Friday, June 29, 2007

CC: Caribou Coffee

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Caribou Coffee
Location visited:

Free WiFi ? :
Rating: 1+ [see key]

Just having returned from a long series of plane trips, I felt it appropriate to write a small blip on Caribou Coffee, the coffee chain alternative (in most airports) to Starbucks.

Since there are no real locations in my home Philadelphia area,
I have had most of my experience with Caribou Coffee abroad, quite often in airports (though in passing I thought the Caribou Cafe on Walnut St could be their eastern coffee branch, I found it dubbed but a decent French restaurant, as elaborated on by local food bloggers Messy and Picky).

After numerous visits to Caribou Coffee, I've had but a small number of decent cups of coffee and zero cups of drinkable (never mind decent) shots of espresso.

Am I surprised? Not really. The only real advantage that Caribou could ever pull over their chain competitors would be better coffee, but I can only say that I've had a few non-bitter cups from their founts. The classic problem of serving consistent, well-pulled espresso haunts Caribou every bit as much as it does any other national chain (yet on a positive note, I do give Caribou props for not lowering themselves to automatic espresso machines like Starbucks).

So if you have to choose between Caribou and Starbucks or Seattle's Best, obviously go with Caribou. But most often, I'd say wait until you can find a better cup elsewhere.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

CC: Small World Coffee

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Small World Coffee
Location visited:
Princeton, NJ

[14 Witherspoon location]
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

Back in the day, not being into the lets-get-sloshed-on-the-weekend scene, I would often meet up with friends in various spots to hang out, chat, and occasionally grab coffee. One of those spots was Princeton Panera, mainly because it was obvious and had not bad coffee. Then, three years ago, meeting up with friends in Princeton suddenly became passe' (probably because the drive for some of us was extensively longer then others) and as I grew more finicky with my coffee, Panera coffee became much more of a memory then a good idea.

Then the other day, the old meeting spot was reconciled as a bit of a reunion amongst old friends. We met up for dinner at the Triumph Brewing Company which was a poor match of price to quality, but nonetheless an ok dinner. Then afterwards, we decided instead of Panera (though we did sit outside for a second while we waited for more pals) to try out Small World Coffee, a local Princeton roaster that I've had mixed experience with (some good, some very bad).

We arrived sometime around 7pm-ish during an open mic. The place was mostly empty, though the seating capacity is extensive to accommodate the numerous students and faculty.

As mentioned before, my past experiences with Small World have mainly been with their drip (as well as their really expensive baked goods!). I've had several really bitter cups out of their pots, but I was pleasantly surprised when I got a not-bitter cup this time. It was smooth but still nothing fantastic.

The espresso was also fairly decent, with a nice citrusy tang but also fairly bland. On a positive note, the baristas did seem to have a decent knowledge of how to pull good shots.

On a side scrawl, the tea was Rishi and the chai, according to my friends, was "spicy."

To put it bluntly, I strongly prefer Small World to their local chain competitors (Panera and Starbucks) plus there are few alternatives anywhere nearby, but they still could improve in some areas of quality. So if you're a student or in town visiting, it's not such a small world when it comes to finding a good cup of coffee, so give Small World a go.

Friday, June 22, 2007

CC: Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasters

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasters
Location visited:
Boise, ID

[Capital location]
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 1+ [see key]

Boise has to be one of the more surprising towns in Idaho. While Coeur D'Alene was my favorite, Boise comes in a close second (Coeur D'Alene's built on the side of a beautiful mountain with a gorgeous lake right below). But what made Boise such a surprise was the ambient downtown area with a nice selection of good places to grab lunch on an outside patio. They also "seemed" to have a decent selection of coffee in the downtown.

But oh, how I wasted my coffee stop on Thomas Hammer Coffee, a chain out of Spokane, Washington that looks more like something Target shot out in its spare time. The place looked good enough on the corner right across from the Capital area with a snazzy, corporate look on the inside but the appearances were so deceiving.

The coffee is roasted up in Spokane and from the look and taste, they're fans of over-roasting (when your website has to advertise which coffees are "smooth", it's a bad sign in my estimation). The coffee I sampled wasn't horrific, but it definitely lacked tasted and quality.

