October 2010

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Barefoot Coffee Works / Roll-UP Bar (San Jose, CA)

Posted by on 25 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

This past weekend, Barefoot Coffee Roasters celebrated their seventh anniversary. While the San Francisco Coffee Wars have clearly overlooked the South Bay, we’ve frequently traced some of our favorite coffee experiences back to this small microroaster and their tiny chain of cafés. Besides their flagship café in Santa Clara, they have recently expanded to a couple of small kiosks in San Jose. One of which we visited this past weekend.

Having lived in Palo Alto for four years during the early 1990s, I used to joke “in Palo Alto, diversity means owning a Macintosh.” While there’s more to the Peninsula and South Bay than strip malls and residential sprawl, those are two of the reasons we don’t go back. One of the reasons we do go back is if said strip mall or residential sprawl hosts a Barefoot location. Barefoot’s Roll-Up Bar falls in the latter category.

This ain't the new Brady Bunch, it's Barefoot Coffee Works The garage: the Barefoot Coffee Roll-Up Bar in San Jose

Espresso machines and coffee supplies inside the Barefoot Coffee Works Unroasted green beans inside Barefoot Coffee Works

Co-located with the Barefoot Coffee Works (the new home of Barefoot’s roasting operations), the Roll-Up Bar is literally located at the garage door at the end of a massive driveway. If that sounds rather residential, it’s because it is. Located in pretty much a house that is only lacking a basketball hoop in the wide driveway, this is a casual spot not far from the Shark Tank where locals can enjoy great coffee in what feels like someone’s gated front yard.

If you’re driving here like most people, just be prepared to look for a morning house party serving coffee. The neighbor next door currently sports a rather elaborate Halloween yard decoration, then commemorating the impending doom for the Philadelphia Phillies. (Even if San Jose has their own Giants.)

There are a few benches in front for seating, but otherwise it’s a limited set of stools at a small wooden counter bar set up for Hario V60 pour-overs plus an ornate, copper-plated, three-group Victoria Arduino lever machine. In back there are a couple of Probat roasters, a lot of storage shelves, a cupping room, and plenty of unroasted coffee.

Cupping room inside Barefoot Coffee Works Beans from the trade inside Barefoot Coffee Works' cupping room

Probat roasting in Barefoot Coffee Works Roast profiling inside Barefoot Coffee Works

For their 7th anniversary celebration, Barefoot did the crazy thing and gave out free coffee all day long at all of their locations. But rather than offer only their everyday, less expensive coffees, to their credit they poured a lot of their special supplies. Besides serving their Bolivia Cup of Excellence #29 Flor Rosa (with three days age) at the pour-over bar in notNeutral Bangladeshi cups, they were also serving this coffee (normally at $24/12-oz) as their single origin espresso.

The resulting cup was fragrant, with a medium brown, even layer of crema in their classic dark brown ACF cups. It’s single origin overboard — with a sharp, acidic sweetness tasting of berries, honey, and a light molasses. This is straight-out brightness bomb espresso that would make most Italians recoil in disgust. But if you’re into that sort of thing, and we sometimes are, it’s rather exceptional. However, we need to update this review at some point with a more “typical” shot from this location.

Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Roasters’ Roll-Up Bar in San Jose.

Coffees on display at the Barefoot Roll-Up Bar The coffee-loving local patrons at the Barefoot Roll-Up Bar

Hario V60 pour-over bar and Victoria Arduino lever machine at the Barefoot Roll-Up Bar The Barefoot Roll-Up Bar espresso made with Bolivia Cup of Excellence #29 Flor Rosa


The ever-popular Starbucks customer archetype article is back!

Posted by on 21 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Starbucks

Fourth from the left: the writer archetype of those typing Starbucks customers?If we had to come up with a top 10 list of overdone coffee-themed articles in the media, one of them might have to be the top 10 coffee shop customer archetypes. BusinessWeek joined the fray in this week’s issue: Coffee Kinesiology – BusinessWeek.

BusinessWeek asked a panel of behavioral experts to evaluate and report on the “taxonomy of the 10 most common Starbucks waiting-line stances.” The study stuck to Starbucks (you mean there’s coffee anywhere else?) and to a lone Manhattan location (you mean there’s anywhere else?) to come up with their research. They also came up with ridiculous quotes about coffee costing $5.50; apparently inflation has hit the ever-popular $4 coffee myth.

