March 2008

Monthly Archive

2008 Western Regional Barista Competition

Posted by on 30 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Local Brew, Quality Issues

With Spring upon us, that means it’s time for the 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC): ‘Attention to every detail’ at Berkeley barista contest – San Jose Mercury News. Starting this past Friday and ending today (check out their photo album), the 2008 WRBC performs a time-honored ritual to select a barista champ representing our region to send to the nationals, the U.S. Barista Championship (USBC), to be held in Minneapolis this May.

The WRBC is the biggest of the nation’s ten regionals and includes competitive baristas from California and Hawaii. This year they even drew in a couple of competitors from Seattle’s Zoka Coffee.

Entrance to the Gaia Arts Center - it looks a lot bigger than it is Heather Perry serves her espresso to the judges

But the big question was whether Coffee Klatch‘s (San Dimas, CA) Heather Perry, the WRBC’s “Iron Barista” of the past several years, could be unseated from her usual first place finish. Last year, Heather defended her WRBC title yet again, went on to win the 2007 U.S. Barista Championship (a feat she also accomplished in 2003), and then placed second in the 2007 World Barista Championship (to the UK’s James Hoffman).

But there was more at stake than just Heather’s streak. After spending a few years in Petaluma (where we reviewed the 2006 WRBC), this year’s WRBC moved to downtown Berkeley. And this year there were more seminars, training opportunities, and awards.

WRBC judges write down their scores and evaluations The WRBC's 'Kitchen Stadium'

Berkeley, we have a problem…

Many baristas and coffee fanatics in the Bay Area were enthusiastic about the WRBC’s choice of a new location and venue — including us. But when we attended today’s competition finals, we found both negatives as positives with the switch.

The good

  • Location, location, location — A block off of BART? In downtown Berkeley? In a town where Alfred Peet started his specialty bean and leaf business back in 1966?
  • An upper balcony, for viewing the competition from above — The Gaia Arts Center provided the public with more and better angles to view the competition.
  • Video projection — And where Gaia’s upper balcony views weren’t enough, the WRBC used video cameras and two projection screens to zoom in on the action — providing detailed, hands-level views to many attendees.
  • The Clover brewer at the 4th Machine — Introduced for the first time at the WRBC, just in time for Starbucks to buy them out, some area roasters featured Cup-of-Excellence-quality coffee. Maybe these machines have little place in a barista competition per se, but they have good company around coffee lovers everywhere.
  • Merchandising — Every event planner needs to raise a little cash to keep operations going and improve the event (especially at this price: free). The WRBC seems to have expanded beyond the T-shirt offerings and is now hawking espresso cups, cappuccino cups, tampers, shot glasses, etc. All of which seemed to be doing a brisk business at the entrance.

WRBC 2008 winners trophies The WRBC finally caught the merchandising bug

The noisy chaos above the competition at the 4th Machine The noisy chaos of cameras and judges surrounding the last finalist, Intelligentsia's Ryan Wilbur

The bad

  • Cramped facilities — Despite the location and the upper balcony, the facilities themselves seemed woefully inadequate. The space was too small, and crowds packed in the main competition area so much that some attendees had to fan themselves from the build-up of body heat. People crowded the stairs leading to the upper balcony just to find space for a better view.
  • No barrier between the competition area and the 4th Machine — “Kitchen stadium” (to use an Iron Chef term) was always at the mercy of the noise and distractions coming from all of the socializing by the 4th Machine — where attendees lined up for a free espresso, cappuccino, or Clover-brewed coffee. You couldn’t hear the baristas nor the emcees over the din.
  • No press box, no sponsored booths — The WRBC isn’t a conference. Or is it? There already are speakers, trainings, etc. But if this competition expects the media coverage it craves, it needs to think bigger. That will irritate many die-hard, DIY baristas as “too corporate” — the event still has the strong feel of their private, exclusive club or party. But coffee is also a business — it must decide to either continue to play coy with the real world, and favor their own anti-corporate Hipsters in its own private sandbox, or it has to reach out to play with and compete against the big boys in order to be taken more seriously.

