Thursday, November 27, 2008

Coffee Culture USA: A Documentary

I recently was sent the documentary Coffee Culture USA, what looked like an insightful look into the coffee culture, and so I hunkered down recently to see what they had constructed.

On the positive side, the film really captured a lot of small coffee-based businesses across the US, several of them with some very noble motives (to support positive teen interactions, keeping the family legacy alive, etc). Overall, the film seemed to accurately portray the commonly construed coffee culture of the US. And that dovetails right into why I didn't like the film.

The shared theme throughout the whole film seemed to be that people largely get into the coffee business for all kinds of reasons EXCEPT to serve amazing coffee (one coffeehouse actually went into business to lure people in using a cooperative bail bond business!). Sure the film also featured a (seemingly) bona fide Kona company as well as some pretty interesting thoughts from Alfred Peet, but everything else seemed to shove the coffee quite far from the point of the culture. Don't get me wrong, there can be other motives to starting/running a coffeehouse but you have to also serve a quality product (Alfred actually made a similar remark somewhere in the middle).

I gotta say this film made me sad. Maybe it's because the film captured a lot of what bothers me with the coffee world. Maybe it's also because it actually does somewhat accurately reflect the sad current state of the US coffee culture. Whatever the reason, I still stick to my hope that a lot of these troubling facets of the coffee culture will soon shape up.

Thus, check out Coffee Culture USA if you're looking for a taste of the current state of affairs in the coffeehouse realm. But if you're one deeply enamored with quality coffee and you're easily depressed
, you might want to hold off.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

CC: Kahawa Coffee House

What's does "CC" mean?

Subject: Kahawa Coffee House
Location visited: Toronto, ON
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

Kona coffee definitely sits in the mythological realm of coffee popularity. It seems that every person I get into a "what's your favorite coffee?" conversation, those that aren't as deeply obsessed as myself always play the Kona card. And while most of those Kona lovers have really never had true cup of Kona (most usally say they had a Kona "blend"), it just goes to show the effective publicity that Kona has laid down over the years.

Hence, whenever I see a coffee company or product with Hawaiian ties, I am skeptical. My most recent interaction with such doubt was with a coffeehouse up in Toronto called the Kahawa Coffee House. Located a bit northwest of Kensington Market, the quaint little coffeehouse not only sounds Hawaiian (maybe more Polynesian) but it also sports a very North Beach logo complete with a hyacinth flower. But I soon found out that the similarities halted there.

The exterior of the joint was nothing elaborate; just a bench, large window, and a very spiffy (and clean-looking) storefront. Inside, the coffeehouse was ablaze with orange and yellows amidst a handful of tables and a cute counter.

Kahawa actually roasts their own coffee in a compact homeroaster on the back counter. Knowing that small does not mean poor, I dove right into my Papua New Guinea drip (not literally of course; I'm too big). The coffee was a light roast, with a nice sweetness complimented by citrus and a tinge of grass; overall pretty good. The espresso on the other hand didn't bode as well, having a minute sweetness overshadowed by a strong dark bitterness. The tea is from Tea in the Sahara.

Finding the place very comfortable and not in cahoots with Kona mythology, I was content to leisurely take in Kahawa. Sure it seems that they could use some more skill in the barista skill realm but coffee-wise, they at least seem to have a fair foundation for the roasting. If you're in the area and looking for a vibrant place to sit and have some decent filtered joe, skip up to Kahawa.

Note: I have nothing against true Kona coffee, simply the blind love that people express having never had actually quality stuff. That's all really...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Don't Forget the Thanksgiving Coffee!

As the great American holiday rounds the corner, don't forget to grab a pound or two of great coffee for whatever events you plan to host or attend.

With that said, here's a few coffees (alphabetically-listed) that I've either heard a lot of good things about or I've had the pleasure of tasting myself. If you're really in a rough spot (you know of no good coffee nearby), shoot me an email as I would not wish such a fate on anyone.

Crescent Moon's Brazil Daterra Sunrise
Received a 92 from Coffee Review recently and from what I hear, this year's crop produced a tremendous coffee. On a direct recommendation, one of my recent favorites is the Raccoon Creek Blend as it was recently reworked and has become even more glorious.

Gimme Coffee's Nicaragua Linda Vista Cup of Excellence
While any Cup of Excellence Coffee is a good choice, Gimme usually has a tremendous track record in my experience of great CoEs.

PTs Coffee's Ethiopia Limu - Gomma Organic
An amazing light coffee I've had the distinct pleasure of imbibing, give this or a number of PT's other coffees a whirl.

