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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

Author Archives: nathanacollins

NathanSome years ago Starbucks had become such a behemoth that competing locations opened across the street from each other in lower Manhattan, and so it was that an older couple from a foreign country that escapes memory started “Mud Street Coffee” with the aim of taking back coffee from the Behemoth from the Upper Left. (By which I mean Starbucks, which is from the Northwest.)

Too bad street coffee sucks.

Last week found me in New York for work — and lots of “more please I’m jet lagged” espresso. I took the opportunity to investigate what appears to be a successful Northwest reinvasion, albeit a more understated, high quality type kind of reinvasion, featuring Seattle’s Caffe Vita and Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Day one had me headed to the Stumptown at the Ace Hotel (another new Portland institution) at 29th and Broadway, partly as a practical matter. My hotel was in midtown, and not having been in the city in ten years, I didn’t feel like dealing with the subways just yet.

The three-year old shop was a bit of a mixed bag for me, though possibly because the the vibe of the place — a strange blend of midtown suits and Portland hip, all in a bit of a physically awkward space that forced patrons to go into the hotel to sit down — wasn’t for me. On my first endeavor, I had a cappuccino with solid espresso but a thick layer of dense, overly sweet frothiness on top that took me by surprise. Subsequent macchiatos were smooth with a touch of chocolate, as they should be. Readers may be aware that I’m not a huge fan of Stumptown, but for those that are, I think you’ll be reasonably satisfied.

A slightly-out-of-focus Stumptown cappuccino in the lobby of the Ace Hotel.

By day two, I had a jones for some serious Seattle espresso — so much so that I took a cab to the brand-new Caffe Vita in SoHo, effectively paying thirty dollars for a cappuccino. My enthusiasm paid off. Low and behold, I walked in and there were Kelsey and John from Vita’s original Capitol Hill store, along with a roaster in the back of their tiny little shop on Ludlow Street. Kelsey pulled a great shot that to me was classic Vita: sharp, a touch sweet, and pleasantly strong. They’ve got a little bit to work out between the roasting, the new machine, and a spiffy new foaming tip, but they’re off to a good start. (Full disclosure: I got a couple free shots, apparently because Kelsey recognized me from Seattle. Also another barista hugged me. So I may be biased.)

Kelsey preparing espresso at the new SoHo Caffe Vita. Note roaster in the background.

The shop is pretty great, too. It’s tucked away on a side street a few blocks south of Houston Street — New Yorkers can take the M line to Delancey Street — and tiny, but with a cool little bar and a few seats in the window.

The view from Ludlow Street. Who is that strange man slouching in a three-piece suit?

Now, in fairness to Mud, I got it at some shop in the East Village where it had been sitting in a too-hot carafe for a while, and I had just come from Vita, so I was probably pretty predisposed against anything other than my one of my top-three favorite espressos in the world.

So, the Northwest may be taking over again, but before I close, I want to give a shout out to Birch Cafe in midtown, where I had a great latte with lunch Friday, and to the few other new shops that look like they’re giving serious coffee a go in The Big Apple. Keep it up!

P.S. Kelsey reports that the Echo Park, Los Angeles, Caffe Vita is due to open in six months or so! Hurray!

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NathanAbout a week and a half ago Matt B and I ventured over to Echo Park and Silverlake, two well-established über-hip neighborhoods in Los Angeles, to check out the neighborhood in general and Intelligentsia Coffee in particular.

(Incidentally, the Echo Park/Silver Lake boundary has never been clear to me. When we went adventuring, I thought we were in Echo Park, but the Intelligentsia Web site claims their shop is in Silver Lake. So, yeah. Still not clear to me.)

Matt and I set out to get a sense of the complete experience, including atmosphere in addition to the coffee. For my part, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the coffee, though the latter really challenged me to think about what espresso ought to taste like — more on that in moment.

