Good looking coffee

It’s official, Los Angeles is the worst – for traffic! An ignominious crown, LA had the most congested roads in the United States during 2012. No shock there! *

I always find LA driving unpleasant. Speed is embraced aggressively, making narrow lanes narrower. Hit peak hour, and hearts race like waking from a vindictive, cold-sweat, dry-throat nightmare only to discover it’s real. So why engage these roads simply for coffee? The answer – Handsome Coffee Roasters.

To get there from San Diego, unless you have access to a helicopter, necessitates an aggravated journey on said infrastructure – good luck if road works are part of this equation. The freeways are the arteries of this expansive city, cars the fatty deposits inhibiting an unencumbered flow. Here, road health is poor. Each day suffering minor heart attacks, omnipresent road workers (surgeons) carry out bypass surgery in an attempt to avoid massive coronaries. Blood pressure is high, coffee a necessity!

Today, with nerves shredded, that coffee is located in the Arts District to the east of downtown. On the surface unappealing, a district the art community adopted in the 1970s is now a popular residential neighborhood amongst restored warehouses and railroad buildings. While these streets wear an unattractive face, you quickly realize the artists of Handsome Coffee Roasters have chosen a wholly appropriate area to display their craft.

Inside, the café indulges in light and warmth that stream in via large windows that wrap the building’s façade and reverberates off white tiles and concrete. An industrial interior; copper pipes runs from floor to ceiling drawing you to exposed wooden beams, steel, concrete and those sterile white tiles complete the look. I wonder what went on here in days past – a morgue? perhaps a butchery? I prefer the second image reminding me of childhood visits to a local butcher with my mother. Today, butchers have been replaced by baristas, bloodied aprons by coffee stains and curdled milk. Where once I got free cocktail sausages (we called them polonies) for being a good boy, and usually I wasn’t, today’s surprise is a free raisin bun that would not be sold.

Cafes like this can be intimidating. It is one of those cafes that want you to have what THEY want you to have, often accompanied by pretention from behind the counter. Like being ignored by that pompous art gallery curator who knows you JUST see a painting. At Handsome, this is not the experience at all.

It is true they want you have their product in a certain way, I ordered a macchiato and was informed that I would get a macchiato AND an espresso so you can really taste the peaches and apple cobbler with a gingery, lemony finish .  No Soup Nazi here – engaging, smiling, and a this is the best way to taste the coffee if that’s ok with you  approach. OK a hint of passive aggressive but hey I got two, albeit small coffees, for the price of one.

Handsome exudes class, something you would expect from a company where the owners boast experience at some of the biggest names in the American coffee industries, read Intelligentsia and Counter Culture, plus victories at US and World Barista Championships. While class is evident and tangible, barista awards resembling chess pieces sit just behind the counter, humility and friendly service are not absent. It is disappointing that on this particular day the pretension emerged on the customer side of the espresso machine.

A rotund fellow in his 1980s converse T-shirt, faded almost beyond recognition by a thousand wash and wear cycles, has appeared at the counter. Lacking civility and manners, he demands Coffee! from the barista who happily employs the drip only to be castigated with NO! and a finger pointed towards the espresso machine. Apologizing, the barista smiles oh you want a latte not a coffee and happily tamps and steams away to satisfy the surly, irritable (I am always damn well right) customer.

Then the French family of trois, what is it about the French? Placing my cups down at an apparently free space by the window, Monsieur and Madame scowl at my impudence for trying to take their spot. Could I not see their stroller parked in the middle of the room?  Removing myself from their royal presence with apologetic acquiescence, I watch them order their drinks then sit somewhere completely different.

Ignoring the disagreeable elements of human nature, I enjoy my espresso and macchiato, then follow that up with a flat white. As my taste buds search for dark chocolate and plums, I browse Handsome’s website and a certain comment stands out in the About section. We’re going to make great coffee and be nice to you – they did, they were, and I should pass my tablet over to the French family to read.

Handsome Coffee, yes it is!


*In 2011 the most congested roads in the US were in Honolulu – who would have thought!

