Yesterday Public Radio International’s (PRI) The World aired a broadcast on the Italian espresso: Espresso | PRI’s The World. While every news outlet in America was regurgitating Starbucks‘ publicity over their token three-hour store closure for employee training, reporter David Leveille took a different approach by interviewing the art of the espresso from a distinctly Italian perspective.
(David Leveille tried to contact me for an interview for this story yesterday morning — he was particularly interested because this blog regularly cites the Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia. But alas, that day job thing kept me from getting back to him in time for his deadline.)
The radio story gets a few details wrong — for example, a proper espresso is produced with near-boiling water, not steam as reported in the story. But the story outlines how Italian baristas “perfect their craft over the period of years, not hours”. It even includes an interview with the head barista at Sant’Eustachio il caffè, who is as comically arrogant and opaque about their methods and materials as you’d expect from this beloved café. (There’s something about Europeans and the ceremony of the safely guarded culinary secret, such as the Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon.)
Occasionally this Web site can be the source of a real life story, and the story of Caffè Mokabar is a good one. For a little background, after a couple weeks of espresso research in Piemonte, Italy last October, we were most duly impressed with Caffè Mokabar among all the coffee roasters we encountered. So when I wanted an authentic regional import to serve with a Piemontese meal my wife was planning for the private supper club she operates in the city, I scoured the Internet for Caffè Mokabar…but to no avail. Back then (unlike now) they didn’t even have a public Web site. So I settled on a U.S. distributor of Caffè Costadoro that I found.
Not long after, a comment appeared on this blog from Andrea Bertolino, Marketing Manager at Caffè Mokabar and grandson of company founder, Ermenegildo Bertolino. We later connected over e-mail and exchanged our mutual appreciations for great coffee — and immediately discovered that we were both are rabid fans of the Torino-based soccer club, Juventus F.C.. (In fact, Andrea descends a long family line of season-ticket-holding juventini.)
Andrea then introduced me over e-mail to his childhood friend from the ‘hood, Roberto Cauda, who was swinging by SF as part of his travels to a Las Vegas technical conference and could bring me a stash of Caffè Mokabar — which is unavailable in the U.S. However, there was one catch. Roberto was born an avid Torino F.C. fan, a granata, the cross-city rivals who would love nothing more than to see Juventus burnt to the ground in flames if not for the fact that both clubs have shared Torino’s Stadio Olimpico (i.e., 2006 Olympic Stadium) for the past couple of seasons (and for many, many years prior to 1990).
For a little context, a lifelong friendship with an inherent football (soccer) rivalry like that is not far off from the Montagues and Capulets of nearby Shakespearean Verona fame. It’s ten times worse than the 49ers vs. Raiders fan rivalry. And just before our October travels to Piemonte, Juventus played Torino at the Stadio Olimpico for the first leg of the season’s Derby della Mole — which was spectacularly won by Juventus with a last-minute thriller of a goal by David Trezeguet that had me jumping on my sofa at home (but also ruing that I didn’t schedule my trip for a week earlier so I could attend the match).
Last month I met Roberto at SF’s Grand Hyatt, and Roberto unloaded a kilo and a half of precious Caffè Mokabar on me. And upon seeing me in my Juventus jacket (of course I had to wear it, as much as Andrea wished he could have witnessed that), Roberto made it clear under no uncertain terms that no word nor photographic evidence of himself fraternizing with a guy in a Juventus jacket could ever come back to Italy. (So hopefully there are no granata reading this. 😉 )
In all seriousness, Roberto was great company and I showed him around town for the evening. Being on neutral turf in America, perhaps it’s a bit like the truce between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David. After all, I have good friends in Italy who are granata (“some of by best friends are…”). Though Roby shot me an e-mail upon returning to Malpensa afterwards: “P.S. you need a decent jacket :-)”.
Given my home use of Caffè Mokabar’s best arabica-only blend, did it compare favorably with my experiences in Piemonte? One rule of thumb we’ve long held is that virtually any locally roasted coffee can be superior to even the best imports — given the freshness difference. Illy is a perfect example of quality that is outstanding in Europe but yet doesn’t translate as well in the U.S. — once shipped for many days and thousands of miles to SF as an oxidizing roast. This no matter how much inert gas or other freshness measures the roasters might take.