That said, we still prefer the Five Types of Morning Coffee Crazies. Though earlier this week, Flavorwire posted a suitably racist version: Flavorwire » Stereotyping You By Your Starbucks Order.


How we wish coffee was treated more like wine

Posted by on 18 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

The Age wrote a rather unfavorable opinion of coffee pairing in one Melbourne restaurantToday’s The Age (Melbourne, Australia) published a less-than-convinced article on the experimental fad of pairing coffees with a meal: Claire’s roast: Coffee matching leaves bitter taste. And Melbourne is a town that famously knows its coffee.

For me, the lingering question had been whether the concept of matching food to coffee would work…and based on my experience last week, I think the answer to that question is no. [The coffee] … didn’t bring out the best in what we were eating. Nor did the food bring out the best in the coffee.
–Claire Winton Burn in The Age, 19-Oct-2010

Individual efforts can fall short where others might succeed. But as a general rule, we’ve long thought that this coffee pairing concept made about as much sense as pairing cigars with a meal. (Though we always ask for coffee after dessert anyway.) It’s yet another shoehorned manifestation of the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee.

Of wine blending & varieties

For all the folly of marketing coffee like wine — instead of like, well, coffee — there are times we wish coffee professionals would treat coffee more like wine. For example, single vineyard wines are often very expressive and interesting. But there’s nothing wrong with a rich, traditional Bordeaux — or what a négociant does for a Burgundy wine. On the more modern side, the same is true for a good GSM Rhône blend.

Not available in pinot noir flavorBut unlike wine, blending remains a very bad word in quality coffee these days — what we’ve referred to as Death by Single Origin. Blends are treated as if no sane person of any reputable taste in coffee would ever ask for them. That blends only exist as a crutch to create consistent tastes from crop to crop — and not to offer a broader, more complex flavor profile. You may as well ask your barista for vanilla hazelnut flavored coffee.

Then take coffee roasting levels. Insisting exclusively on a specific lighter/medium roast level (aka, Medium Röaster Cult) — and those origin greens best expressed at those roast levels — is akin to only offering pinot noir on a restaurant wine list. Pinot noir is easily my favorite wine varietal, but what if I wanted a Cabernet Sauvignon? A Riesling? Even a Barbera? It’s as if many microroasters were wine stewards telling us, “Sorry, all we got is pinot noir, because it’s the best.”

Coffee’s quality trajectory plateau

Public coffee standards experienced a significant leap in quality over the past decade because there was a lot that needed improvement. This gave the impression that the sky was the limit — that new doors of quality could be opened at any turn — thus even innovation-obsessed magazines such as Wired started writing about coffee as if it were on some space-bound quality trajectory. Gadget hounds, and a gadget-obsessed media, followed suit.

On the other hand, wine hasn’t improved much at all over the same period. Wine has already experienced centuries of improvement and refinement, so winemakers have instead focused on tailoring it to public tastes at specific price points. Wine has plenty of gadget advocates, but you will never find a Wired article on making Bordeaux, for example.

Lacking the centuries of obsessive quality practices that wine has experienced, coffee still has room to improve. However, that space-bound quality trajectory? Let’s face it: there’s been a major leap on some dysfunctional foundational basics to reach a new quality plateau — basics like quality bean sourcing, freshly roasted coffee, and trained baristas — but the rest has been incremental at best. Some supposed improvements, like machine pressure profiling, have materialized as more lateral moves than any quality advancement per se.

Unlike trajectories, plateaus lack any of the hype and exhilaration to keep an audience fully engaged. But there should still be plenty of interesting, rational things to write about without proclaiming the arrival of fourth– and fifth-wave coffee. Winemakers may not have to face the naïve and presumptuous question of “What is the future of wine?” with every interview — as if modern man might not recognize what we call wine in the year 2020 — but there’s still plenty to say.


Espresso in the Azores (São Jorge & Pico)

Posted by on 16 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

It had been eleven years since I last visited the Azores. A remote archipelago of Portugal, this small group of volcanic islands — isolated in the middle of the Atlantic — is the very verdant-but-austere birthplace of my in-laws. Since my last visit, Portugal converted from the escudo to the Euro, tying the country more closely to other Western European standards of living. A number of Azorean emigrants to America found its spartan island lifestyle of stone houses and no utilities now forgiving and modern enough to move back. And I started coffee ratings Web site.

A blog post was inevitable.

