February 2009

Monthly Archive

Pittsburgh newspaper devotes regular dining section to coffee

Posted by on 26 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

While San Francisco ponders life without its own newspaper, the Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette announced today that they are dedicating monthly editions of the paper’s dining section to be their new coffee section: The coffee’s on.

From the article:

It’s clear a growing number of Pittsburgh cafes are on the cutting edge of coffee and espresso, and, despite the treacherous economy, our coffee scene continues to thrive and expand.

While I’ve occasionally written about coffee in the food section, the dining section and in my Sunday column, “On The Menu,” the scope and number of developments demand greater and more focused coverage. Starting today, on the fourth Thursday of every month the dining section will become the coffee section. Each month, with the help of coffee professionals and passionate amateurs, I’ll explore a different topic in the wide, wondrous world of Pittsburgh coffee.

The Post-Gazette Web site also promises to publish a new weekly column that will “include listings about different varietal and origin coffees available at Pittsburgh cafes, as well as coffee cuppings and classes.”

Does this mean that coffee is finally going legit among the mainstream dining set? Hardly. Qualitative, let alone quantitative, reviews of coffee remain non-existent in the mainstream media. Furthermore, given that newspaper dining sections are dominated by restaurant coverage, the continued sad state of restaurant espresso doesn’t bode well either.

We can easily envision a short-lived newspaper series that quickly repeats itself with the same stories on single origin beans, barista competitions, latte art, cupping, and Q grading — much like the ubiquitous hand-on-mouse B-roll shot that plagued every me-too TV show about the World Wide Web during the late 1990s.

However, the Post-Gazette threatens that “the focus will be on the coffee.” So with that, we’ll leave you with this journalism platitude: only time will tell.

UPDATE: March 16, 2009
Sure enough, the Post-Gazette published an example of their weekly “The Buzz”: The Buzz: What’s new with coffee.


Trip Report Redux: Four Barrel Coffee (now roasting their own)

Posted by on 25 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Roasting

While revisiting Dynamo Donuts earlier this month, we quickly noted the bags of Four Barrel Coffee in the back. Like the Four Barrel Coffee mothership, Dynamo had been using Stumptown Hairbender to date — with rumors that they would switch over to Four Barrel once they got their roasting operations going. Four Barrel commenced their roasting operations earlier this year, and their Friendo Blendo roast had now made it to Dynamo Donuts.

Yet the results at Dynamo Donuts, while very good, were a bit of a disappointment compared to the Hairbender shots they previously pulled. Was it the coffee? The day’s barista? The wet February weather? To remove some of the espresso preparation variables from the equation, we recently revisited Four Barrel Coffee to find out what they were doing with their own roasts in place of Stumptown’s.

Recent Friendo Blendo shot at Dynamo Donuts Low-profile entrance to Four Barrel Coffee

It had been a few months since our last Four Barrel visit (and since our last Trip Report). Not much has changed inside — other than the roasting operations at the rear looked polished up. Also, there is new counterspace off to the left as you enter — where we found Four Barrel staff holding a cupping.

Of course, there is the same pair of Mistral machines, the four eBay-purchased boar’s heads, and a wall of roasted coffee for retail purchase. To further evaluate some of Four Barrel’s new roasts, we also opted to also buy some for home use — and encountered quite a bit of frustration.

The Single Origin Bubble

Four Barrel’s shelves were decked out with various single origin roasts from Guatemala, Panama, Ethiopia, El Salvador, etc. — but not even so much as a label indicating the existence of a sold-out blend (e.g., Friendo Blendo). Four Barrel certainly sells their Friendo Blendo blend directly to consumers, and the supplies on their shelves may have been starting to thin out (with three-day-old roast dates). But all single origins and no sign of a single blend? This struck us as frustrating on two levels.

