March 2006

Monthly Archive

icWales – We love… Espresso

Posted by on 31 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

In today’s Western Mail from Wales, author Marcus Leroux espouses the virtues of the “diminutive espresso” above all other forms of coffee, whether adulterated with milk foam or not: icWales – We love… Espresso.

He looks at Wales and the UK coffee scene and decides, quite rightfully, the single espresso is the king of coffee, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Not a lot to learn from this article — other than I could not agree with him more.


Move Over Starbucks: Israel’s “Upside Down” Coffee Saga

Posted by on 31 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

In the April 6 edition of Zeek (“a Jewish journal of thought and culture”), author Esther Solomon writes a brief overview of espresso consumption in Israel: Zeek | Move Over Starbucks: Israel’s “Upside Down” Coffee Saga | Esther Solomon.

Included in her article:

  • Israeli tastes have evolved from the Frappuccino-like café barad to the more recent café hafuch, meaning ‘upside-down coffee’ in Hebrew, which is a general shorthand for all espresso and frothed milk-based drinks
  • Israeli café society: its roots, how it has become the target of suicide bombers, and how café owners have taken to adding security surcharges
  • Israel looked to Italy, not the U.S., when their consumer espresso obsession took off in the 1990s. So when Starbucks arrived with much fanfare in 2001, the public derided its coffee as “mop water”. Starbucks lost millions, their aggressive growth plans for Israel were deemed a complete failure, and Starbucks ceased Israeli operations by 2003.
  • A few Israeli coffee chains are seeking growth overseas, including Arcaffe‘s branch in Paris and plans from Cafeneto and Ilan’s

A Macchiato By Any Other Name

Posted by on 30 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Some people I know refuse to “speak Starbucks”. Sure, they have coffee beverages that come in a venti size — even if that literally means “twenty” in Italian (and not as in “twenty trips to the bathroom”). And if you order a latte in Italy, you would get a glass of milk — its literal translation, and not the caffè latte most Americans have come to expect.

But I draw the line at the macchiato — a fine espresso beverage that seems to be greatly misunderstood, underappreciated, and all the more coopted by treacherous impostors. So here’s my dilemma. It’s the dilemma of many an espresso lover I know who, while they want a little steamed milk, actually like the taste of coffee and don’t need a 44-ounce Super Big Gulp® to prove it.

Ordering a European-style cappuccino in North America is a lot harder than it sounds. There’s a continental obsession with large sizes of anything we ingest; the concept of drinking something for taste but not also to quench your thirst is about as American as a sold out David Hasselhoff concert. And since there’s only so much espresso you can drink before you need defibrillator paddles, most coffee places make up the volume with milk.

So if you want something close to a European-style cappuccino, many I know order a macchiato — which, from Italian, literally means “marked” or “spotted” (as with milk). But then I made the horrendous mistake of first walking into a Blenz in downtown Vancouver a few years back and innocently ordering a “macchiato.” In return, I was handed a milkshake-sized beverage in a plastic tub, coated with whipped cream and a lattice-work of caramel.

At first I thought I lost something in translation from American English to the Canadian mother tongue. But then I started to notice similar mutant beverages sold under the name “macchiato” in Seattle, then Northern California, etc. Oh sure, one sure workaround is to order a caffè macchato. (Technically, there is the latte macchiato — milk spotted with coffee.) But that’s just one more foothold of coffee lovers surrendered to the linguistic gymnastics of Corporate Coffee Consumption, Inc.

The macchiato gone all wrong: a window ad in an SF Starbucks, aka the Marble Mocha Macchiato Ritual Roasters' macchiati: an exception to the rule


Push Your Own Damn Button

Posted by on 30 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends

Everyone’s favorite bathroom read, Automatic Merchandiser online, today reported on the growing trend of point-of-sale kiosks in coffee shops: Caribou Coffee Installs Point Of Sale Kiosks In Stores To Service Customers Faster @ Vending Market Watch News at (Also here.)

