Coffee

Making L.A. a Better Coffee City, One Cup at a Time

By | April 6, 2011 9 comments
Making L.A. a Better Coffee City, One Cup at a Time

By Matthew Kang

L.A.’s coffee scene didn’t just explode because a big-time roaster like Intelligentsia planted its feet here in August 2007. After nearly four years, it seems that companies like Four Barrel, Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Victrola, and Ritual – all out-of-town roasters, have crept their way into the market through various cafes and retailers. It’s no surprise that those who feel like they’re ‘in the know’ might feel this way because they’re even familiar with these brands. Other coffee aficionados could claim their interest in local L.A. roasters such as Jones in Pasadena, La Mill (which is not “el ay” Mill), Cafecito Organico, City Bean, and maybe even Klatch, Portola, and Kean in farther areas of Southern California. In general, the first stock of roasters have wider national recognition and more importantly play a part in a rather cohesive “coffee industry.” The first group of roasters (the national, or more regional set) often competes in barista competitions and sometimes shuffles personnel around (like Ryan Willbur’s salient move from Intelligentsia to Stumptown). You might recognize some of these roasters at Coffee Common at this year’s TED conference in Long Beach. You won’t see La Mill or Klatch or Jones at Coffee Common because the roasters that are involved with it are really at the forefront of what’s going on in the coffee industry.

Perhaps more important that the whole “who’s in or who’s out,” coffee lovers in L.A. seem to have more abundant choices in which coffees they can taste, especially with the opening of notable “multi-roaster” cafes like CoffeeBar downtown. Cafes like this highlight a range of roasters and bring brand recognition to lesser known, yet still respected roasters such as Verve from Santa Cruz and Coava (pronounced Coh-Vah) from Portland.

I found it almost comical that Chicago was 15th in a Travel + Leisure survey for America’s Best Coffee Cities, with L.A. ranking a pitiful 20th. Of course, it’s funny because whoever wrote this piece clearly had some bad criteria for what makes a good coffee city. In light of the recent L.A. Weekly Squid Ink piece that showed 10 Places to Get a Damn Good Cup of Coffee around the city (despite a rather grievous misprint involving La Mill coffee), I do believe that overall interest in specialty coffee is growing in L.A. Full disclosure, I sell Intelligentsia coffee at my store, Scoops Westside, but only as a retailer – I have no official affiliation with the company except that I’m friends with a few people that work for the company. I still enjoy coffee from a number of other good roasters around the country (more on that later).

What I see on the street level is an increasing demand for “good” coffee. and by that, basically anything that’s not Starbucks or Coffee Bean or perhaps Peet’s. when I see customers come in and instantly recognize that we serve “Intelligentsia” coffee, that rings a bell in their mind. It doesn’t matter that we brew a single-cup pourover with precise weight measurements (I’m not completely sold on timed brews yet), or that we generally only use coffee that’s been roasted within a week, or even that the coffees are direct trade/single origin. Most of the time, people are content with knowing that their coffee is “one of the good roasters.” Almost every time I ask someone what other coffee they’ve enjoyed, the most common answer I receive is “Blue Bottle.” I must say that Blue Bottle’s inclusion in San Francisco’s Ferry Building has really been a feather in the cap in terms of recognition.

What I see is still a highly fragmented clientele that isn’t quite sure what to look for in a coffee experience. Since we do live in Tinseltown and are constantly plagued by “scenes,” coffee shops and bars tend to focus on ambiance and feel, as I might describe. It’s comical to see the extreme backlash against Intelligentsia’s three retail locations dispersed throughout the city, where people simply hate the supposed pretension or snobbery that the company tends to give off. I might agree with my friend Nick Griffith (who is my salesperson at Intelligentsia), who said in a recent tweet that it’s mainly the customers who act snobby, hipstery, or especially pretentious – not the baristas or staff.

So L.A. is pretty much seen as an Intelligentsia town, and most sentiment wavers between emphatic support or disdainful dismissal of their efforts. Most of the local roasters probably lost a lot of footing with this recent growth, and perhaps the first and second tier roasters that are more highly regarded nationally gained with the trails that Intelligentsia blazed.

What I see is a marked difference in how people order coffee and what people value – you see fewer lattes, more macchiatos and cortados (or Gibraltars), more willingness to pay upwards of $4-5 for a pourover cup of brewed coffee. They’re small steps though – for the most part customers still want milk and sugar with their coffee. This tells me that old habits just die hard and that people just don’t realize why they’re paying so much for a better made cup of coffee.

Much of this lies with education. As with any specialized industry, such as wine, beer, or food, people have to know a little bit more than what’s on the surface to really value what they’re consuming. In addition, those that do educate and teach need to know what they’re talking about so that they’re directing people the right way. And finally, there needs to be some sort of agreement about standards and approach before we make any significant progress. It probably seems like an insurmountable battle. Even in the wine industry there are countless teachers and approaches and philosophies that are divisive and controversial. Why would we expect the coffee industry to act any differently?

