Friday, May 30, 2008

CC: Murky Coffee


What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Murky Coffee
Location visited:
Arlington, VA
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 6+ [see key]

Update 6/26/09: Murky is closed for good, though owner Nick Cho has new ventures in mind.

I would have to admit that being 2 hours from DC most of my life has only resulted in a surprising three visits, most of them when I was a youngin. For some reason, DC seemed so much farther away (probably because of the traffic). So recently, the wife and I decided to make the trek down to DC with two friends as well as to meet up with a friend who happens to live in Arlington, right near Murky Coffee.

Now my friend, who happens to be a fellow fanatic, has often teased me with his wondrous proximity to such a quality establishment by sending me text messages as he worked from their shop or with tales of his encounters at their facility. So needless to say, I begged my fellow travelers to make our first stop Murky Coffee to which they so gracefully acquiesced.

Murky's 2 story converted house sits right at the junction of what appears to be a fork in the road, the exterior outfitted with a lovely dark greenish-gray paint job and has plenty of outside seating in the front. The interior looked welcoming but also a bit like a cute gutted house; the ceiling beams were exposed yet decorated, the floor had a chic concrete look and aside from the furniture and the bar area, the rest of the structure seemed to be a bit shack-ish. My friend later informed me that they had been improving the building periodically, so I guess the building is going through a slow makeover.

The coffee is actually Counter Culture, though all the bags are repackaged with a Murky Coffee label (a practice I'm not particularly fond of as it gives the impression that the retailer had a role in the coffee preparation). Murky does take a unique stance on their coffees, not serving anything anyone would consider a "dark roast," which I must concur that usually I'm not really a fan of oily beans and I've had about five dark roasts in my life that I would drink again.

I sampled a lightly roasted limited-offering Peruvian coffee which tasted smooth and sweet, with a hint of marinara, but overall seemed to be a very light coffee (very similar to a coffee I recently sampled the day prior at the Spin Caffe).

The espresso is where I expected Murky to shine, as they've hosted numerous barista competitions as well as taken home a few awards. It was easy to see that the baristas definitely know what they're doing after watching them prepare a few drinks as I waited for mine. The espresso was wonderful, with a beautiful citrus tang and a nice zest. My friend got a macchiatto that he enjoyed greatly, though we both agreed that the macchiatto seemed to be more of a strong miniature latte then a macchiatto (that is, if you traditionally define macchiatto as being "marked" with a 1:1 milk to espresso ratio). Overall, an impressive espresso operation.

The teas were free leaf but I failed to discover from whence they came.

Since Murky has definitely been on my radar for a while, I was truly glad to finally have made it down to try the place out. In the end, I would say that I even more envy my friend's location and look forward to making a return trip.

If you happen to be in the area or near a Metro stop (as Murky is right off the Clarendon station), definitely make a stop at Murky.

PS: My condolences with the loss of the Capitol Hill location

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

CC: Spin Caffe

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Spin Caffe
Location visited:
Rochester, NY
(Park Ave location)
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

Most of my life, I've never had a good image of Rochester. As a boy, my father would make trips there, usually in the winter, talking about how he loathed the drive from Philly (a good 6 hr hike) as well as the bitter winds off Lake Ontario. My two younger brothers helped confirm it when they went up a couple years ago for business purposes, not speaking highly of their time spent in the city.

Thus, when I planned on meeting some pals from Bozeman, MT for lunch and coffee in Rochester, I wasn't thrilled. I did my homework and found little promise of decent coffee where I was headed and to top it off, I only had a limited window to catch up with my comrades so I planned on not worrying to much about finding decent java.

So after finding my caballeros east of Rochester, I followed them and a friend of theirs (a local) into the city of Rochester, a change from our original plans to eat where we had met outside the city. I didn't really pay much attention to where we were headed as I was busy chatting with a good friends, one of whom had become a barista after I last saw her and totally lost herself in the search for coffee wisdom (that and she's a chatterbox :) ).