And here's a few holiday blends (I've heard nothing on these but it sure is good marketing):
Counter Culture Coffee's Holiday Blend
Intelligentsia's Celebration Blend

If you have any others, feel free to leave them in a comment below.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

CC: Java's Cafe

What's does "CC" mean?

Subject: Java's Cafe
Location visited: Rochester, NY
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

It always seems that the local places (especially the good ones) hide, tucked away in spots off the beaten path and not really conducive to a multi-event evening (a stellar coffeehouse near an amazing culinary venue stands as a rare sight). Yet occasionally, a coffeehouse manages to find a nice place to roost.

One such well-placed coffeehouse is a rather large place called Java's Cafe. The coffeehouse sits in what seems to be a rather nice part of the city adjacent to the Eastman Theatre. The outside of the cafe possesses a clean look with not much in outside seating at the time (since it was cold, they retracted it) and nice front windows. The interior gives the impression that the place once was a pub of sorts as it has a central counter, a large amount of dining space, and a downstairs complete with two billiards tables (mind you, beware of the steps needed to reach them; they're a bit steep). And not only did the place prove full of character and local love, but they even have a lunch counter/deli and a whole wall dedicated to free leaf and coffee off to the right of the shop.

The coffee comes from Java Joe's Roasting Company, a coffee roaster out of Binghamton, NY. I had their Kenya AA (brewed on hot plate brewers...yucker), a mellow sweet blend that had potential but since it had been sitting, I couldn't get at it. The espresso, though pulled a bit long (barista skills were half decent), had a nice acidity and smacked of cocoa, all with minimum char. The tea is free leaf.

While the coffee and espresso weren't bad (could use a bit of improvement), I'm sure the convenience of the facility (and maybe the food too) probably really strengthen business. If you're in the proximity, give Java's a try.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

CC: Spot Coffee

What's does "CC" mean?

Spot Coffee
Location visited: Buffalo, NY
(Delaware Ave location)
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 3+ [see key]

Over the past year or so, I have really met a lot of people from Buffalo. Some described their city in fair terms, others in sullen woes of a not-so-exciting city. Whatever Buffalo is, it is not a city that sells itself well, as when I've visited I really didn't see much that impressed (I am willing to give the city the benefit of the doubt).

But one thing that seems pretty plain through other conversations and research is that Buffalo does not have a lot of promising coffee places. Locals had told me about Spot Coffee, that it was the local place to get coffee, but beyond that I had not heard much.

So without many options in a recent visit, I made my way to Spot. The coffeehouse looks behemoth walking towards it, like a two-story warehouse with a bright purple awning. The inside proved to have the high vaulted ceilings of a warehouse, but much more warmth and lots of fancy vintage furniture.

Spot self-roasts their coffee, with blends ranging from light to oily-dark. I sampled their Panama coffee, which had a smooth body and a share of candy-ish notes, but it turned out to be tremendously overshadowed by staleness (i.e. it had been sitting). The barista produced a bit of a lackluster espresso; sweet but with definite components of cardboard and char. I did not observe the tea.

Sadly, it seems Buffalo really does not have much of a coffee scene (as further evidenced here) but that's not to say that there's no hope. Spot has the facilities and capabilities to take it up a notch so with some time and effort, hopefully a return trip back to Buffalo will be met with such great news.

If you're in Buffalo and in need of fair coffee (or coffee at all given the lack of alternatives), get a spot of coffee at Spot.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

CC: Balzac's Coffee

What's does "CC" mean?

Subject: Balzac's Coffee
Location visited: Toronto, ON
(Distillery District location)
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 3+ [see key]

Naming a business after a historic figure seems like a gamble. Obviously, there can be disputes of trademark and copyright but do historical figures have constituents to watch out for that kind of stuff? For example, what if you decide to name a seedy bar Harriet Tubman's Bungalow? Or a big & tall store Napolean Bonaparte? And even if people complain, does anyone really have the right to legally dispute?

What conjured up this thinking was the simple fact that I've been to a number of places named after founding fathers, Greek philosophers and the like. Some good experiences and other leaving much to be desired. My most recent example is a place called Balzac's Coffee, named after the French novelist, playwright and coffee nut Honore' de Balzac. Granted, their website shows that it has some decent popularity amidst the publications of Toronto but much of the praise did little to show the actual quality of the coffee.

