January 2010

Monthly Archive

Unclear on the concept: International Paper’s Tuscany cups

Posted by on 26 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Sometimes we simply cannot believe our eyes. Today we were browsing through the coffee industry trade rag, Coffee Talk, and we stumbled across this advertisement from International Paper. Could there be anything more wrong with this photo?

Apparently Tuscany richly tastes of disposable paper cups - which all Tuscans love

We can only guess that the marketing executives that approved this ad haven’t been any closer to Tuscany than the local Olive Garden — located just 10 miles down Poplar Ave. from International Paper’s Memphis, TN global headquarters. “The rich flavor of Tuscany™”…is a paper cup? Nevermind that no Tuscan would be caught dead drinking their caffè out of a paper cup. Nevermind that the paper cup is the size of the woman’s head.

Of course, if Subway can plug the Tuscan Chicken Melt, should we really be surprised? Those poor residents of Tuscany. They may have given us Dante Alighieri and the birth of the modern Italian language, but they also gave us a name defiled by every industrial fast food producer in Western Civilization. We always thought the regional food in Italy was better in Emilia-Romagna or Piemonte, but both lack the cheesy corporate marketing tie-in credentials to prove it.


NYT Magazine’s Nifty 50 | James Freeman, Coffee Maker

Posted by on 20 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Today the New York Times Magazine blog posted a mini bio-piece on James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee fame: The Nifty 50 | James Freeman, Coffee Maker – T Magazine Blog – NYTimes.com. The story behind their “Nifty 50” (did they hire a former 1960’s editor from Tiger Beat for that?) is to highlight “America’s up-and-coming talent.”

James Freeman: coffee alchemist or Tiger Beat pin-up?Since Mr. Freeman is not likely making an appearance on American Idol anytime soon — and since there’s still no word on the pilot for Clarineting With the Stars — the Bay Area coffee world fortunately can still celebrate him as one of our own talents. Of course, New York City has supposedly been calling for a while now, and the article claims James still holds some Gotham interest.

Sitting in James’ Blue Bottle Cafe this afternoon with visiting Hawaii coffee author and consultant, Shawn Steiman, we discussed Hawaii’s laggard status at quality retail coffee despite its notable coffee growing credentials. The conversation then turned to New York City’s laggard quality coffee status and how much its quality coffee culture had to be imported from places like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco — including a number of coffee professionals who hail from these towns.

We previously knew of New York City’s challenges in establishing local roasters — given its commercial real estate environment and zoning laws. But what we didn’t know, and learned from Shawn today, was something he once heard from Gimme! in Ithaca, NY: that Manhattan has no roasters because the island has insufficient gas pressure to support them.

Today’s Times piece also exhumed the old $20,000 figure on Mr. Freeman’s Japanese siphon bar. Whenever journalists turn to price tags for coffee headlines, it reminds us of the old Oscar Wilde quote about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. $11,000 Clovers, $18,000 Slayer machines included. (Do they expect commercial coffee-brewing equipment to cost about as much as their $200 Krups home espresso machine?)

UPDATE: Jan. 23, 2010
As if we needed another example of New York City’s laggard coffee culture, the New York Times yesterday published an article on the New York arrival of pour-over coffee: Ristretto | Pour-Over Coffee Drips Into New York – T Magazine Blog – NYTimes.com.

Yes, pour-over coffee: essentially the same process prosthelytized by Philz’ Coffee for the better part of the past decade — and available in Bay Area outposts as remote as Monterey’s Plumes Coffee House since the previous decade. They obviously need a James Freeman in New York City fast, because at this rate Japanese siphon bars should arrive there around the year 2018.

UPDATE: Feb. 22, 2010
Sure enough, according to today’s New York Times, it looks like Blue Bottle Coffee will open in New York City with a Japanese slow-dripper bar: Blue Bottle Coffee to Open in Williamsburg – Diner’s Journal Blog – NYTimes.com. The siphon bar may still not arrive until 2018, however.

UPDATE: Sep. 23, 2011
This time it is Fortune magazine’s turn for the profile: Blue Bottle: The best coffee you may ever drink – Fortune Features.


The Future of Coffee (…is a lot like its past)

Posted by on 13 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Recently I was approached by a writer exploring ideas for an article to be published by Wired in the UK. (This wouldn’t be the first time.) The subject line of his e-mail? “The Future of Coffee.” His goal was to put together a piece about the “vanguard of the coffee industry,” featuring “new and disruptive technology or methodology to do something entirely new.”