Eventually we found ourself off of East Ave on a hip-looking row of restaurants and shops. Still not thinking we'd find a good coffeehouse, I stood mouth agape when I noticed a sign that said "coffee roaster" when I got out of the car. We walked past the sign hung on the side of the Spin Caffe on our way to get lunch down the street at a Mediterranean place called Sinbad's, where my friends enjoyed sumptuous pitas and I suffered through a wickedly vinegar-ized cornish hen and parsley salad.

Of course on the way back we stopped at the Spin Caffe, especially with my one barista friend and another buddy who had recently dove into the world of coffee roasting (it appears he's self-taught himself well). The exterior was nothing too exciting; lots of plastic lawn furniture surrounding the brick building that boasted a really nice big storefront window. The interior was much nicer, with a variety of chairs and tables surrounded by some nice decoration with a clever spinning theme.

Spin Caffe roasts their own coffee, which upon some minor study looked fairly well-roasted. I ordered the Mexican Organic, a light roast which seemed a bit too light as I sipped it, proving somewhat bland yet with some minor earthiness to it. The espresso seemed decently pulled and the shot tasted fairly sweet with a nice acidity, though it had a hint of cardboard on the back end. My friends added a little bonus feedback: my friend's
(the barista) latte was poorly presented (milkshaky) and my one non-coffee-crazy-but-loves-mochas pal really liked his (just the right amount of chocolate). I noted the kinds of teas and they seemed to be all free leaf but I'm not 100 percent sure.

Overall, I have to say I sit on the fence regarding Spin Caffe. On the one hand, they seem to have it together roasting-wise (despite the bland coffee, something I've had at amazing places too) and a decent espresso operation. On the other hand, they seem like they need a little more refinement behind the espresso machine. I guess I will have to make a few more trips before I know for sure. In the meantime, if you have any wisdom or experience with the place, please do comment.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mugged: Weaver's Coffee & Tea

What does "Mugged" mean?

Subject: Weaver's Coffee & Tea
Coffees Mugged and Ratings:
The Blend: 5+
Organic Sumatran: 4+
Espresso Blend: 3+
[see key]

Looking back, most of my experience with a coffee roaster happens first in a cafe setting before I ever bring a coffee into my house. Usually I'll have a bit of prior knowledge when it comes to the big boys (such as Crescent Moon or Gimme!) or just have an adventurous curiosity when it comes to an unknown roaster, but I'm not usually one to just pick up a bag before sampling it.

Thus, it was interesting to learn of a Californian coffee roaster called Weaver's Coffee & Tea through an email correspondence out of the blue that resulted in them sending 2.5 lbs of their various coffees my way. I figured I had just not heard of them prior as they were a smaller company out West and most of my travel is east of the Mississippi, but it turns out (from what I can tell from their website) they don't have any wholesale accounts (yet) and hence no matter how many coffeehouses I would normally hit, I would never have run across Weaver.

Upon receiving the coffee, I cracked open the box to find three coffees: The Blend (their signature coffee), an Organic Sumatran, and their Espresso Blend. Usually, I only consume about 1 lb a week at the most so I made sure to kick it into hyper-drive so I could give all three coffees a good run before they became stale. I tried to have each one french pressed but I also managed to have The Blend via drip and iced (brewed strong, chilled, and then served over ice).

While the results of the coffees varied, there was one definite consistency; they were all roasted darkly with very noticeable oils on the exterior of the bean. This came to make uber sense as this article explains Weaver was actually a disciple of Alfred Peet, a man renown for his dark roast philosophies. Weaver's coffee offerings online also show all but one roasted "dark", a tell-tale trademark of Alfred Peet.