Coffee kiosk character

Mary’s anxiety is evident as she apologizes for a demeanour she labels ‘antsy’. Her daughter is having a baby in the afternoon and the seconds are evaporating too slowly. Just beyond Mary, and the espresso machine she operates, Frank from Pennsylvania reclines on a plastic seat, savors what remains in his take-away coffee cup and draws on a third cigarette. Mary and Frank have perfunctory dialogue but no conversation, it is probably how he likes it. He is not a people person, wanting to be left alone to his personal opinions and the constant drone of traffic. Vices quenched, a flick of the cigarette butt and a mumbled “see you tomorrow” signal Frank’s departure.

Tomorrow Frank will return to the Brownstone espresso bar in Encinitas, Calif. and Mary will provide his daily dose of caffeine – it is life in a kiosk, a coffee kiosk. Like Frank, Mary’s other customers are loyal supporters, shunning the big chains for the intimacy and ‘know-my-name’ familiarity of the small business. A basic business – coffee, a few muffins and a banana or two plus people like Frank that keep the business afloat. But maintaining loyalty requires more than knowing your customer’s name, in this business it is vital to know what brings your customer back.

San Diego is not saturated with kiosks and coffee shacks, however several have found their niche and thrive. The formula for success differing slightly with each one, as evidenced a few miles down the coast from Mary’s espresso bar, where the bright red mobile cart of the Local Grin* has an established position on Solana Beach’s main road. ( *I suspect it was once the Local Grind, but these days the D is missing- hint of trademark infringement perhaps.)

This section of Highway 101 through Solana Beach is under renovation, and it has been for the last year. Bobcats and jack hammers dirty the air with clamor and dust, cones and aggregate create a temporary barrier between road and sidewalk. Hindered parking and access are not ideal for a side of the road cart. But with roadwork comes road workers – and opportunity. It is not yet lunchtime and the Local Grin has already sold 30 hotdogs alone.

Inside the cart, Toyah is multitasking; pouring shots, frying dogs and chatting with the construction team milling around the condiment shelf. Originally from Germany, raised in Seattle now enjoying the Southern California weather, Toyah is effusive about her job in the cart, and a lack of stress. Hers is the easier shift; caffeinating morning commuters and energizing the workers. Her boss will have to deal with the nighttime clientele that need to shake off the late night excesses of the local bars. It seems the Local Grin knows its audience and has adapted, the same cannot be said about the drive thru espresso kiosk a stone’s throw along the highway – it stands empty.

Standing empty does not describe Caffe Veloce in Pacific Beach. Hugging the sidewalk, Veloce’s service is ambidextrous if not slightly ambiguous – drive thru on either side. I realize this as I approach the sliding window and feel the impatient hum of a car’s engine lined up behind me. This is a real kiosk, resembling a toll booth, its working space makes the Local Grin feel like a mansion. Forget swinging a cat.

Veloce’s traffic is more gas than foot, despite the handful of plastic seats that attract the interesting characters Pacific Beach is renowned for. Waiting for my espresso, a vagrant looking local enquires about my $30 jacket, wondering if it is Armani. The answer is negative, but he suggests sewing the Armani label on it as it looks very nice and I could make some decent money selling it.

Over in Mission Hills, Meshuggah Shack is its own character. A shrine to the kitsch, it may be selling Café Moto teas and Caffe Calabria coffee but they fight for space between chattering teeth, busts of Obama and a variety of religious and faux-religious artifacts – and a few unmentionables.

Prominent in the corner of a tiny and ridiculously cheap parking lot, although this does not stop barista Jess from picking up another parking ticket, Meshuggah Shack is an award winner – not for coffee, for architecture. In 2011 it received an Orchid Award for community intervention from the San Diego Architecture Foundation. It has invigorated a street corner and become a very attractive, appealing spot to stop for coffee. And the best place to enjoy that latte is on the adjacent ‘patio’, shaded by a ficus tree, adorned with Chinese lanterns and a disco ball. Kitsch yes, character aplenty.

San Diego is not cart-nirvana, Portland may stake a wealthier claim, but character blossoms. Find a parking spot, remember to feed the meter, and pull up a plastic chair.

Located in San Diego county you will find Brownstone Espresso Bar on the corner of Encinitas Boulevard & Calle Magdalena, the Local Grin on Highway 101 in Solana Beach, Caffe Veloce can be driven thru on Ingraham St, Pacific Beach and you will find Meshuggah Shack in Mission Hills.

