October 2008

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Caffe Acri (Tiburon, CA)

Posted by on 31 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Thankfully we’ve got something to report on this week that isn’t some idiot blogger — with a second-grade science education, mind you — telling us medical research suggests that coffee-drinking shrinks women’s breasts. (And yet some people still think we’re making this medical infotainment thing up…)

Obligatory tourist shot leaving the Tiburon pier on the ferry Last weekend we caught a Tiburon ferry on the final day of its summer schedule. Passing by the charred remains of Angel Island, we made a stop at Tiburon’s Caffe Acri.

Since 2003, this café and modest wine bar — near the Tiburon ferry pier — has served ubiquitous weekend bike riders and locals alike. A former Boudin Bakery & Cafe outlet, they have dark café tables indoors and, for people watching, they have plenty of outdoor seating under parasols on the corner out front.

No shirt, no shoes, no bike, no service at Caffe Acri Inside Caffe Acri, looking out over the front patio seating

Besides serving gelato, panini, and other Italian-themed edibles, here they serve espresso from a four-group, ornate, eagle-capped copper La Spaziale. (Yes, they actually make such a thing.) Unfortunately the espresso doesn’t look nearly as good as the machine they use to prepare it.

The staff here pulls shots of espresso with a faint, balding medium brown crema with a lighter body. It has a somewhat “funky” flavor of pungent spices, some caramel hints, and a slight medicinal edge. It’s tastes a little better than it looks — as it’s partially saved by the modest pour size.

Read the review of Caffe Acri.

Caffe Acri's copper and eagle-topped four-group La Spaziale The Caffe Acri espresso


Savor the Saveur of Coffee

Posted by on 24 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Quality Issues

In the words of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: 'He's got the flavor' Saveur is one among many “gourmet” food, wine, and travel magazines (as much as we hate that hackneyed 80’s word) — but with a specific focus on international cuisines. “Saveur” being French for “flavor”. Now whether “Saveur Sav” would be a clock-and-beret-wearing member of France’s answer to Public Enemy is still up for debate. (Oui, garçon!) But the cover story for their latest (October ’08) issue is “The Breakfast Issue.” And while many of us will take issue that “coffee: it’s not just for breakfast anymore,” they feature a series of articles on coffee in the print magazine and as Web exclusives.

The main print article reviews nine different coffees from nine different specialty roasters, representing a rather broad spectrum of roasted coffee available for home brew: 9 Great Coffees – Saveur.com. And we sure do mean “broad”. It includes the usual suspects — the likes of Counter Culture, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and 49th Parallel. But there’s also the unorthodox choice of traditionalists Sant’Eustachio il caffè and even the “mass production” coffees of Green Mountain and Peet’s.

On one end of the spectrum they’ve got Newman’s Own Organics, and at the other end they’ve got Intelligentsia’s Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda (a batch of which we reviewed last year as roasted by Peet’s). Though to once again invoke the ever-tiresome wine analogy, we’ve noticed a trend where Esmeralda has become something of the Silver Oak cab of the coffee world: i.e., a great product, but one burdened with a status symbol brand name that people commonly latch on to when they know little else about the beverage. (Well, at least it isn’t kopi luwak.)

In Saveur.com’s online exclusives, they review an additional 14 coffees (More of Our Favorite Roasts – Saveur.com) and offer a coffee glossary (A Glossary of Coffee Terminology – Saveur.com). There’s even a brief interview/book promotion piece from Counter Cult member and Third Wave choir girl, Michaele Weissman: A Flawless Cup – Saveur.com.

Because we were inspired by the magazine title, and because it’s just too cool not to post on a Friday evening: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Beck “got the flavor!”


Coffee’s cutting edge … or just carnival barking?

Posted by on 18 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

This week we came across a curious video published by Voice of America:
VOA News – Seattle: Capital of Coffee Houses. If you wonder why something called “Voice of America” produces video, you’ll question that even more after viewing this parody of a 1980’s corporate training video. But the video is essentially a review of Seattle’s notable contributions to American coffee culture: from the good (David Schomer and Espresso Vivace) to the bad (lukewarm customer responses to Starbucks) to the bikini-clad barista.

But one point from the video really stood out for us. It came from an interview with Tatiana Becker — a UC Berkeley grad, 2008 USBC competitor, and co-owner of Seattle’s Trabant Coffee & Chai (voted “Best Coffee 2008” in the Seattle CitySearch.com reader’s poll — now three years running). In the video, Ms. Becker bridges her previous high-tech career to her new role of coffee shop owner, saying, “There’s always new advances being made as far as equipment and techniques go. So it’s really challenging to stay on the cutting edge of coffee.”

The “cutting edge” of coffee?!?

Why do people make futile attempts to convince us that they’ve reinvented good coffee? Good coffee is good coffee, and what makes good coffee really hasn’t changed all that much in over a century.

