August 2009

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: 54 Mint

Posted by on 21 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee

In the Mint Plaza, right across the Blue Bottle Cafe mothership, this café provides some pretty good outdoor dining options — albeit without much shade on sunny days. There’s also a but of limited indoor seating upstairs and a homier cellar below.

Alberto Avalle, a founder of New York’s Il Buco, partnered with others to open this Italian spot in SF — which emphasizes authenticity over more of the highfalutin fare back in NY. And here they get the authentic bit down to the prosciutti and salami hanging in the rustic cellar below. They hired a Sicilian chef, and it shows in the menu — but less so in the coffee (i.e., no Miscela d’Oro).

Courtyard dining at 54 Mint overlooks Mint Plaza Mint 54's wine and salumi cellar - of sorts

Using a two-group Elektra machine at the bar and Caffè Umbria beans, they pull generous espresso shots with a bare, thin layer of medium brown crema. The cup still has a substantive mouthfeel and aroma, although the flavor is skewed heavily towards more of the over-roasted end of the spectrum: toasted wood, resins, and pepper. Served in decorative OperaNova cups by a sparse staff you have to gang-tackle to get their attention.

Some local publications think the espresso here is “excellent”, but we’ll have to stop at “not bad”.

Read the review of 54 Mint.

54 Mint's Elektra machine The 54 Mint espresso


Trip Report: Chez Panisse Café (Berkeley, CA)

Posted by on 20 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee

This upstairs café (though more of a Western restaurant) resides in the rather infamous birthplace of California Cuisine. At least when Alice Waters decided to take her local, farm-fresh cooking operation out of a house and into this formal spot decades ago.

Yes, dear Alice may be the mother of most of what’s good about restaurants in the Bay Area today. Many restaurateurs here have profited from her coattails while often she’s barely broke even. But she also has her detractors. TV food snarkmaster Anthony Bourdain, for example, places her in his Pantheon of Contempt alongside Rachael Ray (of all people).

It’s then that you realize opinions about chefs can sometimes have little to do with their food. And what is there not to like about the food here? The espresso here, however, leaves room for improvement.

Dark, night entrance to Chez Panisse in Berkeley Espresso bar in the Chez Panisse Café

The more formal restaurant is downstairs, and the café is a (slightly) more casual affair. There are rich wood floors and paneling, reflective panels of zinc on the walls, and lots of Art Deco designs to the space — which is also decorated with old 1930s movie posters from the French screenplay scribe, Marcel Pagnol.

Of course, any homage to the French is usually a bad sign for their coffee quality. They ease some of those fears by adopting a coffee service from Blue Bottle Coffee. (Whom Alice gives enough of a ringing endorsement to erect a public sculpture.)

Chez Panisse Café's two-group La Marzocco Linea The rather tepid-looking Chez Panisse Café espresso

They use a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the top of the stairs to enter the café; it’s in a dedicated spot for their wine storage and book sales. Using the Chez Panisse House Blend, they produce espresso shots with a weak, bare layer of medium brown crema.

The shot size is right (which is better than we can say for some of the doubles we saw passed around) — so it’s not surprising that the cup has a decent heft to its body. There’s some potency in the flavor, which runs more into pepper and spices. But by any measure, this is weak for Blue Bottle standards; it scores among the lowest-ranked cafés using Blue Bottle beans in the Bay Area. Perhaps a little of an authentic French influence unfortunately comes out in the quality of the cup here.

Read the review of Chez Panisse Café in Berkeley, CA.


Breaking the Chains: Dispelling the Myth of Consistency at the Big Coffee Chains

Posted by on 15 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Starbucks

One of the things that the big coffee chains do well is consistency. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom, lifted straight from the fast food chain playbook. A McDonald’s french fry is pretty much the same everywhere, and the coffee served at a big chain is little different. Or so we’ve all been told.

For example, a Long Island Press article cited in our last post quoted local roast master, Greg Heinz: “Starbucks does a lot of things very well. It maintains consistency nationwide.” The article’s author then later goes on to say, “Just like any chain, Starbucks cannot exist without uniformity.”

