April 2008

Monthly Archive

Hawaii (Big Island) Coffee & Espresso

Posted by on 26 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Before we start reviewing the espresso in India, it’s about time we wrap things up on our recent coffee excursion to Hawaii’s Big Island. Hawaii is the only coffee-growing state of the Union (as they say: sorry, Puerto Rico is a territory), which makes it a uniquely American place to both sample the local espresso and visit coffee farms. Hawaii also gives us the opportunity to bore you with vacation photos, which we will spread liberally throughout this post.

Scenery around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park The Halema'uma'u Crater, inside Kilauea Crater

Hawaii's Pu'u O'o Crater - hold your breath Lava meets the sea above Hawaii by helicopter

The last time we were on the Big Island, Hurricane Katrina was unfolding its tragedy around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. While it made for riveting television news drama, things back in the mainland U.S. seem so far away from here that it might as well have been on the moon.

But what also gives you a sense of being on the moon are some of the locals. Besides the Polynesian and European immigrants to the area from hundreds of years ago, and besides the throngs of ankle-free tourists from the mainland, Hawaii seems to have attracted residents in the past few decades of some of the more…unusual mainland castoffs. Many haole Hawaiian residents look like contestants (refugees?) from 1970s game shows like “Matchgame ’75” or “Password” who fled the set and used their meager winnings as down payments on run-down Hawaiian condos. (You can recognize them by their leathery, over-tanned, sea-turtle-like skin — sporting hairstyles not seen since the original “Brady Bunch” filmed on these islands.)

Hawaiian lava flows from a helicopter - note the trees for scale The expanse of South Big Island

Where the Coffee Grows on Trees

Hawaii may be famous for its Kona estate coffees, but the much wetter, eastern side of the Big Island is also home to many fertile, less famous coffee farms that grow Puna, Ku’a, and Hamakua estate coffees (read our post on the Hilo Coffee Mill). What’s interesting is to contrast the differences terroir brings to the coffee, and the Big Island has enough variations in terroir to make you feel you’re on a Hawaiian beach, on a cattle ranch in Montana Big Sky country, in an Australian Eucalyptus forest, in a tropical rain forest, or on Himalayan foothills — all within an hour’s drive of each other.

Coffee trees in bloom on Greenwell Farms Fike Farms coffee estate

On Kona's Greenwell Farms Name your Greenwell Farms poison...

Visiting a couple of Kona coffee farms in March (Greenwell Farms and Fike Farms Coffee), the coffee trees were just starting to bloom between seasons. But you still can tour the washing, drying, processing, and production facilities as harvested cherries are brought in as imports. At farms set up for the coffee tourists, such as Greenwell Farms, you can sample many variations of the local product.

Coffee trees on Greenwell Farms Coffee cherries collected at Greenwell Farms

Coffee cherry pulp from wet processing Coffee undergoing sun drying at Greenwell Farms

Where Espresso Best Comes from Overseas

The Big Island has a lot to rightfully be proud of in their local coffee. Sure, some critics will say that they grow a great product but not for the expense. But sustainable coffee growing with sustainable wages by the local cost of living standard doesn’t come at a discount.

The ubiquitous espresso beverage bug has not passed over these islands. Unfortunately, the local pride in Hawaiian beans has lead to many cafés serving Hawaiian-only espresso blends. This is like visiting Italy or Australia for their French press coffee — the reverse side of the argument we made against a singular approach of coffee appreciation through the Clover brewer.

French press Kona coffee menu at Merriman's in Waimea Merriman's in Waimea puts their Kona coffee selections on display

French press Kona coffee menu at Alan Wong's Hualalai Grille at the Four Seasons resort What's Hawaii without luaus and Samoan fire dancing?

Here’s where we like to break from theme: the best espresso in the area is typically made with anything but Hawaiian beans, such as the espresso at the Hilo Coffee Mill. (Similarly, I may have had Don Ho and Polynesian drum songs on my mp3 player, but I inevitably listened most to the ear-damaging sounds of “Luau” by Drive Like Jehu.)

But sampling some of the local stuff in a French press can be sublime. Many of the better Big Island restaurants offer a coffee menu featuring Kona beans from various local estates. A French press of Harens Old Tree Estate at Merriman’s, for example, was one of the best coffee experience I’ve ever had. Soon afterwards I had memorized the Hawaiian phrase, “E ‘olu’olu ‘oe, makemake au i ka kope“, or “Please, I’d like some coffee”.