Regarding The Blend, I have to say it was my favorite. It was roasted a bit dark but it profiled with some very bright and fruity flavors; a really decent coffee in any form. The Organic Sumatra fell a bit farther behind, giving off some earthy tones but because of the darkness of the coffee, it was hard to pull anything else out. My least favorite was the Espresso Blend as there was little to garner from it beside the darkness, granted it was roasted to realize it's potential via espresso machine and by the hand of a good barista, so I can only say it didn't do well in a french press.

Wanting to also get a second opinion from a local Californian, I contacted Christian over at
Man Seeking Coffee to see if he had heard of Weaver and if so, what his thoughts were. Turns out Christian had run into the outfit and he shared the following:

"I have heard of Weaver's Coffee. I actually posted a small bit on them on my 2008 WRBC post. I tried a macchiato at the competition. I actually hadn't heard of them before that. They had some bags of beans out as samples that I stupidly didn't grab. I wasn't wowed by the espresso (they used The Blend), although there was so much good coffee there that it's hard to compare. I would say it was very creamy, smooth and well-balanced; well-constructed, but not particularly distinct. My really limited sense of the company is that they are trying to be a bigger distribution player, but are still pretty new to the scene. They are kind of riding the line between second and third wave coffee (not that I put too much stock in these terms). They don't have a cafe that I'm aware of and I've actually never seen their coffee anywhere other than the WRBC. But this is really just a fast and quick impression."

Given the full experience, I feel that Weaver's coffee produces some decent coffees but overall stands as only a moderate contender in the West Coast coffee scene. I would be interested to see where this company goes in the future but for right now, I think they still have a little refining to do. If you manage to find a coffee establishment pulling shots of Weaver's Coffee, give it a try. If you're up for sharing, I'd be curious to hear about it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

CC: Sleepless Goat Cafe

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Sleepless Goat Cafe
Location visited:
Kingston, ON
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 3+ [see key]

While it seems hard to believe for me as I've been to various countries, this is my first international coffee post. I guess it's probably because rarely have I been able to find a coffeehouse in places like the wilderness of Russia or the island of Bermuda. But those are other stories...

This story begins some months ago with a seed planted in my head by my supervisor in regards to the city of Kingston in Ontario. She had mentioned that there was a coffeehouse on every corner and that it would be a great place for me to visit. I thought to myself that such news was odd since that in my Canadian online research and in talking with Canadians, no one had ever mentioned anything worth a stop in Kingston. So without knowing where to go from there, I filed the thought off to the side.

Then a couple weeks ago, it just so happened that the wife and I happened to be going to Kingston for some relaxation amidst the beautiful onset of spring. So upon arrival I dusted off the past conversation about coffeehouses on every corner and made sure to keep my eye out. Sure enough, there were literally coffeehouses all around the downtown area. But then a horrid reality seemed to sink in as we popped into a few; most of them didn't seem to have a lick of an idea of what a good coffeehouse looked like. Some had espresso machines that seemed massacred by a robot army, others proudly touting how great their French Vanilla Cappuccino was.

Finally we stumbled upon a place that looked half decent called the Sleepless Goat Cafe. The front of the place boasted a renaissance-fair-ish sign above a small awning that did a fair job in shading a few spots of outside seating. The interior was a little roomier though a bit grungy and very bohemian. The seating consisted of tables and a few booths that proved very hard to get in and out of with their cushions not nailed to the seat.

The coffee comes from a Canadian coffee roaster called Equator that basically focuses on fair trade and organic coffees (as do all things served at the Sleepless Goat). I was served a coffee called Dr. Joe (or something like that) that came off bright but a bit burnt. The espresso was fair though it tasted more like a dark cup of french press then espresso. I think the tea was free leaf (didn't write it down) and as a side note, they also serve alcoholic beverages.

While I can say that the (lack of) signs had warned me, it's always sad to walk away from an establishment (never mind a whole city) that is in need of coffee refinement. Inversely, I could see the Sleepless Goat really transcending their neighboring coffee establishments with a slight aesthetic makeover as well as more passion on the coffee quality.