A superautomatic Schaerer Verismo machine: consistent in theory but not in practice Or can it? We’ve always felt that the coffee quality can be quite erratic between one Starbucks and another. Lately we’ve been digging into the data we’ve collected over the years to validate some of our assumptions about coffee and quality. What we found supported our hunch that some of the biggest coffee chains are actually pretty lousy at consistency and uniformity.

Using our ratings data to measure quality consistency among cafés

Below is a table we’ve compiled by keying off some of the fields in our database from thousands of reviewed espresso shots. Each row represents the aggregate espresso shot reviews for a given chain, a given coffee roaster, a given espresso machine manufacturer, or a given cup manufacturer — reflecting a few choices we made for illustration.

Each row (or sample set) shows the number of cafés, high espresso score, low score, average score, median score, and standard deviation for all the associated ratings. For our consistency evaluation here, the key is the standard deviation — which is a simplistic measure of the spread in espresso scores for a given grouping.

Variable in common # reviews High Low Average Median Standard deviation
Starbucks chain 22 6.20 2.60 5.13 5.25 1.05
Peet’s Coffee & Tea chain 23 7.80 4.60 6.71 6.80 0.74
Blue Bottle Coffee Co. coffee 15 8.60 6.10 7.69 7.90 0.70
Mr. Espresso coffee 83 8.60 3.00 6.05 6.30 1.17
Illy coffee 72 8.30 2.20 5.73 5.80 1.33
Paper cups only 185 7.80 1.40 5.19 5.40 1.56
Delco cups 46 8.00 3.50 5.94 6.20 1.12
La Spaziale machine 144 8.20 1.50 5.52 5.80 1.42
La Marzocco machine 84 9.40 4.60 7.16 7.40 1.09

For example, the first row represents all reviewed Starbucks. The data suggest that most reviewed Starbucks — about 68 percent, assuming a normal distribution — have an espresso rating score that’s within 1.05 rating points of the average for all Starbucks reviewed (here that’s 5.13).

Now compare this 1.05 with the other example rows in the table. For example, all reviewed Peet’s Coffee & Tea outlets have a standard deviation of 0.74. This suggests a much narrower variation in their espresso scores — and hence better consistency and predictability.

Coffee quality consistency among independent cafés can be stronger than within the big chains themselves

All reviewed cafés using Blue Bottle Coffee beans may have very different owners but score an even lower 0.70 standard deviation. These cafés may only share a bean supplier and some of standards for freshness and access to common consulting and training, but their espresso scores are significantly more consistent among each other than the cafés under a single Starbucks ownership — or even Peet’s.

Surely, a single quality dimension does not represent the breadth of possible flavor profiles, body weights, and crema textures that might also factor into a consistency analysis. But this data refutes the conventional wisdom that Starbucks, for example, provides a consistently dependable and uniform level of beverage quality. Even with their complete supply and delivery chain standardization, Starbucks fails to produce espresso quality that’s as consistent as a number of independent cafés that have only a coffee bean supplier in common.

The Starbucks brand or Delco cups came out to be about equal as marks of consistency Our data also suggests that the Starbucks brand is no better a determinant of quality consistency than whether the café uses a La Marzocco espresso machine or Delco cups. This is a critical point to understand, so let’s put this another way:

The Starbucks brand predicts consistency of espresso quality no better than if all the random cafés we surveyed that use Delco cups decided to re-brand themselves as “The Delco-branded Cups Coffeehouse chain.”

Given the investments Starbucks has made in coffee bean and roasting consistency, standardized push-button espresso machines, and standardized training, we don’t see how you can interpret this data as anything short of a complete failure for the company to deliver on the brand expectations of quality consistency.

If Starbucks’ consistency isn’t in their prepared coffee, then it is likely a psychological perception: the consumer’s brand association, the consistency of the Starbucks beverage menu, Starbucks’ own ridiculous names for drinks and their sizes, and the familiar environment of its coffee shops.

Seeking out chains in the hopes of managing risk

The Waikiki Sheraton's Honolulu Coffee Company and Peet's Coffee & Tea

We recently came across a blog post by Chris Pirillo, a tech-geek/blogger/ex-TV-show-host who practically wet his underpants because he found a Peet’s Coffee & Tea chain store in his Sheraton Waikiki hotel. This when located in the very same building is an outlet of the Honolulu Coffee Company — which sources beans from Hawaii’s own Greenwell Farms, operates one of the few Mistral Triplette espresso machines in the world, and last scored as high as the best Peet’s we’ve ever been to anywhere. (Famed Baltimore coffee podcaster, Jay Caragay, disputes the quality there as dubious — but we stick by our last, albeit five-year-old, rating.)

