As we mentioned in our last review of a remote Martinez, CA coffee house: good coffee is everywhere. In fact, the modern boom in good coffee purveyors is akin to the boom of mom & pop video rental stores in the 1980s and ’90s. And as some of these small businesses grow a little larger to form local chains, they’ve become a little like the current surge in home solar installation businesses. The local demand is there and the barriers to entry are generally low.
While the ubiquity of good coffee has its obvious benefits for coffee lovers, it also raises the spectre of market saturation and business sustainability. As good coffee houses open everywhere, they’re no longer rare nor special.
Earlier this month, in response to news of Verve Coffee Roasters planning to open a future location in SF’s Castro District, SFist asked a newly valid question: “Hasn’t the Castro reached Peak Coffee”?
SFist is probably being a little alarmist before we have to worry about carpet-bombing-levels of good coffee in the neighborhood. Verve would have something a little different to say than the others already there, but the nagging old question of espresso sameness comes up. I would be particularly concerned if someone was planning to open yet another coffee shop serving Blue Bottle from La Marzocco machines just like the seven others within a three-block radius.
But in such a saturated environment, discovering a new coffee house with something a little different to offer can be a draw. Sometimes you have to go as far out as Martinez to find something that unique.
Opening in the latter half of 2013, Mountain Grounds is in the middle of nowhere but is unique enough, and has high enough quality standards, to make it well worth a visit. If nothing else for the uniqueness of its coffee sourcing.
Located in a Martinez strip mall of four stores (what else are you going to find outside of old downtown Martinez?), it’s a tight space inside with window counter seating in front and hardly a few seats next to the service counter. Outside there are a few café tables along the sidewalk under the strip mall porticos — along with a couple of lounging chairs and a heat lamp.
Owner John Cassidy and his wife, Danielle, gregariously operate this shop. One of John’s longtime friends is Gary Theisen of Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings, Montana. Revel ships in the coffee from Montana every Monday. (The shop’s working business phone number also betrays John’s Montana roots.) Mountain Grounds also follows the unusual practice of prominently designating their coffee options by their growing altitude (1900m, etc.).
Mountain Grounds follows some creative small-town practices, such as accepting orders via SMS text in advance. (Easier to handle with low volumes.) They also offer a variety of specialty coffee drinks, including crème brûlée lattes (set aflame before being served for the crispy top) and the S’more. At one side of the cramped shop is a menu on the wall titled “A Taste of 3rd Wave Coffee Shops”, which features a double ristretto, a 1 ‘N 1, a macchiato, a cortado, a cappuccino, and a con panna.
They pull espresso shots from a newer two-group Nuova Simonelli with a modest layer of even, medium brown crema with good coagulation. There’s a fruity brightness in the cup of cherry and berry, but a lack of the apple-like acidity that you might find with typical coffee from newer Cali roasters (e.g., Sightglass). This makes it a unique and rather balanced cup.
Milk-frothing here is pretty even. They offer weight-measured Chemex and pour-over coffee. The shop’s loyal following includes those who also take home Revel beans, which are packaged in clear plastic drinking cups with lids. With no real sink in this tiny shop, coffee drinks are served in paper only except for large ceramic logo cups for the bigger milk-based drinks.
Read the review of Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA.
If you are a coffee lover, you’re probably already well aware of the online coffee courses offered by Seattle’s ChefSteps. That is, unless you’ve been holed up in Guantanamo or you avoid most social media like the time-sucking plague that it is (though I do, and yet I couldn’t avoid the subject).
This week coffee legend James Hoffman blogged about the latest ChefSteps course he’s involved with, and today we’ve already witnessed the promotional marketing for it bleeding out to publications such as Eater and Food & Wine — complete with obligatory use of the word “perfect” in their article titles.
To read the general press and discussion about publishers like ChefSteps, you’d think we were entering a revolutionary era of coffee education. But having taken ChefSteps’ free Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, and having a lot invested in the subject of how online education works (and does not work), I’m just not feeling the love. At least yet.