The espresso on the other was horrific, as the barista seemed to be fresh off the assembly line with not a real clue on how to pull a decent shot (really, really overpulled). On the note of the barista on duty, one should not work alone if one does not know how to make everything on the menu (especially one of your signature drinks!).

Succinctly said, don't waste your time with Thomas Hammer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

CC: Stumptown Coffee Roasters

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Location visited:
Portland, OR

[Ace Hotel location]
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 6+ [see key]

Every so often, a business will get things just right so that they go from a small shop to boasting a national reputation. Stumptown Coffee Roasters is that business in the coffee world. For about four years now, I've heard nothing but praise regarding Stumptown, located in Portland, OR. I've heard they have amazing espresso and wondrous baristas. I've heard they offer french press coffee out of a huge press. I've even heard of coffeehouses sending their employees there to get training.

Whether or not all this is really true is not all that important (I'm pretty sure it's all truth). The fact that all of this chatter has invaded my skull from people of all walks of life and levels of coffee passion amazes me.

So you can imagine my elation when I finally got to make a stop out to Stumptown a couple weeks ago. A good pal of mine and I were driving down to Oregon from Seattle and were due to stop in Portland that night. Unfortunately, we hit Portland on a Sunday so nothing was open and had we traveled several months earlier, we would have missed Stumptown as well. Fortunately, Stumptown opened their newest location in the Ace Hotel recently where they're open til 11 PM on Sundays.

So fast forward a long hunt to find a decent dinner location (half successful at the Dragonfish, as the entrees were good but sushi a little lacking) and we find our hero at Stumptown Ace at 1030 PM. I had expected the baristas to be closing up (the town seemed dead) but to my surprise they were alive and perky. The exterior is nonchalant, with the name in the window but no real tell-tale markings to make it jump out. The interior was a beautifully sleek operation with a long counter and a relaxing vibe.

They obviously roast their own coffee and take careful measure to brew it well. At this particular operation, they brew all their coffee on 4 (!) specimens of the Clover 1s. I think I had an Ethiopian (or something African, it was late), which sampled a beautiful, full cup of unfiltered java.

The espresso is where I really was wowed. While the barista dialogued with me as she pulled my shot, she felt the shot was poor and so poured it out. She did this twice more, not liking the consistency of her shots. Finally, on the fourth shot she seemed satisfied and handed it to me gingerly, and then gave it to me free of charge because it took so long! I never, in all of my coffee exploits, have ever come across attention to detail
(not to mention the amazing results) and customer service like that!

So to summarize simply, if you were to go out of your way to stop at one coffee operation in your lifetime, let it be Stumptown. And if you're looking to move to Portland, can I come visit you?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

CC: Three Beans Coffee Company

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Three Beans Coffee Co
Location visited:
Haddonfield, NJ

Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]


The areas right along the Patco line to Philly have really begun to embody what a small town should feel like: a nice main street area with some nice stores, local bistros, and minor recreation for those nice days where one can walk around. Haddonfield's main street (Kings Hwy) has a lot going for it as it has some beautiful history, architecture, and nice places to meander with the only real element lacking is a decent, local coffeehouse.

Fortunately around the corner sits Three Beans Coffee Co, a local operation that has been going strong for some years now. It's located in a largely suburban stretch of road with ample parking all around. The outside has a very nice architecture while the inside holds a bit more of a run down yet tremendously roomy space with full-size kitchen tables (my fiance's loves larger tables) and even a pool table.

The coffee is La Colombe (*yawn*) which delivers a predictable, sub-par taste all too common in the Philly area (tragedy). At the least, the coffee tastes fresh as the baristas keep it moving.

The espresso has been random here as sometimes I'll get an espresso that is pulled well and other times where the shot comes out lousy. My last time (only a week ago) came out decent, with the espresso having a (surprisingly) full body and decent flavor. I forget what tea they serve.

I'd have to say that overall Three Beans stands a decent establishment in the Haddonfield area (though they could still improve in some areas...). As Haddonfield puts on a lot of festivals and decent things to do, make sure to grab your java around the corner when you're in town.

