November 29, 2006

Sinclair Lewis: Too hard on Sauk Centre. Maybe ...

Sauk Centre (yes, really spelt like that) was [un?]fairly panned by its most famous son, Sinclair Lewis, in his 1920 novel Main Street. Not that the town held too much of a grudge, apparently. Within a couple of years they welcomed Lewis back as the man who had put the town into the world's consciousness. It's been a while since I read Main Street, so I can't recall if Lewis condemned the quality of the coffee in Sauk Centre in his general indictment of small-town life.

If he did, he's wrong now. 86 years later! On the main street of Sauk Centre we were lucky enough to find Jitters Java Cafe. All around a good find, and well worth driving the extra 2 minutes from the freeway if you're ever in need of food or coffee off I-94. The sandwiches and salads were tasty. The baked goods were a bargain ($1.25 for two decent sized cookies). The restrooms were clean. And, meeting my particular (fussy) standards of urbanity, the coffee was good. Other accoutrements of the modern urban cafe were present, namely free wireless and board games for patrons to use.

I don't know what Sinclair Lewis was talking about ...

Posted by eroberts at 7:48 AM

August 24, 2006

Perils of coffee abroad

Russell Brown is unimpressed with the Pod coffee maker:

Their [Six Apart's] kitchen is also home to something called the Keurig Premium Coffee System, which affects the appearance of an espresso machine, but is in fact the creation of Satan himself.

You insert a pre-packaged pod of coffee and press the button. What comes sluicing out to fill your paper cup looks like hot coca-cola. It is very possibly the worst cup of "coffee" I have ever had in my life. The search for acceptable coffee becomes an underlying theme. Like the PA readers who wrote desperate emails for our coffee posts a while ago, I've been obliged to resort to Starbucks. Starbucks espresso is not bad so much as truly, desperately average; about the cup you'd expect to be served in, say, Taumaranui (I hope I'm not doing Taumaranui undue insult there). Its latte is definitively insipid.

Life is tough on the Antipodean coffee drinker abroad.

Posted by eroberts at 6:19 PM

July 31, 2006


Holding no brief for Starbucks I an nevertheless compelled to respond to this pablum in The New Republic:

About fifty years later, there are dozens of coffeehouses in every major city in the United Statesbout fifty years later, there are dozens of coffeehouses in every major city in the United States .... They are all called Starbucks .... Starbucks is a state for our day, a commercial society organized within psychographic, rather than geographic, borders--parameters that are now more meaningful than the old rivers, mountain ranges, roads, and lines of longitude and latitude that cable TV, the Internet, and cell phones render moot .... The Starbucks habitués are united [by ... ] the aspiration to belong to the young, white, moneyed community that we all perceive Starbucks to be .... As a class, Starbucks's various compilation CDs are the audio equivalent of those trade paperbacks that impart the hundred and one things a person needs to know to be culturally literate.

Where does The New Republic find these people to write such nonsense? The independent coffee shop has hardly been supplanted by Starbucks, complemented perhaps. A state for our day? Isn't there just a bit of a difference between a chain of commercial outlets for a nutritionally neutral, if mildly addictive and enjoyable, beverage that millions of other people manage to do without; and the nation state that compels our behavior through taxes, laws and violence? And the clientele? Isn't this going to be highly dependent on which branches of thousands the writer visited?

Cultural criticism meeting the mass market is never a pretty sight.

Posted by eroberts at 2:32 PM

May 11, 2006

Good cup, bad cup

The Boston Globe was right: they make good coffee at Simon's Coffee Shop at 1736 Mass Ave, Cambridge. But ... a paper cup for good espresso? Not so good. It's the often-downfall of American coffee shops that want to both make good coffee and serve the "to-go" crowd. Customer service, people. If they're drinking in, crockery ... It's not hard.

One place they get it right is the newly (3 weeks ago) opened Kopplin's coffee shop at Randolph and Hamline in Saint Paul. The espresso was excellent. Andrew Kopplin, the owner, apologized for drawing it a little long, but I prefer it long. I grew up on the long black after all. All in all, great ambience, great coffee.

The American coffee shop is an interesting thing. Whenever my father visits this country he's struck by the number of people who work in coffee shops. Working alone and in groups. Even before free wireless access. And when a lot of those people are consuming a 64oz gulper of burnt filter coffee I suppose you have to stay a while just to finish it.

