Starbucks Blonde Espresso?

So, in a very interesting development, Starbucks has introduced what they call Starbucks Blonde Espresso. Which, supposedly is a true “light” roast. Anyone that has ever looked at the Blonde Veranda beans can see that they are clearly what the SCA defines as “medium”.

So, we’ll ignore the light roast comment and move on to something more interesting.

Andrew Linnemann, vice president of Global Coffee for Starbucks, describes the Blonde espresso blend as “bright, with sweet citrus notes and a smooth body.”. This seems to be hinting at what most early reviews are saying, that it is less bitter. An article at Fortune used the term “hard stuff” to refer to the Signature Roast Espresso.

What is ridiculous about this is that Espresso should NEVER be bitter…ever. What Andrew Linnemann called “boldly roasted” in the Fortune article is plain burnt, which is why it’s bitter. Also, Espresso is NOT a roast, it’s a brewing method.

Did Starbucks really just introduce a roast because they realize their signature roast is burnt, nasty and bitter? Is this a marketing move like “New Coke”? Time will tell, but I will still spend my money on the smaller shops that have people behind the counter that can actually tell you what 1st and 2nd crack mean.

Staresso Espresso Maker

The Staresso Espresso Maker is a very compact portable “espresso” maker.  It makes a surprisingly good shot provided you have your grind and coffee dialed.

It can use Nespresso pods, but there is no substitute for fresh roasted and ground coffee.  Here’s a video review and the device in action.

The Short Version

The Staresso is surprisingly good and easy to use for a $60 gadget.  However, I have a feeling my results have a lot to do with my accumulated knowledge of coffee and the coffee I used.  But, again, for $60, the compact size of the Staresso Espresso maker is pretty hard to beat if you are on the go and want decent coffee.

The Long Version

This is not a true espresso maker.  There’s no way that it is generating 9bar of pressure.  But, as many people are finding, you can make espresso with far less than 9bar.  So, the Staresso is going to be very sensitive to grind size.  You will need to play with your grinder quite a bit to dial this in perfectly.

The Staresso is really pretty simple to use.  The parts all come apart and re-assemble very easily.  Filling the brew head can be a little messy however because it’s small.  They recommend 7-10gr of coffee (you aren’t pulling a typical 3rd wave 18-20gr double with this device).  In my testing, I found it hard to cleanly get more than 7gr in the little cylinder.  I got up to 9gr in there by being very careful.

Once loaded, a quick “tamp” with the back of the included scoop, and you just screw everything together.  Add water and start to pump.  I have not yet experimented with this, but the pumping builds pressure in such a manner that a pre-infusion style shot is very possible…and will likely produce a very nice result.

The shot itself is as you might expect…decent, but lacking depth and body.  You can see in the video above the crema produced is substantial (aided by the valve in the brew head), but since the pressure and heat retention are lacking, the body of the shot suffers.  However, there was a surprising clarity to the shot and I was still able to taste the fruit in my blend.

The Verdict

If you are an espresso enthusiast and want to take control of your destiny while traveling, the Staresso is compact, produces a decent shot, and at $60 is hard to pass up.

loft. Kitchen & Bar – Cappuccino in T5 JKF

Finally! After over 2 years, I found a decent cappuccino in JFK T5 at loft. Kitchen & Bar. There’s a guy there who knows how to use his machine, a Synesso Hydra, and it’s apparently calibrated. And, the Mazer grinders are calibrated too!

loft. Kitchen & Bar is across from gate 25 in Terminal 5 (JetBlue) and serves a plethora of food as well as a full bar. Ordering is a little wonky because you have to use an iPad. And, the system wants to start a tab for you, so you have to remember to close it before you walk away. Also, the system defaults to an 18% tip…which is pretty ridiculous for a place that has no full waiter service.

For the coffee, let’s start with the fact that the guy cleaned the portafilter after knocking out the previous puck. Every other place in T5, the employee just knocks the puck and refills… gross. His distribution attention was minimal, but there was some effort. He locked in the portafilter and walked away to go fill the milk jug. That is something I hate, but in reality, you can’t “burn the coffee” as some people will say. But, it is still bad form. However, the result was a proper double that poured in 31sec (Synesso Hydra has a pre-infusion algorithm). It had taste-able sweetness and fruit notes through the milk. The bags of beans said Rishi (NOT Reishi…if you Google it), and I’ve not seen that brand before.

Real sticklers will find many faults with the workflow (the machine was dirty, no latte art was attempted), but the result was a drinkable cappuccino that made my wait at the gate more pleasant.


Twin Peaks Coffee & Donuts

The moral, for those of you that want the quick version; Just because a place has green beans and a nice Diedrich machine does not mean the coffee is good.  Twin Peaks Coffee & Donuts in Tannersville, NY has such a machine, and had the lure of quality.  It failed to live up to the promise.

There’s even bags of greens out front next to the machine.  But, alas, as I see all too often, people jump on the specialty bandwagon without fully understanding what that really means.

Roasting is only part of the equation.  You can screw coffee up at every step of the way.  Even the best roasted coffee can be brewed like crap.  I can’t really speak to the roasting because the machine was not in action when I visited.  But, the barrista (once she eventually ambled over) did just about everything wrong.