This is hardly an uncommon theme these days. Problem is that there is little “there” there (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein on her hometown of Oakland). For a Wired audience nurtured on futurism bombast, there is more bleeding-edge innovation going on with sous-vide cooking than the much more ancient art of coffee per se. However, coffee is far more universal and something many can relate to on a daily basis, so it naturally garners more readership.

For some people, this hideous contraption suggests “The Future of Coffee“:

What we have now is a critical mass of consumers who have “rediscovered” good coffee in recent years — even if good coffee has been around for a long time. Just that it used to be that much harder to find. In the six years since we started this Web site, the best shots we’ve ever had have not improved. But places that serve very good shots have become much more common.

But when people experience what seems like a sudden eye-opening discovery or awakening — such as the realization that there’s more to coffee than mass-produced fodder — there’s a tendency to mentally project some hockey-stick-like growth in coffee innovation for what has essentially been pretty much the same process since the 1800s. Once opened up to new possibilities, that this process of discovery and awakening doesn’t continue on some trajectory just seems too boring and mundane to accept.

Parallels between coffee and the Web?

In fact, I’ve come to liken what’s going on with coffee consumers to my experiences with the genesis of the World Wide Web — even if the Web has actually innovated while coffee has much less so.

What's 'push technology' again?Back in 1991, I was working among particle physicists with gravity-defying hairstyles who spoke in triple integrals at SLAC, home to the first Web site in the U.S. So I got to witness it all from the beginning — from the advent of image support in Web browsers to finally distinguish the Web from Gopher…to the 1996 psychotic rush to anoint push technology as the Web’s next revolution (Twitter 0.1?)…to the 1997 predictions by marketing wonks that we would all be shopping online at 3-D storefronts employing VRML that Christmas (shades of 3-D TV?). We even have Third Wave coffee, which I find jokingly analogous to the trite and nonsensical Web 2.0.

Coffee or the Web, the sense of experiencing an innovative rush begets more demand of, and expectations for, the same. Just read the sloganeering on the Slayer espresso machine Web site:

What lies on the other side of Caffe Artigiano, David Schomer, PID, FB80, Fair Trade, Cup of Excellence, and all the dreams of an organic, authentic, Coffee Universe now circulating and seemingly just beyond our grasp?

If Slayer was a Wired-friendly dot-com circa 1999, it would have been ridiculed for buzzword/hyperbole overload before finishing that sentence. And yes, Cup of Excellence competitions are clearly more recent constructs for coffee advancement. But for each legitimate advancement, there are dozens of examples such as the Japanese siphon brewer: a modern spit-shine on manufacturing design applied to 1830s coffee extraction technology.

Coffee punk’d

Even if most “future of coffee” claims are vapor, what’s the harm in a little excitement, right? Well, things have gotten so ridiculous, and consumers have been so duped into thinking things are changing too fast for them to keep up with, that we have things like this video published a few days ago: How to brew a good cup of coffee Boing Boing.

From the post on BoingBoing.net:

Simple steps for brewing a right proper cup o’ joe. It’s really the “handsorting” step that trips up the less sophisticated coffee drinkers, but then, failure to prime one’s coffee filters is also a common mistake

Huh?! And then looking at the comments on these pages (and other online references to the same video), the great majority suggest that viewers took this video quite seriously … that they were completely oblivious to how much they were being punk’d into believing anything about innovative coffee technique and technology. Here’s the direct video as published by Ben Helfen, who works at Octane in Atlanta, GA:

Not long after posting this, Ben later had to add a disclaimer on the video’s Vimeo page, worried that people would take it seriously and make themselves horribly sick in the process:

DISCLAIMER: This video is meant to be a joke for my coffee industry friends. If you were to actually try this, it would taste nasty and probably make you sick.

Former US Barista Champion, Kyle Glanville, was obviously in on the joke with his excessive use of exclamation points in his Twitter feed. But despite its great humor, unfortunately the joke went over most people’s heads. That merely reflects how bad false expectations about coffee innovation have become today — and it is clearly what Ben Helfen was exploiting.

UPDATE: Feb. 4, 2010
“Fourth Wave Coffee” or Third Wave Hyperbole? The New York City arrival of the Slayer has brought out more bombast (as if we had a shortage): Baristas Test The Slayer, the New $18,000 Espresso Machine | Serious Eats. We still wonder how serious “Serious Eats” can be if it follows the crutch of the clueless: referring to new espresso machines by their MSRP price tags in its headlines.