At one level, over the past few years single origin coffees have become so overly faddish and trendy that we can see the eventual backlash forming like a tsunami on the horizon. Now we really do love a lot of single origin coffees. And sure, many coffee consumers still need to get the single origin thing out of their systems to educate their palates with the constituent parts. But the recent irrational exuberance over single origins, at the almost complete exclusion of any blends, is a bit myopic and far too limiting — especially when espresso is involved.

Which brings us to our second issue: we largely agree with Mark Prince’s (of CoffeeGeek.com fame) statement that, “I still have yet to meet a single origin coffee I’ve truly enjoyed as an espresso.” Here Four Barrel showcases some of the most exquisite espresso machines on the West Coast. Their coffee menu is dominated by espresso preparation, despite the occasional French press. And yet their retail bean stocks reflected absolutely none of that.

But don’t take our word for it. Just try some of their Panama Duncan Estate Micro-Lot #1 in a home espresso machine. We did, and the results were as poor as we expected: a thin crema; a flat, one-dimensional, and slightly metallic flavor; and little body. (Even though we knew we were doing unholy things to a good roast, we are experimentalists after all.) Fortunately our home vacuum pot justified some of their efforts — though we must add it did not justify their notably (and expectedly) steep price tag. (UPDATE: a couple days after first writing this, the coffee did peak and shined in a vacuum pot — but still not as much in a French press.)

Four Barrel employees cupping. Our verdict: please keep at it Jeremy Tooker, at right, overlooks Four Barrel's café operations

Comparing Four Barrel Coffee’s Friendo Blendo to Stumptown’s Hairbender

But back to the main event: Four Barrel’s in-store espresso. In some ways, Four Barrel’s (and Dynamo’s, for that matter) Friendo Blendo and Hairbender shots were similar: a very dark, textured, patchy crema; a lighter body than you’d expect for such a precisely made shot; and a more potent bright taste at the bottom of the cup.

But in other ways, the new Friendo Blendo shots didn’t measure up at all to their Hairbender predecessors: they lacked their intense brightness, they exhibited a relatively muted flavor potency in the cup, and even their dynamic range of flavors seemed abbreviated. We’ll even go so far as to suggest that Four Barrel’s Friendo Blendo shots taste like Hairbender put through a low-pass filter.

Which isn’t to say we didn’t like Friendo Blendo — or that Four Barrel doesn’t produce some of the finest espresso shots and coffee roasts in the city. But, given their pedigree and pricing, Four Barrel Coffee carries the weight of a lot of expectations. And while Four Barrel will hopefully ratchet up the quality as their roasting operations continue to get underway, these expectations remain largely unmet.

Read the updated review of Four Barrel Coffee.

Boars heads, emptying retail roast shelves, and a Mistral Four Barrel Coffee's espresso and macchiato made with Friendo Blendo


Trip Report: Epicenter Cafe

Posted by on 23 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Roasting

Opening up in the latter half of 2008, this café may serve salads, soups, wine, and even light dinner plates, but don’t let that fool you: this is a serious coffee destination. Which is not surprising, given that Andy Newbom of Barefoot Coffee Roasters personally tipped us off to check this place out.

Just a few doors down from the SOMA Whole Foods, it’s a relatively long, recessed space with leather sofas and tables in the back, small wooden tables and chairs throughout, and large windows in front with some stool/counter seating. Outside along the sidewalk there are also some wooden patio café tables.

Entrance to Epicenter Cafe Epicenter Cafe's concrete slab and modern furniture ambiance

Nearby street signage for the Epicenter Cafe All espresso shots here are served as properly short doubles (hence the “large” size identified in the review) from a four-group La Marzocco Linea, and the baristas here aren’t afraid to toss shots that don’t meet their high standards (always a good thing).

When we visited, they offered Barefoot espresso shots from The Boss blend (by default, and it is what’s rated here) as well as single origin shots of Sweet Reserve Brazil (Cerrado, Minas Gerais) and Finca Vista Hermosa Edlyna Guatemala (Huehuetenango). The resulting shot comes with a good, albeit not stellar, textured medium brown crema of decent thickness. But it packs a rich aroma, a potent, compact, syrupy body, and a robust, rich flavor of herbal notes, caramel-like sweetness, and some smokiness. Served in classic brown, thick-walled ACF cups.