If you happen to be in town and not feeling so adventurous to hop through the many coffee establishments, give the Sleepless Goat an attempt.

Friday, May 16, 2008

CC: Java Monkey

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Java Monkey
Location visited: Decatur, GA
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 3+ [see key]

In my experience in dealing with cafes named after animals, it's been hit or miss. I've had good fortune with a monkey in Ithaca but not so much luck with a cow in South Dakota. And there's no seemingly noticeable trend, as I've had great coffee with a goat in Decatur but poor coffee with a goat in Kingston.

So when I heard a few good things about a place called the Java Monkey in Decatur, I made sure to "swing in" while in Atlanta. Coming right out of the Decatur MARTA station, I was surprised to find it right outside of the station. The exterior was painted a lovely maroon shade complimented with some clever exterior decor and a fairly nice patio off to the left. Walking inside, the interior was a long coffeehouse with super cozy seating towards the front and the coffee and wine bars toward the back.

The coffee comes from Equal Exchange, an organic roaster that I have never had a good cup of coffee from. The Guatemalan served via drip (sadly) met the usual expectations with a fairly bitter and charred cup of coffee. The espresso was also not so hot, with a long pull and a heavily-oiled, harsh double shot. The tea is free leaf and while I did not have any, there was a fairly extensive wine and beer bar.

Sadly, this particular monkey was not as hopping as I had hoped but given a better coffee and stronger espresso training, this monkey could climb to the top. If you're looking for a cup of mediocre organic coffee or can't go far away from the MARTA train station, stop on by the Java Monkey.

Monday, May 12, 2008

CC: Urban Grind

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Urban Grind
Location visited: Atlanta, GA
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

Surprises in my opinion never really come often enough in life. Granted some surprises are bad, like a phone call from your bank that says something to the effect of "I'm sorry to report that we had a rogue clown break into our vault and he pilfered your non-FDIC-insured safety deposit box." But most of the time surprises are welcome times, such as a phone call out of the blue from an old friend or a letter in the mail that informs you that you are the long lost heir of the late (filthy rich) Duke of _______shire in ______land.

My favorite surprise of late was a coffeehouse called Urban Grind that I randomly came across upon a leisurely walk on my way back to my hotel in Atlanta. I had passed the place several times actually on other excursions but had dismissed it as mediocre as I had not heard of it prior in my research nor did it seem promising sitting on the corner of an out-of-the-way road near a small housing development. What finally drew me in, I do not know; I think it was simply that I like giving the unknown a whirl (when it comes to food of course).

The exterior was a pretty basic stone structure combined with a what-looked-like a pre-fab building; basically a clean look with roped-on banners. The interior was much more eclectic, with some really stylish vintage furniture of all sorts all surrounding a central counter.

The surprise of it all was that this seemingly random coffeehouse served Intelligentsia. Usually, when a place serves such a well-known coffee it finds its way on the radar but somehow UG managed to elude detection. While they do offer french press (second surprise, as it's not a common offering), I ordered a cup of the Organic El Gallo drip which proved to uphold a superior taste characterized by a sweet buttery nuttiness (third surprise, as just because you serve a good coffee doesn't mean it will be a good coffee). The espresso sadly was pulled long and came out with not much crema and a bit short of the potential that Black Cat (the name of the Intelligentisa espresso blend) is known for. The tea I failed to notice.

As I walked away, I definitely had more of a spring in my step and further confirmation that random stops at random shops sometimes do prove wonderfully fruitful. While Urban Grind still could use some improvement to get to the top of their game, they seem like they have a good start. If nearby, give UG a stop.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

CC: San Francisco Coffee Roasting Company

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: San Francisco Coffee Roasting Company
Location visited: Atlanta, GA
(664 N. Highland Ave)
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

I never really thought much of it before, but it never fails that every city has at least one establishment that stands in tribute/memory of another place. One good example I recently encountered was a Philly cheese steak joint in Syracuse, NY called called Taste of Philadelphia which did end up serving a decent Philly cheese steak (the bread could've been toasted) and a whole lot of love for Philadelphia (I have never seen so much Rocky memorabilia).