Now, by contrast, you don't see many laptops and notebooks in an Australasian coffee shop. This has something to do with wireless being less ubiqitious, but that's not all. Coffee is more exclusively a social thing. That's another nice thing about the long black; it's both espresso and the time to drink it coincides nicely with getting into a conversation.

When Americans serve espresso they serve it short. It's good, don't get me wrong, but the trouble with a short espresso is it's over so quickly. You can't nurse your short espresso for a couple of hours while sitting there doing some work. So, the American espresso conflicts a little with the stay-a-while culture of American coffee shops.

One thing I've always wondered about this stay-a-while culture is how much the implicit price of a seat in the cafe varies by location and time of day. How much do you have to buy before they suggest you get something else. In New Zealand they seem to expect more turnover in the seats at coffee shops, and I have occasionally been asked if I'd like something else because it's getting busy now and it's an hour since I last bought something. Which is not what you'd necessarily expect, that American businesses would be less pushy about making you keep buying. But that is one of the paradoxes of American life; that in some ways life is very commercialized and yet there are pockets of American life that are less overtly commercial like Christmas and coffee shops.

Posted by eroberts at 6:53 AM

April 26, 2006

Good and local coffee

As this good Boston Globe article notes great espresso can be hard to come by in America. Things have improved since I've been here. Or maybe in a Minnesotan way I've just lowered my expectations.

Anyway, a recent improvement in the coffee scene here is the Clicquot Club Cafe in Seward. The food is not as imaginative as their competitors and near-neighbors at the Birchwood, but the coffee is noticably better. The Birchwood is great for food, but the coffee has never been great, and probably never will be. They cater to a market they know, which is largely for thinner, weaker coffee. After a couple of visits I'm impressed with the Clicquot's coffee. Strong, full bodied, with all the signs of being roasted recently. Life is good ... Now to see if they will make a long black.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:09 AM

March 22, 2006

Coffee grounds, actually

One of the most common ways people get to this lil' corner o' the internet is by searching about "coffee grounds." I'm guessing a lot of them are a little disappointed that I offer no composting tips. This post is for you. It is not for people who may think that coffee grounds offer insights into the future like tea leaves do.

Making coffee grounds for compost is easy. It's not quite as easy as falling off a log, but it's getting down there. The best results come from dry coffee grounds. I say this based only on intuition, rather than experiments.

Drip coffee machines with their paper filters tend to produce wet grounds that take a long time to dry out. Therefore, step one in getting good coffee grounds is to dump the Mr. Coffee machine ... You will get better (IMHO) coffee from this approach too.

The best grounds come from Italian-style stovetop espresso makers where the water is forced through the ground coffee. You can pick up a good Bialetti stovetop espresso maker for $25, comparable to your common and garden Mr. Coffee thing.

Once the espresso maker has cooled down, just unscrew it and tip the grounds into a little container. Nothing to it, right? Again, based only on intuition, I assert that saving up a litre-sized yogurt container's worth of grounds, and then scattering it on your compost pile is better than a little bit at a time.

Another easy way to get decent coffee grounds for compost is to use a Vietnamese coffee drip. These produce drier grounds than Mr. Coffee if you screw it down tightly. To get good grounds you should then take the screw off, and let the drip with the grounds in it sit out for a couple of days to dry before you dump the grounds into your little container.

A French press, while it produces decent enough coffee, does not produce great coffee grounds because of all the water swilling around in the bottom there.

Happy drinking and composting ...

Posted by robe0419 at 11:31 AM

January 3, 2006

Good coffee, obscure places

One of the delights of my last trip to New Zealand was the discovery that you could get a good espresso lots of places. Not just in the "main centres"—that New Zealand English phrase for the four largest cities, now expanded to include up-and-coming cities like Hamilton and Palmerston North. I can't believe I just called those cities "up and coming," it's like describing Des Moines as a rising, attractive urban area. Low housing costs, higher fertility and in-migration do not always lead to the promised land.

But I digress; good coffee in obscure places. There was great espresso at the old railway station (two trains a day) at Tongariro National Park. (This is like finding great espresso at Lake Itasca or Yellowstone). It helped that they got their beans from Supreme Coffee, but there's a gap between great beans and great espresso which is not always filled.