Yes, Caribou Coffee, that Minneapolis, MN-based chain that’s taking over the Midwestern U.S. by following a path paved by Starbucks, has been experimenting with more automated ways to collect and process customer coffee orders more quickly. Can the return of the Automat be far behind?

Or let’s even take things a step further. We already have the likes of Starbucks resorting to a global strategy of idiot-proof push button Verismo machines to maintain their store growth with an ever larger, ever less-skilled workforce. Is it hard to envision a world where the customer bypasses the barista entirely — pushing their own button on a touch-screen kiosk to order their double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato?

As milk frothing also becomes more automated, some major chains could eliminate the barista entirely — directing customers towards a self-service model. Like the soda fountains at some fast food chains and movie theaters, it’s not just gas stations anymore. “Here’s your cup… have at it.”

Of course, what’s motivating this is the drive to streamline sales and customer turnover. Undoubtedly, there will always be a market for better service and higher quality, but volume-based businesses are largely going to compete through their optimization of product delivery.

A related article in today’s Salt Lake Tribune documented the case of what happens when Starbucks expats, tired of the obsessive focus on sales, start their own coffee shop with an emphasis on the customer in mind … and then a Starbucks moves within 30 feet of their new shop: Coffee & Cram.

UPDATE: Aug. 1, 2013
Seven years later, we haven’t really advanced this idea any: Espresso-Brewing Robots Could Replace Artisan Baristas – PSFK. The only thing different is that the people behind Briggo Coffee Haus are pretending like nobody ever thought of it before (let alone years before they even existed).


Trip Report: Cafe Algiers

Posted by on 29 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This small Middle Eastern café near the TransBay Terminal (technically in the Bechtel Building) is easy to overlook. But that’s where I hope Web sites like this one come in.

In addition to their espresso bar, they have a full-service deli … and they also offer one of the few decent falafel sandwiches in the area. A family owned & operated establishment, it’s a friendly and even sometimes fun place — with an Algerian owner at the register who likes to play a variety of international music choices, from Italian opera to Dean Martin. They also adhere to informal Mediterranean hours — sometimes chasing you out if you don’t vacate before prayers at 12:45pm on Fridays.

Neon beckons in front of Cafe Algiers Cafe Algiers' owner subbing for Zino behind the machine

In 2005, they replaced their two-group La San Marco with a La Spaziale (you may even notice their review laminated and posted on the rear of the machine). But despite the equipment change, the results haven’t changed much over the years. They are quite consistent in their espresso preparation, and they serve it with a rich, deep brown, thick crema. It has a flavor of smoke, pepper, and a honey-like sweetness with a nice, long, smooth aftertaste.

Zino, their master barista, shows his expert skills: Cafe Algiers cleans the groups, preheats cups, and takes all the necessary time to tamp and pull a proper shot to technical specs. The owner — who fills in when Zino isn’t around — tends to pull his shots a bit longer and the resulting cup can have a lighter-colored crema. This is the source of any inconsistency at this establishment, but it’s a solid cup regardless. No push-button espresso here: once flanked by two Starbucks on the same block, they have to be good to survive. (And given that the Starbucks at the corner of Beale & Mission Sts. shut down in early 2006, they’re winning this war.) They serve it in tall, Caffè Umbria-branded IPA cups.

Read the updated review.

Cafe Algiers espresso - a bit of crema, but it's normally darker's review, laminated and prominently displayed on their La Spaziale


Sant’Eustachio il caffè

Posted by on 28 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

The Sunday New York Times Travel section featured an article on Rome and the flavors of Rome in particular: The Bounty of Rome – New York Times. Its author, Mimi Sheraton, opens the article with the thoughts that first come to her mind when someone says “Rome”: Sant’Eustachio il caffè (but of course!). It’s worth pausing a moment to discuss arguably one of my favorite examples of espresso the world over. (That and I am envious of friends who are travelling to Rome next month.)