First, the atmosphere. Compared with their Chicago shops and the Venice shop, this edition of Intelligentsia felt a lot more homey. We sat at the bar in back, but there was a nice covered seating area, and there was more of an arts-and-crafts feel to place. There was a sort of living sculpture piece on the wall, which featured some sort of evergreen sprig collage. I can’t really do it justice without a picture, but it was pretty. While the baristas were definitely hip and frequently tattooed, there was less of the suspenders and premium-but-vintagey denim uniform you see at the Venice shop. I found the baristas a bit friendlier, too, though that may have been just a matter of who we happened upon that day. Overall a pleasant place to be.

Matt ordered a cup of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. I neglected to pay attention to its preparation, but the default at Intelligentsia is the Hario pour-over, which produces a lighter-bodied and crisper coffee than some methods. We detected definite floral notes —  I think the first thing Matt said was, “it tastes like flowers,” and we detected bluebells, violets, and lavender. We agreed it had a sort of tea-like body and flavor, a conclusion that was no doubt influenced by all the flowery tastes. As it cooled, we noticed a decidedly different profile, with more acidity and spices such as coriander emerging.

I inquired about the Kenya Gichathiani espresso and was told that it tasted of tangerine, and the gentleman barista was not kidding around. In fact, a tangerine flavor completely dominated, to the point where it was not totally recognizable as espresso. It had a spicy, nutmeg sort of flavor as well. Initially I thought this would be terrible with any amount of milk, but I now think it might make a decent latte or mocha espresso. Too little milk, though, and you might have a hot, thin tangerine milkshake. It was that powerful.

In the days after I had the Gichathiani, I kept asking myself whether I actually wanted espresso to taste like that — to taste like tangerines rather than some sort of Platonic ideal of espresso. I struggle now to find the right words to describe how I feel, but I can put it this way: after drinking it, I almost immediately fell off the single-origin, light-roast bandwagon. My Northwest-born soul couldn’t help shouting, “it’s tasty, but it’s not really espresso!”

I understand of course that it is, by definition, espresso, and I understand that as a single-origin espresso, it is meant to be idiosyncratic. And it tasted good. And I believe in coffee pluralism. Perhaps it’s good to have once in a while. Day to day, maybe, if it’s right for you.

For me…well, like I said, I struggle to understand. I suppose that’s okay. That way, the quest continues.

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Nathandisagreed with the LA Times Overrated/Underrated blog recently on the matter of pour-over coffee.

The LA Weekly posted this pseudo-explication and criticism of ristretto shots of espresso, and I’m calling them out for it. More specifically, I’m hanging out with the baristas at Espresso Profeta making fun of it.

The major theme of the post seemed to be that ristretto, a way of making espresso where the shot has less volume and therefore a richer, fuller body, is a poorly defined thing and isn’t always the best way to make espresso.

Well, duh.

Anyone who’s spent time thinking about and tasting coffee and espresso knows that there are different ways to prepare it and that these different methods bring out different aspects of the coffee. And anyone who’s spent time thinking about and tasting coffee and espresso knows that they will like different methods more or less and that a different method may be better for a particular bean and roast than other methods. To say that ristretto is a “lame duck,” as the blog post argues, is just silly. It’s the right way to prepare some coffees; it may well be the wrong way to prepare others.

A couple other points. Charles Babinski from the Intelligentsia in Venice describes the difference between standard and ristretto in a bizarre and incorrect way, and he ought to know better. He describes it by saying that a standard espresso that tastes of chocolate, lemongrass, and cherry will come out as chocolatelemongrasscherry in ristretto, which I think is the wrong way to put it. Instead, different flavors will come out in ristretto, and often you’ll get more chocolate and caramel in ristretto. Knowing (and liking) Intelligentsia’s coffee, I suspect Babinski wouldn’t like espresso made that way, but that doesn’t make it a bad way to make it. It makes it a different way to make it.

Second, and credit goes to Choncey Langford from Espresso Profeta for pointing this out, the photo of the espresso in the story has a totally collapsed crema (that’s the foamy part on top of the espresso), which basically means the espresso has gone bad. One has to wonder how long the writer waited to taste the espresso and whether that influenced his beliefs.

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NathanIn my previous post, I commented that I might visit Blue Bottle and might also return to Four Barrel to see what was going on. I did both, so here are the results.

