June 20, 2006

A Hill of Beans

by psu

Recently, we've gotten a lot of feedback, both privately and on the site about the state of the local coffee scene. I am always happy to get this kind of information, since it never hurts to have new places to try. But, one aspect of these messages has been puzzling. Over and over again, the advocate of the new place will say "you have to go to Café XYZ, they use these special Moon Beans from the Outer Rings of Venus, which Rule."

With all due respect, this is nonsense.

I'll only say this once, because I've said it before in an article from couple of years go. Assuming a certain level of quality in handling and roasting, your enjoyment of the cappuccino that you have in your hand is determined by two things:

First, how good is the person making the coffee.

I've been going to my favorite coffee joint almost every weekend for more than 10 years. Over this time, I assume that the quality of their beans has stayed mostly the same. I have not noticed much variability in the coffee that I get at home when I buy these beans, for example. But, I have noticed that until this winter, there had been a drop in the quality of my weekend shot over the last three or four years. I never pondered why this should be. The answer was obvious.

Three or four years ago, all of the weekend staff slowly left for one reason or another. As each one disappeared, my chances of a good cappuccino diminished. If you observed the lines in the place during this period, you'd notice people jostling to try and make sure Elio or Dom made the coffee, because they know what they are doing and the new people did not. This, my friends, is much more important than which beans are going through the burr grinder. Always fight to get Elio.

The good news is that since then, La Prima has slowly hired new staff and this staff has slowly gotten better and better at pulling a proper shot of coffee. The result? In the last six months, I have not gotten a bad weekend cappuccino. I expect the situation to be stable until the current crew moves on.

Second, how fresh are the beans.

La Prima roasts its beans basically across the street from the café. In various communications, I have been told to obtain coffee from places that get their "fairer than fair trade" beans from various locales, all of which are further than 500 feet from the café. All things being equal, I claim that La Prima's beans are at least a day fresher, and therefore better. If you don't think a day in the truck makes a difference in how the coffee comes out, then I'm not really going to listen to you about where to go for coffee anyway.

So, the upshot is, if you are happy with your coffee, more power to you. I am happy with mine too, and I don't really see any reason to go chasing after a different shot, made by people I don't know using beans that came from some company way outside the city.

Besides, I'm pretty sure they'll just make the damn coffee too hot.

Posted by psu at June 20, 2006 10:26 PM | Bookmark This

If you ever roast your own coffee, you might be surprised at how bad just-roasted coffee brews up. That's why roasters will not serve their own coffees until rested for a few days. My own espresso blends, for example, are not really drinkable until the third day and don't start to get good until the fourth and fifth days, peaking maybe on the sixth or seventh.

Bottom line: Fresher than three days usually isn't desirable, so having your coffees shipped in is not a disadvantage.


Posted by Tom Moertel at June 21, 2006 01:48 AM

Tom, I love you like Scooby loves Shaggy, but come on. If one has to compare the relative risks of (a) walking in to a coffee shop and getting stale coffee vs. (b) walking in to a coffee shop and getting coffee that was just too darn fresh, you'd have to agree that the former happens surprisingly often, and the latter basically doesn't happen at all.

Posted by peterb at June 21, 2006 07:05 AM

What if they are MAGIC beans, jack?

Posted by Doug at June 21, 2006 01:55 PM

Peterb, I agree completely, especially on the Scooby-Shaggy love thing. I also agree w/ psu in that skill and freshness largely determine what's in the cup.

Nevertheless, psu's comments about, "at least a day fresher, and therefore better," and, "if you don't think a day in the truck makes a difference," don't tell the whole story about freshness, and the rest of the story is worth telling: there is no freshness penalty for shipping during the resting period. This fact is worth recognizing because there are truly good shops (e.g., Aldo) that serve fresh coffees shipped in from out-of-town roasters. Ignoring these places would be a great way to screw yourself out of a worthy cup.


Posted by Tom Moertel at June 21, 2006 02:01 PM

Personally, I am always willing to try something new, once, within reason.

I enjoy the cappuccino at La Prima, but I rarely buy their beans. Nothing against them. I just don't make expresso at home, and they do not seem to have much of a selection of varieties, just a french roast, and one or two other things.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at June 22, 2006 07:22 PM

I don't regularly buy La Prima's non-espresso beans, but I could have sworn that I've seen more than "french roast, and one or two other things" alongside the espresso.

Posted by Nat at June 22, 2006 11:05 PM

psu & peterb,

Your points definitely have merit. For further discussion... coffee and espresso is something which I have been obsessing over during the past year or two. I understand enough to realize how little I know, but the following seems to be pretty much understood as true by most if not all:

Roasted coffee should not be used for anything longer than 2 weeks unless stored using extreme measures. (i.e. Illy - which after opening however, should be used en-whole ASAP as taste will disappear much more rapidly than freshly roasted coffee - pretty much immediately actually.)

Unfortunately, La Prima does not mark roast dates - but even so - I have fared pretty well for the most part when buying there. I believe they do enough business to typically ensure that the beans you are buying are fresh. I'll also get espresso or espresso based drinks, but I'd wish they'd clean their equipment more often. (I'm not sure I've ever seen the steam wands clean.) Needless to say having one of the city's best bakery's directly attached (Il Piccolo Forno) - makes for a no lose proposition.