Art shot atop the 4th Machine Barefoot's excellent cappuccino from the 4th Machine

Arno Holschuh of Blue Bottle Coffee behind the 4th Machine and Andy Newbom of Barefoot behind the Clover Barefoot's Andy Newbom finds a moment to read e-mail behind the Clover brewer

The ugly

  • Is there a steady cam in the house? — While the use of video projection was a plus, unfortunately very little of it was useful. Perhaps the cameramen had too many espresso shots from the 4th Machine to hold anything still, but we couldn’t help but feel we were watching The Blair Witch Project turned on to coffee.
  • The emcee — Maybe it’s just impossible to replicate the coffee street cred, public speaking skills, and infectious enthusiasm of Barefoot‘s Andy Newbom as when he emceed the 2006 WRBC. But emcee Sarah Allen was not terribly dynamic nor engaging in her role. Coincidentally, Ms. Allen is the editor of Barista Magazine — a magazine subscription we’ve recently let expire because, well, as much as we like the subject matter, we find the writing to be rather poor at best. (For example, most articles from the far corners of the world are activity logs rather than actual writing. With the exception of Ritual’s Gabe Boscana and a few others, good espresso artists aren’t always good writers. Public speaking isn’t far behind.)
  • The other emcee — While we did not have the privilege of hearing the other emcee for the event — Jana Oppenheimer, a regional sales manager for Franke — having a sales rep from Franke emcee a barista competition makes about as much sense as having an SF Muni official emcee a NASCAR event. La Marzocco GS/3 distrubution included. But given that Krups is once again sponsoring the USBC in May, this is one of the prices of going corporate while still keeping the event free to the public.

The 4th Machine line-up for Sunday: Finals Day Barefoot Roasters often shows up in the best threads

And the winner is…

Of the six finalists, half was a posse representing Intelligentsia‘s Silverlake (LA) location. But in the end, the “unthinkable” happened. The final results?:

  • 1st Place: Chris Baca of Ritual Coffee Roasters, SF
  • 2nd Place: Kyle Glanville of Intelligentsia, Silverlake
  • 3rd Place: Heather Perry of Coffee Klatch, San Dimas

Congratulations to all winners, all finalists, and all contestants…

The six 2008 WRBC finalists wait in anticipation for winners to be announced Chris Baca grabs his first place prize with relief, with runners up Kyle Glanville and Heather Perry to his right

UPDATE: April 4, 2008
Today NPR’s The California Report aired a radio segment on the 2008 WRBC, interviewing Kyle Glanville and Chris Baca: KQED | The California Report | Crowning the Best Barista.


Trip Report: Island Lava Java (Kailua-Kona, HI)

Posted by on 28 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

There are plenty of fans of this sunset café with limited breakfast, lunch, and even more limited dinner options. Several indoor and many patio tables overlook the ocean sunsets, but the main attraction here seems to be waking up with a view of the beach and a giant cinnamon roll. Many locals rave about the quality of the coffee here, but it’s hard to blame them given their lack of legitimate alternatives.

The coffee, mostly 100% Kona, once reflected the rest of the Big Island: they know how to grow it, but they couldn’t brew a proper espresso to save their lives from a lava flow. However, by 2008 they switched to Kona Coffee & Tea as their supplier and replaced their dual two-group La San Marco machines with a four-group La Marzocco Linea from Santa Cruz, CA’s Pacific Espresso.

Nothing like hot coffee in Hawaii humidity at Island Lava Java Machinery inside Island Lava Java

Where they once pulled oversized espresso shots with a minimal pale crema over a large volume of liquid, the shots are now properly short, potent, and dare we suggest: sweet. Even if there is a minimalist crema that’s mostly gone AWOL. Flavorwise, it has a sweet smokiness of some caramel and sweet tobacco — clearly, their espresso blend is (fortunately) not Hawaiian. A great improvement over their sad standards in 2005, even if their baked goods are still dry and doughy.

Read the updated review of Island Lava Java.