Read the review of Epicenter Cafe.

Barefoot Coffee prominently available at Epicenter Cafe Epicenter Cafe's four-group La Marzocco Linea

Another strong contender in SF’s espresso ecosystem — and it’s not Four Barrel (yet)

Epicenter’s is a serious espresso shot with a pedigree refreshingly different from many of SF’s other staples. While San Franciscans are spoiled by having the likes of Blue Bottle Coffee, Ritual Coffee Roasters, or even Mr. Espresso in our midst, there’s a sameness in flavor profile and “vision” that comes from just a handful of great coffee producers in the area. Barefoot’s coffee is just one example that really adds to the espresso “diversity” in town, and the Epicenter Cafe is a great place for showcasing its merits.

On a related note, Four Barrel Coffee‘s long-awaited roasting operations were finally commissioned last month after a long ordeal with city ordinances, permits, and the like. But given what we sampled of their Friendo Blendo espresso blend at recent revisits to Dynamo Donuts and Four Barrel Coffee itself, we were left with a jones for their previous use of Stumptown‘s Hairbender instead. More on that in an upcoming blog post.

The Epicenter Cafe espresso Close up!


The art of the caffè sospeso and caffè liscio

Posted by on 19 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Starbucks

If you blog about coffee long enough, you see the same introductory articles about coffee over and over and over (did we mention over?) again. The Internet continually drones with a strange-yet-familiar mantra, where each week you find dozens of newspaper articles, magazine articles, commerce sites, and blog posts that feel compelled to regurgitate the stories of how coffee was discovered, how the first cafés came about, and how to brew espresso. Despite our modern blogs, status updates, RSS feeds, and tweets, humankind’s oral tradition of endlessly repeating ourselves to share information is alive and well even in electronic form.

The February La Cucina Italiana magazine Case and point with an article about Italian coffee, or simply caffè, which we found in the February issue of La Cucina Italiana magazine: Coffee : La Cucina Italiana. Yet this otherwise over-familiar article noted a couple of cultural references we hadn’t quite heard before — both concerning Italian terminology regarding regional coffee culture.

The caffè sospeso

The first term is the caffè sospeso as used around Napoli. Sospeso is the past participle of the verb sospendere. If that verb looks similar to the English word “suspend”, it’s no coincidence. Caffè sospeso quite literally means “hanging” or suspended (or danging) coffee.

In Napoli, the term describes the extra tazzina of coffee a patron at a caffè might order as a generous offering to the public or to the person directly behind them in line. Arguably, the caffè sospeso is the codified cultural ancestor to Starbucks‘ years-old “pay it forward” guerrilla marketing campaign. Just without the veiled corporate sponsorship to seed these in-store events and then submit the feel-good stories to local news reporters.

The caffè liscio

Although we’re not sure if it is intentional or a typographical error, the magazine article makes reference to a caffè lisco [sic] — which supposedly means a straight espresso. Unless we’re missing something in the local dialect of Italy’s Friuli region, we’re voting for the “typo” explanation — as the term is widely known as caffè liscio throughout much of Italy. By comparison, to order a whisky liscio in Italy is to order a straight (or neat) shot of whiskey.

That and the term lisco cannot be found in even the most detailed Italian dictionaries. (Though as a random and potentially related side note, the Italian word liscoso is used to mean “bony”, typically in reference to fish.) The pronunciation would also be entirely different between the two forms, with the ‘c’ in lisco pronounced with a hard ‘k’ sound and the ‘sc’ in liscio pronounced with a rounded ‘sh’ sound.