We conclude with a sampling of a few Big Island espresso ratings:

Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Café Pesto 308 Kamehameha Ave. Hilo, HI 4.70 6.20 5.450
Hilo Coffee Mill 17-995 Volcano Hwy. Mountain View, HI 7.50 7.80 7.650
Island Lava Java 75-5799 Ali’i Dr, Suite A1 Kailua-Kona, HI 6.90 7.00 6.950
Waimea Coffee Company 65-1279 Kawaihae Rd. #114 Kamuela, HI 6.90 7.80 7.350

Hawaii's Waipi'o Valley Hawaiian sunset


Coping with the growing cost of coffee

Posted by on 25 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Reading the papers, for many mainstream consumers, you’d think that the current economic slowdown marked the return of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. However, you could argue that we’ve witnessed the necessary bursting of the real estate bubble, the correction of stupid money that pumped up the sub-prime loan debacle, rising food prices that might finally bring Americans’ spending on food (as a percentage of income) in line with what the rest of the world has been paying (encouraging a better Farm Bill and better farming and health practices), and the potential end to our nation’s unalienable right to ridiculously cheap and subsidized gas and energy…and all the environmental waste and fallout that has resulted from it.

In short, a number of unsustainable systems might actually now be replaced by the sustainable. But to read some media representations of these economic changes, you’d think waves of Americans are now living their own private Grapes of Wrath, wailing over the loss of their daily double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato: Coping with the growing cost of coffee – Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, Starbucks, like any corporation with disappointing quarterly numbers, would be scapegoating unseasonable global warming if the economic climate wasn’t as convenient.

If anything, we see these economic winds of change as potentially positive for hardcore coffee lovers and those who serve them. For us, good coffee isn’t just a frivolous luxury item or status symbol — it’s a way of life. And high-quality products are typically recession-proof, whereas commodity products with an upscale veneer are frequently hammered and undermined by price wars.

Just read the L.A. Times article cited here: not one of the people interviewed who were cutting back on their coffee consumption came across as true coffee lovers. Rather, if they aren’t just psycho-chemical dependents (i.e., people who drink coffee for “utility” rather than “enjoyment”), they fit the profile of the masses caught up in the recent tidal wave of faux coffee drinks (i.e., people who really don’t like coffee, but who have been convinced with enough whipped cream, foamed milk, and vanilla syrup to believe that they do).

The coffee shops that have stood for quality, raised the bar, and sought to appeal to a smaller market of coffee devotees will largely come through these economic times relatively unscathed. We’re just not so sure about everyone who jumped on the coffee bandwagon after their frozen yogurt franchises failed in the 1990s — and the corporations who sold their coffee souls to virtually become frozen yogurt franchises.

'Can I have a double white mocha, pa? Can I?!'


Manly (Sydney) espresso bars: Bean there, done that

Posted by on 25 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Today’s Manly Daily (Sydney, Australia) reviewed a number of espresso bar chains in the area: The Manly Daily | Manly Local News. Manly residents pride themselves on being a little less glitzy but more down-to-earth than their beach rivals across the Sydney Harbour at Bondi. But like much of Sydney, they have a rich espresso culture — even if it includes a few chains and franchises.

What we particularly like is the qualitative descriptions of the coffee at the various chain cafés they visited. In fact, we wish more reviews of coffeehouses in the U.S. used language like this.


All in the Lavazza Family

Posted by on 21 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Yesterday’s Independent (London) interviewed Giuseppe Lavazza, the “crown prince of the world’s biggest independent coffee company” — a.k.a. Lavazza: The family that grew rich on the other black stuff – Business Analysis & Features, Business – The Independent.

The coffee story from Lavazza is that, at least in Italy, espresso is not a commodity but rather a true pleasure. “It’s like running a clothes boutique, where you choose certain clothes to give a look, philosophy and style. We do something similar with coffee,” said Mr. Lavazza. High concept indeed.

Like Starbucks, Lavazza has focused on building their brand through ownership more than partnership. Except in Lavazza’s case, they have funded these efforts by reinvesting profits rather than turning to the public stock market.

As noted in the article, Lavazza most recently acquired the Barista and Fresh & Honest coffee chains in India. Within a couple of weeks, yours truly will be in India to check out the local coffee scene for himself. We will be sure to report back.