Starbucks opens in Utrecht in the Netherlands - and it may as well have been a visit by Barack Obama Meanwhile, a friend in the Netherlands told us about a Starbucks that opened in Utrecht a week ago. When he passed by over the weekend, he said, “The line was unholy.” In a country where coffee shops legally sell marijuana by the menu, lines are out the door for one that peddles the double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

What makes people seek out mass-produced mediocrity over independent, higher quality options just as conveniently nearby? What made an old boss of mine seek out a Pizza Hut for dinner when we were in the heart of London together on business travel with time to kill? These questions are woven into why we started six years ago.

In the case of coffee, you can largely dismiss the argument that chains provide a convenient shorthand to take out the risk in quality versus an unknown. As our data suggests here, big coffee chains can be less consistent among themselves than independent cafés with a common coffee supplier are to each other.

This is the part of the article where we’re supposed to have a snappy, revelatory answer to these questions. But we’ve got nothin’ — other than the consumer comfort with big coffee chains likely says more about their environment and sales practices than it does about the quality of the actual products they sell.


Long Island Press: “Everything You Know About Coffee Is Wrong”

Posted by on 14 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

In case you haven’t come across this article from the Long Island Press yesterday: Everything You Know About Coffee Is Wrong | Long Island Press. Wow — local journalism is still producing thoughtful, lengthy pieces that might actually tell the average reader something they didn’t already know? Sure enough, it’s a rather well-written and thoughtful piece — even if the headline is a bit over the top.

No, this isn’t about New York City and its coffee scene, but the sleepier confines of nearby Long Island. (A region with the “state” abbreviation, in some mailing address habits, of LI). Funny how the New York City presses have yet to publish an article this thoughtful.

The article includes interviews with local roasters and enthusiasts for the quality and art of good coffee… and a good espresso. It covers some of the product marketing techniques of the big coffee chains (whipped cream, bitter coffee + sweet syrups, etc.), the bizarre interpretation of the macchiato in some parts of North America (and a coffee-based beverage called the misto, which we’ve honestly never heard of before), and the chemical horrors inflicted upon flavored coffees.

One thing we dispute in the article, however, is the conventional wisdom that the bigger coffee chains do a good job at providing consistency and uniformity. That will be the subject of a future post — at least partially. So stay tuned…


Trip Report: Boxed Foods Company

Posted by on 13 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

Even Avedano's Meats in Bernal Heights now features Blue Bottle Coffee beans Now that Blue Bottle Coffee Co. has expanded their roasting operations, we can expect to be super-saturated with its coming ubiquity. While that’s an overall good thing — such as now being able to snag some fresh Blue Bottle beans at the hyper-local Avedano’s Meats in Bernal Heights — it does contribute to that espresso sameness issue we’ve been discussing for the past two years.

To put this sameness issue in another context, Alice Waters has had a tremendous influence on restaurants in the Bay Area, let alone the world. But while the “farm-grown, organic, fresh, and local” angle may have produced a number of excellent restaurants in town over the years, the Bay Area restaurant scene suffers a little from this one-dimensional, one-trick-pony stereotype. At least when compared to the variety of restaurant offerings that New York City can boast.

One of the latest outposts in Blue Bottle’s ever-expanding coffee syndicate empire is the Boxed Foods Company in the Financial District. This small lunch spot, replacing a former sandwich shop called Gourmet Provisions, serves boxed meals to go, but it does offer some limited for-here dining among tiny, two-person tables along the way next to the tight serving area. Front and center, however, is a two-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the front counter and a lot of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. branding.

Entrance to Boxed Foods Company Blue Bottle Coffee menu at Boxed Foods Company

They sell a few varietals as beans and use their Hayes Valley espresso blend for pulling shots. The barista is slow and deliberate, making a careful pour into sub-optimal Libbey restaurant supply glasses (think Gibraltars).

The shot comes with a tall layer of a thicker, rich-looking, textured, darker brown crema. It’s gorgeous stuff, but it sets the expectation bar a bit high when you sip it: it’s a bit mellow and subdued and has a lighter body than appearances would suggest. Flavorwise, it has some pungent herbs, wood, chocolate, and cinnamon elements — so the complexity is there. It’s just toned down a bit.

