September 2011

Monthly Archive

Andrea Illy on Fair Trade, barista training, and coffee pricing

Posted by on 22 Sep 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Fair Trade, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Media profiles of Illycaffè‘s Andrea Illy are commonplace. But this one from today’s The Guardian (UK) is better than most: Andrea Illy: family businessman who’s raising the bar for premium coffee | Business | The Guardian.

Andrea Illy gives us a grin and some designer Illy cupsFor one, Mr. Illy talks about the importance of pricing and brand positioning. Regardless of what you think of Illy coffee, offering discount promotions and specials is incongruous with establishing it as a luxury item. You don’t lure customers with a come-on for a cheap fix; you lure them because they want to treat themselves. Discounts cheapen that image and position you for the coffee misery market.

He also notes how Illycaffè ensures that resellers of its coffee have the right equipment and are making it properly, retraining staff if necessary. While this is critical for the perceived quality of any roaster whose coffee beans are served in third-party establishments, our data suggests that Illycaffè has fallen far short of living up to these ideals — at least in the U.S.

Back in 2009 we made a comparison of our espresso scores among cafés with common machines, common roasters, or common chain brands, and we used the standard deviation of these scores as a measure of inconsistency. Illy coffee rated much more inconsistently than different Starbucks chain stores — which are notorious themselves for their very poor consistency.

“[Fairtrade] is about paying a higher price for the same goods” — Andrea Illy

Consistent with an interview four years ago, Mr. Illy finishes the article with a couple of good contrarian, somewhat incendiary quotes about Fair Trade. For one: “[Fairtrade] is about paying a higher price for the same goods. That is against the laws of supply and demand.” Another: “consumers pay more for Fairtrade because they want to feel good. It’s about solidarity not quality. Why not give to the Red Cross?”

All of which echoes many of our thoughts about the rather trendy role of “Corporate Social Responsibility” in business today, where consumers seem to prefer to outsource their charitable giving to third-party businesses rather than donate directly themselves. As we always ask: don’t tell us you’re going to donate 10% of the sales proceeds to charity. Give us that 10% off, and let us take responsibility and decide who and how much to donate with the extra savings. You’re my coffee roaster, not my Foundation.


Travel + Leisure Poll: “Your city’s coffee sucks,” tourists tell locals

Posted by on 17 Sep 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

We used to write more regularly about the steady stream of meaningless, unscientific coffee polls that frequently fill the pages of magazines, newspapers, and Web sites. We got tired of writing incessant rants about how the polls were poorly constructed and lacked any stated criteria nor methodology, and most assuredly you all certainly tired of reading them. What’s different this time — with Travel + Leisure magazine’s recent “America’s Favorite Cities” poll — is that they’ve provided just enough data for us to reexamine and draw some different conclusions.

Travel + Leisure sells a lot of magazines with inter-city dick measuring contestsYou may recall Travel + Leisure‘s America’s Best Coffee Cities poll earlier this year. The magazine also conducts an annual reader poll to appeal to the insatiable human appetite for what is essentially a city-by-city dick measuring contest. Coffee is one of their polls’ rated subjects, and Seattle couldn’t wait three hours yesterday before bragging about their measurements.

However, that’s not the interesting part of this story. Although it may be just another popularity contest, Travel + Leisure not only compiled numeric polling scores for each city, but they also segmented the scoring between “residents” and “visitors“. Our idea was to simply compare a city’s score between the two audiences and rank cities along those lines. We call it, “Which U.S. cities are the most delusional about the quality of their local coffee?

Coffee Cities Most Overrated by the Locals

The winner of this dubious honor, by a significant margin, was Anchorage, Alaska. There visitors ranked the town’s coffee nearly two-thirds of a point lower, on a five-point scale, than what residents rated it. At the other end of the spectrum, Miami clearly ranked tops in the “locals just don’t appreciate you enough” category. Perhaps all those Cuban expats still believe that the coffee tastes that much better in their former homeland, and yet the tourists wonder why they are complaining.

Travel + Leisure ranks America's Favorite Coffee CitiesSan Francisco ranked in the middle of the pack at 17th out of 35 cities for most overrated by the locals. However, the most telling figure was that 28 of 35 cities were rated lower by tourists than by the locals. Just look at all the red in the right-most column in the table below.