Sure, many more professionals have become much better at it — leaving it much less up to chance or accident. But the idea that coffee has a “cutting edge” smacks of all the consumer marketing gimmicks for “new” coffee, such as blending it with ginseng or yerba mate and every other attempt to fashion coffee as some sort of nuevo energy drink. If your coffee has multiple ingredients, or worse — if it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee. (This is the main reason why we find the specialty beverage portion of barista competitions to be the most creative but also the most irrelevant.)

And if you visit the Trabant Coffee & Chai Web site, you’ll find it littered with references to the term “spro” (short for “espresso”). Use of the faux-word spro is yet another contrived attempt to create something new out of what is essentially old and traditional. (That and it comes off like your dad trying to speak to you in hip-hop rhymes to feign street cred.)

Trabant Coffee: Spro me

A Clover is only as good as the beans you put in it

As for coffee equipment and techniques, look no further than the Clover brewer B-roll in Ms. Becker’s video segment. How much of the Clover is truly a coffee innovation, and how much of it is just mere kitchen gadgetry? A $300 Williams-Sonoma electronic garlic peeler might seem revolutionary, but it holds little merit when you can still produce the same results with the broad side of a chef’s knife. More often, an innovation in gadgetry is really just an innovation in spending opportunities. Is it any wonder why the Clover is known more for its cited $11,000 price tag than for any of the coffee you can produce with it?

We even argue that a Clover doesn’t produce coffee any better than an 1840’s-technology vacuum pot. What’s largely been lost among all the Clover brewer talk is that they are pointless without the appropriate bean sourcing: a Clover is only as good as the beans you put in it. And if you can’t taste it in the end product, we argue that it’s rather superfluous to the cause of good coffee.

You can call it cutting edge or Third Wave, you can call it spro, you can showcase a Clover brewer, and, in Ms. Becker’s case, you can even break out the halter tops at barista competitions for your sorority girl routine. But all of that does nothing to convince us that your coffee is somehow brand new or innovative. None of that is even about the coffee. Instead, these are all more akin to carnival barking — as if to convince us that Aunt Flo’s menopause makes her the Bearded Lady worthy of a $10 admission.

If coffee has a cutting edge, it couldn’t slice butter on a hot summer’s day.


Colombian coffee icon defies Starbucks doldrums

Posted by on 17 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Home Brew

We know plenty of stories about coffee retailers and roasters going to origin, but here’s a story of origin coming here instead: Colombian coffee icon defies Starbucks doldrums – International Herald Tribune. As reported in today’s International Herald Tribune, the Bogota-based chain, Juan Valdez Cafe, is owned by thousands of Colombia coffee-growing shareholders.

We’ve written prior about Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers and their Juan Valdez-branded cafés. What’s also notable is that they are continuing their expansion plans — plans that seem to run counter to Starbucks‘ public lament that the current economy is a coffee retailer’s economic Dust Bowl.

Thanks to Starbucks, rumors of the demise of the quality coffee shop have been greatly exaggerated. And it’s not just the opinion of one Juan Valdez. Also in today’s news from London’s Evening Standard, reports that consumers aren’t retreating to the more economical options of coffee’s more recent Dark Ages: Coffee shop boom time as chains defy crunch | News. And just as some readers here suggested, consumers aren’t getting their preferred coffee fix by playing home barista more often either.


Starbucks: Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

Posted by on 16 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Quality Issues, Starbucks

One way to learn how important coffee is to some people is to sit in a jury room under bailiff lock & key without coffee for 7 1/2 hours. This pretty much describes my current existence at the aforementioned SF Glamour Slammer. I’m tempted to sneak in my own personal French press — if not for facing down 11 other irritable jurors who might use me to re-enact violent criminal conduct. Purely for demonstration purposes, and not necessarily to get at my coffee, of course. After all, there will be 11 witnesses.

Living in a claustrophobic box where the walls block out all possible physical and electronic contact with the outside world hasn’t afforded many opportunities to read, let alone report on, some of the latest coffee news. But this one blog post oddity from The Weekly Standard caught our eye today: More Bad News for Starbucks – The Weekly Standard.

Starbucks and the Death of the Shotglass

Originally reported as a rumor by one of our readers last February (and later verified in The Washington Post), Starbucks management (read: CEO Howard Schultz) decided to introduce shotglasses in the production of their espresso drinks. Their idea was to add a little showmanship for the customer by introducing a practice we frowned upon as “anti-quality”.

Tell me why this palid dreck needed a shotglass to begin with again? The Weekly Standard‘s post suggests the practice was a quality measure. But they now cite Starbucks Gossip (a site that seems about as pointless as “Wal-Mart Gossip”) with a new corporate directive: cut out the extra five seconds of showmanship, the extra labor is costing us. The blog post interprets this shift as a move further away from quality towards cost savings, saying, “The company has decided that the quality of its product isn’t what has hurt them. Instead, the new espresso regime is an admission that it’s the economic environment that is weighing on SBUX.”

