Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Starbucks (Downtown Bellevue)

This morning I was desperate to get caffeine in my veins. I had a doctor's appointment and had to fast last night and this morning. As a result, I skipped my morning coffee. You know when you are an addict when you could give a rat's ass about the food and only think of missing out on the coffee. As I was sitting in the doctor's office getting jammed with needles, I remembered that Starbucks has a Clover machine in their downtown Bellevue.

As soon as the sadists with the needles were done with me, I navigated my way through the side streets of Bellevue so I could avoid the parking lot known as the 405. I waited my turn in line at the store and got the standard welcoming smiles from all of the cheerleaders, oh I mean baristas. As I had neither coffee nor food in my belly, I didn't smile back. I'm a grumpy ass before my coffee. Since I really felt grumpy this morning, when the barista asked what size I'd like, I responded "large" knowing full well that they love to say grande.

Their Clover coffee of the day was an Ethopian Sidamo. I bought some Ethopian Sidamo beans from Zoka a while back, so I figured it would be a perfect coffee to try out. The beans were sitting out on the counter and were marked 1/10/09. The beans were only a few days old, so at least the beans should be fresh. The other thing I noted about the beans was that they didn't appear oily on the surface, like most of their beans. They obviously didn't roast the piss of them. Things are looking up.

Of course, the coffee was served in a paper cup. It's kind of a bummer, but the store was filled with a bunch of mochafrappacappucino types anyways, so there wasn't an open seat in the place. The coffee had a nice aroma and if I didn't have a wicked sinus infection I probably could have detected some characteristics of the aroma, but the only thing I could tell was that it wasn't the typical charred aroma of their standard coffee. The Clover coffee was good. As much as I hate to admit it, I must be honest. It was a really good cup of coffee. The main difference that I've noticed about the Clover coffee is that it is really smooth and doesn't have the thick mouthfeel of French press coffee. It wasn't too strong and was extracted properly. It wasn't quite as good as the Ethopian made at Intelligentsia, but it was pretty close. The big difference in taste compared to the coffee I made from the Zoka Sidamo beans was that the Starbucks beans were more deeply roasted. Zoka's roast was very light. As a result, the coffee had a blueberry aroma to it and tasted more raw. If there is one thing that I'd recommend to Starbucks is to roast their beans for the Clover a little more lightly to get some of the inherent qualities of the beans to come out.

For a massive company like Starbucks to be able to have 4 day old beans in selected stores must be quite a logistical feat for this large company. If you've ever worked for a large company, you'd appreciate the effort in doing something radically different from standard operating procedure.

At this point, Starbucks has Clover locations in Seattle (of course), Portland, San Francisco, and Boston. I was a little shocked that Chicago and especially NYC got dissed, but who knows what the future will hold? If you live in one of those cities, you should give Starbucks Clover Coffee a try. IMHO, its the only worthwhile thing that they offer.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Espresso Vivace Vita Coffee Beans

Yesterday, when I went to Espresso Vivace, I picked up a 1/2lb. bag of beans for using in my French Press. Check out this picture:Take a look at what's written next to "VITA": 1/5. Take a guess what that number is. That is the roasting date for those coffee beans. I bought them yesterday which was 1/8. The beans were only roasted three days ago. Once the beans are roasted, the clock is ticking on how long they will remain fresh. There are various schools of thought, but when roasted coffee gets older than a few weeks, it surely doesn't taste the same as a few days after roasting.

Having the date on there isn't interesting on its own, it's just that most coffee that you buy in the grocery store or elsewhere has no date on it whatsoever. The simple fact is that most people that are brewing coffee at home are making stale coffee. If it's ground coffee, it's undoubtedly stale. Even most whole bean coffee that is sold is probably already stale.

There's one simple way to know the freshness of the beans without having a date on the package. When you brew the coffee in a French Press, as the hot water comes into contact with the grounds, fresh coffee will give off gas. It bubbles like Alka-seltzer, except with more force. The first time I saw it do that I was amazed. I was wondering what the hell was going on. The gas being given off is clear in this picture:If a picture speaks a thousand words, how about video? I plan on grabbing my wife's flip video camera and taking a video so that I can upload it to Youtube and then embed it here just so you can see how forceful the gas bubbling really is. The stuff looks alive.

