Caffé Medici

A wood carved sign - no wonder why their coffee is expensive

Coffee:  Cuveé

Hardware:  Drip – French Press only Espresso – La Marzocco FB70

Mac to PC Ratio:  2-1

Austin is the Boulder of Texas.  Both cities have a better than average selection of bike lanes, share an affinity for Whole Foods and are enclaves of liberalism in otherwise conservative states.  However unlike Boulder, Austin can boast ethnic diversity, single family homes for less than a million dollars and having more tolerance for homeless people.  As far as this blog is concerned, the biggest advantage Austin has is the sheer quantity of coffeehouses that brew real coffee per order, and one of the best is Caffé Medici.

Each morning at Caffé Medici there are three varieties of single origin coffee from Cuveé, a nearby Texas roaster that not only has exceptional coffee, they also have their priorities straight by promoting quality coffee over politics.  At Medici, they take the time to grind and steep the beans per order on a french press.  While you wait for your coffee, you can eavesdrop on the baristas talking with some of the regulars about biking to work, or if it’s slow scan the room and churn this around in your head while you wait:  Why do most of the men in Austin have beards?  Doesn’t it hit 80 here in November?

Will you find an abudance of soccer moms drinking huge vats of coffee flavored milk at Medici?  Yes, but that is the price you pay for visiting the Clarksville neighborhood.  Medici offers a discount for cash, and they compost their used coffee grounds.  There is outdoor seating, and while there is usually a good crowd here, at least it’s never mobbed like Jo’s on South Congress.  Talk to any tourist and they will mention Jo’s, which is more of a scene than a place to get good coffee, and where every ironic piece of decor appeals to hipsters to open their vintage thrift store wallets.  Medici has far better coffee, and no fixed gear bikes in sight.

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Kopplin’s

After visiting Kopplin’s, I discovered that the Mac to PC ratio is only an appropriate measure to determine the pretentiousness of the clientele of a coffeehouse.  I will need to develop a whole new system to measure the pretentious level of the coffeehouse itself.  Here is the point scale I propose:

  • 10 points of the coffeehouse is in a restored building or has LEED certification
  • 10 points if there is a dive bar within 100 feet with a prominent PBR sign
  • 10 points if the coffeehouse sells American Apparel T-Shirts
  • 10 points if organic grass fed milk is on the menu, add 5 more for each of the following:  soy milk, goat’s milk or milk identified by the cow (Jersey, Holstein)
  • 5 points if the owner conducts a weekly cupping
  • 5 points if Fair Trade coffee is on the menu, 10 points if it is on the window
  • 5 points for pictures of smiling workers picking coffee or coffee plantations, 10 points if the name of the family is listed on the picture
  • 10 points for any mention of carbon credits or carbon footprint on the menu or website
  • 5 points for a consistent mix of music from artists who have been recently featured on NPR, Pitchfork or Brooklyn Vegan
  • 10 points for a flat screen TV of any kind
  • 5 points if they have a liquor license, 10 points for a tapas menu
  • 5 points for new leather furniture, or more than one barista is dressed in all black
  • 20 points if the coffeehouse has their own iphone app.

By this scale, Kopplin’s only gets a 60, but still makes it the most pretentious coffeehouse in the Twin Cities, and probably the most pretentious one I’ve visited in 2009.  I don’t count Fonte in Seattle because I walked out after waiting in line and seeing Nicoise & Manzanilla Olives with Lemon Zest and Vaudovan Spice on the menu, despite being drawn in from the street by their Mirage espresso machine.

However I am willing to put up with almost anything as long as it results in a good cup of coffee.  Kopplin’s has twin clovers, much like hockey rinks have two Zambonis, because one will inevitably break.  I was more than willing to part with $5 for a 12oz cup of the Kenyan Kiamariga, and it was worth it.  I am always amazed how coffee brewed in a Clover has so much more body than the brew I make everyday in my French Press.

As far as I can tell, Kopplin’s does not roast their own coffee.  Rather their skill lies in selecting outstanding single origin coffee from roasters like Terrior Coffee in Massachusetts.  While I support Kopplin’s decision not to serve decaffeinated coffee, I find it hilarious that they put their foot down on only serving whole milk because skim milk does not “fit our core principle of showing off the flavors of nature.” That’s like saying “we only use natural dyes to make our cheddar cheese orange.”   Coffee is a flavor of nature, and milk dilutes that flavor, so by that theory they shouldn’t serve any drinks with milk.  I have no problem when a coffeehouse makes a stand when it makes sense, and in this case it is more the attitude, which is a little out of place in the land of hotdish and Minnesota Nice.  Keeping that in mind, I plan to return to Kopplin’s whenever I’m in the neighborhood because they have excellent coffee.  I also plan to order a large decaf with extra skim milk every time, just to feel the ire of their dressed in black baristas.

