February 2010

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Caffeinated Comics Company

Posted by on 27 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Coffee is as universal a beverage as you can find in this country, and yet countless special interest groups seem to identify with coffee as it were their own exclusive thing. This identification may have a lot to do with a modern culture that values hype and hyperactivity — and associates that most with caffeine and coffee. As for exclusivity, who isn’t subject to today’s active lifestyles? Perhaps there is nothing more quintessentially American than a mass market of people who all somehow believe that they are uniquely different from each other.

For example, take the ubiquitous dot-com and tech industry workers in the region: the Bay Area’s equivalent of the Detroit auto worker. These folks (and I’m one of them) are marinating in tiresome coffee-themed product and technology names. It’s gotten so bad, there’s even a joke product name generator on the Web that has a coffee-themed option.

Approaching Caffeinated Comics along Mission St. Caffeinated Comics' coffee come-ons

We’ve also written previously about the whole velo set — i.e., bicyclists who lay claim to coffee as their official beverage. But espresso bars show up in the strangest of places these days: laundromats, video stores, runners shops, bicycle shops, motorcycle shops, gardening supply stores, pirate radio stations, churches, kinky erotic shops, and now we have the comic book store.

We can only see the coming wave of espresso bars in yarn shops/knitting stores, Bikram yoga studios, nail salons, and pet shops with doggie espresso bars for Fifi. We already have political activists now calling themselves the Coffee Party. With the baseline standards of up-and-coming coffee shops reaching a recent plateau in quality, perhaps the best way for a new one to differentiate themselves and garner attention is to now fetishize it.

Graphic Novelty

This comic book store and espresso bar sits several doors south of the California unemployment office on Mission St. They offer seating among several benches outside along Mission St. Inside there are several old, diner-style small tables and chairs. Plus a lot of plastic-wrapped comic books.

Inside Caffeinated Comics you can find, well... A professional imortalized in 'The Simpsons'

Besides the racks of comics and toys, there’s a two-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the front counter with Four Barrel beans for sale on the side. They pull espresso shots with the Friendo Blendo blend, and here they do a very good job with it: a healthy, darker brown layer of crema and a strong brightness to the cup (which is actually made of glass and metal). It tastes of some wood, spice, and pepper blended with earthier notes. One of the better Four Barrel shots served outside the mothership.

Read the review of the Caffeinated Comics Company.

Caffeinated Comics' La Marzocco GB/5 The Caffeinated Comics espresso


Yountville Espresso

Posted by on 19 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Restaurant Coffee

It’s the kind of statement sure to earn protests from many a New Yorker: some consider Yountville, CA to be the culinary capital of America.

An outrageous assertion? Not necessarily. At the heart of the Napa Valley wine country, Yountville is home to what many call the nation’s greatest restaurant in The French Laundry. It also boasts a number of great chefs in the area — from Thomas Keller to Richard Reddington to Michael Chiarello (aka Top Chef: Masters‘ second-place winner).

But unlike New York City, Yountville is an odd town that spends most of its time pretending to be somewhere else — making it more like Las Vegas in this regard. Rather than celebrating the unique qualities of the Napa Valley that surrounds it, Yountville practically tells its visitors that they would rather be in France or Italy.

The French Laundry gardens in Yountville The faux Tuscan Villa that is Yountville's Hotel Luca

Welcome to Yountville: Please Hold Your Nose and Pretend We’re Provence™

For example: the Bordeaux House hotel, odes to Provence in the Maison Fleurie and Vintage Inn hotels, streets such as Burgundy Way, and restaurants such as Bistro Jeanty and the aforementioned French Laundry. Is it France? The Vintage Inn Web site even leads with the promotion: “The most romantic week we ever spent in Provence…was the one that we spent…in Yountville.”

Or take the Italian themes of of the Villagio Inn & Spa, the Tuscan villa of Hotel Luca, Cantinetta Piero, and Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant. Is it Italy?

My mother-in-law lived in “downtown” Yountville in the early 1960s, right on Mulberry St.. Back then, Yountville was covered with fields. You could go an entire day without hearing a car go by. In the Napa Valley, wine was still more than a decade away from being any sort of notable business — let alone a cultural phenomenon. So when life in the sticks gave way to romanticized images of vineyards and exquisite restaurants, Yountville responded with aspirations of class and culture through faux Eurotrash associations.

Perhaps train yards, mills, and Wappo Native Americans don’t carry the same elitist class as Europe’s famous wine-growing regions. But playing a schizophrenic, second-rate imitation of Europe isn’t very convincing either. This copycat behavior mirrors what many in the coffee industry have been doing by shoehorning coffee as a second-rate substitute for wine.