Entrance to Sant'Eustachio il caffè When you see this atop a church, you've come to the right place

In a city where espresso takes on a level of social importance that Seattlites could only dream of, this café has been pulling some of Rome’s finest espresso shots since 1938. Although I’ve been travelling to Rome since 1995, I didn’t have my first espresso at this café until 2002 — and it was something of a life changer. Sant’Eustachio il caffè was a seminal influence on this site and on my espresso obsession in general.

Its co-owner, Roberto Ricci (the other co-owner is his brother, Raimondo), can be cold and aloof to stranieri (foreigners). His café is accustomed to well-heeled locals coming in for the customary Italian two-minute social/business exchange that I like to call the “Ti offro un caffè” (i.e., “Let me offer you a coffee”). Roberto’s many patrons include the nearby staff of the Italian Parliament and the Headquarters of the Carabinieiri (a national Italian police force that, despite their Armani uniforms, suffers a national pasttime of making them the butt of many a joke).

It took almost a week of ordering the Gran Caffè (espresso) at Bar Sant’Eustachio before Roberto warmed up to me (a tourista!). (It also took me a few attempts at ordering to finally get the espresso I wanted without the customary sugar.) While the baristas at Sant’Eustachio shield their handiwork behind their large espresso machines as if guarding an industry secret to their world-renowned crema, Roberto ultimately shared with me his philosophy on coffee production and espresso preparation — some of which can be found in a booklet titled Io sono caffè, or the truly modest, “I am coffee”.

After a week in Rome with daily visits to Roberto’s café (OK, several times a day), I left with a much greater knowledge about quality espresso … plus a nice gift of his chocolate-covered espresso beans. (Roberto does seem to possess a softer side that he will never confess to having.)

Inside Sant'Eustachio il caffè Sant'Eustachio il caffè's infamous concoction

Of course, Sant’Eustachio il caffè is not the only place for fantastic espresso in town. One legendary nearby example being Tazza d’Oro, which has its own loyal followers who frequently balk at the parliamentary prices Sant’Eustachio charges. One of these days I hope to explore more of Rome’s seven hills and beyond for the great espresso in town — though the challenge will be forgoing the temptation of something as great as Sant’Eustachio or Tazza d’Oro.

However, friends on the outskirts of Rome — beyond the walls of the Centro Storico — tell me that Lavazza Blue is all the rage these days at “yuppie” cafés everywhere. Apparently even Italians can’t escape the marketing hype of large chains.

UPDATE: May 30. 2009
TIME magazine online published a short photo series from Sant’Eustachio il caffè: Espresso Italiano – Photo Essays – TIME. Unfortunately, they published it in association with another ridiculous piece on Starbucks and McDonald’s — where they regurgitate the bogus conventional wisdom that Starbucks’ ills are purely based on macroeconomics.

That said, the Visigoths are slowly invading and burning down Rome again in their own way. Some Rome cafés today now advertise “caffè to go” in door etchings, along with images of coffee served in lidded paper cups. Perhaps it’s time that Rome needs its own modern Savonarola to root out the coffee infidels.


Taste test: The little joes take on Starbucks

Posted by on 27 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Somehow the editors of today’s USA TODAY let this article slip by without a pie chart: – Taste test: The little joes take on Starbucks. Somebody is getting a pink slip.

But in this article, USA TODAY food and wine critic Jerry Shriver takes a very approach to reviewing the “premium” drip coffee at some of the major chains. Over a period of 10 days, he visited Manhattan outlets of McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks to review their coffee.

His findings? He noted that all the coffee he tasted was pretty good — with noticeable improvements in bean quality and flavor at these less “elitist” coffee shops. However, he felt consistency remains a problem for some of them.

Compare my ratings for various area Starbucks and you’ll see just how much a coffee chain can provide consistent branding far more readily than it can provide consistently good coffee.


