How a Coffee Shop Can Stand Out

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Ten years ago I was under the impression that Pete’s Coffee & Tea was the definition of a good coffee shop. This was because L.A.’s gourmet coffee scene had not been established yet.  [1] When fancier options first began popping up [2], their relatively scarcity lowered the standard. This did not mean that they were making subpar coffee, but rather that it took less to be impressive and stand out. Today, however, gourmet coffee shops litter the streets of not only LA but most major U.S. cities. As a result, a shop or cafe really has to offer something unique to make it worth coming back to.

As I argued in my previous post, bean quality is the most important factor in making a good cup of coffee. When it comes to coffee shops, however, bean quality matters less since every gourmet shop is going to use quality beans. [3] Rather, in no particular order, I find that barista competence, ambiance and brewing method are the most important things a coffee shop needs to do well in order to stand out. Demitasse in Santa Monica and Balconi Coffee Company in West L.A. are two shops that excel in all three of these categories, and to no surprise are my two favorite coffee shops.

Barista competence is important as it justifies paying $4 or $5 for a cup of coffee. After all, it is more economic to buy quality beans and brew your own coffee rather than going to a coffee shop and buying a cup. A barista that knows what they are doing, however, gives the impression that the coffee you are emptying you wallet for is better than anything you could make on your own. [4] Demitasse and Balconi stand out in this regard due not only to their competence when it comes to brewing coffee, but also in their extremely knowledgeable baristas. Ask them for a description of a particular bean, and they will give you more than the synopsis written on the menu. They will tell you how it compares to other beans, information on the roast of the bean and even negative characteristics a bean may have. The end result is not only a cup of coffee that tastes good, but a coffee shops that has grounds (no pun intended) for charging over $3 for 12 ounces of coffee.

A welcoming ambiance is important not only because it makes a coffee sippin’ experience enjoyable, but also because it reflects a shop’s approach to business. A coffee shop that appears to occupied with churning out cups of coffee creates an environment that is not suited for enjoying your coffee how it should be enjoyed: sitting down and in ceramic mug. In addition to their comfy benches and inviting bar, Demitasse does this by via their excellent presentation. Many of their offerings are served on a bamboo tray and are hard to refrain from snapping a picture of. Balconi’s collection of books and trinkets that litter the shop create an atmosphere that invites the costumer in. [5] These shops do not ignore costumer who want their coffee to-go but rather standout in their ability to make you want to stay in the shop and drink your coffee.

Brewing method is important as it is the most concrete way a shop can stand out. While there is something to be said about a quality pour over, every gourmet coffee shop seems to do it and it gets boring after awhile. Balconi and Demitasse stand out in this regard as they use coffee machines that are rarely seen. Demitasse, in addition to their aesthetically pleasing slow dippers that line the windows, brews coffee primarily via a Steampunk. This is a $20,000 machine that allows baristas precisely control  brew temperature, time, volume, agitation cycles and extraction, allowing for the exploration of a wide range of flavor profiles. [6] Balconi brews with a siphon, a technique that has been around for over 50 years, but is rarely seen in coffee shops. The resulting cup has the flavor profile of a french press but without all the sediment. In addition to this, both of these places pull top-notch espresso shots, something that cannot be said for most coffee shops.

1. I also did not drink coffee ten years ago, so I would not have been aware of any coffee scene that existed.
2. The first fancy coffee I shop remember opening up is Caffe Luxxe on Montana in Santa Monica. As the write on their website, Cafe Luxxe was  “Unlike anything in LA before, we were one of the first in the city to launch the ‘3rd Wave’ of coffee; a move towards hand-crafted artisanal espresso.” It is still a great place to get coffee if you can get over the lines and somewhat steep prices.
3. The exception to this being coffee shops that roast their own beans in shop. Coffee Tomo in West LA is an example of this.
4.This may be due entirely to placebo, but nonetheless, the experience having a great barista make your coffee is well worth the money, even if you could make something comparable at home.
5. Books are especially important, as provide something to do while you drink your coffee other than dick around on your phone.
6. In other words, using this one machine you can make a cup of coffee that tastes like French press brew or a pour over.

Bean There, Done That: The Importance of Quality Beans

Beans as fresh as they get, roasted by Ted Catanzaro of White Album Coffee.
Beans as fresh as they get, roasted by Ted Catanzaro of White Album Coffee.

First of all, I want to welcome Gabe Lehman of Spoiled Giants Fan to the blogosphere. I hadn’t been writing in awhile, but reading his posts on the woes of the Giants, prompted me to write here again. It’s a great source for understanding what it is like to be a fan a team that fluctuates between winning the World Series and winning nothing. What I have to say in this post has nothing to do with baseball, but rather about something else I am equally as passionate about: coffee.

