June 2007

Monthly Archive

Art of making espresso lies in following the rules

Posted by on 29 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Quality Issues

It’s old news. We’ve repeated this story many times, and every news agency seems to run it when the editorial board gets desperate, but it bears repeating. Today Reuters published an article from Torino (the world’s espresso café motherland, in my book) on the rules for making a proper espresso: Art of making espresso lies in following the rules | Lifestyle | Reuters.

This time, these familiar rules were provided by Luca Mastantuoni, who trains foreign clients at Torino-based Lavazza. Most of those rules are violated with each American espresso on a regular basis.

How many rules does your local cafe' violate?


Coming to the SF Mint Plaza: Blue Bottle Café

Posted by on 27 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine

Thanks to a regular reader who tipped me off to yesterday’s gossip on tablehopper.com, a widely read local restaurant scene blog written by an aspiring Hedda Hopper: tablehopper newsletter — june 26. Apparently after a year of searching for just the right location, James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee found a home for his new café, to be named Blue Bottle Café (original, yes?) with plans to open around Halloween. It will be located near the upcoming Mint Plaza — just across Fifth St. from the San Francisco Centre shopping mall (sorry, Westfield, I just don’t buy the branded shopping mall concept).

According to the scuttlebutt, it will be a rather swanky space — complete with a full coffee service, swanky snackables, and “special coffees that will be made from some very special machines” that James wouldn’t divulge more about. Chances are he’s following Ritual Roaster‘s lead with a Clover brewer or two. There is a wild, outside chance he could go the way of Eton Tsuno before Café Organica sadly closed: bringing in a Kees van der Westen-designed Mirage or Mistral. But while it would sure impress in such a location, James comes off a bit too pragmatic to purchase one of those (let alone two!).

Also cited in the article was news of the closure of Philz Coffee on 18th St.. The reason for the closure? The business relationship at that Philz location apparently went as far south and sour as the espresso they served there.


Rival coffee cultures in Cairo

Posted by on 27 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

Starbucks Coffee has received a lot of press lately for its flagging stock price, with articles citing how it has oversaturated American markets (to the stereotypical point where there are three Starbucks within 750 ft. of each other in a Colorado strip mall). So it’s no wonder why they have looked overseas for growth — as all the fast food chains have done before them — in places with growing affluent middle classes such as China or India. This even includes Cairo, Egypt, where Starbucks opened its first shop in Africa: Rival coffee cultures in Cairo: Food-Travels.

In Egypt, coffee shops are traditionally known as ahwas. Historically, they have served an important role in social fabric of Egyptian life, providing a gathering place for conversation, backgammon, cheap coffee or mint tea, and the occasional shisha (or hookah — a smoking pipe filled with flavored tobacco). A modern coffee shop chain (and Egyptian Starbucks’ competitor) named Cilantro has taken root around Cairo — growing to some twenty shops there in the past six years. (Cilantro serves Illycaffè.)

And while the article states that “some fear the company will become the McDonald’s of coffee,” it’s far too late. Starbucks has been that for years now.

'Damn, you sure drink a lot of Lipton for a sawaq taxi.'


Trip Report: Martha & Bros. @ Pacific Heights

Posted by on 26 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

This is a fairly busy corner café on a busier intersection. This outlet in the Martha & Bros. chain has a few outdoor tables in front. Inside they have dark wood chairs and faux black marble café tables. The walls are covered in coffee accessories for sale: French presses, beans, etc.

Martha & Bros. humble Pacific Heights exterior Inside Martha & Bros. in Pacific Heights

Using a three-group Faema E91 Diplomat, they pull a short espresso shot with a medium brown layer of crema of limited thickness. It’s surprisingly not as ashy as some Martha & Bros. outlets can get, though it has a pungent, smoky flavor. Here the coffee menu only offers short shots of espresso for $2.

Read the review of Martha & Bros. in Pacific Heights.

The Pacific Heights Martha & Bros. espresso


Ignorant Tax Tip of the Day: Always order your coffee ‘to go’ in California

Posted by on 23 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

When grumbling over tax law conspiracies, some people get steamed over corporations that avoid paying U.S. taxes by incorporating in Bermuda. Others want to start a tax revolt because they might have to pay an extra dime to drink their coffee out of something other than a paper cup: Patterico’s Pontifications » Tax Tip of the Day: Always order your coffee ‘to go’ in California.