When roasting coffee there is generally a rest period of about 3 days depending on the degree of roast and beans involved. If brewed during the resting period, you will see major bubbles due to oxygen escaping, and it will generally not taste it's best, or even quite bad in some cases. (Espresso's crema is actually emulisified solids due to the pressure inherit to the brewing process, press pot coffee has a somewhat similar affect visually - termed as bloom, moka pots / stovetops espresso machines are roughly in-between.) So in regards to shipping beans, as long as roasted beans are shipped during the rest period or shortly thereafter, it *will* be just as good as having a local roaster taste wise.

The actual roast also plays a major part in regards to what you end up with. Long (or dark and oily) roasts destroy much of the natural flavor, but are often relied upon by chain shops due to being able to roast much more consistently this way (and also for disguising cheap beans), and to make bases for drinks using typically a ungodly large amount of milk. This is part of the reason why the myth exists that espresso should be a near un-drinkably strong beverage - which is quite untrue. When done right, there is pretty much no need for milk or sugar - and it should be naturally sweet in most cases. (Stovetop espresso machines / moka pots such as Bialetti, etc - do not produce espresso - but something 1/2 way inbetween drip and espresso and typically fairly strong.) The great news is that La Prima like other smart roasters does not burn their beans... CoffeeTree's are also not burnt, but I have not had as much success with them on my home equipment for some reason.

Also, roasted coffee should really only be ground immediately prior to use no matter what method is used for brewing. Unless you see enough traffic in a shop which will empty the grinder hopper throughout the day - if it's pre-ground when you order - you are at best getting 1/2 of what you should be taste wise.

As important as the roast are the beans themselves. Unroasted beans, will typically survive about a year or so before starting to lose potential. (Although people are now looking at measures to stores greens even longer and/or prevent any kind of loss in flavor. i.e. Terroir / George Howell - with much success.) As most espressos are blends, bad components/beans of a blend, will yield bad results no matter how well roasted and prepared. The focus on quality beans by smart buyers is increasing greatly, hence some of the record prices being paid recently for quality greens. Even companies with great blends, spend much time and effort trying to source components which will stay at the same level of consistency through the year in regards to quality to ensure consistency with their blend. This is not an easy task.

This leads us to the source. While Fair Trade as an idea/concept certainly sounds appealing to the average consumer with a heart, it has come under much criticism for some of the reasons you have eluded to. In general, there is no reward or focus on quality and the actual benefits to the farmers are somewhat misleading. Also, seeing that logo does not guarantee the buyer that the entire product they are using is 'fairly traded' - only a certain portion. For a very revealing and entertaining conversation on this topic - listen to Portafilter.net podcast #27. In short, Fair Trade has nothing to do with taste. However, given the passion of community surrounding coffee - I believe this will either change in time or the their will be a major shift away from the Fair Trade brand name altogether.

Lastly, like most things, people are the greatest threat at destroying perfectly good product. (Precisely why Starbucks is removing the majority of their semi-automatic machines with fully automated machines from most of their US shops.) The person and/or the shop preparing the drink can do plenty to take perfectly good roasted beans and hand you a cup which will likely be thrown straight into the garbage after one sip. Dosing - the amount of coffee used per shot, quality of grind, good water, tamping pressure/distribution, grind/brew temperature, brew pressure, timing of the shot, cleanliness, and general ability in preparing/not screwing up milk based beverages are a big part. (Making latte art has nothing to do with how a drink tastes. Knowing the proper rations for real milk based drinks, how to prepare the milk, and using decent milk does.) Equipment also definitely makes a difference - being the grinder and espresso machine, but a great barista can work wonders with bad equipment. A poor barista with the best of equipment will more than likely rely on luck at best to get a decent drink.

In short fresh quality beans, roasted correctly and prepared consistently by a trained or concienscous individual on good to great equipment = godhead.

Even greater still are places which have made a successful business model around this and/or provide great customer service and a great atmosphere to sit down and spend time at. Look to Intelligentsia (Chicago) and Stumptown (Portland) for good examples of roaster's/cafe's who have really succeeded in this regard. Doing this with a high level of consistency and quality is not an easy task.

Where Pittsburgh has fallen short from my experience is most often, the person behind the bar and overall consistency of product. CoffeeTree typically has excellent drip coffee but unless I see one of the owners behind the bar or in the store, I'll stay away from anything espresso based. La Prima has great coffee, but as you mentioned staffing has been a concern here as well. Aldo's only minus for me is location for me as I live in the city - but that's my problem. I really feel it will be these 3 three businesses which will move the city forward. (Though the next tier would include those such as Enrico's Tazzo'doro, Blue Horse, Cafe Intermezzo who also use out of town roasters who focus on quality.)

There also some places which may excel at location/ambience but the coffee is mediocre at best and downright insipid at worst. (Ironically, some of these are the most crowded. )

The more I learn about quality food - the same principals apply to coffee. Usually the good stuff is made in smaller portions, by people who care about their relationships with their suppliers, their role in the community, and a never ending focus on quality.

As a fan of site - keep up the great work... Thanks!

Posted by anonymous at June 25, 2006 04:10 PM

Blue Horse suffers from having only "fair trade" coffees. I hold to the original view that "fair trade" coffees are inherently lower quality. Economics 101.

However, their gelato is pretty good.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at June 26, 2006 10:17 PM

Yes I'm convinced a large part of the reason espresso is better in Italy is the milk.

Posted by Al at July 13, 2006 04:05 PM

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