Let me explain. To begin with, I also need to start with a little about my “day job”. For over the past three years, I’ve been the co-founder and president of an online education start-up. We raised several million dollars from Khosla Ventures, a heavy investor in education technology, where Vinod Khosla himself sat on my board of directors. The only other board he served on was Square, so we were fortunate to have so much of his attention. (Side note: Khosla Ventures has more recently purchased the start-up outright for integration within its educational portfolio that includes the CK-12 Foundation, etc.)
Coincidentally, representing this start-up at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 is how I first encountered Blossom Coffee. And for those of you who have seen the brilliant HBO show, Silicon Valley, TechCrunch Disrupt is exactly like that.
Now the mission of this start-up may have been teaching users to program rather than to make latte art, but many of the frameworks and principles apply regardless: delivering educational content online, complementing lessons with resources such as online video, embedding discussions and interactions with the faculty and other students throughout the course, etc. Thus, over some years of experience, I’ve learned a few things about what’s good, what works, what’s revolutionary, and what’s — well — not so much in online education.
First: ChefSteps’ content. Taking their Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, I didn’t come away learning anything I didn’t already know. But as an introductory course, that’s to be expected. The videos, hosted on YouTube, are slickly produced and include legit instructors: Charles Babinksi, of G&B Coffee (he’s the ‘B’) and a former USBC finalist, and Scott Callender of La Marzocco Home.
The chief questions I struggled with as I took the course: was the material any better than any book or series of online articles I’ve read before? Same question for the videos. And did all of that help me learn something? My answer was generally “no”, or at least “not really”.
CoffeeGeek legend Mark Prince chimed in last week on a little of his mixed experiences with ChefSteps — at least regarding the “Espresso Myths” videos in the course. So let’s take the video on crema myths:
Now ChefSteps’ byline is “cook smarter”, but being “smarter” usually involves a more thorough effort of evaluating multiple perspectives, checking out references, and maybe performing a little analysis on all that before drawing hard conclusions. What we have instead in this “crema myths” segment (at 1’11’) is Scott Callender saying this:
“I think one of the best examples of that is Italian roasters include robusta into their blends simply to add this really thick, dark crema on top of their shots so it looks beautiful. But if you ever just taste a single origin robusta, most people would not tell you that tastes like a very good espresso.”
— Scott Callender, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
I can almost get past the fact that Scott has essentially stereotyped an entire coffee culture by suggesting that Italian roasters blindly add robusta to blends for the sole purpose of enhanced visuals. But what really makes my eyes roll is that Scott dismisses the idea that anyone might add a robusta component to a blend for something as insane as flavor balance or complexity.
Scott’s attitude is also rooted in the Puritanical myth — common to many myopic self-described Third Wavers — that the ultimate expression of coffee can only be found in a coffee bean’s genetically and geographically isolated single-origin, single-farm, single-row-of-shrubs heritage, unadulterated by external contaminants. This is essentially a lite version of Adolf Hitler’s purified master race doctrine as applied to coffee. And yet some of the greatest pleasures of coffee today come from an incestuously muddled history of genetic and geographic mash-ups; mash-ups that have given birth to everything from Bourbons to Catuais to Caturras to SL28s to SL34s to Typicas to even prized Gieshas transplanted to Panama as recently as 2000.
Charles Babinksi (who later uses big words like “quotidian”) then adds to this deconstructionist nonsense at 3’40” in the video:
“Also, it should be noted that crema tastes terrible. It’s one of the least enjoyable parts of drinking coffee. And more crema is not necessarily going to mean a tastier shot.”
— Charles Babinksi, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
While Charles is factually correct, what he says reflects a deconstructionist and non-integrative approach to thinking — i.e., that any component that isn’t good individually in isolation is therefore potentially negative, detrimental to quality, and/or not important. This line of thinking borders on implying that nothing can be better than the individual sum of its parts, which is just plain wrong.