However, we were surprised with how full its flavor was — and how much it held up, including its volume of crema it produces (the canary in the mine for coffee freshness), over time. Given that it was an all-arabica blend (as is Illy), it produced a surprising amount of crema and managed to have a rather well-rounded flavor profile. (The typical Italian coffee blend for espresso leverages some quality robusta for these merits.)
Andrea was quick to acknowledge Illy as a great quality product for anyone to aspire to. And he was quick to mention how it was worthy of its considerable expense — just as Mark Prince mentioned in comments here how Ernesto Illy would have wanted it that way. But price even aside, I’d take this stuff over Illy beans in a heartbeat every time.
The coffee holds up to a finer grind well. I tightened up my Mazzer Mini on it without the grinds “gumming up” together in the portafilter. Part of that is certainly due to the more modest roast depth of the blend. And as far as the flavor of the blend goes, that’s completely subjective — many people simply cannot stand the flavor of Lavazza, for example, regardless of freshness. But there are a few blends that really “wow” me in flavor even after the freshness fades, and this is one of them.
Caffè Mokabar needs a distributor in the U.S. — so if we don’t pick that job up ourselves, you’ll at least have us as customers. Because unfortunately we’re all out! A big thanks to Roberto, Andrea, and the Bertolino family for underwriting this post with great coffee carried thousands of miles to reach us. I’ll be thinking of them when the next Derby della Mole takes place this Tuesday.
Japanese consumer fads notoriously have about the same lifespan as mayflies — or a Rudi Giulliani presidential campaign, whichever comes shorter. However, here’s one we had not heard of before until seeing this in today’s The Daily Yomiuri: Newly harvested coffee beans attracting attentions : Arts Weekend : Features : DAILY YOMIURI ONLINE (The Daily Yomiuri).
Japanese coffee consumption habits are vastly different from Western ones. It’s not just street coffee in a can or the rare siphon bar either. Instant coffee is still rampant, and decaf doesn’t even exist here. For those with higher standards, they do have fashionable, pricey coffee bars called kissaten that ceremoniously select and grind fine beans for you … and then boil the living crap out of it. However, some of Japan’s coffee elites have the habit of buying up small packages of boutique beans from around the world, and this latest consumer trend suggests a growing preference for the “freshness” of early harvest beans.
Coffee cherries (and the beans they contain) are an annual crop — though there are exceptions of some growing regions having both a main crop and a fly crop (a smaller, interim crop between the prime harvests). The harvesting period for coffee depends on the region, climate, and, well, labor, and it can vary between three to six months (or year-round, as in the odd case of aged Indonesian coffees). While it’s not as critical as the freshness of roasted beans, green coffee bean freshness is important. But we haven’t heard much about the qualities of early harvest beans being that much fresher tasting than late harvest, as long as shipping supports lots as they are harvested. But, hey — at least it’s not shark fin soup or whale bacon.
This just in from Italy: Putting EU Money to Good Use: Italian Scientists Unveil Coffee-Making Robot – International – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News. “A coffee-making robot?,” you ask? More than the specialized Swiss jobs we’ve talked about, we’re actually talking 1940’s Popular Mechanics/The Jetsons‘ Rosie … that kind of robot. The kind we’ve been promised for generations but only got lousy iPods instead.
OK, so it can only make instant coffee. (What kind of Italians are these people, anyway?!) Meaning: call Howard Schultz and call off next week’s barista retraining! We’ve got a solution for his Starbucks troubles.
Promising news for anyone who takes the gamble of ordering prepared coffee in restaurants: the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) has recently announced a partnership with Durham, NC’s Counter Culture Coffee to develop a coffee curriculum: newsobserver.com | Coffee partnership forms. (Press release from last week.)
Unlike the closer-to-home CCA (California Culinary Academy) — which has made overtures to become the “Draw Tippy the Turtle” of cooking schools by reportedly whoring itself out to every Food TV watcher/wannabe chef with a checking account — the CIA is held in the highest esteem among America’s top culinary pros. We still feel that many notable chefs suffer a kind of hubris: that demonstrating a mastery in cuisine naturally confers an equivalent expertise with anything put into your mouth (i.e., coffee — let’s keep it clean here, folks!). The fact that the CIA is giving it serious treatment is a real step forward given how far coffee quality standards at restaurants have to improve.