Kansas City: Where to find the best coffee around campus

Posted by on 21 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

The University of Missouri, Kansas City published an article today on some of the better coffee options in KC: Where to find the best coffee around campus – Culture. Not surprisingly, the aforementioned Roasterie Café got the highest marks, followed by the Oak Street Coffee Shop.


(Old) news of the week; ”Coffee mania” floods Kyiv

Posted by on 11 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

What a strange newsweek it’s been in the coffee world. The best way to characterize it?: What’s old is suddenly new again.

Tuesday we had Starbucks’ latest cry for attention/help/suicide prevention with their mysterious “04.08.08”-on-a-lame-paper-cup campaign. Essentially, the publicity stunt announced the launch of their “new” Pike Place Roast and a “new” return to the old brown-and-white mermaid branding. Yet Starbucks’ Pike Place Roast is something that at least Seattle-area residents have been familiar with for years already, and their “new” branding campaign just underscores the delusions CEO Howard Schultz is having about turning back the clock — making him coffee’s Norma Desmond. (A much better Starbucks post this week also came from the past: the opening of the first Starbucks.)

Then in London on Wednesday, the ever-tiresome kopi luwak story again reared it’s ugly, old head, and hundreds of newspaper editors and bloggers fawned and giggled over it like they just discovered flatulence. What kind of a rock do you have to be living under to miss the first 37,000 times the story of this “new” coffee novelty gag was exhumed over the past ten years on the Internet? Odds are that it hasn’t yet dawned on these people that the 41st and the 43rd American presidents are actually different George Bushes who invaded Iraq. But we can almost forgive these waves of sophomoric, scatological snickers when compared with David Cooper at Peter Jones, who decided to brew Jamaican Blue Mountain as an espresso — which is a bit like driving a Lamborghini in an off-road 4×4 rally.

Not to be outdone, today McDonald’s announced “free latte Fridays” in Western Washington state. After nearly seven years of unqualified U.S. failures, McDonald’s is still trying to convince us that their McCafé concept is “new” and going to rock the world of “unsnobby” espresso lovers across the country.

Putting the “new” back in “news,” or: “Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1991”

So what to post this week that wasn’t some gimmick or publicity stunt retread? How about something truly new to discuss: the coffee scene in Kiev, Ukraine: UNIAN – ”Coffee mania” floods Kyiv.

The article, from the Ukrainian UNIAN news agency, notes the burgeoning coffee scene in the capital city — where coffee shops in the city center are now as little as 30 meters apart. But reading through their list and description of area coffee shops, we had flashbacks to the coffee house reviews in San Francisco from the late 1980s/early 1990s. Back then, it was enough just to mention that a café offered coffee — the rest was some rant about ambiance, where you could read Kant, and what food was on the menu.

But we suppose even that is cultural progress in a nation’s appreciation for good coffee; things could be a lot worse. Take Vietnam, for example. Today Vietnam’s leading coffee producer and exporter, Vinacafe Bien Hoa, announced that they have made the world’s largest cup of coffee: Vietnam makes world’s largest cup of coffee _English_Xinhua. Said “cup” apparently holds some 3,613 liters of coffee — or the equivalent of one horribly overextracted doppio shot of Vietnamese robusta espresso.

No word yet on whether Howard Schultz, not to be outdone, has purchased this massive cup of coffee for Starbucks’ next publicity stunt.

Journalists hard at work to mine the latest news stories...

UPDATE: Nov. 25, 2008
In the unclear-on-the-concept category, next month Bien Hoa Vinacoffee will once again pull the “largest cup of coffee in the world” publicity stunt: World’s largest coffee cup comes back for a refill – Vietnam Business Finance. But bizarrely, the cited article quotes the following:

In showing the world its largest cup of coffee, Vinacoffee wants to send a message about the quality and position of Vietnamese coffee, said Nguyen Thanh Tung, the marketing manager of Bien Hoa Vinacoffee.

So Bien Hoa Vinacoffee’s logic here is that they convey a message of “quality” through an obscenely large swimming pool full of coffee. Perhaps the only way to top that is to make it “to-go” in a paper cup.