Given that you can't easily find great coffee in many cities in America, my expectations for places off the highway are pretty low. Really low? But I had some hopes for the Norske Nook in Osseo (WI). Good pie. Good lefse wraps. But they burn the espresso and serve it just that little bit too hot. And I'll keep trying to find that great espresso in odd places ...

Posted by robe0419 at 1:48 PM

November 30, 2005

Colonial coffee snobbery

Russell Brown goes to the city with the highest density, and highest expectations, of long blacks south of the equator. Or perhaps the world over ...

Somebody served me a long black without a crema last week. In Wellington. The café had everything else: nice décor, convivial company, Cafenet connectivity, that capital city buzz. But no crema. Certainly, I am a bit of a nut about this sort of thing. I am currently sipping a home-made espresso that is of superior quality to what I could buy at 95 out of 100 Auckland cafes: intense, complex, with a touch of sweetness. And a big, fat fuck-off crema.

Stilll, there's always L'affare and The Astoria .... And it could be London, where according to Nick Smith's interesting Listener story on New Zealanders in London you still can't get a decent coffee in the old town, excepting that you visit a New Zealand-run establishment. .... On the whole trip, the only decent coffee I found was in one place in Amsterdam, and it cost the equivalent of $NZ6.

I fear that we have established a certain domestic coffee culture and simply expected the world to follow.

The disappointment that the world's coffee is not the same as Wellington's is something every Antipodean expat must experience themselves.

UPDATE: 1 December 2005. Other disappointed coffee expats write to Russell Brown. The funniest thing to me was this report:

... the worst coffee I ever had was in Orlando, Florida at the worst large hotel I have ever stayed in, Disney's desperately dysfunctional Swan & Dolphin. There was a coffee cart in the corridor, and I made the mistake of asking for a long black. What I got handed was one of those ridiculous milkshake -container things in which they serve coffee in America

The few times that I have lapsed into New Zealand coffee terminology and used the term "long black" Americans thought I was talking about tall African Americans! And by that twisted logic a short black must be Gary Coleman ...

There is also the "flat white." Which is another kind of coffee, and not a European-descended person who has been hit on the head.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:14 PM

November 8, 2005

the "to go" mentality

<RANT> There are many things I love about America (this list in the Guardian covers about 40 of them) but one thing I have not adjusted to is the apparent inability of coffee shops to serve coffee in anything other than paper cups.

Every foreigner since Tocqueville, and no doubt others before him, has observed that Americans are a busy people, and serving coffee in a paper cup so you can take it with you is just to be expected.

But! If you do want to sit down and drink from a less-wasteful, nicer-to-handle ceramic cup, it would be nice if baristas did not act like the request was so unreasonable. The coffee just tastes better from a ceramic cup too. No doubt there are clever scientists working on this right now, but coffee in a paper cup still manages to take on some of the flavor.

A related bemusement in American coffee stores is when baristas apologize for taking two minutes (or three!) to make your espresso. Good coffee is meant to take a while to prepare. If you have to wait while the beans are ground that's a good sign.

More irritable [mostly] foreigners on this topic than I have time to link to.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:13 PM

September 10, 2005

Meeting married women for coffee?

Curious as I am about who stumbles upon my little corner of the internet I keep an occasional eye on who has visited with StatCounter (good, free service if you're on the lookout for a page counter, by the way).

I get a lot of short-term non-returning visitors looking for information about composting their coffee grounds, and coffee shops, and the Welsh camp revivalist from 1904 who shares my name.

But today there was a new one ... someone who searched Google about "meeting married women for coffee."

Hmmmm ... not sure what that's about ... And I don't think I can help them either ...

Posted by robe0419 at 7:10 PM

April 11, 2005

Drip, drip, tip, tip?

Tipping for coffee is a hot topic, it seems.

Caleb McDaniel asks "Does anyone have some rough and ready etiquette to guide tipping for coffee?"

No, I don't have a guide. I'm just relieved to see that other people have the same low-level-at-the-counter anxieties that I do about the issue.

My criteria is that if it's a good cup of coffee I'll tip. I would like to reward people who make good coffee. But the moment of tipping comes well before you consume the coffee. If I know the barista is good I'll tip before getting the coffee, otherwise I'll go back and put some money in the tip jar as I leave, and say thanks for the coffee then. I also tip more [frequently and at a higher percentage] at the two places I go to often. Like others I figure that this will be repaid in extra care the next time I come in.