As Charles points out later in the course, in Taste the Extraction, progressively tasting an espresso extraction highlights how it transforms from sour-through-bitter notes and yet they all balance out in the end. That balance is arguably one of the most critical elements to a quality espresso and coffee in general: sour is important, sweet is important, salty is important, even bitter is important, and the balance between them all is what makes the beverage we obsess over.
I’m all for dismissing unnecessary espresso myths, but in the process you shouldn’t be creating new ones in their place.
Where the course excels is in introducing the “three legs of the espresso stool”: brew ratio, brew time, and brew temperature. Again it’s nothing that hasn’t been repeated before dozens of times elsewhere on the Internet (despite many student comments in the course to the contrary), but it’s summarized well in a concise place and format.
Overall the course is a bit short and superficial (hey, it’s free), serving mostly to improve general awareness rather than to teach any skill, method, or technique. Segments such as Pulling a Great Shot, for example, do very little towards the mission of actually teaching. Instead, it repeats a lot of minimalist common knowledge to a soundtrack of lounge music more suitable for getting a hot stone massage at a spa:
Last, we come to ChefSteps as a concept and overall learning format. Here’s where that rubbish about the day job kicks in. Is what ChefSteps offers any different or more effective than a book with a supplemental DVD of videos?
The threaded comment section to engage with the instructors and fellow students is helpful, but it feels a little wonky in the context of a course. It’s optimized more for commenting on Facebook posts than to facilitate any actual learning exchange, but it’s the easiest and most obvious thing to do in the early stages of any start-up learning platform. There are also Quartz-style contextual comments, but they barely get used.
The support component of any course — where students have questions or challenges that veer from the linear narrative of the program — is essential to its effectiveness. It is a core differentiator from merely reading a book or watching a video. One of my most critical insights was that many learning platforms are designed primarily as modified content delivery platforms, and support is often bolted on as an afterthought. My start-up’s platform was initially built around content delivery rather than support delivery, and effective learning platforms often require the reverse.
In other words: it’s the support, not the content, that’s often the primary driver of learning value. We choose university courses more for the professors and TAs than we do for the textbooks they use.
However, the primary glaring omission from ChefSteps as an effective learning platform is its complete lack of assessment or evaluation capabilities. A few years ago the Gates Foundation developed a compelling universal data model to represent learning systems and environments. While not yet made public, it was extensively shared among many tech-minded educators as a potential learning blueprint. In this fundamental data model, learning resources are paired with assessment or validation resources, and the pairs are typically combined in a sequential series. That much is so fundamental to the human learning model that the Gates Foundation proposed it as a standard.
And it makes obvious sense when you think about it. What education is there without quizzes or tests, midterms and finals? The human brain simply does not learn in the absence of useful feedback, without tightly integrating the practice of the very things you are supposedly learning.
You can only go so far learning to play a piano just by reading a book and watching videos. Hearing how you actually sound playing a piano — or better: having your piano teacher assess your performance — is the only way to know if you’re really progressing.
Hence why Charles Babinksi wisely suggested that ChefSteps streamline, if not eliminate, the course’s latte art section: teaching such a skill with the platform would be something of an abject failure. But without any assessment in the mix, you might make the same case for the entire course overall.
So it remains that ChefSteps is a nice reading resource, but it offers nothing you couldn’t recreate on Facebook other than its paywall. Accept it now for what limited reference value it provides. Any actual online education is a long, long ways off still.
Skillshare, as with Chefsteps, fails to integrate a feedback loop for students to gauge and measure their progress and success — thus making Skillshare also no more of a learning platform than a Facebook page sitting behind a paywall.
“You can find good coffee just about anywhere these days.” That’s been something of a mantra of ours over the past few years — whether it’s to question the point of archaic-yet-always-cited “America’s Best Coffee Cities” surveys in popular media or the need for coffee travel kits. Yet another case in point is my brother’s longtime home town… the Contra Costa County outpost of Martinez, CA.
Martinez is an old Gold Rush town, located some 35 miles from San Francisco on the south side of the Carquinez Strait. Its small-town legacy includes John Muir’s home from 1890 (and home to the John Muir National Historic Site) and unconfirmed rumors as the birthplace of the Martini. There are also confirmed rumors of Martinez as the birthplace of Joe DiMaggio — before he came to be known for/as Mr. Coffee … and for his slugging percentage as a New York Yankee and an abusively jealous husband.