“I think the Azores must be very little known in America. Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them.”
–Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), 1877

Sunrise on Pico, the mountain on Pico island Old vineyards protected by volcanic rock walls on Pico island, overlooking Faial island

Statue of Henry the Navigator in São Roque, Pico, overlooks São Jorge island across the channel Side street in Lajes do Pico, Pico

“You’re going to the Ozarks”?

Mention the Azores to most people, and they might think you’re talking about the Ozarks. Discovered in the 1400s by Portuguese explorers, the isolation and remoteness of these islands gave rise to resilient settlers and, later, some value as a transatlantic weigh station. Some locals still speak Portuguese with an accent that might be more familiar to a 15th century Portuguese explorer than a 21st century lisboeta.

Past and present homes near Calheta, São JorgeHowever, there are a few references to these islands in popular culture. Besides an economy predominantly based on agriculture and fishing, the Azores once supported an active open-boat whaling economy until the practice was outlawed in 1984. Herman Melville, in his infamous 1851 novel Moby-Dick, wrote about the many hardy whalers from these islands aboard Capt. Ahab’s Pequod — a ship that almost gave Starbucks its name until a co-founder vetoed it in favor of the Pequod’s first mate. (You knew there had to be a coffee tie-in somewhere.)

“No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores.”
— Herman Mellville on the crew of the Pequod, Moby-Dick, Chapter XXVII

Turning their underdeveloped remoteness in the Atlantic to an advantage, these islands have more recently begun to focus on ecotourism. One can often think of the Azores as Portugal’s equivalent to Hawai’i, but a Hawai’i long before its tourist economy appeared. In one of the world’s better examples of economy conversion, open-boat whaling has given way to open-boat whale watching. Meanwhile, the maritime themes that inspired Moby-Dick still live on in local imagery, the names of commercial establishments, and even a local version of the mobile coffee cart.

Backside of the Moby Dick II mobile café in Lajes do Pico Easy whale access to the Moby Dick II mobile café in Lajes do Pico

A symbol of Lajes do Pico whale watching at sunset Portuguese brickwork in front of the Moby Dick II café, Lajes do Pico

Of Pico Island & São Jorge Island

The presence of whales and the history of whaling is most acutely felt on the Azores’ Pico Island. In addition to visiting Pico (a first for me), I spent more extensive time eleven miles across the ocean channel on my return to nearby São Jorge Island (aka, Land of My In-Laws). This narrow, 35-mile-long island has only about twice the land mass of San Francisco and is home to a mere 10,000 residents — plus some 20,000 cows who contribute to the island’s famous cheese production.

São Jorge from Sete Fontes - as seen on the Ocean Mist WordPress theme - with Pico behind Some of São Jorge island's many bovine residents

If the Azores are remote to begin with, the quiet island of São Jorge is even more isolated — even if some bloggers might unknowingly recognize its distinctive landscape from a semi-popular WordPress theme. In the previous season of his food/travel TV show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visited São Jorge and dined in the tiny fishing community of Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo — a town that is still only accessible by foot, by fishing boat, and (only just recently) by ATV. Mr. Bourdain wrote of the village, “Totally remote, no power, no running water, no TV, no phone … gorgeous. Best meal of the trip but hairy getting there.”

“When I say this place is isolated, I mean end-of-the-world isolated … 2100 miles from New York City, 900 miles from Portugal, and God only knows how far from anything resembling civilization. It feels about as far from any place as you can possibly be.”
–Anthony Bourdain on Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Island; No Reservations, Season 6, Episode 4

Fajã dos Cubres and Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo and its lake filled with the local amêijoas, or clams

Church at Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Hydrangeas are abundant on the Azores and are a regional symbol

Changes since 1999

For centuries, São Jorge, like the rest of the Azores, has been characterized by austere, maritime frontier living carved into rock and sea … and by its self-sufficient country folk living in simple-but-immaculate dwellings overlooking beautiful green cliffs and blue ocean. But there were noticeable changes since my last stay. Some of these changes were welcome progress. Other changes — particularly those from expats returning from America with a little too much cash to flaunt — weren’t as good.