Of course, local residents should know best where to get the good coffee. Meanwhile, tourists often either have no clue, play it safe by frequenting only the bland-but-recognizable coffee chains, or never venture into the good coffee neighborhoods. For example: when is the last time any of our SF resident readers actually visited Fisherman’s Wharf? And do you realize how bad the coffee is there?

Another major pattern in the data is — with the exception of Anchorage and Portland, ME at the very bottom — much of the American South got General-Sherman-style ravaged by their tourist scores, suggesting that tourists think the locals are a bit full of themselves. In any case, here are the numbers…from the most underrated by the locals to the most overrated:

Coffee Cities Most Underrated by Locals?
Rank City Visitor Rank Visitor Score Resident Rank Resident Score Vis – Res Rank Vis – Res Score
1. Miami 27 3.73 32 3.55 -5 +0.18
2. Washington, D.C. 19 3.94 29 3.83 -10 +0.11
3. San Antonio 29 3.58 34 3.5 -5 +0.08
4. Denver 6 4.33 13 4.26 -7 +0.07
5. Chicago 15 4.04 21 4.01 -6 +0.03
6. Boston 17 4.02 22 3.99 -5 +0.03
7. Providence, RI 4 4.52 6 4.52 -2 +0.00
8. New York City 5 4.34 11 4.37 -6 -0.03
9. Portland, OR 2 4.77 6 4.85 +0 -0.08
10. Honolulu, HI 26 3.77 27 3.86 -1 -0.09
11. Seattle 1 4.82 1 4.92 +0 -0.10
12. Atlanta 24 3.82 24 3.92 +0 -0.10
13. San Diego 12 4.07 18 4.18 -6 -0.11
14. Philadelphia 25 3.79 25 3.92 +0 -0.13
15. Minneapolis/St. Paul 10 4.18 12 4.32 -2 -0.14
16. San Juan, P.R. 14 4.05 17 4.19 -3 -0.14
17. Las Vegas 32 3.44 31 3.59 +1 -0.15
18. Savannah, GA 7 4.25 10 4.41 -3 -0.16
19. San Francisco 3 4.53 3 4.70 +0 -0.17
20. Phoenix/Scottsdale 21 3.88 20 4.06 +1 -0.18
21. Kansas City 28 3.71 26 3.90 +2 -0.19
22. Charleston, SC 13 4.06 14 4.26 -1 -0.20
23. Los Angeles 20 3.91 19 4.13 +1 -0.22
24. Dallas/Fort Worth 34 3.32 33 3.54 +1 -0.22
25. New Orleans 8 4.24 7 4.47 +1 -0.23
26. Austin, TX 9 4.20 8 4.43 +1 -0.23
27. Orlando, FL 33 3.44 30 3.71 +3 -0.27
28. Baltimore 31 3.53 28 3.85 +3 -0.32
29. Memphis, TN 35 3.15 35 3.47 +0 -0.32
30. Nashville, TN 16 4.03 9 4.42 +7 -0.39
31. Salt Lake City 30 3.54 23 3.93 +7 -0.39
32. Santa Fe, NM 22 3.85 15 4.26 +7 -0.41
33. Houston 23 3.83 16 4.25 +7 -0.42
34. Portland, ME 11 4.14 4 4.60 +7 -0.46
35. Anchorage 18 3.95 5 4.55 +13 -0.60

New Coffee Concept Makes Roasting Obsolete

Posted by on 16 Sep 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Roasting

Today’s installment for comic relief Friday comes from a regular blog reader here (espressophile): New Coffee Concept Makes Roasting Obsolete | Roaster Project.

Green coffee needs latte art too. From the Roaster Project.This comic piece from the Roaster Project is highly buzzword-compliant (“fourth wave”, etc.). Part of its premise is that if third wave coffee is “barely roasted,” the next stage is to not even roast the green beans at all — otherwise damaging the coffee’s delicate expressions of micro-lot terroir.

The piece also offers a few quotable gems, including:

  • “We buy micro-lots from farmers, so that one can taste the nuances, such as milk thistle, oregano, and lamb’s ear.”
  • “At the Aloof Coffee Bar, we value customer service. The most important thing we can do for a customer is to educate them.”

Its crowning image of green coffee latte art is also sure to be great inspiration for future Coffee Fests.


A Standardized System of Coffee Critic Terminology?