UPDATE: Feb. 10, 2010
Thankfully, the New York Times wasn’t as easily duped by MSRP price tags: What Kind of Coffee Do You Get for $18,000? – Diner\’s Journal Blog – NYTimes.com. They correctly noted that the $18,000 quote for the Slayer machine isn’t out of line with a standard La Marzocco GB/5, for example. But interesting that the Times should cite the Slayer’s pre-infusion for single origin espresso shots as one of its big advantages. Particularly given the faddish nature of single origin espresso shots and quotes like CoffeeGeek.com’s Mark Prince’s, “I still have yet to meet a single origin coffee I’ve truly enjoyed as an espresso.”

The Slayer could make the single origin shot more palatable in theory. But is all that devotion to a second-rate espresso shot made from trendy beans with a limited flavor profile worth it?


High-quality espresso from low-end machines?

Posted by on 12 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine

The Boston Globe published an article today (OK, technically tomorrow) about making great espresso with cheap home equipment: High-quality espresso from low-end machines – The Boston Globe. The author experimented by buying cheaper, used home espresso machines, and he claims to have achieved decent results. The key to his results were a good grind, good beans, and good portafilter packing.

Home espresso gone ghettoGiven some of the wretched espresso we’ve subjected ourselves to from the supposed “professionals,” how bad could it really be? While we haven’t tried going ghetto with home machines, we agree with the writer’s advice: grinders are often where home espresso first goes wrong, and you need a high-end one to produce a decent espresso grind. That’s a nice change from the endless supply of home espresso machine pushers who criminally neglect the importance of a good burr grinder.

The writer also found that having beans ground for him at a local coffee shop never produced espresso as good as the canned stuff — which may surprise many (including us). That says something about the reliability of local coffee shop coffee grinding, the freshness of their coffee, or both.

Of the pre-packaged variety, he tested eleven different brands and suggested that Era Ora and Sant’Eustachio came out on top.


Trip Report: Haus

Posted by on 12 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

The Mission is one of SF’s best neighborhoods. We don’t necessarily mean Mission Street, however: home to BART’s Plasticuffs Station and a decent assortment of angry heroin addicts. We’re talking about 24th Street — a working class neighborhood with a strong immigrant community, but without many of Mission Street’s rougher edges.

Decent coffee is now on the list of this neighborhood’s amenities. Along 24th Street, east of Mission St., a series of independent cafés opened in recent years — Sugarlump, nearby Mission Pie, Sundance, Dynamo Donuts, and also Haus. (We’re deliberately excluding the coffee atrocities down at L’s Caffé.) These may not be coffee destinations in their own right, but they offer several options for a decent shot, or cup, among these few city blocks.

Entrance to Haus Inside Haus

Some of Haus' bean offerings listed on the chalkboard out frontNot being big fans of the coffee in Germany, the Haus name doesn’t carry much appeal for us. This fortunately doesn’t apply to the coffee here. The former El Mexicano Restaurant converted over to this airy espresso bar in May 2009. There are concrete floors, a tall ceiling, unfinished wood chairs and tables, and a lot of sunlight through the large glass panes in front and back. In back there’s also patio seating among several tables.

They use Ritual Coffee for espresso (their Evil Twin Brasil blend for our visit) and De La Paz for their filter coffee — and there’s a lot of varieties stacked up on the shelves behind the service area. They were also playing France Gall when we first came in, which immediately signals, “this isn’t your average coffee shop.” (And it scored points for good esoteric tastes.)

Btw, Kanye, this is one of the best videos of all time — France Gall’s “J’ai retrouvé mon chien”:

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5, they pull shots with a medium brown, even crema of decent thickness. It’s a smooth-bodied shot with strong characteristics of the underlying coffee blend: sweetness, brightness, and the sharp potency of lemon peel. It’s a solid, flavorful cup — but it may vary based on your favorite flavor profiles. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.

Read the review of Haus.

Ritual and De La Paz beans on display next to Haus' La Marzocco GB/5 The Haus espresso

The brightness bomb profile

These citrus shots — aka, brightness bombs — seem to be a highly popular flavor profile for new espresso bars these days. And it’s not just this and our last SF café review. While we like the experience of a brightness bomb now and then, we hope that this doesn’t become more and more routine. Sameness is already a very real issue in the flavor profiles among some of the Bay Area’s best espresso purveyors.