The expediency of chaos

My dog has a form of patience. Inherently he is not patient, but he has no choice. He moves when we move. This past weekend, as he impatiently waited patiently, we decided to combine his morning walk with a visit to our local café. This has two benefits; he gets walked twice interrupted by a rest period, we get coffee and breakfast.

Now I am definitely not patient. The idea of waiting in line to be served at a café, and this is an independent café not the production line of a chain store, is anathema to me. This is the west. In the west we have order. In the west we wait and smile – mouthing obscenities under our breath. In the west we belittle the chaos of Asian cities. Wait a moment; everything is so much quicker over there.

A few years back I was on a business trip to Tokyo, meeting with several Japanese mobile service companies – these days we call them app developers. The meetings took place some distance from my hotel, requiring transportation via Tokyo’s underground system in the heart of peak hour.  Japanese public transport runs like the proverbial clock, not missing a tick. It is a well-oiled system, and an experience to be swept up in. Or, in my case, swept aside!

As a train glides effortless to a stop, and not a second late, tiny uniformed men in white gloves herd the pack in to an already overflowing compartment like a rugby forward pushing at the back of a scrum. (My apologies to the rugby illiterate, it’s the best simile I can muster). Unprepared, and conscious of stepping on toes, my bulk is shuffled ignominiously sideways thus missing the train. Japanese people in general are considerably smaller than my 6’ 2” frame, however their power to weight ratio is impressive. My novice mistake behind me, I relocate the boney points of hardened elbows and prepared for the next train, a mere 23 seconds away.

Inside the train those lucky enough to sit, relaxed behind magazines or those omnipresent 3G devices that only the Japanese had, oblivious to clenched butts inches from their faces. The upright wriggle for space. Faces mostly pressed against the backs of heads, the shortest squish noses into the armpits of those occasional giants that hang from the rail.  Personal space does not have a ticket on this train.

At the next stop, with the right side continuing as normal, a solitary door on the left slides open. The white gloves swiftly throw down a metal plate to bridge the gap and usher in a wheelchair bound person. How did that happen? It is if the Japanese have found a way to suck the air out like skilled travelers vacuum packing their suitcase to fit in double the amount of shirts and an extra pair of shoes. No one complains and everyone arrives on time.

A similar experience happened on the streets of Beijing. Sitting inside a dilapidated bus, waiting for a signal to turn left across an oncoming torrent of equally dilapidated buses, smoky trucks, zigzagging cars and white masked families on scooters, frenzied order erupts around us. The bus was engulfed, half the vehicles passing to the left as they should, the other half passing to the right as they shouldn’t. No panic. No hand gestures. No problems. People get to where they are going and fast. Order is overrated. Chaos is messy but expedient.

Why is it that chaos actually works? Why is it so expedient? Witnessing the disorder, we westerners laugh, joke and condescend. Broadcasting scathing criticism of the apparent rudeness and lack of respect. Back at home we wait in the queue, watch for line jumpers and lament the time we are losing by standing in lines, stop starting on the freeway and obeying red light signals (mostly).

All of this thinking and I am still waiting, I only want a cup of coffee.

Confessions of a coffee addict

I love coffee. I probably would not get addressed hey, coffee guy otherwise. It’s who I am. Coffee I treat like that metaphorical daughter that no young man is good enough for. Keep your hands off my coffee boys.

Over many years I had faithfully procured my coffees from local cafes staying true to those that simply could not produce bad shots. The time arrives when habit becomes addiction followed by a descent in to abject obsession. Yes, you need an espresso machine and the more expensive the better.

So I bought an expensive espresso machine and my life changed. An Alex Duetto II. Italian. Sophistication followed; well that is what I believed. Perfect coffee every day for the rest of my life. My cup runneth over, figuratively and literally. Literally is not necessarily positive.

My counter top became a maelstrom of coffee stains, rampant grinds, flagrant milk splashes and essential paraphernalia. The more obsessive I became, the less counter top space became available for non-coffee related ‘things’. Lamenting the disarray, a wife complained.  The kitchen now a meth lab for coffee. And more new kept coming – the chemex at Christmas, a hario accompanied by a new kettle with a long spout for controlled pourability. Newly invented words. Extra grinders. More coffee. Scoops, spoons, scales and alternative measuring devices. In my wife’s words, clutter.