Crema Coffee House

Here’s further proof that Denver’s Five Points neighborhood is moving along in the gentrification process – there is finally a real coffeehouse to go along with the architecture firms and bars that are slowly renovating the former industrial buildings.

Crema Coffee House serves Denver’s best locally roasted coffee, Novo, and they are the second coffeehouse in the city to offer coffee brewed in a French Press.  Look closely at the picture – their logo is a French Press!  It’s a beacon calling coffee lovers to this location.  If you want a real cup of coffee, you don’t even have the option of having it brewed in a flavor robbing machine with a paper filter, thus giving Crema an edge over Pablo’s, who only offer French Press as an option with one refill (Crema has unlimited refills).  When you consider how delicate the arabica bean is, and how many things can go wrong from harvest to, shipping, roasting and storing, why would you ruin it at the end with improper brewing?

I applaud Crema for getting the coffee right and for the ambiance.  Australians in Colorado will rejoice knowing that Vegemite is an option on the toast bar.  Also I have never seen a laptop open at Crema, which means no wifi, or their customers are smart enough to cherish some time away from their digital leashes.  Considering that McDonald’s plans to roll out free wifi, their next strike in the war with Starbucks after McCafe, in my dream coffeehouses will follow Crema’s lead and move in the opposite direction.  Let McDonald’s and Starbucks fight over control of the liquid coffee flavored candy bar market.  This is perhaps the only time you will see me defend the green monster.  The average McDonald’s is about as inviting as the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York – why would anyone stay there longer than absolutely necessary?  Think of the hard formica tables, the smell of the grease and the screams of children if you picked one of the locations with an indoor playland.  Sugary milkshakes aside, at least Starbucks is inviting, and the vast majority of their staff not only finished high school, but thanks to their inane menu, know a few words of Italian.

Unlike Starbucks, Novo coffee isn’t roasted too dark, which robs the bean of acidity and flavor.  Coffee that is over roasted has too much bitterness, which explains why people drown it with milk and sugar.  There are a few locations to get Novo coffee in Denver, but Crema is the only place to experience it brewed in a French Press, which is cheaper and just as flavorful as having it brewed in a Clover.

K Cups

Disposable Heroes of Coffee

Just when I thought there were enough ways to ruin coffee, the K-cup has become the fastest growing way to brew coffee, hereby guaranteeing that an entire new generation will be exposed to overpriced and terrible tasting coffee.

K-cups have been around for a few years, but recently Green Mountain Coffee Roasters succeeded in buying Diedrich Coffee in yet another attempt to control an area where they see the most growth:  the K-cup.  If there is one thing I have learned, you can never underestimate the laziness of the American public, who seem happy to shell out nearly $20 a pound for inferior coffee that is brewed through plastic, just so they don’t have to measure, grind or store coffee properly.

In theory, the K-cup is a great idea, especially for offices.  You brew one cup of coffee a time, which prevents people from brewing an entire pot of coffee when only one is needed.  The K-cup is an airtight seal that preserves the flavor of the coffee, and the only effort required to brew a cup of coffee is to put the plastic cup in the coffee maker and press a button.  But that’s where the good ends.  K-cups are made out of a slurry of plastics that are impossible to recycle.  Even if you take away the environmental issue, when is it a good idea to run hot water through plastic?  There is a paper filter inside the cup, but that doesn’t prevent the hot water from coming into contact with the plastic and affecting the taste.  All of the principles involved insist that coffee brewed this way is free from BPA.  Since I haven’t had chemistry since high school, I’m willing to give them that one, but I will never concede that it doesn’t contaminate the flavor.  When you considering the price for a single K-cup is between $.50 to $1.00, that works out to be around $20 a pound.  My advice is to invest in a french press, a burr grinder and some real coffee from a speciality roaster.  It will be cheaper in the long run and give you better tasting brewed by the cup.  Using a K-cup is the coffee equivalent of driving a Hummer two blocks to buy a few groceries.

So I hereby issue a challenge to Green Mountain Coffee – Set up a blind taste test and I will identify which cups were brewed in a K-cup versus a percolator or any other technique.  The guantlet has been thrown down – now rise to the challenge.

Vic’s Espresso & News Boulder

It’s hard to find something more Boulder than Vic’s.  They sponsor a cycling team.  Even though their most popular location is in a strip mall, they have a sign that says “European Seating,” thus allowing Boulderites to pretend they are in France (not Italy, that would be Amante).  It is also impossible to visit Vic’s without seeing at least one Subaru parked out front.

Is that a Subaru in Boulder?

While their espresso is slightly better than average, I can’t figure out if this is just another coffeehouse that has strayed from focusing on the coffee, or if they are a smart business by giving Boulder what they want:  a place to be seen.  By all accounts you should avoid the Vic’s on Broadway on a Sunday Morning, unless you are prepared to be bombarded with loud conversations about hiking in Nepal, This American Life or why Basques are better climbers.  There is even a local band in Boulder called Sundays at Vic’s.  Here’s a fun game you can try – if you can find a seat on a Sunday, bring in a copy of  The National Review and see how long it is before someone spits your drink or asks you to leave.  If this happens to you, have this response ready:  “I like to know what the enemy is thinking.”  Then you’ll get a free drink.