Closing time inside Island Lava Java It must be Hawaiian espresso at Island Lava Java


Corporate social responsibility and the socially irresponsible consumer

Posted by on 26 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade

According to today’s Globe and Mail (Toronto), Kraft’s Maxwell House coffee will soon be airing new Canadian television ads that may do less to promote their coffee than to assuage consumer guilt: Selling good feelings, one cup at a time. In short, the idea is for Maxwell House — who, when it comes to Third World exploitation, represents one of the (Big) four horsemen of the Fair Trade apocalypse — will promote how they’re spending only $19,000 to produce a TV ad that typically costs $245,000, passing the savings on to good causes in your name.

As we’ve mentioned before, for some reason coffee is a bizarre lightning rod for consumers with economic, social justice, and environmental causes. (Meanwhile, $29 DVD players made by cheap labor at river-polluting Chinese factories and clothing produced in Haitian and Honduran sweatshops fly off the racks at Wal-Mart with remarkable impunity.) At issue is the consumer marketing and public relations stunt of the new millennium known as corporate social responsibility, or CSR — sister to the “buy green” oxymoron.

In case you’ve been living under a pet rock, “buy green” has given us the perversely mixed messages of green shopping malls and ceramic coffee cups meant to look like environmentally unfriendly (and flavor-unfriendly) paper cups (what happened to “reduce” and “reuse”?). It’s also given us the bogus concept of carbon offsets, a falsely feel-good currency that modernizes the ad pitch “the more you buy, the more you save” by perpetuating the illusion that you can save the planet by consuming more stuff.

The failures of corporate social responsibility

While “buy green” capitalizes on environmental guilt as an unspoken part of a sales pitch, CSR — as so eloquently stated in a recent issue of The Economist — has three main objections: “that it encroaches on what should be the proper business of government; that CSR is a sideshow; and that it involves playing with other people’s money.”

In a legal system that recognizes the rights of corporations as no different from those of a living, breathing person, it’s easy to be cynical about the inherent social value of business — especially in this city. Producing useful and desirable goods and services for society at an attainable cost, employing people with paying jobs to do so, and raising living standards in the process is readily dismissed as a social good. (CSR devalues this more than it does anything else.) So we favor the overly simplistic view that all business is evil business.

At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical liberal arts college freshman/dufus who first discovers Ayn Rand and Objectivism, the problem arises when the when the business of business becomes something other than business — i.e., charitable giving. When that happens, who’s minding the store?

The failures of consumer social responsibility

Instead of telling us you’re going to donate $5 to save alcoholic chimps if we purchase your product, how about following lawful business practices to produce it, getting rid of the overhead of collecting and distributing this extra $5 a pop, charging $6 less for the product by focusing on efficiencies, and reasonably expecting me to get off of my lazy ass and put a check in the mail — funded by the savings and made out to the charity of my choice? (And if those business practices are unacceptable, don’t give the government a free pass but demand a universal law for everyone to follow — instead of supporting a system of under-the-table kickbacks from corporations.)

We can talk the talk about corporate social responsibility, but consumers hold the economic purse strings of this country. Where are consumer social responsibilities in this if, in a world defined by globalization, we effectively outsource our personal responsibility for charitable giving to corporations — some random, third party middleman — because we’re either too lazy or too cheap to do it ourselves?

When Starbucks and the Big Four coffee producers started jumping on the Fair Trade bandwagon — the very companies that were the original impetus for Fair Trade organizers — it arguably did more to discredit Fair Trade than to pump up the images of these corporations. So when the Big Four likes of Maxwell House start proudly wearing CSR badges on their chests, what will be its bigger impact on image: improvements to the Maxwell House brand, or devaluation of CSR itself?


Pursuit of the ‘God shot’ and the home espresso agnostic

Posted by on 25 Mar 2008 | Filed under:, Home Brew, Machine

Last week, the Guardian (UK) published an article on a home espresso enthusiast’s journey to obsession: In pursuit of the ‘God shot’ | Food and drink | Life and Health. Having reviewed almost 600 espresso shots in SF proper ourselves — most of them pretty bad — we’d like to believe we know a thing or two (a thing or two too many) about obsession. But the pursuit of the “God shot” — the unachievable attainment of the perfect espresso — is a common story among home espresso enthusiasts.