As Stumptown exemplified with their Hairbender shots, espresso doesn’t have to have a smooth, rounded flavor profile to achieve lofty heights. That was a good thing and a break from what might be called a more traditional Italian espresso. But these days it seems more and more shots from new, notable cafés target just that narrow range of the flavor spectrum — whether through medium-roasted single origin Central American shots or simple blends that make an all-out assault on acidity. Coffee simply does not advance by replacing one monotone flavor profile for a different one.


Trip Report: Matching Half Cafe

Posted by on 07 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Local Brew, Machine

The former One World Cafe needed a serious upgrade, and this is it. Gone are the beat-up furniture and odd house plants that made this space look like a medical marijuana co-op in aging neglect. The place now looks more like a sushi bar, with clean, angular lines, dark and solid colors, nicer wood floors, and a half-dozen bar stools and a few café tables.

They also added wine to their menu here, but the coffee is the real attraction — as noted by the pretty two-group Slayer machine as you enter the space. Yes, it is the legendary, silly-named Slayer machine — espoused by many a barista who can actually say the word “‘spro” without spraying microfoam out of their nose in uncontrollable laughter. We know we can’t pull it off. (Perhaps Slayer’s next-generation machine will be called the Slaughter? … That’s “laughter” with an ‘S’.)

Matching Half Cafe took over the old One World Cafe space - with real improvements The sushi bar interior of Matching Half Cafe

The Matching Half Cafe Slayer machine: sure to pick up all the hot chicks The Matching Half Cafe espresso

Matching Half uses Verve Coffee from Santa Cruz and sell it retail at the register. This additionally makes this café a real asset to this neighborhood.

They pull shots with a medium brown, moderate layer of crema. It is a pretty solid, albeit not exceptional, cup. But be warned: this is a citrus-driven brightness bomb, which isn’t to everyone’s espresso taste. It’s one of the few espresso shots we’ve ever rated with a true dominant citrus brightness to it. Served in a classic dark brown ACF cup.

Read the review of the Matching Half Cafe.


Trip Report: Taste of Rome (Sausalito, CA)

Posted by on 06 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

This Sausalito location of a two-café chain in Marin (the other location is in San Rafael) looks almost identical to the Caffé Trieste that once stood at this exact same location before the ownership changed. Any ownership change seems to have come from an insider to Caffé Trieste, as it’s more than just the outdoor signage that looks like someone painted over the “Trieste” name: inside the décor, the roasted coffee, and the espresso served here reminds us heavily of the former tenant.

If there's a neon sign, it must be true. (No, this sign isn't at Taste of Rome.)Italian tourists seem to like it here as well — so even the vibe here reminds us a little of Caffé Trieste. Inside there are a number of wooden tables packed in a rectangular space with a number of outdoor café tables lining the street corner sidewalks.

While they are heavy on the food service here, their slogan is “The Best Coffee and Pasta in Marin“. Like virtually all businesses that outwardly make a regional, self-aggrandizing superiority claim, they do not live up to it. But that doesn’t mean Taste of Rome isn’t worth a visit.

Taste of Rome in Sausalito looks suspiciously like a Caffé Trieste Socializing inside the Sausalito Taste of Rome

They roast their own, and using a three-group Conti at the bar they pull shots with a swirling medium brown crema. The shot is a little large, but the resulting cup is smooth and not lacking any potency. It even tastes of that classic Caffé-Trieste-like edge of smooth tobacco and smokiness. Served in a chipped Tuxton espresso cup with saucer.

While the espresso seems that much better at nearby Cibo, that place is a bit of a mortuary compared to the energy among the seats here.

Read the review of Taste of Rome in Sausalito, CA.

Working the Taste of Rome Conti machine The Taste of Rome espresso


Organic coffee: Why Latin America’s farmers are abandoning it

Posted by on 04 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade

Last week the Christian Science Monitor published an article highlighting the economic pressures on Latin America’s organic coffee farmers: Organic coffee: Why Latin America’s farmers are abandoning it / The Christian Science Monitor – CSMonitor.com.

Just as Fair Trade designed their program to attract coffee growers through the promise of financial incentives, once they made initial certification investments, organic certification has also been promoted as a way for them to earn higher margins for their crops. However, over the past few years — while Wal-Mart became the nation’s largest buyer of Fair Trade/organic decaffeinated coffee — the premiums paid for organic coffee have shrunk.