Despite my inherent fallibility, maleness, I began to clean. Counter top, tools, espresso machine were cleansed, and regularly. Wiped, sponged, polished.  Parts removed and rinsed. Special detergents utilized. What had I become?

I had become enslaved in my own personal exclusive café. A recluse in the kitchen. Social engagement neglected for the ideal of perfect coffee. The Holy Grail.  Experimentation had begun with different beans and methods, the grinders alternately whining and whirring between the espresso and filter setting.  No sooner had the latest bag of beans arrived than I had ground my way through half of it to get an acceptable shot. Whoever coined the phrase “one size fits all” was not referring to coffee grinding.

The projected return on investment once more reevaluated as a bag of organic Nicaraguan and that highly rated Kenyan Kangocho were added to my cart plus shipping fees. My coffee pimp had me. Then the espresso machine slipped up.

Dialogue begins with the purveyor of the (up until now) faithful coffee percolator. My inbox fills with suggestions of possible causes such as clean the check valve or look for calcium build-up on the temperature probe or have you made any adjustments to the PID?  Eventually, those fearful words surfaced…. you will need to return it to us for warranty assessment…BUT potentially it will not be a warranty repair. I bought my machine in Portland, Ore. but live in Southern California. Add the dollars up! - two way shipping costs, repair & part replacement costs, chiropractic adjustment for lugging a 72 pound machine to UPS and counseling for espresso separation anxiety.

And that is it. A machine that plays on despite a limp, requiring surgery that will be seen to in the off-season. But there is no off-season. A bottomless pit of coffee gear and the latest roasted beans that may or may not make it in to a cup. A perpetual mess in the kitchen and the irritability of a wife. It may have been wiser, and cheaper, to buy a boat.

Fondly my thoughts return to the days of the three dollar flat white at Café on Kohi, life was simpler back then. And cleaner!

One bean; six ways

It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya? It pours, man, it pours sang Albert Hammond in 1972. Last week it poured over, man, it poured over in more ways than one. Trapped in my car, outside Café Moto, the Southern Californian skies unleashed on San Diego’s ill prepared roads – this city does not do heavy rain well.  Anticipating a break from the deluge to participate in a tasting session, a pour over a la Mother Nature style could not have been anymore prescient.

Café Moto is familiar name in the San Diego coffee world, having been in business since 1990, originally as a division of coffee pioneer Pannikin Coffee and Tea. Selling predominantly coffee, with some tea, owners Torrey and Kim Lee are operate a company attempting to educate consumers and assist café operators. Today’s class is for drinkers.

Independent roasting has been in ascendancy in the last few years and with that has come a desire to highlight the variables and complexities of coffee through free tasting – usually cupping. While cupping normally compares the taste and aroma of different beans, Café Moto have taken a slightly different spin, showing off the same bean via different brewing methods. Today’s bean is an organic Nicaraguan bean Las Hermanas (The Sisters) from the Soppexcca cooperative in Jinotega. The methods – chemex, hario, French press, toddy cold brew, drip and espresso.

This is a comparison, not a competition. Personal taste the only winner. As the results of each method are considered and reconsidered, individual discrimination becomes apparent. A survey of the room establishes a predilection for one or the other, except perhaps for the drip. De gustibus non est disputandum – no accounting for taste!  Often a nod of the head falsely acknowledges agreement as the eyes reveal I didn’t taste that at all.

Tasting coffee in such a manner does raise eyebrows. Compare the chemex and hario methods -two pour over methods that use a vessel, water and ground coffee. What gets poured out of a chemex is less oily with a livelier taste; the hario delivers slightly more body and a more balanced mouth feel. The heavier filter used by the chemex filters out more oil and sediment, hence that slightly fresher crisper feel. Same same but different!

Coffee from the French press evoked a larger divide in preference. No filters to block sediment and oil results in a fuller, stronger body and a syrupy texture.  It seems that preference for this method has been diluted as discerning coffee imbibers seek more elaborate flavors. It is fair to say that no one lingered around the French Press, in large thanks to the devilish cold brew in the next cup.

As a hot coffee person who distances himself from other coffee flavored foods and drinks, tasting cold Las Hermanas on ice was surprising; it became a sweetheart I could not help flirting with. A wandering mind pictured a ménage a trois of silky cold brew, vodka and cream over a bed of ice. Unfortunately Café Moto did not supply the additional ingredients for this late morning session – feedback for the next tasting perhaps! Cold brew techniques such as the toddy system take some preparation, and time! Hot water is not used in the process; grinds are soaked in cold water for 12 hours or longer, leaving a much sweeter coffee and lower acidity. Perfect for cocktails.