Vintage 1870 - now known as Yountville's V Marketplace Cups & Cones - no, it's not Madonna's lingerie shop but a longtime stalwart in Yountville's V Marketplace

What happens to espresso in a food-obsessed town without any chain coffee shops?

Which brings us to the point of this post: the coffee. In Carmel-by-the-Sea we asked the question, “What happens to coffee in a town that bans Starbucks?” Here in Yountville, we asked the same question — but with the additional angle of being surrounded by this town’s notable food & wine credentials. In a town celebrated for its high cuisine, will the local standards for espresso improve at the local restaurants and cafés?

When it comes to espresso, American restaurants have always had a horrible track record. But like Carmel, we found that some of the best espresso in Yountville came from its restaurants. Unlike Carmel, we found the baseline standards for espresso to be generally decent overall.

That’s not to say that Yountville is without its surprising duds. Thomas Keller may be a fabulous chef, but his standards for serving coffee are rather poor given everything else he serves. We’ve written previously about some of the more cop-out choices they made for The French Laundry, but our recent test results of the espresso at his Ad Hoc were outright unacceptable.

Bardessono and the Yountville Coffee Caboose both represent places that looked to some of the Bay Area’s most famous roasters to raise the the bar. And although their preparation standards aren’t entirely up to par, they are good enough.

Not all imports are bad, however…

Bottega's two-group BOSCO machine at the barMore noteworthy is Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant. While the place exudes the kind of singles pickup scene you’d normally find in a bar serving Jägermeister shots along SF’s Union St., there’s no questioning how serious they are about their espresso.

Bottega sports a two-group lever Bosco machine at the bar — only the third one we know of in the entire greater Bay Area — and coffee beans from Seattle’s Caffé Vita (perhaps America’s chief supplier of Bosco machines). This kind of espresso pedigree is anything but a casual or accidental decision. It’s particularly surprising given the clientele: all that effort seems lost on so many naïve customers. We literally saw customers send back their menu order of the “whole fish” in disgust because they had never seen a fish served with a head and tail on it before.

Coincidentally, our Yountville hotel room offered a Nespresso Essenza C100 machine. Every time we tried to make espresso with their Roma capsules (the least foul of the lot), we could not get over how much it literally smelled like tuna.

Name Address Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info] Last Reviewed
Ad Hoc 6476 Washington St. 4.20 5.50 4.850 2/14/2010
Bardessono 6526 Yount St. 7.70 7.80 7.750 2/13/2010
Bottega 6525 Washington St. 7.60 7.50 7.550 2/13/2010
Bouchon 6534 Washington St. 6.60 7.20 6.900 2/13/2005
Bouchon Bakery 6528 Washington St. 6.00 7.20 6.600 12/13/2005
Cantinetta Piero 6774 Washington St. 6.80 7.00 6.900 2/12/2010
Cups & Cones 6525 Washington St. 6.20 7.00 6.600 2/13/2010
French Laundry, The 6440 Washington St. 6.10 7.50 6.800 12/12/2006
Yountville Coffee Caboose 6523 Washington St. 7.10 7.00 7.050 2/13/2010

Trip Report: Bardessono (Yountville, CA)

Posted by on 18 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew

For all of Yountville’s culinary celebrity, some of the best espresso in town can be found in this bizarre complex. Opening in early 2009, Bardessono is a hotel/spa/restaurant thing that seems to ooze more sculpture and running water fountains per square foot than the rest of Yountville. And that’s saying something.

The complex is LEED Platinum certified. This either means that the complex is so sustainable, it will survive like a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust … or that they’ve sold more albums than the Black-Eyed Peas. We’re still not too sure. But before you write this place off as the future home of the next Heaven’s Gate cult, just with a lot more disposable income, they offer quality coffee that you might consider worth sitting through any indoctrination meetings.

Approaching the Bardessono hotel lobby James Freeman and Blue Bottle Coffee are featured on the Bardessono hotel's marketing materials posted out front

Rooms inside the Bardessono grounds The Bardessono bar lounge

In the marketing materials posted out in front of the complex, they espouse the virtues of James Freeman and Blue Bottle Coffee — which they serve here. Once you enter in this odd block of luxury hotel units to reach the hotel bar and restaurant, you’ll discover that they largely deliver on the promise through equipment and service that meets Blue Bottle’s generally high standards.