While the cited reasoning is credible — even if a jury room full of deprived caffeine addicts is direct evidence for the definition of “recession proof” — the great irony here is that eliminating another pointless device used as a “middleman” in the delivery of an espresso drink actually improves the beverage. It’s one less heat sink; it’s one less step to manhandle the espresso’s crema. So it sounds that Starbucks is unwittingly making a move towards better espresso, and they don’t even realize it.

As if there was any question left that Starbucks wasn’t already bankrupt in the quality espresso department.


Di Ruocco family crafts coffee with care

Posted by on 09 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Roasting

Today’s San Jose Mercury News ran a nice, local puff news piece today on the Di Ruocco family, of Mr. Espresso fame: Di Ruocco family crafts coffee with care – San Jose Mercury News.

The fluffy article documents some of the background behind Carlo Di Ruocco, who founded Mr. Espresso over 30 years ago because he couldn’t find a decent espresso to drink in the area. (We can sympathize: it was bad enough just a decade ago.) Mr. Di Ruocco’s Mr. Espresso also became a licensed Fair Trade Certified roaster in 1999 — or more than seven years before whiny college students, who now militantly insist upon Fair Trade, even heard of the stuff. (So there.)

We last met Mr. Di Ruocco at the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Coffee Presidia tasting — at his son Luigi’s Coffee Bar. It’s great seeing local legends still very active in the area’s coffee community.


Digital City’s “The 21 Best Cups of Coffee in America”

Posted by on 02 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

To the uninitiated, CoffeeRatings.com might look more like a horse racing tip sheet than a coffee Web site. But there are very good reasons why we’ve gone through the effort to quantify things. Just look at the chaos that can ensue when you don’t follow a system nor a simple baseline set of evaluation criteria: The 21 Best Cups of Coffee in America – Digital City.

You may have forgotten about AOL ever since your computer could no longer accept their once-ubiquitous floppy disks, but they still exist. Digital City is the reheated leftovers of AOL’s stunted local directory efforts. Their article claims they “looked all over the country” for their coffee picks, but we really have to question how hard. After five years and over 600 reviews methodically scouring SF alone, we still admittedly have plenty of gaps in our review coverage.

You don’t know Jack

The article goes on to say, “Twenty-one is an arbitrary number, but the picks are not.” Or are they? Topping their list is Jack’s Stir Brew from the coffee backwaters of New York City.

Jack’s is no stranger to coffee accolades. They rated as the 2005 “Best Cup of Coffee” in NYC, according to New York Magazine. Of course, this is the same New York Magazine that admitted less than a year ago that they never before considered how to rank coffee bars. And as recently as 2002, New York Magazine claimed that the rather pedestrian espresso-peddler and 1990’s holdover, Espresso Madison (formerly at 33 East 68th Street), made the best espresso in NYC. Hence we liken them to the Grammy Awards: sometimes they get it right, but only about a decade after their picks became irrelevant.

However, our biggest suspicion surrounding Jack’s ranking on this AOL best-of list concerns Jack’s location: a 10-minute, three-city-block walk from AOL’s new Manhattan headquarters. In other words: AOL corporate HQ’s satellite meeting place and bathrooms. Let’s just say that when AOL merged with Time-Warner, it probably didn’t help their odds of winning a Pulitzer for investigative reporting.

Also on the list is New Orleans’ famous Cafe du Monde. OK, who doesn’t like strong coffee, beignets, people watching, and catching a glimpse of the #82 City Bus Named Desire? But why is one of the 21 best cups of coffee in America cut with chicory to historically keep the costs down? How much cheap Vietnamese robusta do we need to get on this list?

Shout out to the home team

As if to one-up New York Magazine and prove that AOL, too, can be decades behind the times, San Francisco makes this list at #9 with that 1950’s institution, Caffé Trieste. Now we like Caffé Trieste — that isn’t in question. But why is a place that doesn’t even rank in San Francisco’s 21 best (it’s currently tied for #54 on CoffeeRatings.com) make the cut for the nation’s 21 best?

Stranger still was the only other SF entry in the list: at #14 is Haight-Ashbury’s Coffee to the People (currently tied for #278 on CoffeeRatings.com). AOL’s City Guide has oddly always been partial to this café, so one might presume they must have offices around the corner.

Sure, it’s organic and fair trade and all — but should that be the sole criteria upon which a “best cup of coffee in America” be judged? At Coffee to the People, you can buy politics. You can even drink politics. But when it comes to taste, let us assure you: politics tastes like flat, careless drip coffee with a scant crema trying to disguise itself as espresso. And that’s a cause we cannot support.

Digital City, what were you saying about “arbitrary” again?