Anyway, back to business. The article notes the popularity of alcohol in the Friuli region, which is home to some of our favorite high-end grappa. And given that the caffè corretto (literally “corrected coffee”) is no stranger to grappa and other spirits, apparently the formal term caffè liscio is required in Friuli to ensure your order of a caffè does not pack the surprise punch of alcoholic spirits.

The term caffè macchiato appears to be a regional analog in North America. We’ve previously warned readers about the mistake of ordering an unqualified macchiato in many parts of the Northwest — which can get you a latte macchiato: a disappointing bucket of milk topped with caramel syrup and a hint of espresso flavor.

UPDATE: April 3, 2013
Just to prove that an idea is new if it’s new to you, social media has apparently just gone mad for the caffè sospeso idea: Why Ordering ‘Suspended’ Coffees For The Needy Is Stupid And Inefficient – Consumerist. It’s gotten so bad, last month even Snopes.com had to enter into the fray. We can only ask either “what took you so long?” or “why now all of a sudden?”.


Trip Report: Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea (Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 17 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

For the last of our brief survey of some of the more notable cafés in Oakland’s Rockridge, this tiny storefront has long been the lone outlet showcasing the roasting that goes on some four miles away at Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea in Emeryville.

The café and retail shop shares space with a Market Hall Bakery and the Pasta Shop in the Rockridge Market Hall, and with them they share a few decorative sidewalk café tables in front as the only seating around. In the back are old-style coffee bins for retail bean sales (unfortunately the kind that look quaint, but allow fresh roasted coffee to oxidize rapidly), and in front is an espresso bar featuring a two-group Faema Ambassador.

Entrance to Peaberry's Coffee & Tea Café tables in front of Peaberry's Coffee & Tea

With their Faema machine they pull short, potent shots with a smooth medium-brown crema marked with flecks, served in large brown Nuova Point cups. It has a pungent flavor of cloves, herbs, some spice, but the cup is well balanced and rounded. Oddly like many of its nearby Rockridge neighbors along College Ave., there’s a touch of a sour element to the cup — but the heft and balance in the cup lifts it above the neighborhood competition.

Read the review of Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea.

Roasted coffee bins at Peaberry's Coffee & Tea The Peaberry's Coffee & Tea espresso


Trip Report: Spasso Coffeehouse (Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 12 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

It’s time for another espresso review along Oakland’s Rockridge trail.

This coffee shop is the kind that only seems to thrive near a university. It’s a more spacious café than some of its espresso-serving neighbors along College Ave. There are a couple of sidewalk café tables in front, some limited table seating in front at the entrance, and a large rear area with a colorful coffee-growers mural, decorative burlap coffee bags, skylights, and many small café tables and studious people at laptops.

Entering Spasso Coffeehouse Did we mention laptops?

Free Wi-Fi is the name of the game here. For the clientele, they are like flies to a bug lamp. The locals even seem to adjust their coffee orders accordingly: bigger mugs of filter coffee that they can nurse for hours on end. So of course, we instead ordered the house espresso.

Mural inside Spasso Coffeehouse The laptop sweatshop inside Spasso Coffeehouse

They use Tony’s Coffee, which they sell on site — and bill heavily as “Fair Trade/Organic” as required by the locals. Using a two-group Promac, they pull a short shot with an even, thinner, medium brown crema that dissipates quickly. It’s watery and light, and really quite sour actually — something we believe can be traced back to a rather tepid brewing temperature.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t taste much of any earthiness nor pepper nor pungency beyond the sourness: it was that strong. Time to tune the machine, folks.

Read the review of Spasso Coffeehouse.

Spasso Coffeehouse's Promac The Spasso Coffeehouse espresso: sour to the last drop


Trip Report: Cole Coffee (Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 07 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew

Recently, we’ve had the chance to give more formal reviews to a few places in Oakland’s Rockridge district. We begin with Cole Coffee — a combination café and roasting retail store that has been something of an East Bay coffee institution since it was named “Royal Coffee Café”.

