestrian-friendly Maiden Lane alleyway by the “Coffee that doesn’t suck” signs — perhaps a less lame version of “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” for a modern era — placed around the feeding streets and walkways on its perimeter. You’ll also notice it by the two baby blue café tables in the middle of the street out front of the Romper Room entrance.

Named after the restaurant that stood here in 1950, the service counter barely takes up the front entrance with a sign, a two-group La Marzocco GB5, large bags of Ritual, alcohol bottles, and a few Lucky Charms cereal bowls. For indoor seating you can sit at one of the barstools at a counter that runs along the opposite wall.

Pastries on display inside the tiny entrance to Iron Horse Coffee Bar Inside the Romper Room (nice inflatables) withbar stool seating for sipping Iron Horse coffee inside

Using Ritual’s Ursa Major blend, they pulled shots with a striped darker and medium brown crema. It’s pulled as a rather long shot, but it still holds up in body — so they’re definitely not stinging on their portafilter dosing. Even so, at $3 served in a paper cup at a pop-up with no amenities (hello, $3 club), there is absolutely no reason they should be charging the exorbitantly highest rates for espresso shots in all of SF. This is a temporary coffee dive along Maiden Lane — not some tourist fleecing station inside the gates of DisneyWorld.

The quality is decent but nothing special. It has flavors of pungent herbs and some spice and surprisingly limited acidic brightness for Ritual. Unless you want to “correct” your coffee, enjoy sitting in Maiden Lane, or it’s just too convenient, I would keep walking.

Read the review of Iron Horse Coffee Bar in Union Square.

Outdoor seating in Maiden Lane in front of Iron Horse Coffee Bar The Iron Horse Coffee Bar espresso - not worth the $3 price tag

Trip Report: Mazarine Coffee (Financial District)

Posted by on 28 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

As an ambitious new coffeeshop in SF’s Financial District, they immediately joined the $3 club — i.e., representing the basic price of admission for a single shot (or double shot) of espresso. While other notable SF openings have failed to live up to these lofty new expectations, this one manages to justify much of its expense.

Mazarine Coffee is named after the Bibliothèque Mazarine — the oldest library in Paris. Now that might sound cultured and sophisticated enough on the surface in an I-Love-Eurotrash manner. But given the coffee quality in Paris until just recently, that’s like naming your sushi restaurant after your favorite Nebraska landmark. (Though my coffee insiders have it that the founder’s working title for the café in 2013 was “Bravo Java”, in which case the name is still a huge step up.)

Outdoor seating in front of Mazarine Coffee Entrance to Mazarine Coffee

Coffee merchandising inside Mazarine Coffee Seating inside Mazarine Coffee

That said, founder/CEO Hamid Rafati switched from his electrical and mechanical engineering roots to professionally commit himself to the art of making great coffee. While the café’s name might seem a bit of a faux pas, he built this place with inspiration from quality sources — including the Southland’s Klatch Coffee, where he even recruited multi-USBC champ Heather Perry to lead the barista training. In addition to committing to offering a rotation of sources as a multi-roaster café, they also offer salads and sandwiches with wine and beer on tap.

There’s fenced-in sidewalk café table seating along Market St., front window counter seating, a lot of grey concrete, a white marble counter, a blueish subway tile backsplash to the service area, and bench seating with burgundy cushions at thick wood-finished café tables. The place is usually packed with patrons ordering nitro coffee and other requisite coffee fads. (Sorry, but nitro coffee, coffee beer, and coffee cocktails are no more “craft coffee” than sangria is “craft wine”.) The service counter is divided between pour-over (Kalita Waves and Baratza grinders) and espresso (Nuova Simonelli grinders) stations.

Service area at Mazarine Coffee with Kees van der Westen Spirit and Nuova Simonelli grinders Close-up of Mazarine Coffee's Spirit with Heath ceramic cups on top

Looking back at the entrance to Mazarine Coffee Service counter for espresso with Spirit machine at Mazarine Coffee

For espresso they use a customized three-group Kees van der Westen Spirit and were serving their private-labelled summer Belle Espresso blend from Klatch. They also served Ritual Coffee for some of their other drink formats.