Downtown Los Angeles coffeehouses

Posted by on 05 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

The return of baseball also marks the return of a popular form of that “North vs. South” rivalry — with San Franciscans channeling their hate for L.A. through the sport, and L.A. being, well, mostly oblivious. Last weekend, we witnessed that rivalry expressed through espresso — with San Francisco’s Chris Baca edging out the formidable competition from the Southland. But the likes of Silverlake’s Intelligentsia and barista champs like San Dimas’ Heather Perry are the exception to the rule: like New York City, Los Angeles has historically been a coffee wasteland.

Which is what attracted us to a recent “find that right coffeehouse for you” article on the coffeehouses in downtown Los Angeles: News Item in Downtown Los Angeles – Coffee Anyone?. Sure, it’s an old school coffeehouse piece — of a style harkening back to the day when coffeehouse reviews only told you about what you wanted to see and how you wanted to be seen while drinking the stuff, and nobody dared talk about the quality of what came in the cup. But in L.A. things are slower to catch on.

More “export” than “import”

Los Angeles has successfully exported its culture and lifestyle around the world. However, L.A.’s execution at importing culture and trying to make it their own has frequently been a Hollywood bust (L.A. Kings hockey, anyone?). Although convertibles, bathing suits, and breast implants have all had limited success here, “coffee culture” fits L.A. about as well as palm-tree-lined skating rinks at the mall. Or trying get anywhere on foot.

For example, take Coffee Klatch, home of two-time and reigning U.S. Barista Champ, Heather Perry. For a coffeehouse as good as you could once find in the region, Coffee Klatch is somehat famous for offering overflowing cappuccinos that you’d typically find served in suburban shopping malls (to “cater to local tastes” and stay in business). The café itself is a relatively dingy location in a town, San Dimas, most famously known as the “center of the universe” in the 1989 film, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Stepping into its donut-shop-like environment, we had to resist the urge to strike a pose and yell, “Wyld Stallyns!” while playing air guitar.

Future Southland barista competitors discuss their presentation techniques for the judges:

Talking the talk

But back to the article, the author mentions a few local, independent cafés. They include Figueroa Corridor-based Café Corsa, where owner Rick Weiche comically parrots back every modern quality coffee cliché in the book (“third wave“, “$11,000” Clovers, the ever-popular wine analogy). Following Café Corsa, the article covers Fourth Street’s Lost Souls, who features coffee-blended drinks with names that sound more like 1970s Blaxploitation films (“Soul Cooler”, “Chocolate Monkey”, etc.).

Also mentioned is Groundwork, with two area locations, where owner Richard Karno hates the “third wave” moniker, but only for its perceived elitism (rather than our major beef: the principle of its very non-existence). And given that this is L.A., no mention of coffee culture would be complete without an obligatory nod to Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

UPDATE: April 6, 2008
Today Reuters published another one of those articles on how New York City coffee is slowly improving, even if it’s going kicking and screaming: Call that kawfee? New York embraces better brew | U.S. | Reuters.

However, the credibility-blowing part of the article is in one of its opening paragraphs: “The coffee palates of New Yorkers are closing in on those of their sophisticated West Coast counterparts in Los Angeles and Seattle.” Ummm, Los Angeles? Where U.S. barista champions are forced to pass off gigantic, frothy milkshakes as cappuccinos just to keep the doors open? If L.A.’s coffee culture is considered “sophisticated,” Britney Spears bent over a toilet must seem like Oscar Night®.

Our only rational explanations come down to Reuters’ New York bias. For one, L.A. is the only other American city that New Yorkers look upon with a sibling rivalry. For another, geography education in this country is so poor that many on the East Coast vaguely think that all of California is a suburb of L.A. — unaware that the distance between L.A. and San Francisco is the same between Vermont and Ohio. Having lived on the East Coast for a few years before moving here, I experienced firsthand the infamous, “Hey, we’re going to be in L.A. Tuesday, and we can drive up to meet you for lunch.”

UPDATE: July 1, 2008
L.A.’s local ABC affiliate published a story today on what they consider to be the seven best coffeehouses in town: abc7.com: Top 7 coffee houses in L.A. to get your caffeine fix 7/01/08. Included in the list are Lamill Coffee Boutique, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Urth Caffe, Joni’s Coffee Roasting Cafe, Zona Rosa Cafe, Caffe Luxxe, Novel Cafe, Kéan Coffee, Stell’s Coffee and Tea, and Latte 101. (Don’t ask how ABC-7 in L.A. counts to seven.)


