No more Clovers

I’m sure it’s been official for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve seen it confirmed:

Starbucks is willing to share custody, however, of the 250 [Clover] machines already out there, plus maintain and repair them, but it won’t sell any more Clovers to independent cafés. The company has already pulled the plug on CloverNet, the online database that tracks sales, maintenance, and brewing preferences for Clover owners.

That’s unfortunate. Despite all the hype, the real beauty of the Clover wasn’t in how it brews coffee, but in how it could reliably bring out clean flavors and refocus attention on the beans: their origins, their roast profiles, the way they were processed, etc. Putting Starbucks beans into it isn’t going to make Starbucks coffee magically delicious. It’s a great tool that now won’t ever live up to its full potential.

The Clover rollout
The Evil Empire just bought Clover!


Your precious coffee policy

Wow, this has gotten really out of hand. A guy walks into Murky Coffee, orders an iced espresso, and is informed that the store doesn’t offer that drink. Flame war ensues.

I was at Murky when the incident happened, sitting outside away from the action. I was amazed even then at how quickly the story spread. Immediately after the guy, Jeff Simmermon, left the infamous dollar tip, the barista David came outside to show it to my friends and me. Within minutes another customer blogged about it, a friend emailed me the post, and I’d taken a photo of the bill for posting. I later decided not to post it because, really, this isn’t the kind of thing that deserves to be taken beyond the shop. It’s too late for that though: BoingBoing and Metafilter picked up the story and there’s a Washington Post article on the way.

Now I do want to write about it because my friends and the shop where I got started as a barista are being slandered as pretentious jerks who don’t care about customer service. This is especially unfair to the barista, David, who was following the store policy. There’s a sign on the register clearly stating that Murky will ice any drink except for espresso and cappuccino. David made this clear and explained why the shop doesn’t offer those. Whether or not he could have handled the interaction better (and I suspect he in fact handled it pretty well), that should have been the end of the matter. Instead Simmermon made a scene, left a vulgar tip, and got one of the world’s most popular websites to repeat his story portraying the barista as a pretentious hipster who takes coffee way too seriously. It’s frustrating to then see Murky mocked all over the internet and this guy taken to be a hero for mistreated customers.

Simmermon does raise a fair question about whether the shop should have a policy against icing espresso. It’s something the store could physically do, and isn’t the customer always right?

Well, maybe. That’s one way to run a business. But there’s a constant tension in the coffee world between giving the people what they like and trying to raise the bar for specialty coffee. If Murky was really selling customers everything they wanted, they’d be installing blenders and a giant rack of flavored syrups, too. That’s the road to becoming Starbucks, with its frappuccini, Vivanno-whatevers, and push-button mediocrity. The higher end shops define themselves not only by what they offer, but also by what they say no to. A lot of places won’t make blended drinks. Others are cutting out 20 ounce and even 16 ounce cups. At Murky, they define espresso and the classic cappuccino as their signature beverages. They won’t ice them, they won’t serve them to go. It might cost them a few customers, but it shows the pride they take in their work and their respect for the coffee. I think that’s refreshing, and it elevates the company’s image as the most dedicated shop in DC.

It’s not an arbitrary policy, either. As owner Nick explains at the Murky blog:

Espresso is a fairly volatile thing, and when it hits ice, it seems to go through a chemical change that we can’t fully explain (and I haven’t seen a good explanation within our industry quite yet). It does appear to have something to do with ascorbic acid, but when we make our iced americanos (espresso + water + ice), we pour the shots into room-temperature water before adding the ice. Believe it or not, it does make a difference. Pouring espresso over ice creates unpleasantly acrid flavors.

Maybe Simmermon’s just being sarcastic, but it sounds like he really enjoyed the iced Americano he eventually received. If he’d listened to the barista’s advice in the first place, he would have discovered the drink sooner. And at the very least he shouldn’t have publicly mocked the barista for upholding the store’s policy.

Anyway, there’s three things to take away from this. One, don’t be a dick on the internet. Two, trust your barista. Three, pay a visit to Murky. Despite the insults swirling around online, they’ve got a friendly, talented crew right now, and they make a damned good espresso.