As highlighted in the article, the story typically starts with a “starter” espresso machine — the gateway drug. It then soon leads to machine upgrades, grinder upgrades, and tampers. Conversations with fellow home enthusiasts via online forums (what they were known as before “social networking” became the phrase du jour — and the beginning of the end of the Internet’s second bubble) lead to more areas for obsession, lost kitchen counter space, and financial ruin. These typically include home roasting, naked portafilters, and the point of no return: PIDs.

PIDs, or Proportional-Integral-Derivative devices, are a programmable digital control unit, relay, and a temperature probe combined into one. They enable owners to control the temperature of a boiler to one-tenth of a degree for maximum brewing precision. Now I may be an electrical engineer by way of college degree, but I’ve always seen the PID as the first step of the descent into espresso madness. The point of no return.

My home espresso setup for the past 5 years: a Gaggia G106 and Mazzer Mini

Fact is that my home machine is a “simple” manual Gaggia G106 — the modest, illegitimate sister to the author’s original La Pavoni Europiccola. And OK, I also own a Mazzer Mini (pre-doserless model). I’m obviously part way to madness there. But why haven’t I been lured by the siren song of the “God shot”?

I could easily improve my home espresso set up. But there’s this thing called the law of diminishing returns. There comes a point where after every few hundred dollars of investment, how much better does your home espresso really get? And what is the dividing line between simply “enjoying coffee” — and enjoying only something that requires the equipment and budget of a high-energy physics lab that recreates the first few microseconds of the universe’s Big Bang? (My apologies to James: I like that you own a $20,000 siphon bar — so I don’t have to!)

I’m sure I’m missing out on something by not taking my obsession further. But then there’s a lot else in life I could be missing out on too.


Trip Report: Waimea Coffee Company (Waimea, HI)

Posted by on 24 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew

In a red-painted colonial village center, Parker Square, next to the Waimea General Store, this café offers coffee and lunch items with an exceedingly laid-back, friendly staff. They have a few outdoor café tables for two in front and several indoor tables. And like any good coffee place on the Big Island, they offer French press specials of some of the island’s finest Kona and other coffees — plus some rather amazing coconut macaroons.

The Waimea Coffee Company gets their coffee from local estates who roast — or from Hilo Coffee Mill on the east side of the island (who themselves aggregate from local estates). But for their espresso, they offered a Hawaiian-only blend from nearby boutique roaster, Cass Coffee of Hilo.

This is typical of the coffee conundrum the Big Island represents: it grows some excellent (and highly priced) coffees, but much of it isn’t suitable for making a decent espresso. Island coffees often do not shine under the darker roasts that typically round out the body and the rest of the flavor profile of a solid espresso. But the stuff can be excellent in a French press or, in particular, as vacuum brewed (i.e., vac pot) coffee.

Entrance to the Waimea Coffee Company The Waimea Coffee Company menu

Using a two-group La Cimbali M30 Classic, the barista steps through some deliberately good tamping and thorough flushing with hot water. They pull espresso shots with a pale, even, slightly textured crema of a modest thickness. (The barista will drink the other half of a double shot if you order a single.)

The result is what you’d expect from an espresso made exclusively with Hawaiian beans: very bright and little body, heavy on the high notes, but no bass. Flavorwise, it is pungent with a flavor of some tobacco and a not unpleasant touch of ash. Served in classic brown Nuova Point generic knock-off cups.

Chatting it up with the local, friendly barista, we apparently learned of a local Hawaiian who travels the Big Island “tasting espresso like a sommelier”. We obviously need to hook up with this guy, but never encountered him in our travels.

Read the review of Waimea Coffee Company.

Inside the Waimea Coffee Company, with La Cimbali in the corner The Waimea Coffee Company espresso


Duane Sorenson of Portland’s Stumptown: Coffee’s benevolent Mr. Bean

Posted by on 23 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew

Tacoma’s The News Tribune published an unusually lengthy bio piece today on Stumptown Coffee Roasters owner and founder, Duane Sorenson: Coffee’s benevolent Mr. Bean | | Tacoma, WA. One of the big, early supporters of SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, Duane is quite a famous character in the industry.

Among many other things, the article mentions how he tends to recruit barista “stereotypes” in Portland (and beyond), how he provides his employees with health care and bus rides to the latest Slayer gig (though he’s an even bigger fan of AC/DC), how he works directly with coffee farmers (Direct Trade) rather than through certification middlemen such as Fair Trade, and even a little of the controversy surrounding Stumptown’s opening in Seattle last year.