Caleb points to this overheated discussion of the subject, largely revolving round tipping at Starbucks. As best I can make out the anti-tipping-at-Starbucks crowd have these points to make

  • I am angry. I am very angry. I am made angrier by the very sight of a tip jar on the counter at a coffee shop.
  • Starbucks is overpriced. I do not have the intelligence to realize the following

    1. No one forces me to buy coffee there
    2. No one forces me to tip
    3. Make a cup of coffee myself.
    4. It's not only the coffee I'm purchasing. For example, if I was to sit down for four hours and buy nothing else while in the store, no-one would ask me to leave.

  • Because Starbucks workers make more than McDonalds workers, you shouldn't tip either.

If you don't want to tip, don't tip. But some of the elaborations offered for not tipping at Starbucks bear the mark of being cheap, mean, and secretly guilty about it.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:42 PM

January 10, 2005

Teenagers drink coffee!

News? Or history?

The Strib reports that "the coffeehouse has emerged as the clubhouse for a generation that's too young to bar-hop."

Who would have thought? In 2005! I never realized that my 1991-94 hanging out in coffee-shops before I was old enough to [legally] drink could have been ahead of a social trend.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:00 PM

January 6, 2005

Electricity and espresso

Ah, the New York Times. Just remember when you read articles like this about how people negotiate sharing electrical outlets in coffee shops that some day this article will be what historians make generalizations about 21st century etiquette from.

Posted by robe0419 at 2:51 PM

December 10, 2004

Espresso machines

When I have a real job my desire for one of these fancy machines may increase with my salary, but really, you don't need to spend $180 or more on an espresso machine.

The humble Vietnamese coffee drip costs $1 (in Vietnam). You can get Bodum versions for $10.

A French press costs $10 at Target.

Or a Bialetti expresso maker in one of many sizes for less than $30.

Not hard to use. Few instructions required. No special "pods" of coffee. Just a grinder, and some water at 96C.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:22 AM

November 10, 2004

buy a french press

these people have clearly never heard of Bodum. Or a Vietnamese coffee drip. Less than $10. Better coffee than you can get at many cafes.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:42 AM

June 2, 2004

a limited defence of starbucks

once upon a time, way back in, oh, early 2003, I too clung to a vague hostility to Starbucks. (see this post for some other thoughts on this issue). I don't think I could defend Starbucks as the best dominant player in the coffee market, but it's an advance on the alternatives in America.

Starbucks espresso is not great, but it's predictable, and not too bad. That is its virtue.

to be sure, it would be lovely if everywhere you went there was good coffee at independent coffee shops, but most of America is not Amsterdam, Melbourne or Wellington.

If you don't like it, and value the coffee culture that much, move to one of those places.

Or, hey, here's another thought, buy a french press and learn to use it. You know, make the coffee yourself. Not difficult.

Most of America is a place where the majority of the population apparently prefer to drink the vile swill that is Mr. Coffee. And to judge by the fetid kona pots in a lot of gas stations, there is still a market for this stuff.*

Starbucks makes its own offering in this market -- witness the pump pots of coffee they're happy to fill with 20oz of hot brown water.

But Starbucks does also serve espresso, and from O'Hare Airport to Knoxville to D.C., they seem to be make it pretty well. Strangely, the latte is more variable at Starbucks -- normally the latte and its milk is the buffer against poor coffee making skills behind the counter.

If it wasn't for Starbucks, I can just about guarantee you that you would not be able to get decent coffee in much of America, certainly not in any airport, or random off-ramp from I-40.

As for Starbucks chasing out the independent coffee shops, I doubt that its effect is as great as all that. Having been to a fair share of the large cities east of Minneapolis and north of Durham in the last three years, it seems that Starbucks and the independent stores are co-existing pretty well.

It'd be hard to prove, but I'd wager that where there are few independent coffee shops it's because there's not a market for them. For economic or cultural reasons, many Americans want [bad] coffee in a hurry -- they wouldn't have been hanging out in the "Friendly Local Organic Roastery" shooting the breeze with their friends, they would have been grabbing their 20oz polystyrene gulper from the Super America and hopping in their truck.

Americans, it seems, are not willing to wait the extra 3-4 minutes it would take to get a decent cup of coffee -- presumably this time/money/taste trade-off is the optimal one or they wouldn't be making it. It's also possible many folks just aren't aware of how much better coffee can be than the thin brown hot water that is served in many places, and without this information can't make the optimal decisions.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:52 PM