Blue Bottle I may have mentioned that one of the worst espressos I ever had was at Blue Bottle, but that, in fairness, I had been warned it was a weird one. Rather syrupy, as in cough-syrupy. No biggie; it was an experiment. This time I had their house espresso roast in a macchiato and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Four Barrel Here’s the real story. Thinking I really should investigate, I went back shortly after writing about the awfulness I experienced here.

The weirdness, if not awfulness, continued. I watched the barista this time and learned a few things. One issue may have been that he seemed to be leaving grinds out for a while, including taking the excess from his portafilter and putting it back in with fresher grinds from the grinder. It did not seem to me that the turnover rate was so high that this was a good idea.

Odder was that the barista did not seem to tamp with much force at all, which may explain what appeared to be a fast-pouring shot, an odd crema, and the strongest espresso I can recall. The stuff really punched me. It tasted kind of over extracted — less sour than last time, but hard to discern any flavors other than ka-pow.

It may be that you go there and find this a pleasant experience. Perhaps it would be for me as well in a latte. The funny thing is, I like strong espresso, but while not exactly bitter or sour, I couldn’t really taste any pleasant flavors at all.

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NathanFive days, three cities, six-plus shops: Thursday through Monday; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland; Intelligentsia, Ritual, Four Barrel, Stumptown, and Oblique. In that time, some of the best espresso I’ve had, of the very worst I’ve ever had, and a few really disappointing cups from supposedly reputable cafes. Let’s go!

Warning: I get a bit snarky. Probably a byproduct of the fact I’m reviewing from memory six coffee shops sampled over the course of five days and three (so far) flights up and down the West Coast. Just so you know.

LA and San Francisco, Round One The quest began Thursday with Black Cat latte at Intelligentsia — while some of their offerings aren’t so great in lattes, Black Cat is generally robust enough to satisfy me — and continued with another latte the next morning at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. Both were competent, but then things took a turn. I had loaned a laptop charger to someone in need, who later bought me a cup of coffee. She didn’t ask what I wanted, but whatever it was, it was awfully light-bodied, to the point of being thin. Early on it had a pleasant-enough, citrusy taste that I sometimes like, but it went bitter so fast that I had to get rid of it. Not a good sign, Ritual.

Still, the coffee banshees didn’t start screaming until my friend Jim and I went to “it” roaster Four Barrel, residing just blocks from Ritual in San Francisco’s Mission District. Jim and I were horrified to find our macchiatos sour and flat, without any real flavor at all. Four Barrel, you blew it. Badly. I have to actively prevent myself from writing expletives. I’ve had to delete some that I did write down.

Also, your decor. You’re really trying too hard. Mounted boars’ heads? Really?

San Francisco redeemed itself with a late-night trip to Philz, an older-school kind of place with something like 19 coffees on the menu. It being late night, I had their Swiss water decaf: medium bodied, slightly chocolatey sweet, just how I like it. The opposite of the vibe at Four Barrel, too, though perhaps I could do without the 90s-coffee-shop broken furniture thing.

Other San Francisco shops worth considering: Caffe Trieste, the West Coast’s first espresso and famous Beat hangout; Bernie’s; Java Beach.

Portland Things tapered off somewhat by the time we got to my hometown. Theresa and I had Stumptown first at Besaw’s in Northwest and again at the Ace Hotel. Theresa had their chai, which she enjoyed. I had a cup of their Panama single-origin coffee, which like the Ritual cup started well-enough but got bitter. Especially odd considering that it was made via the Chemex method, which in past experience has somehow managed to prevent long-run bitterness. (The earlier cup at Besaw’s faired better, though I found it overly light-bodied.)

Fortunately, this was Coffee Land, and on the way to airport we had a different experience: Oblique Coffee Roasters. We talked to the owner about their Derailleur Blend espresso, and I have to say it was the way to go. Sharp without being bitter, rich, chocolatey, citrusy, a bit sweet, massively full bodied. I’m revealing my Northwest coffee roots (and bias), but it was delicious. A wonderful way to leave Portland. On top of that, Oblique is in a neat old building in Southwest Portland that used to be a grocery store or some such. Neat furniture, too.