Read the review of the Boxed Foods Company.

Hiding behind the La Marzocco GB/5 at Boxed Foods Company The Boxed Foods Company espresso


Long, short, ristretto: What is the local norm for espresso sizes in San Francisco?

Posted by on 12 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Local Brew, Quality Issues

When it comes to the size of the espresso pour in the Bay Area, what is the norm? We’ve been biased, like many others, to believe that it’s the long espresso: a watered-down brew topping off at 2 oz. or more. A reader recently posted a comment suggesting an alternative: that a ristretto was the norm. Our response to his comment lead to some interesting research into the data that we felt worthy of its own post here.

First of all, we have to define what is a ristretto. Some suggest that in the earlier era of largely hand-pulled shots, the ristretto was made with the same amount of water as a normal shot but just pulled faster to achieve a higher coffee-oil-to-caffeine ratio. That is, more of a variation on pressure — but additionally with a reduced time of contact between the coffee grounds and the hot water.

Even the hideous L.A. Café served a medium-sized shot Others suggest that, more to the modern era of the automatic machine with mechanical pumps, a ristretto is simply a normal espresso shot cut off early. Namely: largely a variation on brewing time. (Worse still are things like the Nespresso, which frighteningly defines the ristretto as a coffee flavor. To us, this concept is about as scary as a carton of egg whites labeled “sunny side up flavor”.)

We presumed that the general tendency in the Bay Area was to pull long shots (e.g., 2 oz per shot or more). But since we’ve recorded the data with all of our reviews for San Francisco, we ran a database query against both past and present cafés. Of 712 reviewed SF places serving espresso shots, here’s the distribution of sizes that we discovered:

  • 12 were Short (S): or 1.7%
  • 380 were Medium (M): or 53.4%
  • 218 were Large (L): or 30.6%
  • 102 were Extra-Large (XL): or 14.3%

(see our size definitions)

Interestingly enough, it appears that the 1-2 oz shot is actually the most common, which is about right. With only 1.7% in the truly short range, we wouldn’t say that a ristretto is the norm — if you judge a ristretto based on the volume of liquid. But, and it was a surprise to us, the data suggests that the stereotype of the overflowing pour of coffee isn’t the local espresso norm either.


Coffee shops & laptops: if it’s new to New York City, it must be new to you

Posted by on 11 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Café Society

Last week the Wall Street Journal published yet another recession-themed article that was cited all over the Internet: No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users – It seemed that every local media outlet followed suit (Coffee Shops Serve Laptop Users a New Blend | NBC Bay Area), with the story spreading as far as London newspapers (US coffee shops pull plug on laptop lounging – Americas, World – The Independent).

To read all the coverage, you’d think that the struggle between café owners and laptop squatters was a brand new phenomenon with a sudden crackdown centered in New York City. This despite the fact that local cafés such as Four Barrel Coffee were deliberately opened with a “no-WiFi” policy to intentionally correct the laptop-friendly “mistakes” of Ritual Coffee Roasters.

At least on the West Coast, this issue has been debated for years … with layers of stories about cafés that cover up their electrical outlets, groups of people who start companies in coffee shops until they’re forced to afford their own space, etc. We suppose the media lesson here is that nothing truly exists until it first happens in New York City. Which must explain why good coffee shops apparently did not exist until about 2006. (Or at least coffee shops that were decent enough to hang out in with a laptop.)

In any case, the WSJ was recently one-upped in recession-era reporting by London’s Guardian yesterday: Workers shun coffee shops in favour of vending machines | Business |


Pirate Cat Radio Cafe on “No Reservations”

Posted by on 10 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Local Brew

Some stories are too easy to predict. Like in our Trip Report to Pirate Cat Radio Cafe & Studio back in March. Back then we had heard the rumors that chef-turned-author-turned-TV-glutton, Anthony Bourdain, stopped in at the Pirate Cat to try their bacon maple latte. So naturally we suspected that Pirate Cat might make the national airwaves in due time.

That time was tonight, with this evening’s episode of No Reservations set in San Francisco.