They pull espresso shots with a mottled split between a medium and darker brown crema. It’s not voluminous but weighty. Served three-sips short, it has a thick body and a fully developed roast flavor with molasses sweet edges and some acidic apple brightness at the front of the sip — centered around pungency but rounded and not overly so. Served in Heath ceramic cups with sparkling water on the side.

The use of Klatch coffee is rather unique for the area, and it’s about time. It lends itself to a more complex and balanced espresso than is typically available from many of the area’s Third Wave cliché cafés. And as I believe it is written in a dusty book somewhere inside the original Bibliothèque Mazarine: Joe Bob says check it out.

Read the review of Mazarine Coffee in the Financial District of San Francisco.

Laptop zombies at the rear of Mazarine Coffee Another view of the outdoor sidewalk seating in front of Mazarine Coffee

The Mazarine Coffee espresso from Klatch Roasting beans Kalita Waves for pour-overs at one of the Mazarine Coffee service counters

Trip Report: Bright Coffee (Monterey, CA)

Posted by on 20 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Cameron Davies started this small roaster/café in 2013, and it has changed the face of Monterey’s coffee culture ever since. It’s a small café co-located in the artful Lilify shop along busy Lighthouse Ave. — a few blocks down from Happy Girl Kitchen.

Inside the café takes up one side of the building. The Lilify retail space dominates the remainder. There’s a lot of exposed wood, found-art-like wall hangings, and for seating there’s two thick wooden café tables and a lone stool.

Entrance to Bright Coffee at Lilify in Monterey Branding at the entrance of Bright Coffee in Monterey

While they used to roast locally with a Deidrich IR-7, fights with the local zoning codes have resulted in endless frustration. To work around that, Cameron is now setting up their roasting in Longview, WA (not far from Portland, OR) to be run by her parents. Until then she’s working with select West Coast roasters, such as Seattle’s Kuma Coffee, that don’t require too much equipment adjustment for her roast profile style.

Their two-group lever La San Marco Leva is a find from Phoenix, AZ that was artfully refurbished by her partner, Mike Zimmerer, into something far more decorative. It still operates like a tank — one of the reasons it remains the de facto machine in espresso-obsessed Napoli, Italy.

Entering Bright Coffee in Monterey, with the Lilify retail shop at the right Lilify's retail shop adjacent to the shared space with Bright Coffee

Cameron, like myself, doesn’t get the point of coffee shops dropping $20,000 on the latest overly-gadgetized espresso machine. Sure, they make great conversation pieces. They can also offer a crutch for new coffee shop owners seeking a fast track towards Third Wave credibility — sort of a Viagra for those seeking out coffee-related dick-measuring contests.

The trouble is that virtually every place employing pressure profiling with these new high-tech machines doesn’t know how to do it right, resulting in shots that we’ve invariably found don’t taste any better. This is something Cameron independently observed herself, and she’d rather pour that additional money into her staff and keeping her business afloat. And with the Leva, she not only finds it cheaper but also much easier to maintain.

Seating inside Bright Coffee The La San Marco Leva machine behind Bright Coffee

As someone who has lived near and worked within the Portland coffee scene for some time, she’s also a fan of Heart and Sterling roasters — which are known for they’re very light (almost overly light) roasting treatments. Where she differs is that she also likes to let roasts gas out for far longer than most — sometimes finding that roasts are optimal several weeks after roasting. 2013 WBC champ Pete Licata recently wrote similar thoughts on this.

The result here with Kuma Ethiopia Aricha espresso (their Red Bear Espresso) is a cherry bomb brightness heavy on fruit but is surprisingly not your typical acid bath. There’s some honey, leather, pepper, a pungent aroma, and a dark, dark crema of short coverage and modest thickness. Served in handmade ceramic cups with water on the side. The milk-frothing here is just OK: a little on the light side.

It used to be that Acme Coffee Roasting or Café Lumiere were the only worthy coffee shops around these parts. But that is fortunately changing.

Read the review of Bright Coffee in Monterey, CA.

