Still Crazy About Seattle

Still Crazy About Seattle

Despite the rain, and the blustery breezes. Despite the strep throat, and bronchitis. Despite the fact it would appear the city of my birth might see me catch my death, I love Seattle, still. Seattle remains a guiding star for coffee. From Vivace to Zoka, Trabant to Victrola, Tully’s to Caffe Vita, and — of course — the omnipresent Starbucks and hundreds of happy, independent retailers, coffee houses, espresso carts and hole-in-the-wall walk-ups, the city teems with caffeinated masses, most of ’em tanked up on some damn fine coffees served by folks who know their way round the business end of a portafilter. I’m impressed as I can be with places like Stumptown that hold daily cupping events so folks just walkin’ in off the street can sample a flight of coffees from all over the world, and compare and contrast flavors and aromas, body and balance, while elbow to elbow with the pros. I hope I can stay longer next time… provided the place doesn’t kill me,...

Coffee Notes from All Over

Nick Cho makes his debut this week as the Coffee Nazi — or something like that. From the glossy web pages of U.S. News’ Money & Business section, to the frenzied spaces of Boing Boing and MetaFilter, Cho’s Murky Coffee was grabbing headlines as the coffee shop that wouldn’t serve it the way the customer wanted it. “It sounds like a cheesy sitcom scene: Man goes into coffee shop. He orders his favorite drink, a triple shot of espresso over ice. Barista declines; he says the drink goes against company policy because pouring espresso over ice ruins the quality of the coffee. Man gets angry. He leaves a tip with an expletive scrawled across it.” It didn’t end there, of course, as the customer blogged about the experience — complete with a snapshot of the explative-laden dollar bill he left as a tip. (Yes, he hated the experience so much he left a tip. Go figure.) And that led to the colorful, open letter from Murky’s Cho. Oh, the calamity. Starbucks gets “back to basics” by… introducing smoothies? How does this get back to the core that Howard was talking about not so long ago? “One of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past,” he wrote. “Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee.” No worries… the Jamba Juice gambit will surely make folks focus on the coffee. Meanwhile, in light of Starbucks’ malaise, how are independent shops faring? Just fine,...
Is Cream a Coffee Pollutant?

Is Cream a Coffee Pollutant?

There are millions who wouldn’t think of coffee without abundant cream and sugar. (Hello, New England!) And there are a precious, precocious few who would consider condiments of *any* sort anathema to the coffee experience. For them, the NYTimes offers this point of view: Coffee purists would never, ever add dairy to their coffee, and they would sooner drink General Foods International’s instant Hazelnut Belgian Café than add soy milk. After all, we’re now in the age of microlot coffee, when beans are harvested and handled with the same care that goes into making wine, and the flavors of an exceptional cup of coffee can be as layered and complex as a glass of pinot noir. Cream would just ruin it. If it sounds snobby, consider this: would you dab a Peter Luger porterhouse with ketchup? A slab of well-aged beef needs nothing more than salt, pepper and a good char. There’s nothing arrogant about leaving the Heinz out of it. Firstly, never is a very  long time. To say that one might never add cream — or any dairy — is to rule out the little slice of heaven that is the espresso macchiato, or the more bountiful coffee and dairy expression that is the cappuccino. And that would be wrong. Secondly, Peter who? Oh… yeah. I guess it’s a New York thing. Sorry, if you want to make a purist’s analogy between coffee and aged beef, maybe you should refer to a purist’s steakhouse, and those are in Kansas City. Yes, both of them. Thirdly, hey… check out that photo! That’s an old-school alt.coffee regular in the...
Green Up Your Coffee House!

Green Up Your Coffee House!