The barista recommended this to be used in a French Press. It is a really good cup of coffee. The thing about a blend is that it ends up being a good all around cup of coffee. This coffee was full bodied, but like their espresso it's really smooth. It wasn't quite as good as the Ethopian coffee that was prepared in the Clover at Intelligentsia, but it was darn good. This isn't indicative of any problems with Espresso Vivace, just that the blend is probably better for making espresso than in a French Press.

If you haven't had fresh coffee, you owe it to youself to order some beans from a local roaster. For you out-of-towners, they do ship the coffee as well. Even with the shipping time factored in, it will still be fresher than anything coming out of a grocery store.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Espresso Vivace (Capitol Hill)

As I was grinding my coffee beans this morning, before the grinding was finished, I heard the grinder speed up a bit. Oops! I ran out of beans. Well, that gave me a perfect excuse to delay my bathroom remodeling project a while and head out to buy some beans. Oh well, why not have a latte also?

It's been several months since I visited Espresso Vivace (across the street from REI's flagship store), so I went to the website and found out that they had opened their Capitol Hill location on Broadway. The parking is much better in Capitol Hill than near the REI store, so I decided on that location. They are right in the heart of Capitol Hill's main drag on Broadway:

View Larger Map

As usual, I ordered a latte. They didn't have small, medium, & large, only 8oz. and 12oz. sizes, so I opted for the 12oz. They had 2 baristas working the machine: one pulling espresso shots, and the other steaming & pouring the milk. As the barista was swirling and tapping the steamed milk on the counter, I felt like I was a drooling dog anxiously waiting for my food to be served. From the first sip to the last, I was in caffiene heaven. While some of the other coffee houses served up some really good lattes, this one took the prize. It was just so smooth and yet intense at the same time. I think I drank the coffee in about 1 minute.

Espresso Vivace is an espresso house. They don't even serve standard coffee, only espresso drinks. This place reminds me of the coffee shops in Italy. As far as I can tell, in Italy standard coffee isn't even made. When you order coffee there, it's pretty much limited to drinking an espresso or cappuccino. I remember quite vividly being at a coffee shop in Rome. There was a really long stand-up counter where you would be served your shot of espresso. It was a pretty interesting experience watching a businessman walk up to the counter, order, dump a boatload of sugar into the espresso, give it a quick swirl with the spoon, and down it in 2 swigs. I think the whole process took under a minute. Espresso Vivace has a nice long counter where you are encouraged to slurp down your espresso. This is as close to the Italian espresso shop as you will find in the US.

This reminded me of the history of Starbuck's entry into espresso drinks. The story is something along these lines: Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) took a business trip to Milan and visited their espresso shops. Seeing the popularity of these establishments, he figured that it would be a good idea in Seattle. I think most of us know the rest of the story. It was wildly successful and Starbucks spread like a wildfire in Southern California. I remember those early days quite well. I went to my first Starbucks in the early 90's when I lived in Chicago's Oldtown neighborhood. They had a location one block north of where I lived on Wells St. The Starbucks locations back then resembled the good coffee houses in Seattle today. Their baristas were well trained and actually had old school espresso machines and separate grinders. Somewhere along the way they got so focused at expanding, they must have been forced to go to the all-in-one, simple to operate, espresso machines instead of having well trained baristas that could be trusted to make espresso. There's something wrong when there are five milk steaming pitchers next to the machine that have been sitting there for God knows how long and the barista uses it to top off your drink.

Companies can get so focused on expansion and profits that they lose sight of what made them successful in the first place. Making good espresso isn't rocket science: design a good blend of beans, properly roast them, and then make while the beans are still fresh. I know this will sound pompous coming from a guy who writes a coffee blog, but if I were running the place, I'd go back to the basics.

Back to Espresso Vivace. This is the place to get the best possible espresso drinks in Seattle. They aren't a diverse shop like Zoka where you can get whatever you want. This is about espresso. They don't offer a bunch of styles of coffee beans. They have two blends, which are optimized for espresso. That's it. I'll be heading back soon to get espresso instead of a latte. I'm guessing that it will be perfect.