Finally, the drip version. The last guy in line; that one guy each captain ignores hoping the other team picks him. Drip was subjected to polite conversation, becoming the elephant in the room. No discernible skills, nuance and subtlety lost. I placed my drip sample down quickly making further eye contact with that sexy toddy, others went for another pour over. Here the tasting was meant to end, but for an invitation to be spoiled by a Las Hermanas espresso in the café. Assailed by orange notes, the espresso ambushing my tongue from multiple sides, my thoughts diverted briefly back to the discouraged drip who can only have been muttering I’m under loved, I’m underfed, I wanna go home.

Thanks to Juan and Chase for helping us indulge.

In the absence of life

Whispering is not necessary in Sos del Rey Católico. Noise is absorbed, digested, guarded. Monochromatic walls that have witnessed life for over a thousand years reveal no secrets.  Color in this town is not on the walls, it is the walls. Walls connected by narrow uneven cobbled pathways and alleys, each a distant cousin of the street they intersect with. Related, but unaware of the other’s existence.

This is Aragon, the northeastern region of Spain just below the Pyrenees and France. Within the region the Spanish define as an autonomous community there exists a town that should be referred to as an anonymous community – Sos del Rey Católico. Originally just Sos, the amiable hilltop town dates back to the early tenth century.  The suffix del Rey Católico (of the Catholic King) was later added to honor its most famous son, King Ferdinand II of Aragon – Ferdinand the Catholic.

Sos keeps out of everyone’s way, atop a nowhere hill, close to the Navarre border about an hour’s drive from Pamplona. Bulls do not stampede these streets nor are tomatoes squashed in the central square. Sos is peaceful, calm, undisturbed. Life apparently absent. And that is the profound beauty of Sos; while offering very little its subdued character takes umbrage with life’s excesses. Subtly pointing out what really matters – or what really doesn’t matter.

Navigating a town the size of a postage stamp should be easy enough, if not for the under abundance of signage and numbers. Locating the correct guest house, la casa de huéspedes, brings doubt as a tap on a locked door remains unanswered.  Ferdinand the Catholic may have hacked the door down with a lusty blow of the halberd but modern times require only a cellphone, thankfully! A stilted conversation thus ensues; at one end there is no English at all, the other relies on limited Spanish. The front door eventually opens.

It will be a challenging five days of communication, but a highpoint of this stop. Language difficulties bring out stellar charade skills; it’s a universal language that covers most topics.  Conveying a desire to utilize the washing machine without incurring an exorbitant fee proves that charades can sometimes have dialect issues. The realization is that language frailties establish connection. Desperately wanting the other person to comprehend intentions, a bond is often formed despite frustrations.

Led to our room in the highest point of a tall, narrow building we find the Ático estudio – the studio room in the attic. Wooden stairs, probably renovated in the 70s (that’s the 1970s), creak and bang noisily beneath the weight of heavy luggage. This trek would work better with an oxygen bottle and an experienced Sherpa!

The attic is compact, what realtors would call cozy. A sloping roof slants menacingly across a double bed, highlighting the perils of jumping anxiously up from a bad dream. The angle of the ceiling reduces the room’s volume by half, but not the room rate. Light nervously enters via a small skylight above the bed and one door like window half protected by a cast iron gate. A basic room but otherwise perfect; a plush book-reading couch, a television with about four non-English channels that will not be turned on again and a lack of worldly distractions beyond the frame of the window.

Looking out from the window, the surrounding hills and pastures reflect a dry summer; a thirsty but arable land with contrasting shades of maize and dried straw, and a tinge of olive. Occasionally visible, a parade of sunflowers salutes the sun in military uniformity. Common swifts dart from beneath eaves of the adjacent buildings, cavorting in the temperate air, ushered by the wind. Optimism thrives.

It appears very little happens here, but it is that lack of activity that accentuates the scene. Eyes and ears are compelled to listen with greater depth. Life in Sos meanders. It does have the usual amenities but they come with caveat; the post office works strange hours, the grocery store is compact and left wanting, one or two restaurants of the three or four available seem perpetually closed. None of this seems to matter.