The Bright Coffee espresso The Bright Coffee macchiato

Trip Report: Modern Coffee (Tribune Tower, Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 16 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

This downtown Oakland coffee house sits at the base of the historic Oakland Tribune Building. It’s a small space with ceiling fans and windows that open, a large front window for people-watching over the 13th St. sidewalk at window counter stools, and a few indoor café tables and chairs/benches with a wall of merchandising in the back. In front, there’s also some red sidewalk café table seating.

As a true multi-roaster café, and part of a tiny chain, their merchandising includes selling Stumptown, Chromatic, and Verve coffee retail.

Entrance to Modern Coffee at the base of the Oakland Tribune Tower Sidewalk seating in front of Modern Coffee at the Oakland Tribune Tower

Service and ordering counter at Modern Coffee Multi-roaster retail coffees available at Modern Coffee

Inside there are many wooden surfaces, large stone tiles on the floor, and a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/80 with Mazzer grinders. They offer pour-over and Chemex coffee as well.

The Oakland Tribune Tower with Modern Coffee at its entranceAs a multi-roaster café, they rotate their bean stocks and were serving Counter Culture Coffee‘s Big Trouble for this espresso review. They served Linea Caffe for pour-overs.

This alone makes Modern a bit of a novelty for anyone from the U.S. East Coast — where Counter Culture’s combined service and supply deals have been known for their financial strong-arm tactics to achieve distribution exclusivity at most cafés.

Here they pulled their shots three-sips-short with a mottled medium-brown crema and a rather broad flavor of spices, some herbs, and brightness with a bigger kick at the end — but still lacking much heavy acidity. It’s a relatively lively cup, but with a flavor profile that isn’t terribly too distinctive. Served in white notNeutral cups.

Read the review of Modern Coffee at the Tribune Tower in Oakland, CA.

Service counter in Modern Coffee Window counter seating inside Modern Coffee

Modern Coffee's La Marzocco FB/80 and Mazzer grinders The Modern Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Yo el Rey Roasting (Calistoga, CA)

Posted by on 06 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

In the 26 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area, I’d never been to Calistoga. Sure, I knew about the touristy mud baths and summer temperatures more conducive for copper smelting than for outdoor barbecues. What I didn’t quite expect was a laid back town that still wears a lot of its history, located in a rather wooded valley.

While the Napa Valley wine culture certainly encroaches on its doorstep, Calistoga has a decidedly different feel than the rest of the Napa Valley vibe — with its food fetishes, wine farming monoculture, lifestyle and housewares boutiques, faux Italian villas, and preponderance of German and Japanese luxury cars. It’s a little closer to a Lake Tahoe mountain town than the quaintly packaged lifestyle branding of a Yountville or St. Helena.

Entrance to Yo el Rey Roasting in Calistoga, CA Front of Yo el Rey Roasting - don't ask what's with the drug-influenced organic coffee sign

The coffee here can also hold its own. This small café, first opened in 2008, is located just off of Calistoga’s Lincoln Ave. “main street”.

Outside there are metal café table for seating along the sidewalk. Inside there is window stool seating and a few chairs and café tables with a Diedrich roaster smack in the middle; they roast organic, single origin coffees in-house.

Baked goods come from ABC, and they offer a variety of coffee options from cold brew to pour-overs with Clever drippers.

Diedrich roaster inside Yo el Rey Roasting Roasted coffees for retail sale, and Clever drippers, at Yo el Rey Roasting

Using a two-group manual lever Astoria machine, they offered an espresso shot from a single origin organic Sumatran — which is a little bit of a bold choice for a smaller town like Calistoga. For example, we could not find such a thing offered retail in Portland, OR, given their obsession with Ethiopian shots supplemented by the occasional Guatemalan or Colombian origin.

The shot had a limited aroma, some strong smoke that hits the olfactory palate quickly, and a medium brown crema of decent heft but still scant on quantity. There was a sharp brightness to the cup with some molasses sweetness and a flavor of dark baking chocolate and spices.

Although the flavors were not in balance and it was clearly a single origin, it emphasized multiple bands of the flavor spectrum. Interesting and good, to say the least. Served in colorful China ceramic cups.

Read the review of Yo el Rey Roasting in Calistoga, CA.

Yo el Rey Roasting's lever Astoria machine and coffee menu The Yo el Rey Roasting espresso

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