Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A tale of two Specialty's

While I had noticed a while back that Specialty's first Seatown location had renovated, it took a nudge by @CoffeeCity to realize that the location had dumped Intelligentsia Coffee in favor of Peet's. There are rumors of more Specialty's coffee upheaval in Seatown soon, so I took this opportunity to compare the two offerings, side by side.

To be clear, the coffee equipment at each location is the same- Scharer superautos, Fetco drip brewers, and Bunn tea brewers. It's just the coffee and roaster branding that's different at each. The one exception is a bit of additional branding at the Peet's location- the wooden menu/signage wall behind the counter is familiar to me from other Peet's standalone cafes. No such element is visible at the Intelly-supplied location, though I don't think Intelly strives for consistency between locations.

I started at the 3rd & Spring location that features Peet's and ordered a small latte, 12oz. The coffee flavor was present, but mild, mostly a sweet nutty flavor. You can see the result below.

I continued to the 4th & Columbia location that features Intelligentsia and ordered a small latte there. The coffee flavor was present, but very muted, sweetness came through, but milk flavor really dominated. I'm a regular (eater) at this location, so there was some comment about making this one right "since it was me". While the flavor was unoffensive (really the program's fault, not the staff), you can see the hint of a rosetta in the cup- not a small feat when combining 1oz of espresso and 11oz of milk.

It's clear that Specialty's is taking a different direction from other retailer/restaurants with their coffee program, but less clear which direction they're going exactly. The typical model would have them choosing a national coffee supplier (which they had in Intelligentsia) OR choosing a local supplier in each significant market they enter (for example, choosing Peet's in the bay area and then Intelly in Chicago, and maybe somebody lower-middle like Vita here in Seatown).Specialty's re-tooling their coffee approach simultaneously with two separate roasters in the same (not hometown) market, strikes me as either an entirely new approach, a "quiet" market test, or some type of last-roaster-standing competition for their wholesale coffee business.

I'm curious to see how this turns out...

Friday, July 24, 2009

15th Ave Coffee and Tea

I had a chance to attend one of the events at
15th Ave Coffee and Tea on Thursday and the short story is... I'm impressed. 

There will be inevitable comparisons with other shops in Seatown and across the nation where the authors will point to 15th Ave missing a component that intelliVenice has or using a classic Marzocco instead of Slayer/Synesso Hydra/GB5/etc -- I would argue those discussions are entertaining, but miss the point entirely. I would also argue that allegations of copying are either legitimate cases of amnesia (did cafes and espresso really spring from one person's head in 2003? or did these same cafes borrow ideas from their predecessors?) or these claims are clever me-too marketing attempts masquerading as righteous indignation.

What is notable? A store conceived and constructed by Starbucks can now be uttered in the same breath as the nation's other premier coffee purveyors. 

And the store isn't noteworthy becuase the de-branding was so hyped, but instead because time and energy were used to create a store that can truly compete in 2009. Sure, there's the Pikes Market store that's similar-ish, but that's just an old whole bean/merch store that's had successive programs (espresso, blended, etc) shoe-horned into it, not the bottom-up new approach that 15th Ave represents.  

15th Ave Coffee and Tea is a truly fresh look at the coffee, tea, and cafe scene that exists today and an attempt to deliver what today's boutique coffee drinker wants. Does the coffee program look more like a Stumptown than a Lighthouse? Of course it does- as a consumer in this century (and this coffee town), that's what I want. If I wanted a no-origin-listed so-so-blend, I could go most anywhere, but if I want higher quality coffee and more transparency, the field gets noticably smaller- Stumptown, some parts of Zoka's inventory, Vita if they're feeling like it. 15th Ave, whatever your notions of it are, give me the consumer, what I want, albeit not at the end of my block.

In additon to the coffee itself, brewing methods are also revised and front-and-center. Gone are a couple paltry choices of coffees available via a big brewer, instead replaced by a goodly number of pourover drip stations that look to be repurposed wooden toolboxes and presspots. Espresso and SOE are available via a tasty 4-group Linea which has its own story, but while the Linea is significant, it is greatly outnumbered by other brewing methods-- a more subtle shift from last decade's singular focus on espresso.