Now we’ve expressed our ambivalence over some of Counter Culture’s Fair-Trade-club-to-the-head marketing, even if their heart is in the right place. (And the next simpleton who says that an argument against Fair Trade is an argument for poverty should be clubbed in the head.) We have even questioned their habit of shoehorning “coffee cupping” into some perverse wine-tasting proxy; even Peet’s has the sense to offer “Comparative Tastings” instead. But by all accounts, they sure do know their beans. Unfortunately they didn’t exist when I lived in Durham briefly back in 1991. (Time to hit my Linden Terrace crew up on my ghettro for a kilo, yo.)
It’s a rather snarky press release, but we confess to being amused by it: Coffee Klatch Roasting Celebrates Starbucks Store Closures With Free Coffee for Everyone.
These days, Howard Schultz’s return to the CEO post at Starbucks has resembled nothing short of a panicked man caught on a runaway bulldozer, pulling every lever and knob he can find to steer the thing before it careens off a cliff. Last week, Starbucks announced that they were going to temporarily close some 7,100 cafés nationwide for three hours — to retrain some 135,000 in-store employees and people who oversee the stores.
Hopefully it’s to teach them what a proper espresso should really taste like. However, as San Dimas’ Coffee Klatch owner, Mike Perry, pointed out in his press release, “I’m not sure why it’s going to take them 3 hours to learn how to press a button.” Touché. We first met Mike at the 2006 Western Regional Barista Competition, and he knows good coffee. (His daughter, Heather, won that competition as well as last year’s U.S. Barista Championship.)
Hitting a company when it’s down smacks of a little schadenfreude, no matter how big the company. Starbucks did popularize better coffee in this country more than anyone else, even if today they are a lot like Mikhael Gorbachev‘s relevance to Russian governance after perestroika. But if Howard Schultz were to take our advice for improving the espresso standards at Starbucks, and if he were truly serious about his commitment to quality, we would only close about 6,900 of those 7,100 cafés — but never reopen them.
Brisbane, Australia’s Courier-Mail ran an article today reviewing espresso drinks at various cafés in Brisbane’s James Street Markets: Fertile ground for battle of baristas | The Courier-Mail. They rated the flat whites at five cafés on a 10-point scale.
For those unfamiliar with the flat white, it isn’t just Oceania’s lingo for a (caffè) “latte” — the way the British say “biscuit” to the American “cookie”. The flat white is mostly steamed milk, but it has a higher ratio of coffee than a typical caffè latte (but much less than a cappuccino). And unlike either an American caffè latte or cappuccino, it has a minimal layer of milk foam — even less so than the Italian cappuccino or caffè latte.
Aussies and Kiwis love the stuff, and they frequently lament the lack of good examples of the drink away from the Southern Cross. (They also seem to have an odd preoccupation with latte art, but that may just be our observation.) The flat white is generally too much milk for our general tastes (it’s more milk than coffee, after all), but it’s definitely a step up from America’s preoccupation with the gargantuan cappuccino.
Curiously enough, that Aussies and Kiwis have cultures deeply rooted in quality espresso, and no brewed coffee history to speak of, was once a source of (legitimate) pride. Now these cultural histories are something of an impediment for appreciating some of the outstanding, single estate coffees that have been coming out in recent years. As much as we love our espresso, it’s just not the best way to experience many of the subtle floral and fruity notes (coffee is a fruit, after all) that these coffees express under different brewing methods.
“Mystery” solved. As one of our readers commented on a previous post, Starbucks recently purchased two $11,000 Clover brewers for who knows what unholy purposes. However, today Bloomberg reported that Starbucks is testing them in at least one of their Seattle retail stores: Bloomberg.com: Exclusive – Starbucks Tests $2.50 Premium Coffee to Boost Sales.
Between this and recent news of their new “dollar days” promotion, you really do have to wonder if their recent corporate shake-up included replacing their executive VP of corporate strategy with a Magic 8-ball. But whereas the $1 bottomless cup of coffee strategy seems aligned with Starbucks’ continued downmarket spiral, the $2.50 Clover-brewed coffee experiment is quite an anomaly.
There’s been a lot of media coverage and squawk over coffee brewing technology these days. But a big reason why we’re even talking about brewing technology is because the coffee itself is making it relevant. We can use siphon bars and Clovers and notice the difference in our cups because of vast improvements in bean sourcing (Cup of Excellence coffees, etc.) and a more rigorous commitment to quality roasting and to keeping the inventory of the roasted beans as fresh as possible. Without the advancements made in the bean, the roast, and its freshness, the whole exercise of these high-end brewing machines is rather pointless.