In 1999, many buildings in the main village of Velas looked worn and run down. Today they show signs of reconstruction and a fresh coat of paint. A number of municipal buildings and facilities have been either modernized or recently constructed — newly paved roads, modernized island airports with free Wi-Fi (sometimes the only place on the island), investments in wind power, etc. In 1999, the Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo looked largely abandoned, in slow decay, and “governed” by feral children (Lord of the Flies style) whom I then jokingly called “The Children of the Clams” — in reference to the locally famed amêijoas de São Jorge clams that come only from its tiny lake. Today there’s an influx of people, adults even, with a number of surfers who have since spruced things up a bit and made it their home.

Shoreline of Velas, São Jorge, with modern municipal building and Pico in the distance Residences in Velas, São Jorge

From the same seaside cabin I stayed in 11 years ago along the tiny Porto dos Terreiros, I again heard the familiar yet bizarre nighttime call of the cagarro, a regional seabird. But on Friday nights that sound is now mixed with the sounds of Portuguese karaoke down at the new unnamed bar at the shore.

Surprisingly, the food has gotten much better here too. Dining in the Azores has always been a regular repeat of the same, limited, local-but-good menu items. However, this time I got the sense that the global standards and awareness for food quality have somehow made their way ashore here: the food seems more flavorful and slightly more varied than it did 11 years ago. I even encountered the publicized concept of do prado ao prato — or “from the meadow to the plate”.

Cafe Restaurante Velense in Velas attracts fishermen to its bar Espresso set up at the Cafe Restaurante Velense bar in Velas, São Jorge

O Borges café in Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo is popular despite the broken espresso machine A Torrié espresso shot, Cafe Restaurante Velense, Velas, São Jorge

Island Coffee Standards

The coffee, on the other hand, has not changed much at all. You can look at this as either good or not so good. Combine this with the islands’ isolation, and exploring the coffee here becomes a bit of an anthropological study — not entirely unlike chain-free Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are virtually no chain stores of any kind on the Azores.

The coffee stasis here can be considered “good” because the local standards were never half-bad to begin with. This is Portugal, after all, where the tradition of good coffee and a public obsession over it is almost as strong as Italy’s. The stasis here is also good because the convenient, quality-stunted, environmentally regressive consumer fad of single serving coffeemakers has not yet arrived from continental Europe.

An Azores home coffee ritual: Sical and a Moka potYet clear opportunities for improvement exist. While the Azoreans drink their café several times a day as a fact of life and a matter of social discourse like any other good Portuguese citizen, there is something of a cultural split over milder coffee served at home in the morning and the more serious, big pants coffee served in the afternoon or evening. Morning coffee at home is often café cevada (café de cebada in Spanish) — a sort of mild, granular instant coffee made primarily from grain (literally: barley) and typically served with larger quantities of milk. While not terrible, it’s not at all like the serious coffee served in homes from Moka pots (and the occasional pour-over) later in the day. All separate from the many commercial cafés selling the various Portuguese coffee drink staples — from the bica (the typical espresso shot cost €0.50, or about $0.70) to café pingado to the garoto to the galão.

The more cautionary tale when being invited to someone’s Azorean home is that it’s customary to break out delicious pastries but also the family moonshine — typically a homemade angelica fortified wine or an aguardente brandy. Often very good, often served from a re-purposed liter-sized plastic soda bottle, and often something to make one pace themselves and their social calendar.

Azorean espresso machines and coffees

Nicola - if only it weren't just available on TerçeiraLike any other import, the distribution of roasted coffee and espresso machines is severely limited in the Azores. Portuguese machine manufacturers, such as Fiamma, were far more prevalent than in continental Portugal — despite the occasional two-group La Spaziale. And while we’re huge fans of Portugal’s Café Nicola coffee, it is essentially unavailable on the islands of Pico and São Jorge. The much busier, more cosmopolitan Azorean island of Terçeira hosts a number of Nicola-branded cafés — plus the lone international airport in the area — but that almost seems wasted on the locals; as a local saying goes, “Terçeira drinks tea, São Jorge drinks coffee.”

On the islands, Sical is the king of coffee — both in cafés and on retail store shelves, in whole bean and ground forms (5 Estrellas Clássico at €6.90/kg, or about $4.35/lb). I repeatedly came across Sical so often that I got music stuck in my head — disturbingly, it was the otherwise-unintelligible opening chants in the French Tecktonik remixes, and 2007 Eurotrash fad, of Yelle’s “A Cause Des Garçons.” While not necessarily poor coffee, Nestlé acquired Sical in 1987, and nothing of artisan value has ever survived in Nestlé’s mass production clutches. Otherwise, there were a number of Torrié cafés and the occasional Delta Café.