It’s Earth Day 2008. The climate crisis is accelerating, vast sheets of ice are collapsing, islands in the Pacific have been drowned in rising seas, and weather the world over is growing increasingly violent. If we don’t take immediate action — all of us, and right now — we face a future unlike anything we’ve known. But let’s be honest… running a successful and (ideally) profitable coffee house is something of a high-wire act at the best of times. And — economically-speaking — these aren’t the best of times. You’ve got a budget to watch; a creeping expense column can throw things out of kilter. Fast. It’s not going to do you or your environmentally-minded customers any good for you to bankrupt yourself in the name of ecology. That said, there are savings to be found in running a more efficient and sustainable coffee house, coffee shop or espresso bar. Some of these savings can be realized pretty quickly, others require a longer view. If you can, don’t just consider today’s bottom line, but tomorrow’s. And next year’s. And — for goodness sake — don’t lose sight of the ultimate bottom line here… the planet’s climate is in crisis. And it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the viability of specialty coffee is at the forefront of that crisis. In greening up your coffee house, there are (at least) three distinct areas where you can bring your efforts to bear: reducing energy, increasing sustainability, and making it easier for your customers to go green, too. We’ll look at each in turn. There’s a lot to slog through here, so...

Starbucks’ Extreme Makeover Continues

Continuing its excruciatingly public extreme makeover, Starbucks does a full-court press (release) on… a new coffee blend. Oh, goody. Sure, while most every other coffee roaster in the land releases new roasts seasonally — you know, to align with new coffee crops and all that — Starbucks’ latest blend is different, apparently. Word is, it’s not… you know, burnt. More, Howie would have us believe this is a pivotal event in Starbucks’ history, even suggesting that it’s a peek into a future that isn’t steeped in an espresso + milk monoculture: “We’ve been so focused on espresso … that we haven’t done anything to reinvent brewed coffee,” Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz said in an interview. Profoundly true. Not only has Starbucks done virtually nothing to reinvent brewed coffee — or even support it — their general disregard for drip coffee, press coffee and the like spilled over into the marketplace, where thousands upon thousands of competing independents likewise ignored the possibilities of unique origin coffees. Unless, of course, they could chuck it in a portafilter with decent results. It’s fair to say that only very recently, I’d say the last five or six years — or a time line roughly consistent with the rise of the Cup of Excellence auction program — that the indie retailers have promoted non-espresso coffee with particular enthusiasm. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And then Howie slips in this dubious bit… Mr. Schultz says he believes Starbucks has underplayed its expertise in selecting and roasting coffees, something its main competitors don’t specialize in. It’s left as an exercise for the reader whether Schultz...

Coffee Notes from All Over

So long, and thanks for all the coffee. Bloggle notes the passage of the venerable Dr. Ernesto Illy, the son of Illy’s founder, Francesco. Ernesto Illy forwarded the science of espresso coffee more than any individual on the planet. I think Don Schoenholt — a fellow SCAA Lifetime Achievement Laureate — will not mind if I quote him verbatim… The trade is reduced by more than one roaster today. We have lost an inspirational coffee thinker, a high personality, an early friend of the specialty coffee movement on this continent, and an individual who contributed to our understanding of ourselves by raising our scientific consciousness of coffee. Ernesto Illy, SCAA 1997 Lifetime Achievement Laureate, was an extraordinary gentleman who deported himself with grace and dignity. — Donald N. Schoenholt SCAA 2007 Lifetime Achievement Laureate Godspeed, Ernesto. Starbucks Takes a Mulligan on Training. Howard Schultz is back at the helm of the good ship Starbucks, and in addition to gifting iPods to associates that push bean sales — beans, what are these beans? and do they come in a venti? — he’s decreed that Starbucks baristas everywhere get a refresher course on building espresso beverages. Starbucks will close 7,100 stores nationwide for three hours on the evening of Feb. 26 to retrain about 135,000 in-store employees and people who oversee the stores. “We will have all new standards for how we create the drinks,” said spokeswoman Valerie O’Neil. “They will be trained in creating the perfect shot, steaming the milk and all the pieces that come together in a drink.” Go, Howie, go! Robots and Coffee, Redux. Nestle researchers have...
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