Thus it’s not clear that Starbucks even comprehends any of this. Starbucks still sources their beans from mammoth-sized suppliers (to ensure consistency and an appropriate volume to supply their over 15,000 cafés) and uses roasts that they do not dare date stamp. Even Starbucks’ “Black Apron Exclusives” beans aren’t held to the standards that most Clover-using cafés have. This makes Starbucks’ use of the Clover a bit like playing AM talk radio through a $30,000 sound system. What’s the point?
After a decade of relentless focus on growth at all costs, Starbucks is clearly experimenting with quality and other long-ignored factors in the hopes of finding something that sticks with consumers — to revive their flagging brand. We still haven’t ruled out the possibility of Starbucks re-launching some of their cafés as “Starbucks Select” (think “Target Greatland”, etc.) to allow them to focus more on quality at some of their cafés and help buoy the impression of quality at the rest.
Philz Coffee presents CoffeeRatings.com with something of a dilemma. Things were a little more straightforward when Philz offered espresso — the basic yardstick for all the ratings on this site. And the 18th St. Philz (since closed) rated among the worst 10% espresso purveyors in the entire city. It practically takes effort to be that bad.
Now owner Phil Jaber may have gotten into a business dispute that shut down this original 18th St. location, but he seemed to get wise in not even attempting to make espresso anymore. Well, legitimate espresso, that is. More on that technicality below. But given the recent attention paid to high-end brewed coffee in S.F., the loyalists of Philz Army whom e-mail us regularly to ask what we think of Philz, and the fact that this site is called CoffeeRatings.com and not EspressoRatings.com, Philz is a local force that cannot be ignored.
Philz is also a cult. Now we don’t mean to imply that they’re a branch of Scientology, and that S.F. coffee lovers should expect to find Tom Cruise lounging at one of their cafés in a black turtleneck, spouting off how Philz coffee drinkers are the only people capable of saving the world. But it’s a cult in the same vein you’d find for In-N-Out Burger (which we find to be only slightly less revolting fast food) or even Krispy Kreme donuts a few years back.
For one, wild-eyed people hanging out within 100 feet of a Philz will approach you at random and tell you how you must stop in and have the best coffee you’ve ever had. And once you’re inside, you’ll typically be greeted by extremely friendly staff — so much so, it can be a bit scary and off-putting if you’re not used to total strangers coming on that thick. Phil Jaber himself makes no mistake that he’s out to make a coffee convert of you.
Once inside, at first you might appreciate the wide array of coffee varieties available for you to sample. But upon closer inspection, you’ll discover that all their coffee blends are laden with adjectives and yet lack any descriptive nouns. It’s as if Phil fancies himself as the Willie Wonka of coffee; his blend names have more in common with scented candles than with any recognizable geographic region, bean varietal, farming estate, or roasting style.
But that’s also perhaps some of his appeal to his loyalists: all those nouns represent a bothersome, scientifically-precise pretense about coffee — whereas adjectives are egalitarian, universally approachable, and can be appreciated as art unencumbered by facts. (I once asked Phil’s son and Philz co-owner, Jacob Jaber, if I could “buy a noun”. He had no clue what was in what blend.)
The Philz location in China Basin (201 Berry St., at 4th St.; 415.975.3847; M-F 6am-9pm; Sa-Su 6am-7pm) opened in early 2007. It’s a large corner space filled with leather sofas and chairs with tall windows facing the new Muni T-line. Besides filter coffee, they also sell pastries, brown paper bags of roasted coffee, and even replicas of Phil’s fedora (that says a lot right there).
To get as close as I could to ordering an espresso here, I ordered #20 on their menu of blends: “Phil’z Handmade Espresso.” It is espresso in name only. Like all the other coffee here, the beans are pulled from plastic bins, ground to order in BUNN equipment, and brewed with hot water passed through a paper filter. Calling that “espresso” is akin to cracking an egg on a plate and calling it an “omelet”. (Never mind that many S.F. establishments serve espresso that poorly looks and tastes like filter coffee.)
However, Philz does produce a very good cup of filter coffee. If I were rating it as an espresso, it would rate about a 4/10. But it’s not espresso. As filter coffee, I’d rate it an 8 — better than all but a few filter coffee options in the city. It had a smooth body and a bit of lively flavor with spices.