I really want to like Vic’s, especially after the city of Boulder tried to tax them for giving away free coffee with those insipid punch cards.   They serve Allegro coffee, which started in Boulder as a small roaster over a decade ago (Allegro has since grown exponentially in size, and I’m afraid don’t have the same dedication to quality they once had).  The bitter taste doesn’t come from their coffee, the 2:1 Mac to PC ratio or the crowds, it’s the lack of unique coffee or brewing techniques.  It’s never a good sign when an internet search of your business comes up with more hits on your cycling team than on your core product.  Unless, or course, you are in Boulder.

49 Parallel Vancouver

Further proof that the Seattle coffee scene is getting as stale as pre-ground coffee, I had to travel to Vancouver to find siphon brewed coffee.  Granted I was planning on going for the best Thai food in North America, and given all my past encounters with 49th Parallel Coffee detailed on this blog, I was also considering it a pilgrimage to a coffee mecca.

49th Parallel Coffee roasters recently opened their own coffeehouse on 4th Ave. in the heart of the Kitsilano neighborhood (or kits neighbourhood if you are trying not to look like a tourist).  You would think that talents that make you a great coffee roaster wouldn’t translate to running a coffeehouse, kind of like Wayne Gretzky was one of the best hockey players but worst coaches – it’s just a different skill set.  However 49th Parallel brings the same dedication to preparing coffee that they have in selecting and roasting some of the best coffees in the world.

Like all great coffeehouses, 49th Parallel makes each cup individually.  Since anyone can make an espresso drink, get a cup of real coffee brewed on a clover, or opt as I did for a cup brewed on the siphon.  Because 49th parallel gets quite crowded in the morning, they will only make siphon coffee after 10am.  However when I walked in at 9am on a Sunday morning and politely asked with a big smile, they made an exception.  More than likely they caved because of the rare lull of Vancouver couples  in North Face fleeces behind me.

The siphon operates on the principle of a vacuum.  In Europe and Japan, vacuum brewing never really fell from popularity, unlike in the states where cheap coffee machines, and worst of all, instant coffee, became the norm.  The clover is a clever way of combining french press and vacuum brewing, however most of that brewing magic is concealed inside the machine.  And thanks to the green monster, just like lions born in captivity will never know the jungle, new clovers will never see real coffee.

The siphon is like a symphony –  the halogen lamp heats up, which forces the water into the upper chamber with the coffee.  Then it is carefully stirred, the barista can’t hit the edges while creating a whirlpool, and after the lower chamber cools the coffee goes back down.  Was the siphon the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had?  No, but it certainly was up there.  Also I got the added joy of scaring the UBC professors sitting next to me when I brought a beaker of coffee back to my table.

I think it’s funny that the only two times I’ve had siphon coffee have been in Canada, at Café Myriade in Montréal and here at 49th Parallel.  The only place I know of in the states with a halogen siphon is the Blue Bottle Café in San Francisco, where coffee is enjoyed as a fashion accessory rather than a drink.  For a long time I’ve been working on a theory that Canadians are smarter than us.  Look at the facts – they have different colored money, their recession wasn’t as severe as ours, and they have better bagels.  They have been producing better coffee as well, quietly and without much fanfare, as is the Canadian way.

Victrola Coffee

The sun made a rare Seattle appearance to show approval for Victrola

If you spend some time walking through the Capitol Hill neighborhood, you’ll discover the largest concentration of vintage clothing stores and independent coffeehouses in Seattle.  But don’t be fooled – at least two of the coffeehouses in Capitol Hill are Starbucks incognito.  To play it safe, visit Victrola Coffee.

This is one of the few coffeehouses I’ve visited where they don’t offer drip coffee – it’s French Press or the door.  It’s like visiting a steak house that refuses to let you order a steak well done, or perhaps just a sign of the times that espresso drinks are far more popular and most people just don’t notice.  Either way, a French Press yields a far superior cup if done properly.  Victrola doesn’t prepare each drink per order, rather it’s steeped in small batches  and then transfered into a carafe to prevent oversteeping which makes the drink bitter.  I’ve been to a few faux French restaurants that bring the French Press out to your table.  Inevitably someone pours a small cup and leaves the remainder in the pot for what seems like an eternity while they continue their post dinner conversation.  When that happens it takes all of my self restraint to keep from leaping up from my table and throwing the French Press pot against the wall before they pour a cup of the now tainted brew.  This must have happened at Victrola, which is why you don’t get to bring the French Press to your table.

Victrola offers free cuppings every Wednesday at 11am at the Capitol Hill location, where you can learn more about the complexites of coffee, or just hear self professed experts prove that they know more than you.  They have a great selection of single origins and blends, and did I mention the French Press?


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