While it is generally quite difficult to find poor espresso on the Azores, it is next to impossible to find a café that stands out from the crowd as anything exemplary. Hence why all the café reviews are left here as a list rather than individual blog posts. About the only stand-out you might find are the places that end-to-end grow their own green coffee (rather unique for Europe), process the beans, roast them, and serve them to their café customers — a true bean-to-cup example, as it were. Café Nunes, in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes, being one such example.

Looking below on the tiny village of Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge Café Nunes in Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge

Inside Café Nunes, Fajã dos Vimes Café Nunes espresso, Fajã dos Vimes

Coffee plants behind Café Nunes, Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge Communal gather at a café in São Roque, Pico

Name Address Island Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Aeroporto de São Jorge Café Aeroporto de São Jorge, Estrada Regional R1-2a, Fajã de Santo Amaro São Jorge 6.50 6.00 6.250
Águas Cristalinas Rua das Poças, São Roque do Pico Pico 5.80 6.20 6.000
Café Ilhéis Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Urzelina São Jorge 6.90 6.80 6.700
Café Nunes Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Fajã dos Vimes São Jorge 6.70 6.50 6.600
Cafe Restaurante Velense Rua Conselheiro Doutor José Pereira, 5, Velas São Jorge 5.40 6.00 5.700
Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo Largo do Cais, 4, Calheta São Jorge 6.00 6.20 6.100
Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo Av. do Livramento, Velas São Jorge 6.40 5.20 5.800
Fornos de Lava Travessa de São Tiago, 46, Santo Amaro São Jorge 6.60 6.20 6.400
Lajes Airport Café Aerogare Civil das Lajes, Pedreira – Lajes Terçeira 7.30 6.20 6.750
Manézinho Restaurante Caminho do Açougue, Urzelina São Jorge 6.40 7.00 6.700
Moby Dick II Rua Manuel Vieira Soares & Rua Engenheiro Arantes Oliveira, Lajes do Pico Pico 7.20 6.80 7.000
O Milénio Snack-Bar Rua do Corpo Santo, 21, Velas São Jorge 6.70 7.00 6.850
Pastelaria Aroma & Sabores Rua do Capitão-Mor, 9, Lajes do Pico Pico 7.10 7.00 7.050
Restaurante Castelinho Caminho das Ávores, Urzelina São Jorge 6.70 6.80 6.750
Restaurante Lagos Largo de São Pedro, 2, Lajes do Pico Pico 6.70 7.20 6.950
Restaurante “O Baleeiro” Rua São Pedro, Topo São Jorge 6.70 6.80 6.750


Is that “Bean to Cup” … or “Bean AND Cup”?

Posted by on 14 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Fair Trade

Particularly since the late 1980s, the plight of the coffee farmer has not been a pleasant one. Public awareness of this major problem gave rise to mitigation strategies such as Fair Trade and Direct Trade. A couple months ago, you may have seen the press releases for Traceable Coffee.org — a project of Pachamama, a global cooperative of coffee farmers, that enables consumers to trace their purchased coffee to the farmer, to hear their stories, and to offer them additional financial support in the form of a virtual tip jar.

Sure, these aren't the only faces of the global coffee trade...In their own words, “TraceableCoffee.org brings consumers face-to-face with coffee farmers and lets them tip their farmer for a job well done.” While the cause is noble and the intentions are good, TraceableCoffee.org symbolizes another gross oversimplification of bean-to-cup philosophy and how the coffee industry actually works.

Of origin nations and consuming nations

Much like the Tyranny of the Barista effect, which oversimplifies the coffee supply chain in consuming nations by identifying almost exclusively with the barista, there is a sort of corollary in coffee producing nations that identifies almost exclusively with the farmer. So instead of bean-to-cup, what we end up with is bean-and-cup — or an obsessive focus at both ends of the supply chain but a complete blindness to everything that goes on between the two.

On the one hand, this blindness might not seem any more harmful than creating a family tree with only yourself and Adam & Eve on it. But there are potentially harmful effects. A documentary like Black Gold laments that a farmer receives only $0.03 on a $3 cup of coffee, and the implication is that all the other contributors of coffee’s supply chain — from coffee pickers, sorters, washers, truck drivers, dockworkers, etc. — are merely parasites out to starve the noble farmer. “Let’s bypass the evil, greedy middlemen,” the Fair Trade cry implies.