Step into the small-but-fancy bar lounge with its hypnotic gas fireplace, and you’ll notice the two-group La Marzocco Linea parked at the end of the bar. The barista is a true barista, a bartender, and s/he pulls natural double shots with a medium-to-dark brown crema. The resulting shot is fragrant and flavorful — with a great herbal pungency and some spice. The great aftertaste and body make this arguably the best espresso shot in this food-obsessed town.

Read the review of Bardessono in Yountville, CA.

Bardessono's La Marzocco Linea at the end of the bar The Bardessono espresso


Trip Report: Yountville Coffee Caboose (Yountville, CA)

Posted by on 17 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew

At its best, Yountville is the New World epicenter for quality food and wine. At its worst, Yountville lays its claim to food & wine prominence through a fabricated culture of European fakery (more on that in a future post). One of the exceptions in town to this latter rule is this this odd curiosity of a coffeehouse.

Opening in 2009, this unusual spot is part of the Napa Valley Railway Inn — sitting on abandoned railroad tracks, surrounded by fixed train cars, and converted into a coffee kiosk that also offers pastries from the nearby Bouchon Bakery Sweetie Pies of Napa. Here there is only outdoor counter seating along a wooden counter with stools overlooking a wheelchair ramp and Washington St.

The Yountville Coffee Caboose is, well, just that The Yountville Coffee Caboose gives Ritual Coffee Roasters another Napa Valley home

At the end of the Yountville Coffee Caboose, with patrons at the condiment barThe shop promotes their use of Ritual Coffee Roasters‘ beans and pulls natural double shots. After giving your order at the order window, the next window down features their three-group La Marzocco Linea and a number of press pots.

The resulting shot — made from Ritual’s Evil Twin blend — has an even, medium-to-light brown crema with a modest thickness and not much texture. The body isn’t very thick either, but it has a good complex flavor of herbs, mild pepper, and some cedar. Served in unique brightly colored Nuova Point cups.

It is a good cup. However, given everything else of quality going into it, it should honestly be better.

Read the review of the Yountville Coffee Caboose in Yountville, CA.

La Marzocco Linea in the pick up window at the Yountville Coffee Caboose The Yountville Coffee Caboose espresso


Trip Report: Sun Stream Coffee

Posted by on 11 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

Since 2006 (if not earlier), this hole-in-the-wall café has served the Brazilian expatriate community through juices (sucos — e.g., cajá, cajú), savory pastries (salgados), and desserts (sobremesa). The non-expat patrons seem to come here to get their açai bowl freak on, which means somebody is reading all those spam e-mails. All of which puts into doubt whether Western Civilization has evolved any since Juan Ponce de León’s belief in exotic sources of eternal life. (Thank you, Oprah.)

Inside this tight space there are three café tables with stools and authentic Brazilian Portuguese speakers and soccer (futebol) on Brazilian TV. There’s a single, tiny sidewalk café table in front.

Sun Stream Coffee is right past the bold Brazilian expat come-on Entrance to Sun Stream Coffee

Using a rather dingy-looking two-group La Pavoni, they pull “cafe expresso” (sic) shots with a pale, thin crema. The staff is rather clueless about the origins of their coffee beans other than that they’re “Brazilian.” The shots are ridiculously tall — to the rim of the cup — so it’s surprising there’s much of a body at all given its watery nature. Flavorwise, their espresso tastes of muted and diluted mild spice.

Stick to the cafezinho (Brazilian coffee) instead — but even that isn’t very good. Which is too bad, because there’s a lot here to like: from the Brazilian expatriate vibe to the coxinhas. For a country that provides the world with so much coffee — and a culture that gave us arguably the greatest movie of the past decade — the coffee here is a major disappointment.

Read the review of Sun Stream Coffee.

Inside Sun Stream Coffee's cramped quarters, with the La Pavoni peeking from under the far counter The Sun Stream Coffee espresso - every bit as bad as it looks


Baristas gone wild: meet fourth-wave coffee

Posted by on 09 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

Today Salon magazine posted their take on this whole “Hey baby, what’s your wave?” coffee business: Baristas gone wild: meet fourth-wave coffee – Coffee and tea – Salon.com. We most appreciated that they wrote the article from a coffee consumer’s perspective. What often gets lost in this feeding frenzy of hyperbole is that none of the hype matters unless it directly translates to a better shot in the cup — something we’ve been patiently waiting for since before any of this Third Wave business began. (And yes, we were cited in the article.)

Salon highlights the Slayer espresso machine in their articleThat Salon used the title of “Baristas gone wild” is telling. It’s ironic that Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) originally proposed her Third Wave treatise in a way that centered on coffee appreciation — i.e., primarily a consumer-driven phenomenon. After all, if it weren’t for the discriminating coffee consumers who support the market for Cup of Excellence coffees, better barista training, and improved brewing technology, none of this would reasonably exist.