Other Portland places worth considering: Urban Grind, Public Domain (great downtown espresso).

San Francisco, Round Two This morning I’m back at Ritual, sampling their Sweet Tooth La Piñona espresso in a macchiato. I find lately that these sorts of lighter-roast espressos actually require a bit of milk to achieve their potential. Without boring you with more chocolatey-ness, it was really quite good.

Later in the day, I’m going to try to get to Blue Bottle, and should that happen, I’ll update you. My previous least-favorite espresso was here, but in fairness I had been warned in advance that it was an odd one. I’ve had decent lattes made from their house blend.

Lessons learned? Coffee variety is good, and even as a fan of darker, fuller-bodied coffees, I like me some light roast. But no amount of tattoos and fancy espresso machines make up for excessively fragile coffees and poorly-monitored espresso shots. I’m on the quest for great coffee and espresso, and I take no prisoners.

Oblique, I’ll be back. You’re up there with the Three Vs of Seattle.

Four Barrel, you’ve got one more shot, and then only if I can get over the hokey decor.

Intelligentsia, you make light roast worthwhile, which is saying a lot from a guy who once declared the approach weak and pointless.

The rest of you, you have my respect, even if you’re not my favorite.

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NathanLong ago, by which I mean when I was in junior high and high school, we had a word for people who listened to bands like The Pixies because they thought they were cool: Poser. (Never mind the spelling.)

The concept of the poser and the idea that doing the cool thing could be uncool came to mind just now when I checked in with the excellent LA Times blog Overrated/Underrated. You see, they declared the recent pour-over coffee craze overrated. They question the increasing cost of coffee made in this fashion, in which a barista carefully pours 200-degree water directly over coffee grounds, and they imply that it doesn’t actually take that much skill to do it well.

If they’re right about the skill — I sense they’re not, though I’ve never done an experiment — they may be right about the cost. Regardless, I think they’re not up front about the real issue: posers, and the fact that we don’t like them.

Consider Intelligentsia Coffee in the happenin’ Abbot-Kinney neighborhood in Los Angeles. The place is populated by people dressed like they’re in an Arcade Fire cover band — suspenders, muted colors, tattoos, lots of those cute wing tips that seem popular in certain circles. It’s easy to feel intimidated, but it’s also easy to feel, well, cool. Thus, by drinking pour-over and extolling its virtues, you too can seem cool.

But can you taste the difference? And if not, aren’t you just another poser who thinks Candlebox was good? That’s what I suspect the Overrated/Underrated folks were really thinking about when they declared pour-over — forgive me — so over.

Now, me? I can taste the difference — given the right coffee and the right water temperature and so on. And I think you can too, but I’ll side just a bit with O/U. It is the thing the cool kids are doing right now, and that does mean that some people are doing it just because it’s cool. That doesn’t mean it’s over, any more than fixies, Arcade Fire, or craft beer.

Here’s the Overrated/Underrated blog (which you should check out).

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NathanEarlier at Espresso Profeta (near UCLA), I thought about what I was doing there. Well, trying to get some work done. I managed a bit, and perhaps even some. But why there? I ask because as one of the co-founders of this…whatever this is…I envisioned that we would talk about the espesso with the overtones of blackberry, though not the sweetness, chocolate, and a hint of dustiness. Indeed, I had that particular espresso yesterday at Intelligentsia. (It’s their Oaxaca offering, and I do recommend it.) But I was not working at Profeta because I was going to go all connoisseur on the place. Their espresso is reliable, high quality, and perhaps most important for this purpose, familiar. It’s Vivace’s Vita blend; the owners missed Seattle’s best beverage when they moved back to LA, so they imported it. As people who have reasonable claims to being from the Northwest, and especially Matt and I who don’t live there any more, I have to think that caring about coffee is due at least a little bit to our subconsciouses saying, “this is home.” I do love those chocolate notes, though. Apart from the cupping aspects (horrible term, no?), what does coffee mean to you?

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