The expressions of food and tea are also noteworthy, but I'll leave those for another post or for someone who's more into them. I need to get a bit of shut-eye before the opening...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Starbucks new store(s)

As widely reported, Starbucks is opening a handful of new stores. One of these is the renovation of the older University Village location, which is one of the original handful of stores built, re-opening today.

When GoodTimes and I arrived on the scene, there were a few partners inside snapping press photos and a handful of late night workers that kept walking past this sign through the unlocked door only to discover no-one behind the bar taking drink orders...

View across the road...

View from the through-glass table...
This table starts outside underneath the awning and has the appearance that it marches right through the window into the store.

Aside from the aesthetics which I'll leave to the architects and interior designers, the store sports some swank looking merch units, pastry cases, 3 of the copper clad mastrena espresso machines, and a Clover station that floats out by itself with a nice complement of coffees.

While this store will doubtless continue to do good business for itself (it's primary traffic is the 24 hr UW study crowd, followed closely by thirsty upscale shoppers), it remains to be seen if this new design can wow fickle shareholders and get coffee drinkers nationwide to loosen the vise grip on their wallets.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mokas Candlelight Cupping

I felt very fortunate to attend the inaugural candlelight cupping at Mokas in S Lake Union tonight. The event was orchestrated by Alex who's been rewriting the coffee program top to bottom in the store. It's held in conjunction with the monthly artwalk and in addition to meeting the cafe's new baker and current exhibit's artist, I also caught Sarah briefly. Visiting from Lincoln's Cultiva was Jon. Those were the coffee players (the event was lightly advertized), so on to the details.

Alex shut the lights and shared some of the inspiration for cupping in the near-dark before describing the mechanics.  It's a strange night here in Seatown- coming off a hot day, strong winds were blowing cool breezes through the space and flickering the candles. For a first out of the gate event, this was a pretty ambitious cupping. If I remember right, 15 coffees hailing at least 7 different roasters, covering all 3 major growing regions were on hand. Everything from a serviceable Sumatra from Vita to the ripe-tomato-y 49th Tanzania to the slap across the chops Vivaces to the Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year was on display. Other than listing the growing region, the coffees were cupped blind with the who's-who revealed at the end. Great job Alex and gang!

Here's looking forward to the next one in July...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Vivace's former location dozed today

It's true... you can't go home again. The Stranger, Seattle's Only Newspaper TM is reporting that the former location of Vivace's first non-cart store is being dozed at this hour to make room for light rail.


That's not to say that Vivace is even flinching. With their Alley 24 location blazing and the new N Broadway store's successful opening, Vivace seems to be doing dandy.

I'm still wistful for the former Broadway/Denny location with it's views of the park, but I'll just have to make do with the new Molly Moon ice cream opening at the S end of the park tomorrow.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Proper Spro- Thanks Herkimer!

When's the last time you've received proper espresso service? A saucer is nice, and a spoon is twice, but I'm talking about full service that includes a rocks glass with soda water while your shot is being prepared so that you can cleanse your palate. This is the very service that I've received each time I've ordered an espresso at Herkimer on the Ave. I received similar service at Vivace's Alley 24 when they first opened (they have a soda fountain for goodness sake), but when the line started to stretch to the door, soda service seems to have evaporated. Not so at Herkimer-- I've received the same full service from at least a couple of their baristas, regardless of the (short) line.

When I first saw Herkimer joining the U District's bevy of coffee shops and other businesses that serve espresso (the latter typically poorly), I wasn't sure how they were going to fit in or if there was enough biz north of 45th St to sustain them. The Herk on the ave is small, but packed tight with goods- synesso on the bar, a couple roburs, brewed service, and a pastry case that always has a couple locally produced pastries to tempt me. I tried the Herk a few times last year and enjoyed what they had, but when the weather turned, I couldn't part with Miss Silvia or Mr. Major at home. With the recent break in the clouds (most likely to be short lived), I've rediscovered the tight game at Herkimer. I don't expect to see siphons on the bar anytime soon, but they have all the moves I like to see and they're on the way from my house to the Cowen park playground, so even daddy's a winner when it's park time.