My coffee preparation process used to be a science. Literally. I had a notebook in which I would record comprehensive notes about every cup of coffee I brewed. First I would record my water-to-bean ratio. Then I would record my grind size. Then I would record the immersion time (i.e. how long the grounds were in contact with the water) and finally would evaluate the quality of the cup of coffee. For this I would note the aroma, body (whether coffee was “heavy” or light”), initial taste, after taste, and how the flavor changed in respect to a change in temperature. Many coffees I found became more citrusy (acidic) as they cooled off. After every entry I would note what needed to be tweaked in the next cup of coffee I made. This process was driven by a desire to make the perfect cup of coffee, something that never happened.

As can be imagined, this laboratory-like process took a long time. To put things into perspective, even though I did not have class until 9, I would wake up at 7 to make sure I had time to make coffee “properly.” This was all during my first-year in college and by the beginning of my second-year, I realized that this was ridiculous and stopped making coffee in general. Recently, however, in the midst of my third-year, I began to miss making coffee and asked my dad to send me some of his home roasted beans. This time, instead of treating it like a science, I took coffee making less seriously. I lost my scale meaning I could no longer weigh my beans out, so I had to eyeball everything. Not only did the process take a fraction of the time, but the coffee tasted just as good.

There are many factors that influence the quality of a cup of coffee: the grind size, immersion time, water temperature and agitation (i.e. how much you stir the coffee while it is brewing). But all of these factors are insignificant when compared to the bean quality. It is quite simple: if you are using good beans, you will have good coffee. If you are using bad beans, you will have bad coffee. Nothing, not even a perfect brewing technique will make bad beans taste good. A great example of this is Starbucks and their use of the Clover coffee machine. This is a machine that allows for great control over the variables that determine the quality of the brew but since Starbucks uses terrible beans this just becomes an expensive machine that makes cheap tasting coffee. The moral of this post (yes, all blog posts have morals) should be quite obvious, but in case you did not catch it I’ll reiterate. USE GOOD BEANS! This doesn’t mean that care should not be put into the brewing process, but rather that you should not bother trying to make a good cup of coffee if you’re using sub-par beans.

The Cardinals’ Uncontrollable Pitchers

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On Saturday night (July 19th), Cardinals starter Joe Kelly hit Dodger right fielder Yasiel Puig on the hand. The next game, Puig was forced to sit due to soreness in that hand. In game 1 of the National League Championship Series last year, the same Joe Kelly drilled Dodger shortstop Hanley Rameriz in the ribs with a pitch. Rameriz suffered a bruised rib, and was out of commission for the rest of the series. So when Puig was hit by Kelly Saturday night, naturally people began questioning whether Kelly may have hit Puig on purpose. I, however, found it easy to believe that Kelly simply hit Puig on accident. Around 500 batters get hit by a pitch a year in the MLB. A single Dodger getting hit, therefore cannot necessarily be ruled as intentional.

On Saturday night (July 20th), Hanley Rameriz came up to bat in the ninth inning, and was nailed on the wrist by 98 MPH fastball out of the hands of Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal. Rameriz, who remember was the fell victim to Cardinals pitching in the NLCS, was forced to come out of Sunday night’s game. This was the second time in the game that Rameriz was hit by a pitch. In the third inning, Rameriz was hit on the shoulder by a 99 MPH Carlos Martinez fastball.

This leads to the question of whether or not the Cardinals are to blame for the injuries of Puig and Rameriz. While evidence suggest that the plunkings were intentional, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny argued that his pitchers were simply throwing inside to good hitters. Yet even if this argument is accepted, the injuries are still the Cardinals’ responsibility. It is fine for a team to pitch inside on a hitter, given the pitcher has control over his pitches. Cardinals pitchers, however, seem incapable of controlling their inside pitches. As a result, two Dodgers have bit injured. There is not much a hitter can do when a pitcher throws an erratic fastball inside. Until Cardinals pitchers can control their inside pitches, they should not be throwing inside.

That’s What a Hamburger is All About

jpegA friend recently described In-N-Out to me as the place “where the young cool kids of SoCal and tourists like to get thin burgers on a late Thursday night.” This friend is not from an In-N-Out state, and therefore I find this answer interesting. They are removed from the culture surrounding In-N-Out. In-N-Out is very popular, but it is not popular because they serve the best burger in the world. After all, their burgers are thin. The “cool kids”, however, eat there, and post photos of double-doubles on Instagram with the hashtag “dank.” Trips to In-N-Out are often hyped up to a level not usually associated with thin burgers. But while In-N-Out rarely lives up to this hype, it is the most consistent, cheap burger I know of. The key to this consistency, I believe, is their meat and costumer service.