Of course, a major percentage of the cost of a cup of coffee comes from the consuming country after the green beans arrive in shipping containers. But before we demonize all these shippers, dockworkers, truck drivers, buyers, roasters, and baristas, we must acknowledge the enormous cost-of-living gap between origin and consumer countries and how that affects labor costs. In fact, the very existence of this gap is a major reason why we even import coffee to begin with. Longshoremen in Guatemala and America may have vastly different costs of living and the salaries to match — even if their quality of living isn’t all that different.

With just a 1% share of the retail price on a cup of coffee, coffee farmers clearly don’t get a fair shake. But the story of the global coffee trade is much, much more than just farmers and baristas. Even if we don’t expect to see virtual tip jars for Colombian truck drivers anytime soon.


Survey says…

Posted by on 12 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

When I was a biomedical engineering PhD student at Berkeley, a wise veteran lab partner once told me, “Statistics allow you to suggest anything you want. Just start with a conclusion and find a pattern in the data that fits to confirm it.” I’m reminded of that every time I read about research studies published in the media, and when it comes to coffee there are plenty of examples.

Media consumers just love to look at themselves in pollsOf course, there’s all the health-related coffee research — which, with each decade of fabricated conflict and controversy, grows ever more dubious. However, this time we’re talking about the popularity poll. Our self-curious society loves to play Family Feud with itself, and, in terms of ready-made readership and distribution, these popularity polls rank up there with those “which U.S. states are the most obese?” articles. (As if to prove this point, we’re going to add to that phenomenon here.)

Coffee as a favorite yardstick for consumer devotion

In just the past week, we learned from a poll sponsored by the Wi-Fi Alliance that “a week without Wi-Fi would leave us grumpier than a week without coffee or tea.” Meanwhile, we also learned from a survey sponsored by Filterfresh Coffee Service Inc. that most people would “give up their cell phone before their coffee.” But rather than connecting the two to suggest that we’d dump our cell phones in a heartbeat for a week of Wi-Fi, about the only reliable conclusion you can draw from these surveys is that the mobile phone lobby was behind on their research study suggesting the opposite.

This past week were also treated to market research from Mintel suggesting that future coffee consumption is in for a major decline because the younger generation doesn’t drink the stuff. Quoting the cited article in the UK’s Independent:

To target younger drinkers Mintel’s senior analyst Bill Paterson suggests new products are needed to “convert these younger drinkers to everyday users”; otherwise, “long-term growth may suffer.”

The research shows 40 percent of 18-24-year-olds “prefer sweetened coffee drinks to plain coffee… compared to only 22 percent of 45-54-year-olds.”

If this reads like a lame retread of the 1980s, which spawned “innovations” like flavored coffees made to appeal to younger consumers hooked on sugary soft drinks, it’s because it is a lame retread. But should this honestly come as a surprise? Whether it’s the 1950s or the 2010s, how many older adults do you know still eat Super Sugar Bombs™ cereal as a breakfast staple? Or still consume alcohol in the form of drinks with names like “Sex on the Beach” or “Purple Hooter”? The favored flavor palate of younger people has always been different from that of older adults, but if you’re selling product research and advice… if it’s new to you, right?

I am pleased to report that in my own informal survey, 100% of respondents believe that you can construct your surveys to pretty much say anything you want to say — while meanwhile being at liberty to ignore reporting anything you might discover to the contrary.

UPDATE: March 21, 2011
In case anyone thought we were joking about the arbitrary nature of surveys, just a few months after this post comes a new proclamation that: Young adult Americans increase daily coffee drinking | Reuters.

All of which leads us to only believe more in this 2006 piece: Consumers Rebel Against Marketers’ Endless Surveys | News – Advertising Age.


But it didn’t start in the Mission District…

Posted by on 06 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

A viral video is going around these days on “The Coffee Wars of San Francisco”. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek with its Ken-Burns-documentary-style humor — though that largely reminds us of how much Ken Burns can lull us to sleep like a bottle of brandy.

While the mockumentary oscillates between the mildly funny and the painfully overwrought (and sorry, 7×7, we don’t see the connection to BlueBottleGate), we have to bite our tongue when it comes to its historical inaccuracies. Such as suggesting Ritual Coffee Roasters was the start of a new era of SF coffee snobbery. In fact, it was the touristy Ferry Building Marketplace‘s Frog Hollow Farm — then under heavy influence of Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman — that arguably first kick-started a coffee revival in this town.