First, the coffee was pre-ground.  Seriously?  You have a big roaster that you proudly show in the front of your shop, and you pre-grind your coffee?!  Secondly, the shot poured in about 12 seconds.  That is just way to fast…period.  And, third, she steamed the milk first, and then just let it sit, without any agitation while she ran the shot.

Gourmet Cup & Pastry Shop

If you happen to be driving to Hunter Mountain NY, and need coffee badly somewhere near Saugerties, DO NOT stop at Gourmet Cup & Pastry Shop.  Do not let the word “gourmet” deceive you.

Starbucks would actually be a better choice.  And, for me to say that, the coffee really has to be horrible.

The coffee in the doser of the Mazzer was clearly stale, and the girl behind the counter burned the crap out the milk…which in turn burnt the crap out of my mouth.  This was just an awful, horrible cup of coffee.  Stay away.

Voodoo Doughnut

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had to kill several hours at Universal City Walk.  There are only 2 options for coffee.  And, when faced with a choice of Starbucks or Voodoo Doughnut…well…that’s not actually a choice.

First, let’s get this out of the way.  Voodoo Doughnut is NOT a coffee shop.  But, they proudly advertise Stumptown coffee, and they have a bad-ass pink, 3 group La Marzocco espresso machine.  So, I grabbed a sugar bomb and then hoped for the best with the coffee.

A Flat White?  I don't think so.

A Flat White? I don’t think so.

Voodoo is pulling their shots with Stumptown Hairbender.  It’s a decent blend, but this not being a true Stumptown shop, the dice are rolled.

I asked for a flat white.  Warning #1 is the guy asked me what size I wanted.  Any true barrista knows a flat white is a 4-5oz drink, so choice of size in this case already flagged a problem.  I looked at the cups and asked for the smallest one (which was 6 oz).

Now, while warning bells were going off like crazy, the end result was actually not terrible.  I wasn’t great, but it was something drinkable and suited my need at the time.  It was much better than anything at Starbucks.  I realize that’s not saying much, but still, I was surprised.  This was a case of a well trained employee clearly using calibrated equipment.  So, while equipment alone does not make great coffee, in this case, it helped to make adequate coffee.

If you are at Universal Studios (or City Walk), this is the place to get coffee if you are in need.  Oh…and the donuts?  The doughnuts are not the best in the world, but they are quite good.

Swell Coffee – Del Mar, CA

The Flower Hill Mall, wait…that dates me. The Flower Hill Promenade as it is now called has had major renovations. There’s now a Whole Foods where the movie theater used to be, a Starbucks, and where Pannikin used to be next to Crown Books is now the home of Swell Coffee.

Swell Coffee is a local San Diego roaster and the shop is pretty nice looking, and the people behind the counter were extremely nice. However, if I wanted burnt nasty coffee, I could have gone to Starbucks.

Since it was hot today, I chose to have an iced latte. But, before my drink, there were 2 cappuccino orders. The woman filled 2 portafilters without cleaning them first. She engaged BOTH portafilters, but only started one. The espresso rocketed out and poured the double shot, split into 2 cups in about 15sec. She then carefully frothed 2 pitchers of milk using thermometers, and then just dumped the frothed milk into the cups… absolutely zero attempt to “construct” the drink.

Then my drink was up. She filled another portafilter, again without cleaning it. She engaged it and then started it AND that other one that had been engaged but never used for the 2 cappuccino…but only caught 1/2 the output. So, my iced latte ended up being a triple shot of yuck. Burnt yuck.

San Diego is home to many craft roasters and shops that serve a variety of 3rd wave style coffee. But, Swell seems content to just serve Starbuck style crap with a local marketing campaign. Bummer.

Kuma Cafe

Also, found during my recent Jury Duty adventure in downtown San Diego is a small place called Kuma Cafe.  There’s small signs on Broadway with a cute little bear face on them directing you to their somewhat hidden location just off Broadway. They are serving coffee roasted by local San Diego roasters, The Westbean.

At first, when I saw the barrista clean the shower head prior to pulling the shot for my cappuccino, I had high hopes.  That shows an attention to detail often not seen.  The shot even looked like it poured well.  Sadly, the coffee just wasn’t that good.  The coffee was mostly lost in the milk (which was steamed fine).  What flavor there was didn’t pair well with the milk.   Also, I’m not a huge fan of The WestBean anyway…I’ve had their beans at other cafes in town.

But, The WestBean has recently scored a really great review on Coffee Review.  So, statistically, the fault here lies with the preparation.  The espresso machine isn’t a big name brand, but knowing what you can do with a Gaggia Classic, I can’t fault the machine too much.  The grinder was a Mazzer doser style.  So, my guess here is that the coffee was sitting in the doser for way too long and went stale (yes folks…freshly grinding does make that big a difference).  Cafe Kuma was almost empty when I was in there about 3pm on a Wed.  If you aren’t serving the volume to clear out the doser, you are better off with an “on demand” style grinder.

Kuma Cafe also has smoothies and acai bowls, which I didn’t try.  But, if you are in this area near Santa Fe Depot and looking for coffee, Copa Vida is a better choice.

Demystifying espresso for the average Joe