The locals want to engage you. Walking in to an empty bar, in what could be the only one, the owner’s greeting is clothed with relief as he pulls up a stool and provides a history lesson of Sos over a local red. Around the corner, a children’s orchestra begins a recital, but you would not know it until almost upon them. You are quickly directed to a table at the adjoining pizzeria whether you want pizza or not – luckily we do. The waitress has more interest in your story than your order. Gourmet is not neglected either, a wine, cheese and memento store has placed a sign outside a door that went unnoticed for some days.  We retell our tale once more.

At Hotel Parador at the northern end of town, acceptance of a mediocre coffee is unanticipated. Elsewhere you may have returned it, complained, expressed your outrage online but not in Sos. Here on the hotel balcony you sip the espresso, repeatedly comment on how quiet it is,  then unashamedly respond to the enquiries of the smiling waiter with “El café es muy buena, gracias”  but what you really mean is Sos del Rey Católico es muy buena.

What’s in a name?

The animated exuberance associated with opening presents on Christmas morning has long been lost to me. Those would be the emotions reserved for young ones or young at heart; a lamentable downside to aging. Replicating those feelings as an adult is difficult when you know what is inside and the main concern is not ripping the paper.  My adult enthusiasm for the gift will arrive with delay as I later read it, taste it or try it on; the spectrum of my Christmas bounty is largely confined to books, food (chocolate or booze) or socks. Last December one of those highlights was a Chemex.

Chemex? Who named it Chemex? This is not the story of a ten year old receiving his first chemistry set, although it certainly sounds like it. Chemex is a brewing method for coffee, something you may already have realized. But hang on – coffee is the story of romance!  It is luscious and pleasurable. Abounding with Italianisms that tantalize your tongue both literally and figuratively. Listen. Feel the words! Espresso, Macchiato, Cappuccino, Grande Latte with whipped cream. Did you use an Italian accent?

So again, who named it a Chemex?

A German! Peter Schlumbohm, a doctor of chemistry, patented the Chemex in 1941.  The device, which would not look out of place in a chemistry lab, was designed based on Schlumbohm’s expertise in filtration and extraction. Ground coffee is placed in the specifically designed filters that sit within the conical shape neck and water is poured over the grinds to drip into the bulbous section below. A simple method resulting in flavorful coffee free of bitterness.

The Chemex is not a well-known device but you will find it displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and Museum of Modern Art. A design icon – uncomplicated and convincing. But what about that name? Schlumbohm was a chemist and not a marketer, so while his desire for a simple technique that delivered a rich coffee taste was achieved, the name Chemex seems somewhat incongruous. Perhaps this can be explained by the German propensity for precision, quality and efficiency and no need to be flashy. I can see the marketing campaign now “Chemex – just brew it”.

Chemex in itself is not flashy, but the chemistry of it is. So while the Italians gave us the whistle and bell espresso experience of macinazione (the grind), miscela (the blend), macchina (the espresso machine) and mano (the barista) the German’s just gave us an effective way to brew coffee that tastes just as good.

What is the Italian word for Chemex anyway?

Searching for the improbable

When travelers reveal what they cannot leave home without, responses are usually tangible items such as guidebooks, sleeping pills and some form of technological device. Rarely do admissions include imagination; this is folded and packed away in my carry-on first.

The experiences I crave are not usually covered in regular guidebooks. Give me legends and implausibility, myth and folklore.  Take me beyond the place in to the minds of the local people and show me what makes them who they are. I wish to know how and why the then became the now.

An experience that is implicitly different excites me. Why go if that experience is basically the same as where you come from or repeats the last vacation. It is common to hear “hey that’s just like home” as the world is largely a homogenous place for most travelers. Those destinations that are exceedingly foreign are often too dangerous or too difficult to explore and most will not venture there.

The challenge then becomes how to get that excitement in the apparently benign? Do your practical planning of course; find hotels and restaurants, cost of attractions, what shots to get, how to get out of the airport with passport and credit cards intact – but what does this information really tell you about this place? So put down your Lonely Planet guidebook for a few minutes and pick up your imagination. Listen to an old story. Question the age-challenged.  Hesitate over a wives tale. Locate the unbelievable. Then experience it.

This does not mean show disdain for the obvious.