And while Philly cheese steak haunts are somewhat common, occasionally a rare homage pops up such as an Atlanta coffeehouse I ran across in my travels called San Francisco Coffee Roasting Company. At first I couldn't figure out what San Francisco has as far as unique corners on the coffee world, I later discovered via the website that there's not much beyond the owners' personal experience in the city of the 49ers. On a random note though, I would say that San Francisco does have most excellent coffee.

SFCRC has two locations (apparently soon to have a third), both located NE of downtown. I managed to make it to the more southern location on a very sunny weekday afternoon. Upon walking towards their moderately-sized parking lot bordered with outside tables, the building displays fairly nondescript as a basic rectangle of a building with really nice patio doors. The inside displays plenty of warm red and orange colors, some beautiful round wooden tables, and fairly interesting art on the walls.

The coffee is roasted in-house and seems to be the passion of the business. I poured for myself (as it is self-serve) a cup of Colombian Supremo which came off sweet and a bit saucy (almost like marinara, in a good way); overall a tremendous cup of coffee. The espresso was not as great, as it had a strong jaggedness and noticeable char. The tea is free leaf.

While I've only been to San Francisco twice, I can't really say that this Georgian coffeehouse made me think of the Bay area and/or its coffee scene, though it did brighten up my day a little bit (especially as they had some much needed WIFI). And while it appears they could use some improvement with their espresso,
SFCRC definitely seems to produce some fairly triumphant coffees. If you're nearby, it's worth the stop.

Friday, May 02, 2008

CC: Mud Truck

What's a Coffee Commentary?

The Mud Truck
(a facet of Mud Coffee)

Location visited: Manhattan, NY
Free WiFi ? : no
Rating: 2+ [see key]

Who in their right mind doesn't like food that comes to you on its own? Nay, I do not talk of delivery (for that incurs a tip) but of the many different mobile dining operations out there such as grease and ice cream trucks. Whether the business-on-wheels either parks in your employer's parking lot to set up shop or meanders slowly by your house with hordes of small children tailing behind, it's a beautiful marriage of convenience and calories.

For some years now I've wondered why not many people have ventured into the coffee truck business. Surely with the niches of ice cream and lunch items occupied, it's a simple expectation to hope someone will roll up with your morning espresso too. Sure I have heard tales of Long Story Short Coffee (a barista and his coffee truck tromping all over Northern Idaho) featured in last month's issue of Imbibe, but (not) oddly enough there seems to be nothing like that on the NE side of the country.

Fast forward to a couple weekends ago when meandering the streets around Soho I come across the Mud Truck; a bright orange vessel with very obvious signs of serving coffee and espresso. Acting on curiosity as well as out of the love for the aforementioned mobile food industry, I moseyed my self into the short line to sample the product.

According to the efficient (bordering on rude) barista, they roast their own coffee, available in three blends (light, medium, and dark). Deciding to leave the chit-chat at that, I grabbed my coffee and espresso to drink in a nearby park. The coffee twas mediocre; bright but cardboardy and charred. The espresso also disappointed, as the shot was pulled with a milkshake-ish consistency and tasted tremendously sharp and stiff. Didn't get a chance to note the teas.

While I am happy to have found a mobile coffee business relatively close by, I can't say I was too impressed with the Mud Truck. I'm not sure how much impact the truck facilities limited the quality of the coffee along with other factors such as the barista's practices and the coffee quality, but something needs tweaking. While the bar for the mobile food industry isn't really that high (would anyone consider Jack and Jill or Mr. Softee gourmet ice cream?), no one should allow what's been done to set a limit on what can be done.

If you're into trying stuff for the sake of novelty, definitely give the Mud Truck a try. If you have your sights on a better cup of coffee, then venture elsewhere.