Pirate Cat Radio Cafe, as appeared on 'No Reservations' Pirate Cat Cafe's bacon maple latte sign out front

As for Mr. Bourdain? Sure, the guy has a pretty tiresome schtick about being some bad-boy of dangerous food. Meanwhile, milquetoast BBC hosts such as Stefan Gates are foraging for food among the Karen people in landmine-rigged jungles with the Burmese Army in pursuit. (The milquetoast Mr. Gates even has the distinction of appearing on an album cover of Mr. Bourdain’s beloved Led Zeppelin.)

Mr. Bourdain’s Web site even says that the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market is in “Fisherman’s Wharf.” (Huh?) But he does make a fairly good case that for every food-hating vegan and overly-precious yuppie in this town, there are plenty of beer-guzzling burger joints and animal-eating animal lovers (such as Chris Costentino, of Incanto fame … and now pretty much a professional food TV whore).

Regardless, it was good seeing DJ Monkey and the Pirate Cat Cafe getting a little love between TV commercials for and Frosted Mini-Wheats.

Close-up of DJ Monkey making espresso DJ Monkey making a bacon maple latte for Anthony Bourdain


Trip Report: Coffee Cat (Scotts Valley, CA)

Posted by on 03 Aug 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Holy crap. This is one of those rare finds where a small town and a strip mall can produce some outstanding coffee and espresso that competes with the best. Although we were aware of Coffee Cat’s elevated reputation among the Scotts Valley locals when passing through, at first we were guilty of dismissing it relative to its neighbors to the south: Santa Cruz’s Verve Coffee Roasters and the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge.

Not that we’re hounds for summer farmers’ markets, but we found Coffee Cat when we stumbled across the inaugural Scotts Valley Farmers’ Market this past Saturday. Unlike the chaos of SF’s Alemany Farmers’ Market, Scotts Valley’s could have been called “White Folk on Parade.” Reflecting the locals, of course. But it also reminded me of an old joke I told as a Palo Alto resident many years ago: “In Palo Alto, ‘diversity’ means owning a Macintosh”.

Coffee Cat at the Scotts Valley Farmers' Market Coffee Cat's offerings at the Farmers' Market

At the Scotts Valley Farmers’ Market, Coffee Cat offered some excellent, flavorful coffee as Chemex and French press. Their Honduras Maracala in a Chemex caught our attention, so a visit to their storefront — just a couple blocks south — became obligatory.

Located in a shopping strip mall next to a Safeway, the signage for the café won’t even be visible if you approach it from Hwy 17 to the east (the signage faces west). But when we stepped in, it exhibited many of the cues for good espresso that we noted in a recent post. In fact, they had all of them besides offering more than one kind of bean for espresso and serving a glass of water on the side.

It’s a deep store with comfy leather chairs towards the back and a number of free Wi-Fi users. But the on-site roasting operation in front with a Diedrich roaster, surrounded by lots of green beans, leaves a major impression. They also date-stamp their roasts for retail sale, and they keep the inventory fresh.

Strip mall entrance to Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley, CA Coffee Cat's La Marzocco Linea

Coffee Cat's Diedrich roaster in the front of the shop Coffee Cat's Diedrich roaster in action

They also emphasize the use of organic foods, but it’s primarily about the coffee here — even offering drinks such as the Spanish cortado. Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull espresso shots with an encouraging-looking, medium-to-dark-brown crema. While the short cup (itself a classic brown ACF demitasse) doesn’t carry a lot of aroma, the shot comes with a whopping level of brightness, a syrupy flavor and texture, a dense body, and a potent sweetness mixed with herbal pungency and some spice.

This is the classic North American brightness bomb that some espresso purists find a little overwhelming — if not outright off-putting. But it is the sort of thing that’s only achievable with solid quality-awareness throughout the entire delivery chain. This is some of the most potent, flavorful coffee we’ve had in the greater (Monterey?) Bay Area.

Their “classic cappuccino” (a mere $2) is also quite good, with the coffee standing up strongly to the milk. While they do a little latte art here, it is simple if not primitive and minimalist. Their milk frothing is quite good, even if it is not quite to the standards of their coffee. But those are some pretty high standards. This place is definitely worth a special trip.

Read the review of Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley, CA.

The Coffee Cat espresso The Coffee Cat 'classic' cappuccino