Spotted at Boccato

I stopped by Boccato, the new gelato shop in Clarendon, last night for some refreshing dessert. The really exciting thing was lurking in the corner though: a not yet hooked up two group Synesso espresso machine, two espresso grinders, and a pour-over coffee bar. At the Yelp page the owner says, “Get ready for our coffee and loose leaf tea service coming July..!!! Mindblowing!!!” Sounds like there could finally be a great new coffee shop in the neighborhood, just in time for me to move a couple thousand miles away.

Check it out at 2719 Wison Blvd. Arlington, VA 22201, just across the street from the Whole Foods.


Molesting the bean

Oliver Schwaner-Albright of The New York Times asks if milk is coffee pollutant number 1:

Is pouring any kind of cream in your coffee a categorical mistake?

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.

I’ve always been a half-and-half partisan. (I grew up on the West Coast where cream is the standard; I still don’t understood why New York is such a milk town.) But in the last few years I’ve tasted some outstanding coffees from roasters like Blue Bottle, Gimme, Intelligentsia , Stumptown and Terroir, and I’ve been converted to the cult of black coffee. With exceptions made for cappuccinos, dairy is no longer an option.

I give in sometimes, mainly when I’m desperate for caffeine on an airplane with inevitable weakened brews. And I’ll occasionally go for Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Otherwise, molesting the bean with cream and sugar is completely off the table.


The unbearable baring of baristas

Forget Slutbucks. Cowgirls Espresso, the Washington chain of coffee shacks that features attractive young female baristas in skimpy clothing (previously mentioned here), is *ahem* under scrutiny of the Bonney Lake City Council:

The City Council has set aside 30 minutes at a workshop tonight to discuss concerns that the employees at the coffee stands “offend the public decency.”

At the council’s May 13 meeting, 18 citizens complained about the display of skin at the two coffee stands.

“This Saturday I was pumping gas across the street when my children looked over and said, ‘Mom, I see a naked girl,'” said Tawnya McLavey. “Here we have it right in our city and our community people barely wearing clothes that are serving coffee. I was so disturbed by that.”

Councilman Mark Hamilton said the council has asked the city attorney to review the law to see if anything can be done, but he’s not sure whether the city can regulate coffee stands. That’s what the council will be discussing tonight.

“It seems to be the crux of the problem, that these ladies can be viewed from a public street,” Hamilton said. “We know we can’t regulate the establishment or what the girls are wearing, but we’re hoping something can be done about them being visible from the drive thru. We know it’s a stretch.”

I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but with me likely going back on the job market soon I hate to see any work possibilities closed off…


Counter Culture unveils Direct Trade

Today Counter Culture Coffee unveiled it’s new Direct Trade program, which they say is the first third-party certified direct trade seal. Counter Culture will partner with Quality Certification Services to guarantee that the company’s selected coffees meet the following standards:

1. Personal & Direct Communiction:
Counter Culture has visited grower partners on a biennial basis, at minimum.

2. Fair & Sustainable Prices:
Counter Culture has paid at least $1.60/lb. for green coffee. This exceeds the Fair Trade Certified floor price by at least 19%, not including quality-based financial incentives paid to growers.

3. Exceptional Quality:
Coffees have scored at least 85 on a 100-pt. cup quality scale.

4. 100% Transparency:
We take a transparent approach to everything we do and are committed to sharing our financial information with everyone from growers to consumers. Counter Culture maintains direct communication between buyers, sellers, and any intermediaries. All relevant financial information is available to all parties, always.

As Fair Trade certification, while well-intentioned, is limited by lack of incentives for quality and its requirement that participating farmers work in co-ops. CCC’s Direct Trade is more flexible, rewards quality, builds long-term relationships, and pays higher prices. CCC and other top roasters have been working along these lines for a while, but without outside certification. Hopefully this step will help promote the direct trade model to consumers and other roasters.


Perigrine Espresso wanders to Eastern Market

Great news for DC coffee lovers: the former Eastern Market location of Murky Coffee is going to be filled by Ryan Jensen, former Murky manager and the current DC representative for Counter Culture. Ryan and his wife Jill plan to open Peregrine Espresso there this summer. They’re a wonderfully nice couple with a deep love for coffee, so this is sure to be an excellent addition to the neighborhood.