I’ve found at least two notable places to get coffee in Martinez in recent months. The first, Barrelista, was formerly a coffeeshop named Legal Grounds. This downtown Martinez corner coffee house was opened in February 2014 by the owners of the popular Barrel Aged bar/restaurant across the street.
The place has a funky, independent coffeeshop vibe — but without being run-down, cheap, and skanky as is the case with many less-than-urban independent coffee shops. (And many in cities for that matter.) There are a couple of benches for seating outside in front on a Main St. parklet. Otherwise, inside it’s a cozy spot with a lot of decorative, unique tables and chairs.
It’s not as stuffy as a stereotypical downtown Martinez antiques shop, but it’s much nicer than your typical thrift store. There are mirrored walls, there’s an old bicycle on the wall, and there’s even a shiny metal National cash register at the service counter. A collection of board games keeps some of the locals occupied.
They sell panini, pastries, and sweets in addition to their coffee, which comes from Four Barrel (they also sell their beans retail). Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the side of the service area, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema of little detailed texture but yet good thickness.
It’s a modest pour, and it has some of the characteristic Four Barrel brightness but without it being overwhelming. There’s a pleasant roundness to the cup — a fuller mouthfeel accompanied by a decent blend of flavors from herbal pungency to mild spices and cinnamon to some apple-like acidity on the finish. Served in multi-colored Cost Plus World Market cups and saucers. The milk-frothing here is a bit wet and restrained, and yet their cappuccino runs very milky here — like a latte. They also do a decent job of trying their hand at latte art.
A solid espresso that would be worthy most anywhere. But there’s another notable Martinez coffee shop review to come…
Read the review of Barrelista in Martinez, CA.
One of Blue Bottle Coffee‘s great challenges today is to continue growing with the success of their coffee and café operations while avoiding becoming a commodity: a boilerplate coffee shop with a flavor profile so consistent that it becomes a little monotonous and boring, despite its obvious quality. Back in 2007 we wrote about Blue Bottle’s role in the Bay Area’s budding espresso sameness fatigue.
Coincidentally, that reference was in an article about Piccino Cafe — which has since closed, reopened to a larger restaurant space, and switched from Blue Bottle to Sightglass roasting. Sightglass has also since opened a second roasting operation in the Mission District where they immediately addressed the sameness concern by roasting and offering select coffees that aren’t available at their other locations.
Just a few blocks from the second Sightglass roastery is this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet located inside the garage door of a Heath Ceramics production and retail warehouse. The location suits Blue Bottle’s alliance with Heath, and it also offers another unique space for them to operate. Even if Blue Bottle has yet to diversify their coffee offerings as much as the smaller-scale Sightglass.
Off to the left in this space is the in-house Blue Bottle retail café, with a decent-sized service counter, a lot of shelf space dedicated to whole bean sales, and a rear shelf of merchandising. To the center is the café seating area, adorned with the warm colors of wooden benches and chairs for seating inbetween the café and Heath’s production plant residing behind glass windows.
The area is decorated with succulents and tall white ceilings with a lot of exposed pipes. At the service counter they employ a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. Going just a little off what was expected at the visit, they served espresso using their Colombia Las Margaritas Red Bourbon Honey single origin roast instead of their traditional three-bean blends. This gave the cup a bright fruitiness that shown throughout the cup — or disrupted the balance, however you perceive it.
The flavor is sharp: mace, cloves, and bright spices. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and is served with a small glass of sparkling water on the side in a Heath Ceramic cup (of course).
While it’s a very astringent cup, at least they are experimenting beyond the expected at some of their cafés. Even if we had to deduct a few points for the annoying hipster barista who insisted on calling our shot a “spro”. (The groan-worthy “spro” being the #yolo of coffee vernacular.)
Read the review of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company at Heath Ceramics in SF’s Mission District.