January 2012

Monthly Archive

KQED Forum gives some radio love to Bay Area coffee

Posted by on 10 Jan 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Yesterday morning, KQED radio aired an hour-long Forum segment featuring a small round-table of SF coffee “luminaries”: SF’s Coffee Innovators: Forum | KQED Public Media for Northern CA. The panel included James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, Eileen Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and an unusually quiet Jeremy Tooker, of Four Barrel Coffee.

What? Coffee talk that isn't exclusively a podcast?Much like the title of its associated Web page, the radio program played out like your typical coffee innovator/”third wave“/bleeding-edge routine that we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. While a bit heavy on the Coffee 101 — particularly when callers asked common FAQ-type questions that have been answered on the Internet 20,000 times over already — KQED produced a good program overall.

Some of the more interesting comments included Eileen Hassi stating that “San Francisco has better coffee than any other city in the world” — with the only potential exception being Oslo, Norway. We’d like to think so, and there’s a bit of evidence to back that up.

James Freeman noted Italy’s “industrialized system of near-universal adequacy,” which is a different but accurate way of summing up our long-held beliefs that outstanding coffee in Italy is almost as hard to find as unacceptable coffee. Other covered topics included coffeehouses eliminating WiFi, Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum inventing the latte, the Gibraltar, and even James Freeman designating home roasting as coffee’s “geeky lunatic fringe.”

The rumors of home coffee roasting’s meteoric rise have been greatly exaggerated…

Samples of green coffee beans for pre- or post-home-roast blendingWhile it’s worth noting that Mr. Freeman started as a home roaster, recent media coverage of home roasting has been a bit bizarre. To read it in the press these days, you’d think home roasting were at its apex rather than continuing its gradual decline towards its nadir. This despite numerous media stories covering it over five years ago as some hot new trend.

At the 2006 WRBC, we were perplexed by the complete lack of home roaster representation among the event’s attendees. (Namely, any home roaster worth his weight in greens would have been giddy over the reappearance of the Maui Moka bean. Nobody there even noticed.) And yet by 2009 we noted a real decline in online home roasting community activity, and we wrote about some of the underlying reasons for it.

South India coffee

Indira Darshini in Bengaluru makes decent South Indian coffeeCuriously enough, the first caller to the radio program (at 12’12” in) mentions a recent trip to South India and his interest in South Indian coffee. I’m posting this from South India — Bengaluru (née Bangalore), to be precise. And I have to say, I’ve become quite fond of both South Indian coffee and the South Indian coffee culture.

Sure, they prefer it sweetened and with hot milk (that often has a skin still on it). The coffee is often cut with cheaper chicory and is brewed with a two-chambered cylindrical metal drip brewer — not unlike a Vietnamese brewer or an upside-down version of a Neapolitan flip coffee pot. But damn, if this stuff isn’t good. Even better, there’s a culture of regular coffee breaks that would be familiar to many Mediterraneans.

South Indian coffee at Indira DarshiniWe’ve reported from India before, but only from the North — which isn’t known for a strong coffee culture beyond young people frequenting chains that emulate the West. Bengaluru is home to the Coffee Board of India, and this weekend I hope to head out across its state of Karnataka to visit origin at the Kodagu district. Also known as Coorg, this district grows a good amount of India’s good coffee. (Yes, they even grow really good robusta there. Just ask Tom Owens of Sweet Maria.) Details certainly to follow…


Trip Report: Toby’s Coffee Bar (Point Reyes Station, CA)

Posted by on 02 Jan 2012 | Filed under: Fair Trade, Foreign Brew

A New Year’s Non-Resolution?

First, a Happy New Year to everyone. I may be in the camp that believes celebrating January 1 is about as arbitrary as celebrating March 6 as “New Year’s Day,” but I can still appreciate much of the sentiment behind it. Namely: leaving the past behind and trying to set a better course for the future.

Which brings us to our Trip Reports — the last of which I wrote in October. Over the past year, I’ve become embarrassingly self-aware of the kind of social monster I’ve contributed to (and even helped create). Namely: the problem of mobile device zombies. We’re written before about the cultural blight of laptop zombies, but the mobile device zombie has also reached rather epidemic proportions.

From the January 2, 2012 New Yorker magazine

It’s become that much harder to enjoy the vibe of public spaces without an acute awareness of zombie armies staring into their mobile devices, each dutifully penning their Foursquare check-ins, Yelp reviews, and Facebook status updates — if not also photographing everything put on the table. Things sort of reached critical mass for me when I found it impossible to enjoy pupusas at my favorite neighborhood El Salvadoran dive without encountering at least one table of gringo hipsters glued to their mobile phones, penning some kind of check-in or review.

Yet my guilty streak runs long. Nine years ago I was tapping in review notes into my old Palm Vx at various cafés for this Web site. Back then, I was just a freakish novelty that my coworkers would parody. But today it seems nearly everyone is guilty of some form of mobile device zombiedom, and witnessing it is a bit like a horrific visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. Engrossing ourselves with our mobile devices has become something of a public ritual or rite by which we consume anything in the public spaces of society.

The big joke being that all this is classically a First World Problem of the highest order. Even so, there’s something to be said about making a conscious effort to be present and experience life in the first person — and not through some application on your mobile phone. Being the type that dismisses New Year’s resolutions, I really can’t say what this means for any Trip Reports here in the future. But I can say I am keenly aware of contributing to the problem.

West Marin and Toby’s Coffee Bar…

One place that still seems relatively untouched by the mobile device zombie invasion is West Marin County. Thanks to a low population density and a rugged coastline, mobile phone networks like AT&T continue to offer one of their best services: an excuse for why you cannot be reached by the outside world while you’re out here. There are still major dead zones for voice calls, and 3G Internet access seems about as far off as astronauts landing on Mars.

Entrance to Toby's Coffee Bar and the feed lot along the wall of the post office Prayer flags adorn the feed lot entrance where Toby's Coffee Bar resides

It’s still Marin County, so you can’t escape the crystal healers and obsession with Westernized yoga. Stare a few locals in the eye, and you’ll undoubtedly find a few who choose to believe that Stevie Nicks is still spinning in gauzy robes as a member of Fleetwood Mac.

Not surprisingly, the coffee options in West Marin are generally heavy on the organic and Fair Trade sourcing but light on quality. One of the better exceptions is in the tiny town of Point Reyes Station.

Toby's Coffee Bar: step right upToby’s is something of an institution in the area. It’s a general store with a rear feed lot — complete with haystacks, bags of feed, strings of prayer flags, and — you guessed it — a neighboring yoga studio. It’s at the entrance to the feed lot, sort of sharing a wall with the town post office, that you’ll find a kiosk window branded as Toby’s Coffee Bar. There are a few picnic tables and other outdoor tables in front. You can also buy organic baked goods, newspapers, and teas.

Using a newer, two-group Nuova Simonelli machine inside their small service cubby-hole, they pull shots of Taylor Maid Farms in saucerless cups (which seems customary for West Marin). It comes with a dark brown crema, small bubbles, and a lighter heat spot. As espresso shots go, it’s deep and dark: no fruit bombs here. It has a nuttier flavor mixed with cloves and other herbal pungency and is served as a default double shot.

Read the review of Toby’s Coffee Bar in Point Reyes Station, CA.

Working the two-group Nuova Simonelli inside Toby's Coffee Bar The Toby's Coffee Bar espresso