Of all the cafés I’ve visited in California, the reality is a lot more complex than the simplistic, “drink here: pay tax; take out: no tax.” Many charge sales tax when ordering “for here”. Others roll it into the price of the drink and won’t be bothered with pennies (and yet don’t offer a “tax discount” for those ordering “to go”). Others still seem to follow different sets of rules depending on who’s behind the register. As a rule, however, the prices cited on CoffeeRatings.com are the listed prices — and may or may not include additional taxes.

Regardless, I’ll gladly pay a premium to enjoy my coffee out of an “adult” cup — despite the conversations about incrementally taxing paper cups for their environmental impact. The extra dime is not only a minor deal for better service and experience, but it pales in comparison to the beverage charge differences you will find in France — as often clearly posted on their tarif des boissons, for example.

Comptoir or salle? That is the question in France. The answer: salle.


Confessions Of A Starbucks Barista

Posted by on 22 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Today’s Consumerist cited a “myth-busting and money-saving” Starbucks buyers guide from a veteran Starbucks barista named Jesse: Insiders: Confessions Of A Starbucks Barista – Consumerist. His advice? Save money by avoiding the Frappuccino® and some of the ridiculously large “Venti” espresso drinks.

He also cites a number of SCAA beverage standards. But he immediately imperils his credibility when he opens with:

Myth #1: Starbucks coffee tastes burnt.

While it’s true that Starbucks does tend to roast their beans a bit darker than most other coffee places, what you’re tasting isn’t actually ‘burnt.'”

Excuse me? All this time my taste buds have been duped by a myth? Given all the people who likewise say that Starbucks often tastes burnt (myself included), this must be the biggest case of mass hysteria ever orchestrated across the entire globe. Call Mike Wallace!

He then goes on to explain that coffee strength, or potency, is the cause of this “burnt” sensation. What the …?!?

Leave it to a Starbucks barista to confuse potency with “burnt”. A well-made espresso — i.e., those you can’t get at Starbucks — can have an intense, potent body with a consistency that borders on a syrupy reduction. And believe you me, it can be as sweet as candy and not “burnt”. The term “burnt” is more typically associated with ashiness and overextracted bitterness.

So let’s touch on a coffeeresearch.org article for a moment:

Why Does Coffee Taste Bitter?

Various coffee scientists have made the following observations concerning bitter coffee, which were presented in a review article by McCamey et al.:

  • The perceived bitter taste in the mouth from coffee is correlated to the extent of extraction. The extent of extraction is dependent upon the roast, the mineral content of the water, water temperature, time, grind size, and brewing procedure.

Before Starbucks baristas go passing off the “burnt” adjective on the philistine palates of consumers who haven’t had full-strength coffee before, how’s about extracting a proper espresso shot to begin with? What do you mean, “You can’t?” Oh, I forgot … those fancy superautomated Verismo machines with the water/coffee/pressure/timing extraction mix hardwired at the factory prevent you from doing anything of the kind.

No, to avoid “burnt,” don’t roast your beans to the namesake Charbucks level. (When visiting the guys down at Fresh Roast Systems , it was clear that the comparison Starbucks roasts practically flew off the Agtron scale.) And don’t overextract the coffee. Strength has nothing to do with it.

Apparently charcoal only tastes 'burnt' to the degree you add water.


Graffeo Coffee featured in National Geographic’s book “The 10 Best of Everything”

Posted by on 21 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Roasting

In a joint press release oddly issued today — about 15 months after the fact — SF’s own Graffeo coffee was featured in National Geographic‘s 2006 book, The 10 Best of Everything: ClickPress | Graffeo Coffee featured in National Geographic’s book “The 10 Best of Everything”. Also noted in the press release, Graffeo’s coffee is also “rated #1 by ZAGAT guide” — though I still have yet to see any signs of a ZAGAT guide to coffee.

Unfortunately the highest-rated place on CoffeeRatings.com that serves Graffeo is, surprisingly, Chow, a casual dining establishment in the Castro. Mama mia!

Graffeo: Simply the world's slowest PR flacks


Mill Valley: Cable car’s next stop – coffee

Posted by on 20 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

According to yesterday’s Marin Independent Journal, what looks like SF cable car No. 773 has been sitting along Redwood Highway in Mill Valley for some time. However, it’s no cable car — it’s a coffee kiosk that was custom built in Oregon to look like one, and it is destined to become the Mill Valley location of yet another Cable Car Coffee Co. drive-through coffee shop: Marin Independent Journal – Leslie Harlib’s Cuisine Scene: Cable car’s next stop – coffee. This Mill Valley location has been in planning for seven years.