The meat is fresh, something that becomes clear after one bite. Where the meat in most fast-food burgers is dry and fake tasting, an In-N-Out patty is juicy and tastes like actual meat. For me, another key are the grilled onions, which add great texture to an otherwise mediocre sandwich. There are other factors – the paper wrapping, the bun, the Thousand Island sauce – at play, but the difference maker at In-N-Out is the hospitality.

To a reasonable extent, servers at In-N-Out will try to grant any request. This includes having a burger cooked rare, prepared animal style, or made up of five patties (more commonly known as a 5X5). One time I asked for iced coffee – which is not on the menu. The server paused for a moment before he proceeded to take a soda cup, fill it with ice, and put coffee into it, making me my iced coffee. All of this – not just the iced coffee – presents the costumer with endless possibilities, not restricted to what is listed above on the menu. So where In-N-Out may serve a slightly above average thin pattied burger, they bring the cool kids and tourists in by exceptional service. Just ask your server for one of those paper caps; they’ll oblige.

The Summer of Streaks

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Who needs the summer of love when you could have the summer of streaks? The summer of 2014 can be certainly be characterized as a summer of streaks for a diverse set of reasons. A European soccer team won the world cup for a third straight time. Game of Thrones left millions of viewers itching for a new season for the fourth straight year. Clayton Kershaw (the greatest pitcher of my lifetime) had a streak of 41 consecutive scoreless innings. All of these streaks will fade away in my memory, but there is one streak that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Eight straight days of Mexican food. This doesn’t mean I survived on a diet of pork, beans and salsa. I actually felt that I was eating a perfectly balanced diet. The rules were quite simple: eat Mexican food at least once a day.

The streak began the day after the fourth of July, more commonly known as July 5th. While on a day trip in San Francisco, I had lunch at Ocean Taqueria. A tortilla is put onto a grill, and while cooking, became the resting place for a pile of carnitas, pinto beans and cheese. Then, this pile of yum was placed on a counter, where guacamole, salsa, onions and cilantro were added. The burrito was then folded impeccably and wrapped in tinfoil.

It has been awhile – two weeks – since I bit into the burrito at Ocean Taqueria, and I can no longer describe how it tasted. I can, however, vouch that is was spectacular. The tortilla, because it was grilled, was crunchy and this contrasted with the juiciness of the carnitas and beans. It was a simple burrito, but packed quite a wallop. It was a burrito that I will remember for awhile, and more importantly, it was a burrito that didn’t fall apart.

I went to Chiplote a lot during the streak. There’s not much to say about that. It’s always a carnitas burrito with no rice and it’s always good but always the same. I had a few too many black bean tostadas at the UCLA cafeteria one day, and I had far too few tacos at Tacos Por Favor one day. The streak will remembered above and beyond by sitting down and bitting into that burrito at Ocean Taqueria. It embodied everything I enjoy about Mexican food. The walls were brightly painted. The chips were free. The mariachi was bopping. The salsa was spicy and the burrito was flawless.

Update, 12/31/15: I still have not had a burrito as good as the one I had a year an a half ago at Ocean Taqueria. Clayton Kershaw remains the best pitcher in baseball and also for the third year a row choked in the playoffs. I also would mention that I my opinion of Chipotle has decreased in this time. This has nothing to do with the E. Coli scare, but simply because I have eaten there too much. 

The Funnel Mill Experience

IMG_0012In surfing, there is a saying that goes “you never leave surf to find surf.” What this means is that when driving around, looking for surf, the first place with decent waves is where you’ll surf. I have abided by this rule for two reasons. One being that often it is the act of going surfing rather than the quality of the waves that make the overall experience enjoyable. The other reason is that finding another surf spot often involves finding traffic. Recently, I have been applying this rule to coffee. If I pass a decent looking coffee shop, rather than continue to another place.

Today, while running some errands on my bike, I decided I wanted some coffee. Initially, my plan was to go to The Refinery – a pour over place on 4th and Santa Monica – but riding down Broadway, I passed The Funnel Mill. I had been there when I was younger with my dad, but had a hot chocolate. Hot chocolate, as delicious as it may be, is not a great gauge of a coffee shop and I knew I would be able to find a decent cup of coffee there. The prices, however, made me question my decision to walk in the front door.