Posted by on 09 Sep 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

The infamous coffee flavor wheel, borrowed from the wine worldFor this installment of comic relief Friday, we bring you the coffee critic wheel. You’re probably well aware of the coffee flavor wheel, which borrowed heavily from the wine aroma wheel in the wine tasting world. However, you might not be aware of wine vintner Janet Trefethen’s (of Trefethen Family Vineyards) Standardized System of Wine Critic Terminology, which became a somewhat infamous joke among winemakers a decade ago: Wine critics’ rating system gets mixed reviews – SFGate.

This wheel divides reviewers into two camps: those who “gave us good review” and those who “gave us bad review.” Because the act of critically evaluating wine is so subjective, from there the wheel gets into descriptors such as the celebrated “Gifted Palate / Brilliant” to the less flattering “Acerbic / Half-Witty” to the absurd “Wordy / Sesquipedalian”. The great thing about this wheel is that you can merely replace the word “wine” with “coffee,” and the wheel stills suits any of us foolish enough to judge the merits of a given coffee.

The Standardized System of Wine Critic Terminology - works for coffee too

The tyranny of the critic’s flavor palate

We were recently reminded of this wheel by one of our favorite California winemakers, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards. A former school teacher, Wes takes a highly academic approach to his very low profile, small-estate wine growing operations in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. (He gives a killer vineyard tour if you’re ever in the area.)

Wes also appreciates a flavor profile in his wine similar to what we appreciate in coffee: less of an overbearing emphasis on bold fruit and sharp tannin flavors (think Sightglass, Stumptown‘s Hairbender, etc.), and a greater appreciation for subtlety and more secondary characteristics that lurk beneath the surface (think maybe 49th Parallel). Given his appreciation for the poetic, Wes likens this philosophy to what makes a beautiful woman. Some are of the supermodel variety: absolutely stunning on the surface, but vapid on the inside (and given few social reasons to develop otherwise). Whereas a perhaps less outrageously stunning woman with charm, wit, culture, and heart can ultimately outshine the supermodel lot.

Wes Hagen at Clos Pepe - he literally sells wine out of an air-conditioned garageAlthough not entirely accurate, the world’s most famous wine critic, Robert Parker, is sometimes characterized as something of a connoisseur of “supermodels.” His palate is so influential that his scores have been known to make or break wineries. So much so that many winemakers and wine lovers have often complained about the Parkerification of wines — i.e., the monotonous tailoring of wines specifically to Robert Parker’s palate in the hopes of earning a higher score from him.

Because Mr. Hagen emphasizes more secondary characteristics in his estate wines, it had been several years since he submitted a vintage for review to Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate newsletter — namely because Mr. Parker’s palate just didn’t “get” what his wines were about. But with a new, highly respected reviewer at The Wine Advocate who might appreciate his wines (Antonio Galloni), Wes submitted his most recent vintage and scored exceptionally well. This inspired his recirculation of the wine critic terminology wheel.

The lesson here is that no palate is right or wrong; it’s about calibrating your own tastes to the known preferences of others. For example, we have some readers of who will scout out coffeeshops we haven’t yet reviewed and they often guess what we would later rate it — typically coming within 0.2 rating points of accuracy from what we would later rate it. That kind of consistency is perhaps the best we can hope to achieve here.


Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea joins Stumptown in the ownership-for-growth club

Posted by on 08 Sep 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Today’s New York Times reported on another chapter in this year’s ownership-change-for-funding-for-growth saga of quality independent coffee chains: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Asks a Friend to Help It Grow – This past May, the subject was Stumptown Coffee Roasters — generating quite a bit of angst among many loyalists who cried “sell-out!” This time the subject is Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, whose expansion plans seem to have stalled or required less-than-ideal compromises.

Hockey stick growth needs cash among today's coffee eliteIf 2010 was the year of the Great Coffee Rush — where prospecting independent roasting/coffeeshop elites in the West packed their covered wagons and migrated East to help fill a gaping quality coffee void — 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the investment, merger, and acquisition. The article notes Intelligentsia’s 2009 acquisition of Ecco Caffè — and, more importantly, how its planned Potrero Hill roasting operations have yet to materialize.

Of course, when was the last time that a major roasting operation in San Francisco didn’t materialize months, if not years, behind the original schedule? (Think Four Barrel, Sightglass, etc.) Even so, it’s becoming clear that as the quality independent coffee industry has matured, the next stage of its evolution now requires wealthier investors to fund their ambitions.

UPDATE: October 31, 2015
Sure enough, within four years both Stumptown and Intelligentsia sold out to Peet’s Coffee & Tea: Hipster coffee swallowed by Peet’s chain.