Yet the term Third Wave was quickly commandeered by coffee purveyors for self-promotional and marketing purposes. Today, it continues to be pushed to marketing extremes by baristas, espresso machine manufacturers, and the like. The coffee consumer has been shoved aside and is almost entirely out of the picture now, despite the fact that none of this could exist without us. Hence the Third Wave stopped being about how we collectively enjoy coffee; it is now used primarily by people in the coffee business as a competitive weapon to verbally sword fight with each other.

All we ask is that whatever gets hyped, it better deliver in the cup. It must be more than new toys for baristas to play with and get excited about. The good news is that there are more and more places making better coffee through a greater awareness of the basics. The rising tide that lifts all boats, as it were. But when it comes to building the better espresso shot overall, the results are far less convincing — and far more self-congratulating.


Trip Report: Mercury Cafe

Posted by on 05 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Quality Issues

This corner café looks more at home in Tucson than SF: it’s akin to adobe construction. To think this was the former home of the Octavia Lounge piano bar/cabaret.

Past a heavy wooden door and faux totem pole on entry, it has beat up, reddish wooden floors, white stone walls, beat up tables that look like they arrived from a garage sale, and eclectic music — both new and old. There are a few places to sit in this airy space, but the floorspace is limited. They offer a Melitta bar that generally slows down the service (which is mostly a good thing). Besides coffee, they’re pretty big on beer and happy hour, and they attract a rather quiet and studious clientele heavy on the vegans-with-laptops set.

The curious entrance to Mercury Cafe Inside the Mercury Cafe - with De La Paz coffee options

Using a two-group red La Marzocco FB/70, they pull default double shots. It has a reddish crema with blonde streaks and, with the De La Paz roast they were using, was about as sweet as an espresso shot gets before it starts turning bad. (“Peak sweet”?) While there wasn’t any pungency, deep body, or smokiness, it works as a very flavorful, naturally sweet espresso. Served in classic brown ACF cups. The baristas are also quite knowledgeable and can help you navigate through several great coffee options from De La Paz here.

De La Paz has oddly picked up a number of converts from the ever-excellent Ecco Caffè for some reason: the Mojo Bicycle Café, Trouble Coffee. Even so, the unassuming Mercury Cafe provides a suitable “reference coffee” location for De La Paz — not unlike Coffee Bar does for Mr. Espresso.

Does Mercury's La Marzocco FB/70 make them The Mercury Cafe espresso

There’s a lot of gymnastics going on these days in the name of “Third Wave” and even “Fourth Wave” coffee. But all of these supposed revolutionary innovations of the past few years have, in our humble opinion, done little to nothing to improve the quality of the coffee in the cup. (Even if CoffeeGeek.com’s Mark Prince believes otherwise.) They’ve done plenty to generate bombastic press coverage and give bored baristas new toys to play with, but, for example, the best espresso shot we ever reviewed remains one we had in 2003. Water, ground coffee, a filter, and gravity or pressure: coffeemaking really hasn’t changed much at all over the eons.

All the more reason we admire the Mercury. Instead of resorting to the latest coffee gimmick — the latest machine fad or the rarified siphon bar — the Mercury achieves excellence by just doing the basic things right with a great attention to detail.

Read the review of Mercury Cafe.


Vancouver’s Caffè Artigiano tackles expansion conundrum

Posted by on 03 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Today’s The Globe and Mail (Toronto) featured an article on the coming growing pains for Vancouver’s Caffè Artigiano: Coffee chain tackles expansion conundrum – The Globe and Mail.

For those unfamiliar, Caffè Artigiano still represents the best espresso shot we’ve ever had — produced by the hands of barista savant, Sammy Piccolo. Pulled in 2003, years before the Third Wave supposedly even existed, it was an abject lesson for how all the espresso-making automation in the world could never replicate Sammy’s quality control. (He tossed out the first two espresso shots he attempted to make for us — aka, sink shots.)

Caffè Artigiano's Hornby locationFor the seven years since the Canadian Barista Championship has been in operation, Caffè Artigiano has had a virtual lock on the winners. So you have to figure they generally know what they’re doing. The article interviews Kyle Straw, the current Canadian barista champion and the store manager at Caffè Artigiano’s Hornby location/mothership.

Much like its American counterpart and one-time bean supplier, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Caffè Artigiano has grown to a number of cafés in its Vancouver backyard and now seeks more continental expansion. There are currently rumors of future locations in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Just don’t expect a Starbucks-like expansion at all costs.