You know, I don’t think I’ll be able to listen to the song “Raining Blood” quite the same way again…

Duane Sorenson of Portland's Stumptown Coffee at the 2006 WRBC

UPDATE: April 21, 2009
A similar bio piece ran in New York magazine over the past weekend, complete with expletives: How Stumptown’s Duane Sorenson Plans to Save New York From Inferior Coffee — New York Magazine.

And to quote Mr. Sorenson on his opinion of New York’s coffee scene, “This town is ridiculous.” Which was pretty much our assessment five years ago.


Starbucks buys Clover, grinds beans, and dumbs down their espresso machines even further

Posted by on 19 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

We really hate doing Starbucks posts if we don’t have to. After all, Starbucks hasn’t been relevant to quality espresso in over a decade. But if you’ve been following some of the Clover brewer posts here, you may be surprised to learn that Starbucks liked them enough to buy the company: Aroma comeback: Starbucks to start grinding coffee in stores. (More details here: Starbucks to Acquire The Coffee Equipment Company, Maker of the Clover –

OK, so the rest of the world seems to be “oohing” and “aahing” over news that Starbucks is returning to grinding beans fresh at their locations — reversing a move to pre-ground, packaged beans from 10 years ago. The media also seem curious about Starbucks’ announced replacement for their horrid Verismo machines: an even more dismal-sounding contraption from the same manufacturer, Swiss-based Thermoplan, called the Mastrena. (More on that in a minute.)

But the news most relevant to quality coffee is their purchase of the fledgling Coffee Equipment Company, makers of the (oft-cited-$11,000-a-pop) Clover brewer. This after Starbucks tried out the device in a couple of Seattle-area cafés for a couple months. For chocolate lovers, this is akin to Hershey’s buying out Scharffen Berger in 2005. (It’s entirely fitting that Starbucks announced Hershey’s as their chocolate partner earlier this month.)

Starbucks coffee in a Clover machine? Who buys a $30,000 sound system to listen to AM talk radio?

But back to the Mastrena, a device that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described as “a new machine designed to leave a smaller margin for error in pulling shots and steaming milk.” Apparently Starbucks will now be able to hire employees with less skills than trained monkeys — to produce consistently underwhelming and “safe” espresso beverages that taste like they were squirted out of a coin-operated vending machine.

“It’s an unbelievable tool that will provide us with the highest-quality, consistent shot of espresso that will be second to none,” said Starbucks’ chairman, Howard Schultz. However, we’re wondering if by “unbelievable tool” he meant the Mastrena…or if he was referring to himself.

UPDATE: March 20, 2008
If you envy those at The Coffee Equipment Company, who cashed in big with their Starbucks acquisition success, here’s a story for you from today’s Post-Intelligencer: Starbucks deal ‘dream come true’ for manufacturer of coffee maker.

UPDATE: March 26, 2008
The New York Times kicked the tires of a Clover machine in a Starbucks, bringing along George Howell of Acton, MA’s Terroir Coffee as their expert taster: Tasting the Future of Starbucks Coffee From a New Machine – New York Times. His findings? Most of the coffee Starbucks roasted for their Clover machines was over-roasted and destroyed the flavor, reducing the Clover to something no better than a $20 French press could produce with the same beans.

UPDATE: March 28, 2008
And here’s a version of the story today from the Associated Press, highlighting some of the independent cafés that are disowning their Clover machines in response to the buyout: Starbucks acquires pricey coffee maker … and the indies are upset –


Coffee Cups: Study Shows Touch Does Affect Flavor

Posted by on 17 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Quality Issues

We’ve long lamented over being served good coffee in ridiculous paper cups. But not everyone is coffee obsessive enough to review most of the espresso shots available in the city — and particularly the expectedly nasty ones. But today the Journal of Consumer Research published results from a study that asked, “Does coffee in a flimsy cup taste worse than coffee in a more substantial cup?”: Study Shows Touch Does Affect Flavor – Science – redOrbit. The answer to that question was “yes”. (Also: Does Touch Affect Flavor? Study Finds That How A Container Feels Can Affect Taste, Touch Can Trump Taste, According to New Retail Research from Rutgers School of Business.)