So what makes Philz coffee that good? You are paying a serious premium ($2.50 for a small cup of filter coffee). I’ve purchased beans from Philz before (their Heavenly Blend). But when I brewed them at home, I didn’t find them to be any better or worse than most anything you could buy from local roasters in the area. Thus what seems to set Philz apart is that they grind to order, they brew single servings on the spot, and the brewed coffee isn’t left sitting on a burner or even in a thermos.
Another big plus is that they offer a great variety of bean options. With filter coffee, you can get by with carrying a wider inventory of roasted beans. Espresso is far more sensitive to the freshness of the roast and thus inventory turnover is crucial.
Interestingly enough, all their roasts are blends. This in an era where we read about the “death of the coffee blend”. Yet some people go for single malt scotches, some like a blended Johnny Walker; there’s nothing wrong with either one of those choices if done well.
So while we’ve ruled out Philz as an espresso non-starter, and hence inappropriate for the CoffeeRatings.com reviews database, their filter coffee is quite good. But is “quite good” worthy of a cult following?
Once again, I don’t see Phil Jaber as any more notable than his Sunset roasting contemporaries: legendary, friendly neighborhood “loners” such as Alvin Azadkhanian of Alvin’s and Henry Kalebjian of House of Coffee. Phil does a bit more to ensure the freshness and variety of his filter coffee, but with Alvin and Henry you at least have the opportunity to learn something about coffee — and your own likes and dislikes. Yet even the most rabid Blue Bottle addicts we know don’t prowl the streets like zombies after fresh brains, uncontrollably frothing at the mouth about how Philz must infect you too. (Though many Blue Bottleheads do seem to have an unhealthy, singular fixation with their stuff — and are incapable of considering other great area roasters.)
Perhaps a number of Philz loyalists don’t like espresso (or, as is often the case, never had someone make them a proper one). When it comes to quality coffee, espresso drinks — and their profit margins — still dominate the retail coffee landscape. Even some of the best espresso bars in the city give short shrift to their filter coffee. (And all those espresso drinks/milkshakes have names that are just too damn prissy.)
Or perhaps it’s a revelation coffee — the analogue to the revelation espresso we often talk about. Through Philz, many customers first realize what flavor and freshness can do when your coffee isn’t left burning on a BUNN warmer for hours after being made with stale, pre-ground coffee. Date abusive boyfriends or girlfriends all your life, and you too might be ready to marry the first person who doesn’t take a swing at you on the first date.
And there is a reactionary element, where Philz appeals as a sort of anti-Starbucks or anti-Tully’s: local, with a local personality, and not mass produced. But perhaps most of all, it comes down to Phil Jaber himself: a uniquely qualified coffee showman and huckster. A cult of personality.
What will those wacky Swiss think up next? Apparently, it’s an espresso-tasting machine: A machine with a taste-for espresso.
Yes, it’s the latest invention from the people who brought us yodeling and clandestine overseas bank accounts. But with the Swiss, it’s not all good stuff. They have also brought us brain-dead, monkey-operated, superautomated espresso machines — such as those manufactured by Franke, Nespresso, the Schaerer. (The latter of which is responsible for the dreaded Verismo, part of a secret Swiss plot to bring about the downfall of Starbucks.)
So the nation that has built robots to do everything from stacking wheels of cheese to pumping out sickly cups of espresso has turned its attention to espresso tasting. (More sophisticated coffee industry robots that also wear hoodies and bike messenger bags, collect tatts, and listen to Cat Power on iPods are apparently still in the works.)
The machine operates by analyzing gases released by a heated espresso sample. By evaluating some of the over 1,500 aromatic and flavor compounds in a brewed espresso, the developers hope to replace a lot of the human profiling that still goes on in coffee production. A study on the effectiveness of the device, which is rumored to be nearly as accurate as a panel of trained human espresso tasters, is planned for publication in the March issue of Analytical Chemistry.
The coffee industry still relies heavily on human senses for evaluating what makes a good cup. While some day a Swiss-made, espresso-tasting robot may put CoffeeRatings.com out of business, I was also struck by something James Freeman told me yesterday at his new Blue Bottle Cafe. He took a moment to sample his siphon bar coffee after serving it — noting how he was impressed with how the bartenders at his neighborhood Nopa often sample their cocktails from the ends of stirring straws as a way to keep tabs on the resulting product.
Technology can go a long way towards modeling the physical world. But until coffee is served by robots for robots, chances are that some things just can’t be replaced without the human touch.