Espresso Vivace on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 2, 2009

Intelligentsia Coffee - Chicago / Lakeview

You know you are getting old when you are more excited about drinking coffee than about going out and drinking on New Year's Eve. I was in Chicago to visit my family for the last few days. Since I've been sampling the local Seattle coffee shops, naturally I wondered if Chicago had any coffee shops that were worthy. After my conversation with the barista at Zoka who told me that they had sold their Clover machines to Intelligentsia in Chicago, I naturally assumed that they would be a coffee house that's about coffee, not the typical flavored crappucino type house.

So, yesterday was a perfect day to make the journey from the burbs into Chicago's Boytown neighborhood. Boytown, as you probably guessed, is a neighborhood where there happens to be a high concentration of gay men. I know this is a stereotypical comment, but when there is a high concentration of gay men, there also happens to be a decent amount of high quality restaurants and other foodie establishments. Intelligentsia's Broadway location is at 3123 North Broadway, a block south of Belmont and Broadway (the epicenter of Boytown).

View Larger Map

As my brother and I walked into Intelligentsia, the two Clover machines were the first things that we saw as we opened the door. I knew I'd finally get my chance to drink some Clover coffee. I surely didn't want my first Clover experience to be at Starbucks. I asked the barista what coffee that they were making in the Clover and he responded that Ethopian Yirgacheffe was the coffee of the day. Perfect! I've been sampling a bunch of different Ethopian beans from the local roasters in Seattle, so I figured that I should have a good basis on which to compare.

I was really impressed with the cup of coffee. Normally, I prefer drinking coffee with half & half since it does a good job at covering up a less than perfect cup of coffee's flaws. When I took the first sip of the coffee, it was one of the few times that I enjoyed drinking coffee without half & half. It had absolutely no harshness whatsoever and was silky smooth. In a nutshell, it was what coffee should taste like. The big difference with Clover coffee and French Press coffee is that the Clover has less mouthfeel. It does a better job of removing the grounds from the coffee resulting in a more refined cup of coffee. Although the flavor in French press coffee can probably compete with the Clover if everything in the brewing process is spot on it still won't be able to give as refined of a texture. Thumbs up to the Clover Machine. Right between the people in the picture below are the two Clover machines.

My brother obviously must have been impressed with my pictures on the blog and as a result, he ordered a medium latte. I really didn't expect to see any latte art outside of Seattle, but their latte was decorated nicely. This latte reminded me of Caffe Vita. It was bold and intense, but the latte had a weird bubbled look, not the really smooth texture like Stumptown or Herkimer. I know I'm nitpicking, but honestly the latte would definitely hold its own to the Seattle shops. I have had better lattes than this one, but I bet on average that Intelligentsia can make espresso drinks on par with most Seattle shops.

I did have a quick chat with the barista that made the Clover coffee. He had the same conclusion that I did. His thoughts were that Starbucks simply wanted to pull the Clover machines off of the market. Starbucks can't possibly change its image by having these machines. They aren't known for having the finest coffee. Starbucks is a place to hang out and drink sweetened coffee drinks. The Clover just doesn't fit with their business model, so I can only assume that this was a move to hurt the high-end coffee houses, not to improve Starbucks.

As I was sipping my coffee, a woman passed by with the recognizable Starbucks paper cup. It still amazes me that people will be within walking distance of a superior coffee house and yet they still choose to get the Starbucks. Thoughts go through my head as to why they will walk by a shop like this and choose Starbucks instead:
  • Are they intimidated by a place like Intelligentsia? Some coffee shops don't have clear menus like Starbucks and Intelligentsia didn't have a menu at all that was posted.
  • Are they simply Walmart shoppers that like to buy disposable crap?
  • Do they have inferiority complexes and need to go to a Starbucks where the baristas are more known for having cheery personalities than making good coffee? I'm amazed when I read online reviews of coffee shops. It seems that some people are so timid that they need validation from their barista.
Anyways, big thumbs up to Intelligentsia. They are an oasis in a desert of mediocrity. If you happen to live in Chicago or are visiting, give them a try. It is well worth the trip.

Oh, I almost forgot. Thanks go out to my brother for taking the pictures. I didn't feel like lugging my camera on the flight to the midwest.