In a series of four experiments, the researchers discovered that people’s judgments of a drink’s taste and quality were influenced by the container in which it was served. The firmness of the cup was apparently a big indicator of quality and a better perceived taste, with people most sensitive to touch being influenced the most by the choice of cups.

To everyone who insists on serving their coffee in paper cups designed for the birthday parties of four-year-olds: stick that in your Solo and shake it. And to the cabal of inspirational quote spammers on the blogosphere: enough of that fake life yarn about so-called professors telling students that it’s the coffee, not the cup, that matters. Professors, of all people, are among the first to cite the research published in journals.
UPDATE: March 22, 2008
“That morning shot of espresso probably tastes better in an Italian, thick-walled cup than in a burn-your-fingers paper one,” opens this L.A. Times article on the same study: How’s that coffee feel? – Los Angeles Times.


Percolator Love: Or, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Posted by on 16 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Having a wife who runs her own private supper club (for which I am the front-of-the-house/”beverage guy”), I’ve been known to occasionally read the goings-on in the food world. This week, my wife introduced me to a post from a renowned food writer, Michael Ruhlman, who recently wrote about the virtues of percolator coffee: Percolator Love. It’s the thinking behind posts such as Mr. Ruhlman’s that are contributing to the Philistine state of coffee in American restaurants.

Mr. Ruhlman has made a culinary career out of “writing about food and the work of professional cooking,” including co-authoring The French Laundry Cookbook with Thomas Keller (himself representative of the odd food savant/coffee idiot phenomenon) and authoring The Making of a Chef, a narrative about life in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). (The CIA thankfully just announced a new coffee program to help dispel coffee quality ignorance among so many budding star chefs.) Combine this with a call this afternoon from Josh Sens, of San Francisco magazine — who asked for clarification on the issues with percolator coffee for his article deadline looming tomorrow — and the subject of percolator coffee seems worth a mention.

Mr. Ruhlman’s post laments the demise of the percolator, a 1940s and 1950s staple which fell out of favor once the prototype Mr. Coffee machine and the ensuing family of filter drip coffee machines rose to prominence in the 1970s. So why was the percolator brushed aside so abruptly? It wasn’t a manufacturing conspiracy — percolators were one of the greatest atrocities modern man ever committed upon good coffee. Coffee is cooking. It’s about using the right temperature, time, and pressure to extract the right flavors from the beans and to leave the nasty stuff behind.

And based on these merits, using a percolator on coffee is akin to baking a cake with a blow dryer. It’s surgery with a shovel. Take ground coffee; scald it with boiling water unevenly sprayed on some exposed grounds and not the rest; guess when the heating element kills itself off; hope for the best; serves 12.

Nostalgia makes some people long for the flavors and smells of their youth, but it also gets Communist Party members re-elected in Russia and sends divorcées back to bad marriages. While most home filter drip coffee machines even today suffer from temperature control problems (their #1 deficiency), they are still largely a step up from our culinary Dark Ages that were characterized by Potato Buds, instant Tang, instant coffee, and percolators.

Wanted for crimes against coffee: the GE percolator


Trieste, Italy cafés – A Shot In The Dark

Posted by on 13 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This past weekend, the Sunday Herald (Scotland) published an article on Trieste, Italy and some its great cafés: A Shot In The Dark (from Sunday Herald). (Trieste is also home to illycaffè and the namesake for the local legend, Caffé Trieste.) The article touches on Caffè Tommaseo, the historic Caffè San Marco, Caffè Degli Specchi, and even the Caffè Stella Polare.

As someone who commented on the article pointed out, Trieste may be known for the melancholy literary figures in its history, but Trieste is also a center for international scientific research. And it can have a uniquely sobering effect of class and distinction on even the most hardened jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing post-grad student: two former coworkers of mine in a past scientific life returned from an international conference in Trieste wearing collared shirts and ties to work. Which is about as shocking as finding an American barista wearing the same.

(And Sarah Alder: if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting for my invitation to the Università del caffè! 😉 )


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