Cole Coffee still gets their coffee supplies from Royal Coffee (full disclosure: we’re good friends with one of the longtime coffee buyers there). However, the café and roaster detangled in recent years, with Michael Murphy — who managed the café and rear roasting retail shop for the previous 15 years — taking on ownership and renaming it “Cole Coffee”. Little else has changed, however.

Inside Cole Coffee looking towards the Safeway across the street The Cole Coffee menu

East Bay locals frequently swear by Cole. As a one-time resident of South Berkeley, oddly my own most vivid memory of the place was during the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991 — when the hills above burned red, the Safeway parking lot across the street filled with fleeing residents carrying photo albums and other belongings in their vehicles, and we all realized that the disaster was going to be a lot worse than anyone had imagined.

Inside, quarters are very tight — with only a handfull of tiny indoor café tables lined up against one wall across a path from the service counter. The space has a lot of large windows and an odd light fixture/sculpture of old coffee pots in the back. There’s a lot more seating on the sidewalk tables along 63rd St. and in front along College Ave. The clientele here tend to be a mix of students studying alone and graying university town academics meeting up to discuss politics and world affairs.

Cole Coffee Melitta bar and La Marzocco Linea The Cole Coffee espresso

The service counter includes “the Melitta bar”: three cone filters for made-to-order filter coffee from a selection of 25 different varietals in back. While a few other coffee retailers have offered such a setup for more than a decade in other parts of the greater Bay Area, it’s still pretty unique for the Easy Bay. They also have a three-group La Marzocco Linea, and the retail beanery in back has its own retail coffee sales with another three-group Linea.

They pull generally oversized shots with a mixed medium brown crema and lots of bubbles. While it doesn’t carry much of an aroma, the crema is very frothy and quite extensive. And when it comes to the flavor, the cup is surprisingly timid and meek: it has some vanilla and some mild spices, but it otherwise lacks the necessary breadth and forte of a true espresso. Given the crema and everything else, you know you’re dealing with a place that deals with daily fresh roasts. But there’s no reason this location couldn’t expect to produce a notably better espresso.

Read the review of Cole Coffee.

Entrance to Cole Coffee's roasting retailer in back


Trip Report: Peninsula Coffee Roaster & Deli (San Mateo, CA)

Posted by on 02 Feb 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

The Peninsula offers little in the way of great espresso. This is supposedly one of the better examples, but it’s not something we would be proud of. If someone was visiting us in San Mateo and wanted a good espresso, we’d still send them all the way to Palo Alto first.

The Peninsula Coffee Roaster & Deli has two main seating areas, separated by what appears to be a deli business that was grafted on to both the roaster and it’s name. The main — and we can only guess, original — space is dominated by their coffee bar, jars of their own roasted coffee for retail sale (and way too many of them flavored coffees), and a bit of stool seating with some tall café tables by the front windows. As if the flavored coffees weren’t cheesy enough, this spot plays a lot of KKSF smooth jazz/saxophone music — i.e., the soundtrack to your root canal.

In the next room over is their deli. In front are a couple of tiny outdoor sidewalk tables.

Façade of the Peninsula Coffee Roaster & Deli Flavored coffee menu and bar inside the Peninsula Coffee Roaster & Deli

Using a three-group La Spaziale 3000 at the bar, they pull shots with a semi-thin, even, pale crema. It’s made from a classic, middle-America over-roasted blend, leaving the cup (filled a bit high) with a cross of flavors between ashiness and some harsher tobacco.

The end result is kind of a flashback — like a San Francisco espresso circa 1984, when we knew so much less about good espresso than we do now. Is it any wonder why Starbucks rules the suburbs? Independents like this should rightfully fear Starbucks, because the quality here isn’t much better.

Read the review of the Peninsula Coffee Roaster & Deli.

The Peninsula Coffee Roaster & Deli's La Spaziale 3000 The Peninsula Coffee Roaster & Deli espresso