Forget the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games next week. We’d go back for Caffè Artigiano. First the 2006 Winter Games in Torino and now Vancouver? We can only say that Sochi, Russia has a lot of great espresso to live up to for the 2014 Winter Games.


Expansionist Consumer Reports again raids the ghetto coffee market

Posted by on 02 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

In the headlines today, Consumer Reports continues to explore the merits of ghetto coffee: Lack of excellent coffee blends: Consumer Reports | Reuters. Whereas before they chimed in on the McDonald’s vs. Starbucks debate — something we’ve always likened to a beauty contest between Courtney Love and Joan Rivers — this time their “expert” taste buds were disappointed by 37 different coffee blends available at major supermarket chains.

To confuse the story further, Reuters' article shows Turkish coffee from IstanbulOf course, we’re writing this post while sipping a press pot of some freshly ground El Salvador Nueva Granada from Barefoot Coffee Roasters. (Mmmmm.) But this is the same Consumer Reports that lavished untimely praise on Toyota last month.

Our biggest contention with Consumer Reports is that, in recent years, they have over-extended themselves from objective reviewers of consumer appliances towards more subjective arbiters of public taste. It’s one thing to judge a minivan by objectively measurable criteria such as noise levels, cabin space, engine pickup, and fuel economy. It’s an entirely different thing where, to quote the press release:

“Consumer Reports has a rating criteria in which the tasters look for specific characteristics including the flavor and aroma.”

Consumer Reports established itself on unbiased, objective reviews of vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and even home espresso machines. But lately they have been trying to become public taste-makers for coffee. This shift towards subjective analysis calls their credentials into question — particularly since we’ve found a number of dubious conclusions from their previous taste tests. It also makes us question what’s next: wine? Restaurants? Single-malt Scotch?

How is Consumer Reports any different than CoffeeRatings.com?

Do we claim to be any more qualified as arbiters of coffee taste? Absolutely not, but that’s kind of the issue. What best appeals to your taste buds or our taste buds does not follow the same kind of analysis that you’d give a child’s car seat.

So who makes the taste judgments, and how they make them, become absolutely critical. Transparency is essential, as this is the know-your-coffee-reviewers problem we wrote about three years ago. And Consumer Reports‘ model for expanding into coffee reviews — which is indistinguishable from their legacy of reviewing dishwashers — offers none of that. It’s one thing to recommend a cordless phone for its range and battery life, but it’s an entirely different thing to recommend one to eat for dinner.

What additionally concerns us is a kind of blind (and undeserved) reverence bestowed on Consumer Reports by most media outlets and consumers — many who seem blissfully unaware of their transition from objective review criteria to subjective taste-making. From another take on this survey (Why America Can’t Get a Great Cup of Coffee – DailyFinance), we also learn:

Tasters looking for “smoothness and complexity, with no off-flavors” and beans “neither under-roasted nor charred” and, of all things, “subtle top notes” were left wanting.

Sweet Maria's Moka Kadir blend evaluated on a tasting card/spider graphTo be useful to consumers on subjective criteria, Consumer Reports must frame their standards of coffee tasting to a profile to which we can each relate. What’s written above is perhaps better than no information at all. But reading this, we’ll be damned if we can figure out how our own taste preferences compare to theirs. Who actively seeks out under-roasted, charred, or off-flavored coffee? This doesn’t describe coffee profiling so much as defect-finding, making Consumer Reports less coffee tasters and more meat inspectors.

Furthermore, Consumer Reports has provided no information about their methodology and standards for evaluation. The freshness of their supplies, how they prepare their coffee, how many samples they try at a given seating — all of these factors can make a huge difference in any side-by-side comparison. (UPDATE: We at least learned they do a swish-and-spit.)

We love this stock photo from Consumer Reports because it has everything to do with how the coffee is preparedOf course, in today’s quality coffee world where purveyors and consumers are obsessing over single origin roasts, a survey of supermarket coffee blends seems about as retro and down-market as tuna casserole. Not that there isn’t an audience for down-market coffee reviews. After all, there are people who think of Joan Rivers and Courtney Love as beauty queens. We just ask that if you do these reviews, please bother to do them properly.

And with that, we leave you with one of our favorite quotes about public tastes for coffee:

If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you’d say? Every one of you would say “I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.” It’s what people always say when you ask them what they want in a coffee. What do you like? Dark, rich, hearty roast! What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard [Moskowitz], somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want — that “I want a milky, weak coffee.”

— Malcolm Gladwell [video: start at 10:45]