Jamaica’s Coffee Makers Perk Up, Fighting Off Knockoffs and a Storm

Posted by on 26 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Beans

Today’s Los Angeles Times reports on the current state of the elite Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee bean in light of Hurricane Ivan damage and the insurgence of counterfeiters: Jamaica’s Coffee Makers Perk Up, Fighting Off Knockoffs and a Storm – Los Angeles Times.

Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee carries a lot of name brand recognition — though in part just because of its high market price. It is a great “bright” island-style coffee. Though, in this writer’s opinion, it is ridiculously overpriced. But what is interesting to read is their problem of brand protectionism, as it suggests the need to define it as a geographic indication in World Trade Organization speak. (Think “Champagne”, “Tequila”, or “Roquefort”.)

Taking a page from wine marketing, will consumers pay a premium for the certified terroir of a specific coffee’s production? Several years ago I didn’t think twice about shelling out $9 for the priviledge of a French press pot of Jamaican Blue Mountain at a Santa Barbara restaurant (Sage & Onion, to be precise). So why not?


Charlotte, NC: Coffee Shop Perks

Posted by on 26 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Today’s Charlotte Observer compared the merits of four major coffee shop chains in town: Charlotte Observer | 03/26/2006 | Coffee Shop Perks. Included in the comparison were Minneapolis, MN-based Caribou Coffee, local coffee roaster Dilworth Coffeehouse, recent Starbucks acquisition and newcomer to the area Seattle’s Best Coffee, and Starbucks Coffee itself.

The article reveals what this writer considers the classic shortcomings of café critiques: it’s all about the atmosphere, the muffins, and the retail opportunities — and not nearly enough about the coffee. Of what passes for coffee reviews, they pretty much say that they all taste great — even if what they review could be better categorized as coffee milkshakes. But that’s undoubtedly what the locals primarily order and expect from their espresso bars.


Trip Report: Tassili Caffé

Posted by on 24 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Errantly called ‘Tasili Coffee’ in most phone books and directories, this is a business lunch spot tucked away in the Hills Plaza brick office park, within a courtyard in the shadow of the Bay Bridge featuring a statue of the old Hills Bros. Coffee trademark: the turbaned Arab drinking coffee. Yes, this location was once the world’s home to Hills Bros. coffee — who introduced vacuum packed coffee in tins in 1900 … and a vacuum packing plant along the SF waterfront in 1926. (A landmark for Folgers Coffee exists right around the corner at Spear and Howard Sts.)

This café serves sandwiches, lavash, salads, and fine espresso. There isn’t much in the way of seating, however, between one indoor table and a few small ones outdoors in the plaza.

Entrance to Cafe Tassili, aka Tassili Caffé Laid Chellihi working the La Spaziale

The owner, Laid Chellihi, pays careful attention to espresso preparation. His skills, and his café, are generally two undiscovered secrets in SF’s short list of good espresso. Back in 2003, he used a two-group La Pavoni machine that he has since replaced with a two-group La Spaziale. No matter, he manages to produce some of the most consistently good (albeit not top tier) espresso in the city. Talk about man over machine

Tassili Caffé espresso - in a cappuccino cup Hills Plaza courtyard with the Bay Bridge beyond

Laid pulls an espresso with a full, thick, and somewhat tall layer of medium-to-dark brown crema, and it has one of the sweetest aromas of any espresso I’ve had in SF. Served warm-to-hot with some faint grounds at the bottom of the cup. It has a relatively dense and bold flavor — a combination of tobacco and an herbal pungency, but with definite tastes of smoke, balsamic, and nutmeg. If it’s missing anything, it’s a touch of brightness on the high end of the flavor spectrum.

The pour is a little large — serving it to the rim in a tall and narrow IPA demitasse, built like a shotglass but with a Caffè Umbria logo representing the beans he uses. He sometimes serves it in larger Caffè Umbria cappuccino cups (a pet peeve of some), but the crema still manages to persist in its wide mouth.

Read the updated review.

Hills Plaza's most famous Hills Bros. resident; even the birds can't resist Nearby, Folgers' historical landmark building at Spear & Howard


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