Thank you Herkimer, I hope to be toasting you with a glass of soda in-person soon!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

What's Zoka up to?

My recent visits to the two in-city Zoka locations have me scratching my head. Rumors are afoot about changes at cobra kai west and things definitely look different from this side of the counter.

First of all, the clovers are gone. I can see going manual pour-over if you're just starting a shop and want to save the clover cost, but if you have already made the quality (and financial) committment to buy them and made public statements about how you plan to keep them, why ditch them now? I understand the case for selling them (even used models are fetching full price), but that seems like a short-sighted exclusively-fiscal move for a company that I usually associate with being singularly focused on coffee quality. 

Secondly, the coffees featured in the by-the-cup brewing area? All blends. What's the point of that? I can see wanting to sell cheaper (er, less expensive), higher-margin coffees during this economic patch, but why not feature them as the brewed coffee of the day so that price-minded customers buy a cup, realize they taste good, and then decide to take a bag home? I have no interest in paying a premium for a pour-over blend coffee and I don't think I'm alone. The stations don't seem to be set up to serve their purpose either. In my mind, the purpose of the by-the-cup station is to (A) serve a just-for-you cup of coffee at a premium price to justify the additional labor, (B) give the barista a chance to interact with the customer so they feel like they're receiving individual service worthy of the additional price, and (C) give the barista a chance to talk with the customer about this coffee so the customer wants to take a bag home. 

Third, Zoka dumped their drip program to focus on clover, so even though pour-over service has replaced the by-the-cup slot, Zoka has had to add press pot/air pot to the lineup so serve brewed coffee. It seems like killing one bird with two stones to this casual observer.

Finally, everything behind the bar looks very stripped down, but not in a streamlined way. The back bar especially reminds me of the time right after your roommate just moves out of the apartment. There are fewer menuboards, but the shelves and space behind their previous locations looks empty and under-utilized. The effect keeps me wondering- what was this space previously used for? Was there a grinder there before? The menuboards themselves are a mixture of the previous style (with detailed chalk work) right next a hand-scrawled board that looks like what you'd expect to see at ninth street. Maybe that's on purpose- I'd swear I saw a frosted cookie whose face was the grumpy logo.

Having said all this, there is some part of me that wonders if all these inconsistencies with the philosophy of other current-generation-of-quality-minded-coffee retailers (insert your favorite term here) are intentional. Blends instead of single origins? Behind-the-scenes roasting vs. daily cuppings? Is Zoka changing itself to become the Seattle's Best Coffee to Stumptown's Starbucks? That's definitely a way to differentiate one's coffee business in this town, but I didn't see it coming.

Monday, March 9, 2009

C'mon now Seatown, Illy?

I really intend to keep these ramblings positive. Walking into a recently renovated Ravenna restaurant/cafe of supposed high repute located umm, near a bookstore of DEFINITE high repute only to find an extra-spiffy illy-emblazoned espresso machine, serving illy dashed my hopes for restaurant coffee in a way I hadn't expected.

Sure, this restaurant could have fallen into the typical restaurant coffee trap of serving no-name espresso or poorly brewed airports. Instead, these folks actually put out a mental and monetary effort, only to emerge in a different trap that I wasn't aware was still happening in spro-soaked Seatown: dropping big bank on a fading foreign roasting brand and their "tools". Sure, the magical bean cans keep the coffee perfectly conditioned and the click tamper helps make sure you're getting a 30lb tamp, but the lack of a training regimen is obvious in the cup. No grinding-by-the-cup, no free-pouring milk means a musty, milky lump of a cappuccino- albeit in a beatiful cup.

Dear Seattle restaurants,

If you don't want to invest big bank in a serious espresso setup, then don't. Save your self some counter space, skip the big steel (and the electricity bill to heat it) and - buy a gs3, a single major, and get yourself a small, flexible wholesale roaster account. Fine, you're right, that's still a lot of cash-- how about a couple silvias, a super caimano, and a handful of bags of espresso and decaf that you sneak out of one of our fine local roasters? Between that and a little training for your staff, you'll be serving great coffee on the cheap in no time. You won't have an upside-down wholesale roaster contract to keep up with and there's a chance that you'll generate enough business to support a serious espresso setup... and be able to pay for it in cash.