In other DC coffee news, Baked and Wired has shut down the Buzz Zap Graphics portion of its business to make room for more cafe seating. Also, Grape and Bean, my current shop, got a nice write-up at the Washingtonian blog.

[Story via Metrocurean.]


Starbucks skullduggery

Starbucks Pike Place Roast

About halfway through my commute this morning I realized that I’d left my fresh bag of Counter Culture’s Kuta coffee sitting in my kitchen. I was tempted to turn back, but not wanting to be too late for work and knowing that Starbucks’ new Pike Place Blend is at least drinkable, I decided to be a good employee and pick up coffee at the Evil Empire instead.

Normally when I go to a Starbucks I’ll only get brewed coffee, since the bags of beans aren’t marked with a roast date and there’s no telling how old they are. But waiting in line today I saw that they had half-pound bags of Pike Place for sale, and with a roast date hand-written right on the package. “Freshly roasted on: 5-12-08,” it said.

“Wow, that’s fresh,” I thought. “Way to go, Starbucks.” But wait a second. Isn’t today the 12th? I’m no roasting expert, but I really doubt these beans were roasted in the middle of the night, cooled, packaged without resting, delivered to a store in DC, and placed out for sale by 9:30 am.

So what’s going on here? Isolated mistake or pervasive skullduggery? Anyone else notice impossible roasting dates on Starbucks coffee?

[Thanks to Caleb for photographing with his pricey Apple impulse purchase.]

Update 5/13/08: Former barista Baylen says in the comments: “The date on the bag is the date they scoop the beans in the store, not the roast date. Not sure why it says roast, but it’s disingenuous.”

Second update: Mystery definitively solved. Thanks, StarbucksGossip. The label applied to my bag was made for the 5 lbs. bags. The smaller bags are supposed to have “scooped on” labels instead. I’m glad to know this was an innocent mistake, but as Jim points out, who the hell cares when a coffee was scooped? If they have the roast date available, they should just put that on the label.


L20 goes cupping

L20 is an inventive, soon-to-open restaurant in Chicago, and the chef has been documenting the opening process on a weblog. It’s fascinating stuff, with photos that are sure to make you hungry. In the newest post, the staff shows that they’re paying attention to the coffee, too:

Our coffee undertaking began over six months ago. Our desire was to achieve the highest level of quality and consistency that we could, in order to provide the best cup of coffee to our guests. We started first with the beans.

After several cuppings of coffees from various roasters across the country, representing beans from across the globe, we finally made a decision—Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea. Their coffees were consistently better than all of the rest. It was very clear that their commitment to coffee mirrored our commitment to our guests’ experience.The passion and service displayed by their team assured us that we had made the right decision.

We will focus on direct trade coffees and source micro-lots whenever they are available to us. We will change the selections as new crops become available on the market.

I’ve written before about “restaurant coffee” and how chefs that pay attention to every little detail settle for really poor coffee, so it’s great to see another high-end place taking coffee seriously. They also adapted the coffee cupping process for vanilla beans, which sounds like an interesting experiment.

[Thanks to David for the link.]


Blue Bottle’s new machine

Looks like I need to go to San Francisco again. The New York Times reports that Blue Bottle — makers of the best espresso I’ve ever tasted — have a very cool new coffee brewer from Japan:

With its brass-trimmed halogen heating elements, glass globes and bamboo paddles, the new contraption that is to begin making coffee this week at the Blue Bottle Café here looks like a machine from a Jules Verne novel, a 19th-century vision of the future.

Called a siphon bar, it was imported from Japan at a total cost of more than $20,000. The cafe has the only halogen-powered model in the United States, and getting it here required years of elliptical discussions with its importer, Jay Egami of the Ueshima Coffee Company.

It’s an elaborate series of vacuum brewers, heated by halogen lamps. It looks fantastic.

The article also gives a lot of space to discussing the Clover, the high-end single cup brewer that’s proliferating across the country.