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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

mattbsure i like kids and of course i like coffee, but in my opinion, the two should never be joined.
i mean, seriously, best case scenario: these kids get over-caffeinated and tear down your house like an F5 tornado.

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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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JaKeEveryone knows that coffee comes from beans. But how many times have you asked yourself where the beans come from? There are crazed coffee wizards who will tell you that beans from different places have distinct flavors and personalities. In fact, we will be discussing that very thing quite soon. Let’s not get too psycho-analytical over the poor coffee beans just yet, though.

(After all, sometimes a “child sized white chocolate mocha frappuccino light blended coffee with an extra shot of espresso, one pump of sugar free raspberry flavoring, and no whipped cream on top” is just a “child sized white chocolate mocha frappuccino light blended coffee with an extra shot of espresso, one pump of sugar free raspberry flavoring, and no whipped cream on top”, Dr. Freud!)

Just like people, the regions coffees come from have a significant impact on how they turn out. What better way to get to know those beans than to study up on where they came from.

The roasters and coffee shamans of Stumptown Coffee have given us a great boon in this endeavor by putting together amazing vignettes about the far off lands where they get their beans and how coffee builds the culture of those areas. So far, they have videos from Kenya and Colombia, with more on the way. Why not take some time and get educated while you enjoy your next cup? It is, afterall, the best way to become a great cupper. (No, that was NOT a Freudian sip!)

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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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MarcusA while back, I promised some explication on how to get decent espresso at home. Now, the cafe is a wonderful thing, and I do think that what you pay for isn’t the coffee, it’s the place. If you’re going to have some coffee at home over breakfast, or in the car, you can make your own espresso and do quite well.

And, it is pretty hard to beat cuddling your cats, sipping espresso, listening to NPR while the sun streams in on a lazy morning.

I’ll assume you’ll be buying a good quality burr grinder and an espresso machine with a pump capable of reaching at least 10 bar of pressure.

STEP ONE: what do you want to drink?
You need, even before you go buy a serious machine, to decide what you’re going to drink. Straight espresso? Americano? Latte? This decides whether you want a double boiler or not. If you plan on foaming milk a lot, don’t screw around, pony up for a machine with separate boilers for your espresso and your steam. But also see below about foaming… It is not a trivial business.

STEP TWO: your beans matter a little less than you think they do.
While it is true that the start of good coffee is a good roast, there are so many ways to screw up, and so much personality that goes into making espresso, that you will really need to find a bean that works for you, your grinder, and your machine. To give you a sense, we have found at home that the Costco branded Starbucks espresso roast does almost as well as many primo roasts (Zoka Paladino, SCW’s Best, Gimme Leftist). Why? Because you don’t have a $5000 machine, grinder, and the time to get things perfect. That said, you can still get a fine, rich, chocolatey cup every time.

Lesson: experiment! Be brave!

STEP THREE: Figure out your grind.
There is a whole literature out there on how to do this. Common rules are that the pressure should be 9 bar or that a shot should come out in 20 seconds. Forget all that. What you want is to have a medium brown foam flowing into your cup. This depends mostly on your grind and how hard you tamp. Practice tamping: get a bunch of coffee ground, and mass or measure out equal amounts of coffee. Practice tamping until you can get consistent packing, as measured by the height of the puck in your portafilter. Now start playing with both the tamp and the grind until you find chocolate heaven. You can narrow in by trying one tamp with several grinds, then picking the best grind, and adjusting your tamp. Repeat until you perfect it!

Next time: beyond the ristretto! Milk!

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MarcusAt long last I made it to the Victrola on 15th Ave on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It is shocking, really, that I hadn’t been there before. I’ve been drinking coffee in Seattle for almost twenty years, and I’ve even been to bars on 15th, I’ve been by tons of times.

So, when Monica (also of our Legit team) texted to see if I was up, I knew at last I’d go. My first advice: take the bus. Parking sucks here. But the bus is much more with the cafe ethic anyway.

The place is hopping. I have to say that for such a busy, well known shop, quite a few people were solo at their four person tables. I prefer the shared space attitudes one finds at Zoka or Fiore (which I’ll review soon.). But after getting our orders in Monica and I found a table and embarked. And everything she recently wrote on atmosphere totally applies.

First: the latte. Damn. For years, Vivace was the standard in Seattle, far and away the coolest and highest quality shop around. This was easily on par. This is almost certainly in part due to the Guatemalan single origin espresso, which was so remarkable that drink two had to be a macchiato. It is smooth, dark, I found it to taste a bit like pound cake, if one can imagine that. Like it melted in your mouth, but while a little sweet it wasn’t exactly chocolate. Just go have it.

The art: quite good. Standard rosettes for me, Monica got some fancier stuff. Foam was remarkably smooth to both the tongue and the eye. Even the best sometimes have some bubblies, but not today. This probably contributed to the pound cake feel. Fantastic.

The food: we have to eat, and they have some fine, simple eats. I had baguette with ham and Brie, and a tasty biscotti.

Atmosphere: people watching here is fun, as it is all over Cap Hill. All sorts of people converge here, and it had the feel that made Seattle great in the 90s (the dream of the nineties is alive in… Seattle?). People in jeans and flannel, people in suits with bowties and suspenders, piercings, whatever, and everyone is chatting.

I’ve long been a Zoka partisan, largely for their spectacular and very consistent cappuccino. Another few trips here, and I may switch allegiances.

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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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