In Dublin, a ‘free’ stout at the end of the Guinness factory tour should be exploited, but do not ignore the mysterious. In Newgrange, how is a 5000 year old tomb, that took 50 years to build by people with a life expectancy of 25 years, perfectly illuminated by morning sunlight only during the winter solstice? And what did they use it for? The Guinness was delicious, but the tomb gets more likes.

Most people will not be that interested in those 100 pictures taken atop the Eiffel Tour. They have either done it themselves or googled it. However, tales of the extraordinary and unexplained will linger long in the memory and the embellishment of your story telling abilities. Not to be found in the guidebooks, you will have to look for them.

In Fiji a few years back, a local man-boy Serevi was taking us on an early morning snorkeling expedition. Having done many of these trips I wanted something more invigorating. Can you find us a shark Serevi?  With a deliberate and contemplative expression he related tales of the mystical relationship between shark and the ocean; lessons learned from his grandfather. Fijians do not fear the god of the sea but they respect him. And they have a sense of him, they feel his presence. Much like a Jedi I condescendingly thought as I reiterated the original request OK so you CAN find us a shark? Serevi answered in the affirmative without hesitation. Having not seen a shark in all of my previous snorkeling trips I was encouraged by his response but apprehensive.

Fijian males are natural swimmers having been blessed with large lung capacities and unfeasibly large propellers that we call feet. Serevi’s movement in the water demonstrated this genetic prowess as he effortlessly floated above and around the coral. Suddenly he jerked left and pointed, then darted downwards towards the menacing shape of a black tip reef shark. To this day I am not sure whether Serevi had encouraged the presence of the shark (he explained later he had felt it) or whether it was simply attracted by the group of snorkelers splashing clumsily around the ocean like distressed fish. Whatever the reason, shark sightings are exhilarating, made even more so by the mythical story that had preceded it.

Back at the resort, sitting at the bar beside the espresso machine, fresh from the melodrama of swimming with ravenous sharks yet still retaining our limbs, a mystery remained. I ordered a latte, as I had done every morning, from Josefa the barman. Coffee in Fiji is generally very average but caffeine is caffeine. With the lack of any noticeable movement and in the absence of standard espresso noises, Josefa places a coffee before me.  How does he do that? I am leaving that up to my imagination.

The MASTER test

Coffee shops are minefields, they really are!  Fraught with danger, a place where control is relinquished the moment debit cards are swiped. Taste buds are precariously placed in the hands of complete strangers for the seemingly insignificant sum of about three dollars. Not so insignificant over a lifetime however – can we afford to be so frivolous?

A new café appears on an online review site and comments are favorable. It’s worth a try, even though the internal skeptic knows reviews are subjective, and at worst, manipulated. Standing at the entrance in the glare of tens of suspicious eyes, a trickle of sweat forms on the brow and hands take on a clamminess. Is this a mistake?

Drama aside, is there a way to judge a coffee shop before handing over cash. What symptoms should be looked for? Are there signs that point to a great cup of coffee before you consider dipping in to your wallet? In another nonscientific analysis, superior coffee is (usually) served in cafes that pass the MASTER test.

The first and most visible signs is just that, a sign – the Menu. Look for a vivid but minimal menu, the best cafes go small. The standard drinks appear; espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, latte etc. but probably no mention of hazelnut flavored shots, soy or double decaf latte with almond milk and extra whipped.  The cafe is focused, they want you focused. Additional signage, perhaps highlighting the latest cold brew or the arrival of a Panamanian Gesha, place a couple more ticks in the agreeable column.  Read between the lines!

For cafes concerned with consistency, a level of Accuracy has to be attached to their methods. Different styles of coffee have different formulas to achieve optimal results; espresso grinds are finer than filter grinds, water has to be in contact with the grind longer for press coffee than filtered. I am impressed when I see grinds or water being weighed or a stopwatch timing espresso shots or how long water drips through the filter.  Think of it as meticulous, not obsessive!

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet declared Gandhi, likewise the creations of dirty coffee shops should not flow inside of mouths. Attempting to be Spotless illustrates a desire for quality. A first check should be the care and usage of the espresso machine – it will likely sparkle. Experienced baristas clean as they pour, purging both the head (rinses out old grinds from previous shot) and the steam wand (stops milk congealing) before pulling each espresso.  If the tip of the wand has a yellow clump of nastiness attached that latte might taste off. Look for other examples of cleanliness; milk spills wiped up quickly, grinds swept away, coffee filters replaced. Clean, please!