Naturally, a visit to the location in the Distillery District (a neat historical spot, though a bit overrated for all the hype)
helped clarify. The cafe sits in an rejuvenated warehouse-ish building, beautifully restored on the outside with a lovely open stone patio. Inside, the cafe relays stunning decor, with a huge chandelier and a loft behind the coffee counter complete with a small balcony overlooking the lower level (where you can sit!).

Balzac roasts their own coffee, having a fair selection of blends and single origins. I had a Peruvian single origin that proved smooth yet a bit charred, and as it had been definitely sitting, proved pretty stale. I found the espresso pulled long, sweet with hints of chocolate but also a tad cardboardy; not horrible or wonderful. The tea is of the bagged variety, though I did not note the brand.

In my reflections back, I would have to say that it would be a toss up of whether Balzac would appreciate his name used for this cafe. On one hand, Balzac was known more for his excessive coffee consumption (the man practically lived on it) so therefore, I would think he would care more of the hours of the cafes versus the quality of the beans. But then again, Balzac lived in a different age; had he lived today I think he would demand a higher quality for his name.

However you look at it, I think that Balzac's Coffee has a lot of the right groundwork laid and has but a few quality tweakings to be made in order to best honor the old Frenchman. If you're a fan of Balzac or you happen to be sequestered to the Distillery District, give Balzac's Coffee a whirl.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Mugged: Higher Ground [Bolivian Caranavi]


What does "Mugged" mean?

Subject: Higher Ground Roasters
Coffee Mugged:
Bolivian Caranavi
Rating: 5+ [see key]

ometimes I really wish first impressions weren't so powerful. You can patch things up with old friends but if you scare off a newfound acquaintance, chances are you might not see them again. And while I now find it easier to give people the benefit of the doubt, I have a much harder time doing the same when I have a bad coffee experience.

One such lackluster experience was my first with Higher Ground Roasters at the oddly similarly named Philly coffeehouse called Higher Grounds Cafe. The coffee was not necessarily bad but along with the espresso, it barely registered as decent coffee. Yet wanting to be fair, I left my conclusion that the coffee quality has a lot of factors that affect it (i.e. the weakness of the cafe, poor barista skills, etc.).

So when the Coffee Roasters Club sent me a pound of Higher Ground's Bolivian Caranavi (third of three), I was truly intrigued as to the coffee's mettle. The roast level was of a medium level and I had the opportunity to sample it via drip, french press, and vacuum press. The vacuum press produced a rich dark chocolate taste followed up with a meek sweetness and a very noticable spicy aftertaste. The french press further confirmed the dark chocolate and had an even stronger accent on the spiciness. The drip produced a great cup but not as tasty as the french or vacuum press.

Many would say a single interaction that demands future ones is always a good exchange to have had. In this case, I consider myself fortunate to be able to have had a better second interaction with Higher Ground per this particular lovely Bolivian. I definitely hope to have more.

Whether you join the Coffee Roasters Club or buy direct, definitely give Higher Ground a sample.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Beautiful Burlap Bags


While rarely do I wander into the arena of fashion accessories, I was taken back by this NJ native's creative reuse of coffee burlap sacks into very slick-looking bags. You can take a look at the various bags by Javagaldesigns whether you're in the market for a new bag or you know someone with an upcoming birthday/gift-giving holiday

Mugged: Metropolis Coffee [Colombia San Rafael]


What does "Mugged" mean?

Subject: Metropolis Coffee
Coffee Mugged: Colombia San Rafael
Rating: 4+ [see key]

olombia always will have the image of Juan Valdez burned into my cranium. While some would see the association as negligible, I would say my early interactions with his approved coffees made me think less of coffee from Colombia (mass-produced lesser fare). Fortunately over the last couple years, as I've become more and more immersed in the coffee world, my love of Colombian coffee has been rekindled through some good single-origin batches.

One recent batch I had the opportunity to sample was a Colombian from Metropolis Coffee via
Coffee Roasters Club (one of the three coffees sent). Having been to Metropolis in Chicago, I already had high hopes of splendid coffee as I ripped open the bag, smelling the sweet bold aroma of the beans. First brewing the coffee via french press, I was pleased with the smooth body and the strong earthiness. The vacuum press and drip proved extremely similar, with the vacuum pot providing a little more sweetness in my mug.

Overall, the San Rafael proved to be a good Colombian that I'd be up for trying again even though I can't really say it had a whole lot of amazing flavors to it (maybe my impressions of Juan Valdez are flaring up again). Either way, if you're looking for a decent Colombian I would recommend giving San Rafael a try for thy self.