As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.
And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)
Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”
But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.
Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)
You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)
All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?
Coincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.
CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:
CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.
Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.
Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.
Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.
Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.
The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.
Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.
As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.
A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.
Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.
Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.
La Colombe continues to play an interesting role in the modern evolution of consumer coffee tastes. Starting in 1985 in Seattle, co-founders Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe (JP) Iberti joined forces and decided to set up their idea for a great American roaster in Philadelphia. Which was no small risk, given that Philadelphia isn’t the friendliest environment to start a froofy coffee business peddling $4 lattes. National accolades followed in the 1990s and early 2000s from many in the food journalism world — many who were simply taken aback that someone dared to do something interesting with coffee when Starbucks was presumed to be its final word.
Fast forward to today, and you can’t swing a dead cat in most cities without hitting a local microroaster who deals in Direct Trade. In terms of this absurd coffee wave business, this made La Colombe something of a genetic missing link — a kind of coffee wave version number 2.6. Given that La Colombe has not succumbed to faddish trends of trying to make all coffee taste like hibiscus and blueberries (and worst of all: lawn clippings), this has sometimes made them seem a bit passé in the eyes of many who would rather fawn over coffee’s latest Young Turks/poster boys like the K-Pop idol band flavor of the month.
Thus while a lot of industry attention has focused obsessively on “what’s next”, as if in daily anticipation of a coming Ray-Kurzweil-inspired coffee singularity, La Colombe as fallen a bit off the radar — quietly building out coffeehouses in New York, Chicago, and Seoul and establishing wholesale operations.
Opening back in the Summer of 2011, the first Chicago outlet started in the transforming neighborhood of the West Loop on Randolph St. This is an old neighborhood of butchers and meat delivery trucks … of Greek markets where students at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago knew they could buy alcohol without ever being carded. (I know this, because I was one of them.)
In the past decade, this neighborhood has transformed: giving way to luxury lofts, fine foods, dog care salons, and — shockingly — al fresco dining along the sidewalks. La Colombe is part of this new neighborhood breed. Though they also plan to open a second Chicago location in Bucktown.
This location is an open space with wood floors, wide windows that open in front, a large wooden bench, and a few café tables for seating. It’s a rather spacious place, with roasting operations taking place in the back with a sparkling, classic Officine Vittoria roaster from Bologna, Italy. La Colombe co-founder, JP Iberti, loves to roast on the same equipment put into popular use in the 1980s by Seattle’s Bizzarri family.
But that’s not the only curious device obsession here. They have a red, three-group La Marzocco FB/70 for espresso. And they recently replaced one of their grinders (for a second espresso option besides their Nizza blend) with a Alpha Dominche Steampunk 4.0 siphon brewer. La Colombe co-founder (and TV personality), Todd Carmichael, is a healthy skeptic when it comes to the latest coffee gadgetry, but he swears by the Steampunk brewer. He made a big point of it at the last SCAA conference, and all La Colombe locations are in the process of installing them.
Some coffee personalities, like Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman, are enamored with rare and elegant classics when it comes to their coffee machinery. Others, like the Morrison brothers behind Sightglass, gravitate to the newest fads available so that they may play around with them in their toyshop. Curiously, La Colombe seems to operate a little at both ends of the spectrum.
As for the Steampunk, it’s a bit of a throwback to the fleeting halcyon days of the Clover brewer. We personally found that it produces a clean cup, requires its own staffing plan, and generates a little grit at the bottom. However, it didn’t really change the filter coffee equation for us — at least for the trial we joined in with the staff that day. (Sorry, Steampunkers — we’re just not feeling the love yet.)
As for their Nizza espresso, they pull shots with an even layer of medium brown crema and a decent body. There’s an exceptional balance to the cup, with a flavor of spices, mellow pungency, and orange zest. That’s the thing so few North American roasters fail to achieve: the art and complexity of a well thought out, balanced blend. Roasters seem to forget that if you listen to a symphony, 98% of the instruments are wasted if something is screaming to the level that you can’t hear anything else.
This no-frills bakery is a sister to the St. Helena mothership that has been operating for over 80 years. We recently mentioned it as one of the cafés singled out in the recent-and-pathetic coffee listings from Zagat, but the espresso here is actually noteworthy.
There is no indoor seating, but there are outdoor benches and parasols in front — just around the corner from main building of the Oxbow Market. Obviously, breads and baked goods are the big thing here.
Several years ago, they used a two-group Grimac La Valentina La Vittoria on their supply of Peet’s Coffee. They later upgraded to a two-group La Marzocco Linea and Caffé Vita beans, making it one of the few places in the entire Bay Area we knew to offer them at the time. But in a recent blow to regional roaster diversity, in 2013 they announced they couldn’t keep up with Vita’s import costs from Seattle and were switching to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is what they serve now.
Not that we have anything bad to say about the quality of Blue Bottle Coffee. But when the diversity of local espresso options shrinks, we see that as a step backwards.
The results were actually quite good dating back to their Peet’s setup, but they are even better now. The resulting shot has an even layer of medium brown crema (which was more of a swirl of a thicker layer with Vita beans), and the once-large pour sizes have fortunately become smaller. It is still sadly served primarily in paper cups, but the shot is served short and potent in the cup with a body to match and a flavor of brighter fruit. (With Vita beans, the shot offered more herbal pungency, some smoke, and molasses — something we miss.)
Brown ACF cups are now available for cappuccino-sized drinks, but even asking “for here” at the order counter doesn’t guarantee they’ll get your order right. The staff may not seem overly comfortable in their coffee-making, but the results deliver.
Milk-frothing here is not only decent, but when combined with the milk-friendlier Vita roasts of before, the cappuccino flavor here beat out the ones poured at the nearby Ritual (even if Ritual’s foam is more smoothly integrated into the cup). But now with Blue Bottle beans, the milk-espresso contrast is less dramatic. It’s still a solid cup.
Read the updated review of Model Bakery in Napa, CA.
Opening in 2011, Jane on Fillmore took over the former Bittersweet space and changed a few things with the design. There’s an area dedicated to baking and baked goods in the back. There’s still limited seating upstairs, now just above a mounted buffalo head with an SF Giants cap. Otherwise it has retained its sunny glass storefront, several café tables and chairs, and added a large mirror behind the service area.
They formerly served Four Barrel beans, but they have since switched to Stumptown (and sell the beans retail, along with Baratza grinders and Kalita drippers). This marks a bit of a reintroduction of Stumptown to the area — after having been replaced by a number of local roasters as they’ve spun up.
They serve Hairbender and a single origin espresso option (Costa Rica Valle de Los Santos at our time of visit). Plus Chemex offerings of Panama Duncan Estate and Ethiopia Nano Challa in multiple grinders, and a drip/brew bar with a scale and dueling Baratza Virtuoso grinders.
Using a red, two-group La Marzocco FB/80, they pull shots with a darker to medium brown, even crema of decent thickness and density. The cup is no Hairbender brightness bomb, but rather a mellower yet full-flavored soft melding of cocoa powder and a melding of spice and herbal elements. Served in EspressoParts black cups (and a mismatched ACF saucer).
Their milk-frothing shows decorative latte art and even bubbles, however the foam is of minimal thickness and the resulting cup is more than a little milky with little integration between the foam and the espresso. Unless you like your caps closer to a café au lait, the espresso is the star here.
Read the review of Jane on Fillmore.