In this town, big and shiny doesn't impress... if you're serving bad coffee out of big steel, you overpaid or undertrained. The result is the same-- I'm going home for coffee.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

There's Just More of Victrola to Love

Buried deep in the monthly email and mentioned NOWHERE on the website is the news that Victrola is opening (has opened?) a *3rd* location in Beacon Hill. I guess I'll have to cross I-90 for coffee someday afterall. Spy reports gladly accepted in the comments. In the meantime, congratulations Victrola!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

SeaCprofiles: Bretts of a feather...

I was heading home after my dentist appointment for some spro cleansing among other things (sans harsh scrubbing mind you-benszo) when what to my wondering eyes should appear at the bus stop... but Brett Walker, his lovely wife, and their sleepy just-turned-one baby.

I was glad to chat him up about NWRBC since I botched my plans to attend it last weekend.  Brett, you'll remember, broke to the finals this year and performed quite admirably from what I've read.  I first met Brett back at the 2007 NWRBC when I was live blogging the festivities with Zoka's Wes and Nikki.  Brett had the privilege of being the only performance that I accidentally erased.  I had worked extra hard on his, too, with us sharing a name and his unparalleled facial hair making me question my own mutton-choppy-ness.  I still feel like a doofus.

Well enough about this Brett... more about Brett Walker.

It sounds like Zoka is keeping Brett's coffee journey busy and interesting-- helping with store activities, training folks, and even traveling to new accounts to help them get dialed in.  When Brett's not exploring the outer reaches of the coffee-verse, he can be found affectionately stroking his enviably-long beard and spending time with his terrific wife and kid-o.

Keep up the good work Brett!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

wha.. wha... WHAAAT? Oh no you didn't, Michaele Weissman. (not really)

I was thumbing through my raft of coffee blogs when I read a passage on GiaCoC that made me double-take "a near perfect cappuccino at the legendary Cafe Vivace".  Michaele Weissman- you take that back, sister.  I have frequented Espresso Vivace for nearly a decade, even clandestinely when I was employed by others in the coffee industry and I have yet to have an experience there that was less than perfect, not to mention a drink.  

I really don't know why or how Vivace gets it right every time.  I'm no Vivace fanboy- it's just that they have their game (espresso) and they play it WELL.  
* Single origin espresso?  Take it down the street buddy.  
* Brewed coffee from a Clover, pour-over, or drip machine?  Don't let the door hit ya, foolio.

Believe you me, I have given them chances to disappoint- arriving very early in the morning uncaffeinated and irritable, showing up right before closing for a bag of chilly decaf-- they seem incapable of doing wrong.  The line's really deep?  Guess what- homeboy from the back is going to tool up, get synesso 2 firing and personally escort you to his machine, far away from the rabble where you're the only customer in the world.  

The only complaint I have ever lodged against Vivace is that they don't grind whole bean coffee for home use- a charge that is without merit after the first 30 seconds of any coffee class or first 30 pages of any reputable book on brewing coffee at home.

Espresso Vivace is unassuming, delivers the highest quality, and has come up with the most elegant solution I have seen to date for serving espresso- do it well, do nothing else.

### confidential message to David Schomer- what's a guy have to do for a part time gig as your bar back?  I have four words for you:  will work for spro.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Team Trabant... bringing the thundah

Beware NWRBC'ers... trabant is bringing their A-game.

I was lucky enough to wander into t2 today and catch Matt Longoria dialing in his competition blend. I won't bias the judges with my descriptors, but let it be known that the comp blend (in expert hands of course) delivers a tayyysty spro and delightful cap.

Spyz should return to their hidey-holes... but Seatown coffeegeeks should definitely swing by t2 PRONTO to taste the coffee warez that will be in the thick of competition at this weekend's NWRBC.
Good luck Matt and Alex! Hope to catch you there, too Tom.