Monday, June 11, 2007

CC: Java's Brewin

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Java's Brewin
Location visited:
Philadelphia, PA
Market St between 11th & 12th)
Free WiFi ? :
Rating: 2+ [see key]

Philly is always nice during the day, especially in late spring/early summer. There are not too many tourists, children are still making field trips to the Old City area, and people are still in that happy attitude that lingers after winter's end and the real summer heat begins.

Just the other day I was out showing a good friend of mine from out of town around Old City, taking him to see all the history and novelties of the central Philly area. We stopped in the Reading Terminal Market to eat lunch and also grabbed a bleh, tremendously overpriced cookie at 4th St Cookie Co (you could make a better cookie with pre-made batter and save $2!) and on our way south, we went through the old Reading Terminal area and stumbled upon a new (to my eyes) coffee joint tucked to the side of the main entrance, Java's Brewin.

The place had a real take-out feel to it, with little sit down area and only to-go cups. The decor was hackneyed at best and boring at worst. The shop is actually a franchise out of Boston that is slowly expanding, with this recent addition in Philly.

They offer several single origin coffees, with a dark roast Sumatran and a light roast Columbian on tap when I visited. I had the Columbian which had a nice balanced taste, but nothing really spectacular about the flavor.

The espresso was horrible, with a horribly pulled shot that resembled nothing close to a good shot. That on top of not having ceramic cups (only paper!), the doubleshot I ordered tasted like charred sorrow. They serve Tazo tea, a boring so-so option.

Aside from their stellar location right on Market St next to the corporate coffee giants of Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks, Java's Brewin makes a sad attempt at an alternative to either. They seem to be yet another chain that seems to speak the language of specialty coffee, but in reality can only fake the lingo.

Friday, June 01, 2007

CC: Barista's Daily Grind

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Barista's Daily Grind
Location visited: Kearney, NE
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

Nebraska, land of corn and the Cornhuskers. It has remained one of the few states I have never set foot in until recently, when I had the distinct pleasure of driving across it. To tell the truth it wasn't that bad, especially since I had heard that there was a decent coffee location in Kearney, NE which ended up being a perfect spot to grab lunch as well as an afternoon cup of joe.

My friend and I made a quick lunch stop and then made our way into downtown Kearney to seek out the Barista's Daily Grind (let's call it the BDG for short). We found it promptly, though we were taken back by its odd architecture. The place looked like a gingerbread village, with an espresso drive-thru building set out in the front and two larger gingerbread house buildings flanking behind either side with a patio in between them. The front lawn (?) was made up of ornate gardens and really windy paths to get to the front door. Overall, I was a little overtaken with the complexity of the grounds.

The inside of what appeared to be the sit-down place was really small, with but two tables and four chairs (though plenty of space on the patio to sit, but what happens in winter?). The baristas were dressed in nice attire and the place looked snazzy, even offering alcohol (for those sticking around I assume).

The coffee they serve is a mystery, because for some daft reason they don't want people to know where they get their coffee (!!). I would think the roaster would want you to be proud of them (unless the coffee is being roasted in an unorthodox, suspect manner) and more importantly, what in tarnation is the point of keeping it a secret? The only people who you wouldn't want to know would be the same people waiting outside for your roaster to make a delivery (they'll find you out!). But I digress...

The mystery coffee is stored for wholesale up front, some of the containers holding large amounts of pre-ground coffee (why?). The coffee that I tasted sampled fairly decent, having a nice fresh flavor.

The espresso was where they won my admiration as the young man who pulled my shot (who clearly had some skills hammered into him) pulled my shots manually and expertly. The espresso itself tasted a little heavy, but I think that was more the espresso blend then the barista. The tea was Harney and Sons, which is a good cup of tea by my experience.

Overall, the place is definitely a gem amid the Mid-west but nonetheless, a 5'11'' man amongst giants. They seem to have multiple locations across the area; hopefully they can strengthen themselves before they grow any more in number. In closing, when in Nebraska keep an eye out for a BDG and give it a try for yourself.

*Update 8/16/07
Turns out that theres is some massive address changing going on; stay tuned via there website for newest location!