Coffee in Los Angeles is not cheap, but the Funnel Mill takes overpriced coffee to a whole new level. The cheapest coffee on the menu was $9. That’s pretty expensive you may be thinking, but just guess the price of the most expensive cup. $90. Yup. $90. Kopi Luwak starts as coffee beans. Instead of being picked, washed and roasted, Kopi Luwak undergoes a much more…interesting journey from shrub to cup. See, the beans are eaten by these little, ugly animals called civets. These fellas apparently will only eat the best coffee beans so the final product will naturally be top notch coffee coffee. The beans somehow manage to stay intact during the journey through the digestive tract of our furry friends and are therefore pooped out looking like your normal, non-bacteria laden coffee bean. A farmer will then come along and collect this fecal matter/coffee to be washed, roasted and sent to coffee shops around the world like The Funnel Mill.

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The pooping animal under discussion. 

Despite this fascinating process, I am taken aback by price. Remembering the mantra of “never leave coffee to find coffee”, however, I order their Nicaraguan roast ($9), and sit down in a comfy chair to wait.

The coffee is served in a tall, clear, beer-stein like glass resting on a silver platter. This must be how the queen has tea served to her. Upon bringing the cup to my mouth, my nose is greeted with the crisp, sweet aromas of some fruit I am unable to pinpoint. I am initially not that impressed with the taste. I think the coffee may still be a bit hot. There is a nice citrus-like aftertaste and hopefully as the coffee cools, subtle flavors will begin to emerge. I will now go to the restroom to wash my hands. When I return, I will decide whether this cup of coffee was worth $9.

Nothing much exciting to report in the bathroom. A lack of water pressure marred the hand-washing process. My coffee has cooled to an ideal temperature, however and a distinct flavor profile has emerged. While the coffee is in my mouth, the citrus dominates the palate. Something similar to tangerine, perhaps a bit more bitter. Swallowing the beverage, a nuttiness becomes prominent. I’m leading towards pistachio, but I may being making that up. The aftertaste is slightly sweet but still nutty, somewhat like a handful of Planter’s Salted Peanuts.

The coffee has really cooled off now, and tastes completely different. Instead of citrus, the mouth is greeted by a fruity taste. Sweet but still crisp. The nuttiness has become sweeter, and now the coffee itself begins to match the aftertaste. The coffee is at the temperate of a lukewarm bathtub and tastes wonderful. But was it worth $9? Of course not! The does not mean, however, that the experience was not worth $9. The Funnel Mill is one of the more luxurious coffee shops I have been to. To my left is a water fall made out of a sheet of glass. The sound of the water, along with the burr of the coffee grinders, make for a very relaxing environment. Bamboo and other tropical plants are scattered throughout the shop, hiding the dull street the Funnel Mill is located on. If I was making six-figures, this would be my everyday coffee shop. Still, if I happen to pass by the Funnel Mill, I find no reason to sway from the “never leave coffee to find coffee” rule and buy a cup of $9 coffee.

When a Notebook Retires

IMG_0011I recently bought a new notebook because my old one had to retire. His [1]
spine was breaking and pages were filling up. As I was placing my old notebook on the shelf to rest, I spotted my even older notebook. It [2]
had been out of commission since the January of 2013. I decided to look through and see what caught my eye.

  • I used to be able to do math. Like actual. And by actual math I mean basic calc. [3]
  • I wrote in fountain pen a lot. I have had bad penmanship since I’ve been in diapers. I high-school I convinced myself that writing with a fountain pen would solve my handwriting problems. My handwriting hasn’t improved at all, but over time I have developed the ability to decipher it.
  • I got really bored literary analysis once. We were picking a part theory written by Louis Althusser [4]. I ended up drawing an extraterrestrial city in my notebook with a blue pen.
  • I wrote a blurb in the notebook about another notebook. This is relevant because you are reading a post about notebooks.
  • I wrote about my dreams over winter break. I really have nothing else to say about that.
  • From a to-do list in mid-April: “Wake up.” This is puzzling because I’m pretty sure the to-do list was written after I had woke up.
  • I went through a colored pen phase after buying a case of Staedtler® triplus fineliners [5].
1. For whatever reason, my notebook adopted a masculine persona.
2. “It” is used here because after a notebook has been put to rest (set on a shelf) it ceases to have a gender like it once did.
3. Upon closer inspection, it was basic algebra I was looking at. It was just a whole bunch problems where I was attempting to solve for X. I seem to have been correct about 75% of the time.
4. From my post on 11/08/12: “Louis Althusser was a manic-depressed French-Marxist who strangled his wife to death. He was also a brilliant philosopher who argued that instead of being labeled as a science, philosophy should be viewed as “the class struggle within theory.”
5. The 0.3 mm models…in case you were wondering.