Even this ignores that CoffeeRatings.com‘s #1-ranked coffee shop during that era was the defunct Café Organica, located North of the Panhandle. And that even today, on the basis of the actual coffee alone, our favorite Bay Area purveyor is based in a very hipster-unfriendly strip mall in Santa Clara, conveniently located next to various mattress shops that you’ll never need after all that caffeine.

But even if San Francisco is already so abruptly short on its memory of its recent coffee history, mockumentary or not, we’re happy that there are even jokes of a “coffee war” — i.e., that there is good enough coffee in this town to at least have a war of words over. This was a vision that still seemed well out of reach as recently as 2003.


SF NIMBYs target coffee, too

Posted by on 04 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

San Francisco has elevated NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) to an art form. We can be such petty, whiny bitches in this city when it comes to the realities of business and commerce. It’s a complete wonder that anybody is allowed to make a living at all in this town — let alone that any amenities are permitted here. In addition to more recent examples like the Ike’s Place sandwich shop saga, we now have Dolores Park’s BlueBottleGate: An Open Letter from Blue Bottle to the Dolores Park Community – San Francisco Restaurants and Dining – SFoodie.

Last year, Petaluma NIMBYs showed how they wanted it both waysYes, it seems that some folks in the Dolores Park community feel violated that big, bad purveyor of all things exploitative (please note sarcasm), Blue Bottle Coffee, had the outrageous gall to submit an RFP to SF’s Parks & Rec Dept. without first offering animal sacrifices in their divine honor. Blue Bottle’s crime? Offering to operate a mobile coffee cart in Dolores Park.

Why not invite Dow Chemical to set up shop and establish a future Superfund site, right? I know I will sleep better at night, knowing that our children and walked dogs will be safe from exposure to such commercial profanity and the unsightly blight of decent neighborhood coffee.

UPDATE: October 20, 2010
Time to boycott coffee merchants in Dolores Park? Some local circles suspect a few Dolores Park coffee purveyors were employing scare-and-fear tactics to prevent competition — a tactic we’ve seen in other SF neighborhoods when new small businesses planned to move in. Whatever the source, it appears they have succeeded in getting Blue Bottle to pull their proposal: Blue Bottle Coffee backs out of Dolores Park deal : City Insider.

Perhaps café owners in Dolores Park can breathe a sigh of relief that they might not have to improve their coffee standards for just a little while longer…before the inevitable.


Kona coffee gets an article worthy of its pedigree

Posted by on 03 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade

A friend of this Web site, Andrew Hetzel, called it the best article about Kona coffee ever written. That’s a pretty tall order. But this piece, which came out a couple days ago, makes a compelling argument: Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines – Adventures in Coffeeland. It’s at least good enough to make you forget that it was published in a in-flight airline magazine (Hawaiian Airlines).

A couple of our Kona green bean suppliers mentioned in the articleWhat makes this article a lot better than the others of its kind is that it looks beyond the usual marketing spin for both the good and the bad, it draws out some essential observations about the market opportunities and challenges for Kona coffee growers, and it goes into sufficient depth on some of its subjects. The author even dogs on Island Lava Java — where we cut them a little slack for some improvements on our last visit.

Another friend of this Web site, Shawn Steiman, is cited in the article and offers one of its many good quotes: “One lesson I’ve learned is that what coffee geeks consider the best coffees aren’t all that cherished by non-coffee geeks.” For another great quote from the article:

For all its urban faddishness, coffee is still a Third World crop, picked mostly by subsistence laborers in Latin America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Hawai‘i, meanwhile, is the costliest state in one of the world’s costliest nations, a tough place for an agrarian enterprise these days, as the sugar and pineapple industries can attest. With wages for Big Island pickers many times greater than those of their counterparts in developing nations, Kona coffee will always be overpriced; or perhaps the rest of the world’s coffee will always be underpriced.

Of the coffee industry insiders we’ve long known, Kona coffees have earned a reputation for both quality and for being overpriced. But there are real-world reasons behind that. It’s a good lesson for the many conscientious types who gripe about coffee companies needing to pay living wages and offering health care to their employees — but who are often the first to rebel against the coffee prices necessary to pay for all of that.

The focus of the article is on Kona. But as we wrote in an earlier review on Big Island coffee, there’s plenty of other coffee growing regions to explore on the island.