The owners also own the cable car-shaped coffee kiosk at Hallidie Plaza (at Powell and Market Sts., pictured below), another kiosk in Vacaville, and locations in Yokohama, Japan and Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, they may as well sell hot water, given the coffee quality. But with their locations and tourist-ready branding, they apparently do a good business.

Shield your eyes and keep walking as you leave the Powell St. BART station...


Sydney: The Rocks Aroma Festival 2007

Posted by on 19 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

One of the better espresso-themed events the world over is Sydney’s annual Aroma Coffee Festival at The Rocks, which will take place this year on Sunday, July 22: The Rocks – Sydney – Things to do in Sydney at The Rocks > What’s On at The Rocks > Aroma_Festival. OK, so they’ve since fattened up (diluted?) this event to include tea, spices, and chocolate. But it’s a great place to sample the local coffee for $1 (AUS) at the locus of Sydney coffee history. Plus good music, great scenery… (OK, so it’s winter Down Under.)

Whaddya mean, 'It's winter down here'?


Cup of Coffee or New Turbo?

Posted by on 18 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

Several years ago, the Dr. Phil wannabes of personal finance were rubbing elbow patches at their annual convention. Between nibbles of the mealy hotel melon salad, they all agreed to start putting the word out that small daily expenses add up to big bucks. It was genius: personal finance gurus everywhere had found their theme of the year! The only piece missing?: what daily expense to tell people to cut.

Then one Dr. Phil wannabe came late to the discussion with a paper Starbucks cup of coffee in hand. That’s it! Coffee! Even better, that superfancy gourmet coffee — especially when we all know that old, rusty can of Folger’s will do. And thus the public crusade to get rich by giving up coffee was born: Settle Down, Beavis: Cup of Coffee or New Turbo? – Jalopnik. There is even an online calculator to help you find how much money you’ll save by pouring hot water through a sock filled with sawdust instead of frivolously spending your money on palatable coffee.

The weight loss analogy

The logic behind this assertion is completely valid in isolation. But that’s just the problem: although it might elegantly solve a mathematical thought problem, reality is far more complex and interdependent. It’s the personal finance equivalent of my favorite physics joke punchline, “assume a spherical chicken” — which illustrates how a gross oversimplification might lead to seemingly useful results, but the entire exercise is pointless because it’s founded on false assumptions to begin with.

This “skip coffee, buy a house” myth is analogous to a lot of diet advice, since long-term weight loss is also founded upon the routine accumulation of small, daily habits. Skip a sweetened, 12-ounce can of soda a day, and at 355 calories a pop that amounts to 65,700 lost calories a year — or a loss of 18 pounds of body flab and fat each year. It’s common knowledge, and people are downing diet and reduced calorie sodas in ridiculous numbers. So why aren’t we a nation of supermodels? Instead, obesity rates have climbed to epidemic, record levels just as we’re drinking more diet soda than ever.

This spherical chicken drinks a six-pack of Diet Coke every day

As the wise Tom Vu once told us, “You want luxurious lifestyle like mine?”

The premise of coffee-aversion-based-riches is so ludicrous, I started thinking about similar strategies to save on daily expenses and make you rich. Take eating, for example. Americans are already too fat as it is. Why make the grocery stores rich when all you need for lunch is a trip down to Glide Memorial‘s soup line? And if you’re one of those fussy types who prefers fancy restaurant food, Dumpster diving behind your favorite restaurant can provide an all-you-can-eat smorgasborg of the daily menu — without the bill nor the fussy service. That alone should save you many more dollars each day than your get-rich-slow, cup-of-coffee plan.

Health care can be really expensive too. Why not drop the daily cost of health care, which can run hundreds of dollars each month, and rely instead on emergency room care like much of America’s uninsured? Start ordering the yacht catalogs now!

Or why should we always talk in the negative?…of giving up things to get rich? How about living life in the affirmative to become obscenely wealthy? Semi-weekly donations of blood plasma should put an extra $50 per week in your pocket — and you can buy a lotta lattes with that. And why stop there? — you could earn that much more each day by giving out sexual favors like George Michael at an I-5 rest stop bathroom!

Then you can drink in your tremendous wealth and success by blowing it all on a bad marriage to that Vegas stripper. (OK, so it sure seemed like a good idea at 3am after six or seventeen mojitos.) Just be sure to skip the coffee in divorce court…unless it’s free.

All this can be yours if you give up your coffee habit!


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