Trip Report: Hilo Coffee Mill (Mountain View, HI)

Posted by on 03 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Machine

This coffee farm specializes in the under-appreciated (next to Kona) Hawaiian coffees on the East side of the Big Island (Puna, Ku’a, Hamakua) as well as Kona and coffee from the other islands (Maui Moka, Oahu Waialua, Kauai). They take in beans from many local farms for roasting or selling as greens, and they’re at the heart of a modern revival of East Hawaii beans.

In the late 1800s, some 6,000 acres of East Hawaiian rain forest were used to grow coffee until more profitable sugar cane took over at the turn of the 20th century. But since the last of the Big Island sugar plantations closed in the mid-1990s, East Hawaii coffee has been making a comeback.

The Hilo Coffee Mill grounds Hilo Coffee Mill's Deidrich roasters

In talking and sampling with the barista on duty (and Hilo Coffee Mill co-founder), Jeanette Baysa, we learned how nearby Puna coffees are generally less acidic than their world-famous Kona counterparts (also, FWIW, Hilo Coffee Mill only sells estate Kona). And given that the Hilo side of the island receives up to 300 inches of annual rainfall versus Kona’s typical 10 inches, there’s often a challenge in drying the coffee.

They have two 30-lb Diedrich roasters on site for roasting — choosing the Idaho-based manufacturer for a greater availability of parts and the ability to get equipment service “in a known language”.

Inside the Hilo Coffee Mill café Seating inside the Hilo Coffee Mill café

Also on site is a showroom that sports an espresso bar and a gift shop full of flavored coffees, teas, and the real deal in paper bags. Next to these rows of coffee and related accessories is a bar powered by a two-group Laranzato ME-2 machine. With it they produce some of the best espresso shots on the island.

It’s not just the fresh roasting, either. They spent nine months developing their espresso blend of 100% arabica beans from Central America, South America, and India (note: no Hawaiian coffees). The resulting shot has a darker brown, even crema that’s just a touch thin. Served tall in Laranzato-logo cups; it’s too tall, but yet it’s not overextracted. It has a pungent aroma and a more rounded and pungent flavor of a good espresso blend.

Read the review of Hilo Coffee Mill.

Hilo Coffee Mill's Laranzato The Hilo Coffee Mill espresso

UPDATE: May 6, 2011
Some three years later, the Los Angeles Times finally discovers the Hilo Coffee Mill: Hawaii: Coffee grown on the Big Island’s rainy side – latimes.com.


Whistling Dixie (Cups) for $1.65: Is that all there is?

Posted by on 01 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Quality Issues

One of the worst kept secrets on this site is our disdain for paper cups — and the places that insist upon them. Sure, some of our beef is with living in a disposable culture. But if you’re going to offer us some of the freshest coffee beans around, have it carefully roasted to perfection, serve it by skilled baristas, and then charge us $1.65 for the experience — why make us feel like we’re taking a pregnancy test down at the free clinic?

(We don’t even want to contemplate the possibility of espresso consumers that would willingly ask for such an experience. We’re clearly in denial here.)

Last Friday, The Daily Hype blog visually compared the experience of what you get when ordering “one espresso, please” at a typical San Francisco café (a Tully’s) and at a Swiss hotel (the Café Gourmet in Zürich): The Daily Hype: FOODHYPE: One Espresso, Please. The former looks like something spat out of a vending machine. The latter came with “a sterling silver tray with paper doilies, the cup, saucer and cream pitcher in china, a real spoon (also sterling silver), a sweet (coconut macaroons were on offer this day), and a small glass of water”.

Sure, in their respective nations, the latter experience will set you back three times as much as the “economy” version (though less if you tip). But let’s be serious. These days, a Swiss franc can buy most of Vermont, whereas the U.S. dollar won’t even get you a tourist photo taken with a yodeler in lederhosen.

Put the stick in the cup; a '+' means 'yes', a '-' means 'no' Butler with monocle sold separately

UPDATE: April 4, 2008
And if adults drinking coffee out of cups designed for the birthday parties of four-year-olds wasn’t bad enough, we may soon see cups suggestive of toddlers. According to KRON-4 news today, the planned installation of Peet’s Coffee kiosks in BART stations may make Bay Area adults regress even further to no-spill “sippy cups” for drinking their coffee: BART May Allow Adults to Drink Coffee on Trains from Sippy Cups. No word yet on whether drinking coffee out of baby bottles is the next developing trend.