The economics of growing organic coffee in Latin America are now causing some farmers to “switch sides”. We’ve long been rather ambivalent about Fair Trade’s potential to live up to many of its good intentions. Although you could argue that “organic” is just another flawed solution attempted through the magic wand of certification, its aims and goals always seemed much more realistic and achievable.

Organic coffee hasn't delivered on the financial promises made to many Latin American growers Organic coffee's price margins have shrunk in recent years


Trip Report: Cibo (Sausalito, CA)

Posted by on 04 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew

This spacious café, oddly decorated with bike frames, lies on the north end of the Sausalito strip. Its name is pronounced “CHEE-bo”, Italian for “food.” (Though we did find an amusing online reference where someone suggested it is pronounced “SHEE-Bow” — which sounds more like M&M-Mars for “decommissioned cat food“.)

There are a few outdoor tables among the front parking lot, and inside there are several tables on multiple levels. It is also a bakery and offers a number of breakfast and lunch items. But the Blue Bottle Coffee branding is laid on heavily — as exhibited by the many varieties of roasted coffee available for retail sale.

Entrance to Cibo in Sausalito Inside Cibo

They offer a Melitta bar for coffee service, but the focus is on their espresso shots from a two-group La Marzocco GB/5 machine. Using Blue Bottle’s 17 Ft. Ceiling blend, they pulled shots with a dark-to-medium brown crema, a good body in a properly short shot, and a lot of baker’s chocolate over some general herbal tones in the background. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.

It’s not often we come across a café that gets the chocolate thing down well. Maybe it’s no chocolate bomb like you can get with the Maui Moka coffee bean — long infamous among a number of home roasters. But they do espresso proudly here, even if it comes with a few quirks.

Read the review of Cibo in Sausalito, CA.

Cibo's La Marzocco GB/5 and Blue Bottle Coffee for sale The Cibo espresso against one of their stark white tables

UPDATE: Jan. 14, 2010
It seems that there’s been a Peet’s-or-not-to-Peet’s controversy brewing in town ever since the closing failure of Northpoint Coffee Co.: Local: In Marin : Peet’s Coffee a no-go in Sausalito. At issue: does a Peet’s moving into town add just another big chain store at odds with the town’s efforts to ensure its uniqueness?

Oh, the comedy vitriol that ensues: Sausalito is stoopid (well, Peet’s chains have grown like a cancer in recent years), Peet’s is just another Starbucks, Peet’s is so much better than Starbucks, why can’t I have the coffee I want where I want it, etc. Sadly, lost in all of this is that places like Cibo — counter to Carmel-by-the-Sea’s failed anti-chain efforts — make the need for a Peet’s irrelevant on any quality level. This leaves just a band of brand-loyalist Peetnicks to complain and their supporters who endorse sub-par chain stores on principle.


Bay Area Teahouses Offer an Exotic Break from Coffee

Posted by on 01 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

The Times highlights the Imperial Tea Court in Berkeley as a coffee alternativeWith local newspapers in deep decline everywhere, the New York Times has been doing its part to capitalize on these dying markets. The Bay Area is no exception, as evidenced by today’s story on local teahouses: Bay Area Teahouses Offer an Exotic Break from Coffee – NYTimes.com.

So why quote a tea article, you ask? With sentences such as, “Om Shan Tea is the newest of a breed of Bay Area teahouses that are reimagining the world’s ancient and diverse tea drinking customs for modern tea drinkers,” you might think some third wave tea gag cannot be far behind. But we’re actually citing the article for this line:

The Bay Area loves its coffee, but there is a certain sameness to its coffeehouses.

Nearly three years ago we noted the problem of espresso sameness at Bay Area cafés. Namely: a select few roasters are typically dominating espresso purveyors at the high end, the roasting styles tend to be very similar among them, a select few espresso machine models are used to pull these shots, and still very few places offer the option of different coffees for your espresso.

Is tea the new water?

But the article then flirts with the ridiculous through the statement, “it’s too early to call tea drinking a trend that will replace espresso anytime soon.” Ah, the old “is tea the new coffee?” adage — for which there are over 7,000 citations on Google dating back to 1994.

We’re not sure how a beverage that has been consumed for thousands of years — and is the most widely consumed beverage in the world after water — could ever qualify as the new anything. But some wannabe journalists will try to fabricate a social trend out of breathing oxygen if they could.