Tattoos. Seriously, tattoos! It is a strange indicator, but the correlation between ink on the skin and high quality coffee appears to be relevant and wide ranging. What drives this relationship – are tattoos and caffeine linked due to their addictive natures or do baristas spend large amounts of time in the tattoist’s chair blocking out pain with thoughts of the brew bar? Whatever the link (or ink), a higher concentration of artwork on the epidermal layer appears to lead to a more satisfying espresso. Not to be overlooked is the importance of facial hair, the wackier the better.

What knowledge is going on inside the barista’s head?  Test their Expertise.  Do they have any Yirgacheffe? Getting a delivery of some Gesha any time soon? If the response elicits a shrug of the shoulders and quizzical “huh?” – find another café. You can get a good shot without either of them, but you want to know the barista understands coffee more than just brown liquid in a cup. But be careful with this one, you don’t want your coffee seasoned with something unsavory because you made the barista look like a fool.

Finally the Roast.  We saw on the menu what today’s roast is but how was it roasted, and when! Are the beans fresh? Coffee roasted three months ago will possibly spoil your morning, but if a hirsute and tattooed guy is standing over a roasting machine somewhere about the café – we might just have a winner.

Now you have formed your opinion, it is decision time! As a long line has assembled impatiently behind you, muttering barely incomprehensible expletives under their breath, it may be best to just forget all this nonsense and try the coffee.  Then you will know for sure!

Will the real cappuccino stand up!

Nothing endures but change mused Greek philosopher Heraclitus. We know this to be true! So why do some cafes persist with hiding lousy coffee beneath large doses of froth?

I am of course talking about the cappuccino. A coffee I discovered in the late 1980s but never really fell in love with. As a New Zealander, this was essential Euro-style living – or so I thought. How cultured an espresso, folded in to steamed milk that was topped with frothed milk that was sprinkled with powdered chocolate – occasionally cinnamon. Slicing the top off the meringue-like substance to taste the powdered sweetness was the high point of an experience that unusually ended in the bitter aftertaste of burned rubber. In 2013, a similar experience exists in many cafes.

Conjecture surrounds the origins of the cappuccino, with Viennese coffee houses serving cappuccino style beverages from as early as the 18th century. Italy however, is the country we associate most with this type of espresso based drink, having staked their claim shortly after the first espresso machine was the patented in 1884. It would take some time for the rest of the world to embrace the froth, picking up momentum in the 1980s, but now the word cappuccino is a familiar sight on any café menu.

Despite the origins, Italians like many other Europeans still favor the simplicity of espresso;   the standard approach is to stand at the counter while engaging in some friendly banter with the barista, consume the espresso in three sips then move off about your business. But what happens in these modern times when you approach an Italian café with a wavering ciao buongiornio and request cappuccino? The first response will more than likely be an expression of derision followed shortly thereafter by the arrival of a beverage nothing like that frothy fraudster.

While the research is hardly scientific, the experience of a cappuccino appears consistent across Europe. Consistent in how it is presented; the frothy top has largely disappeared. And just like the milk, this is where the plot thickens. Head down to Australasia and that European cappuccino is surprisingly similar to a flat white or as I have found in one or two cafes in the US, a small latte. So will the real cappuccino stand up?

‘Wet’ cappuccinos versus the frothy topped ‘dry’ cappuccinos are becoming de rigueur and provide a far richer coffee experience which honestly displays a barista’s skills; extracting coffee, folding milk, presentation etc. And whether they are called cappuccinos, flat whites or small lattes the results should be handsome espresso with a silky smooth finish and not what exactly is going on here?

Italian’s may claim ownership, but they have since moved on. Let’s do the same, the time has come to end the froth. It has no place in the modern café. Some may argue that milk should not be paired with the bean anyway, an argument for another time, but the froth should be retired (or given to small children as a fluffy*).  Specialty coffee has evolved and the days of applying “make-up” to poorly extracted espresso have gone. Don’t be taken in by that pig in lipstick!

*A fluffy is a small cup of hot frothed milk, sprinkled with chocolate, which Kiwi cafés make for kids.