Well, for one thing, I think specialty coffee has a little bit of a younger history, and perhaps a more technological slant (making it easier to proliferate information) than the wine industry. Wine has a more regal, almost hierarchical structure of influence, where critics and experts wield more power than in the coffee industry (and perhaps rightfully so since the wine world is so vast). Specialty coffee is still in the midst of determining industry-wide standards, and perhaps we can see this dynamic best in the almost cataclysmic shift from the high-regarded Clover brewing system to the now substantially lo-tech pourover brews that are trumpeted across the industry. One day the coffee world will think in one direction and then the next year they’ll shift. That’s a bad thing – that’s part of the growing pains of innovation and progress.

What we do see is a little more of a maturation in coffee education. Coffee Common showed a lot of where the coffee world agrees: attention to sourcing (direct trade), high-quality product (Hario and Straus Creamery milk), and simple presentations (brewed coffee, espresso, macchiato, cappuccino). The minimalist approach was surprisingly well received by TED participants. I wouldn’t suppose that a similar reaction would take place with a random sample of 100 avid coffee drinkers. People are used to choice and customization, and four choices might not be enough.

What the minimalist approach does do is allow people to see nuance and detail. It highlights the work of the roaster and barista through simple brewing mechanisms. I think that’s why it’s so essential that when I brew coffee, it’s fully on display for customers to see. This way we can answer questions directly that they might have, and oh are there many questions. All of the answers help to cogently educate customers as to why their coffee is brewed this way and why (hopefully) it tastes better. In the end, customers have to see that there’s an apparent difference in flavor and taste, or else the effort isn’t worth it.

This proves difficult in a high-volume setting, where people wait in line and order coffee hastily in order to get their anticipated cup. On the other hand, what I’m starting to see is a crop of smaller cafes and setups where people have more opportunity to interact with baristas and learn why their coffee is being prepared in a particular manner. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Still, it’s easy to highlight this dichotomy in a simple case study.

For the past three weeks, I’ve been frequenting two cafes: Intelligentsia’s Silver Lake coffee bar and Cognoscenti Coffee in Atwater Village. At one location, you see a fully matured coffee bar that’s been open for 4 years. You’re almost certain to see a line, though it seems to move quicker than Intelligentsia’s Venice location (where people claim to wait for half an hour, which I think is either unreasonable or unlikely). At Cognoscenti, which is essentially the coffee section at Proof Bakery, you see one barista making most if not all the drinks. Cognoscenti serves Four Barrel coffee and espressos (a highly regarded San Francisco roaster). Yeekai Lim mans Cognoscenti’s coffee bar, and the slower pace allows him to interact a little bit more with customers. You can see the entire process at once, with various brewing equipment laid out behind the counter.

Things are a little more spread out at Intelligentsia Silver Lake, with a team of baristas handling espresso and another person doing the pourover behind them (though the setup seems a bit awkward). The space just doesn’t lend itself to people hearing about why certain things are done, mostly because it’s very busy, and perhaps because baristas don’t see the immediate need to answer the questions that might be swirling in the heads of customers. While both setups do certainly have opportunities for interaction, they do seem very different.

So then, how exactly do we make L.A. a better coffee city? First, we need to show why specialty coffee is better. Taste is perceived, but perception is learned. And we learn through context and experience. What needs to happen is an overall change in culture from a constant battle between a coffee bar’s “scene” and the actual product that hits the counter. This seems counter-intuitive since volume (and sales) gets created through a cafe’s aesthetic appeal and gestalt. With more cafes that serve specialty coffee, even if it’s earnestly misguided, we see the demand for a better product. It’s encouraging to see places like Bru in Los Feliz (which serves Ritual) and CoffeeBar, even though they might not “get it” as well as some coffee professionals would like. It’d be nice to see their efforts recognized and helmed by professionals who know the craft, and are able to educate.

Intelligentsia still holds the banner for specialty coffee, but it’s mostly because their staff really cares about serving a good product. Just like how Stumptown recently announced their entry into Chicago (a town dominated by Intelligentsia), it would be good to see another top roasters stake its claim here. The financial and personnel investment is perhaps too daunting and risky, but it would help the overall market.

It’s a bit like the ice cream industry. Everyone who likes artisanal ice cream knows that San Francisco is a hotbed of compelling ice creameries. Bi-Rite, Humphry Slocombe, Ici. L.A. lacks that level of creativity (and perhaps competition). I don’t purport to say that Scoops is the greatest ice cream in the entire world – it probably isn’t. But Scoops has its approach and its niche, and it intends to stay that way.

Even though it might hurt in the short term, the entire city would be better off if a number of compelling ice cream shops opens (no more fro-yo please). Consumer education and knowledge for interesting ice cream would actually help everyone. The same goes for coffee – if we start to see why direct trade, locally roasted, expertly brewed coffee is better, not only for the farmers who grow it, but for everyone else involved, then the whole market grows.

Until then, it’s our job as consumers to not settle for less, and be willing to pay a little bit more for what’s better.

Find more of Matthew Kang’s writing on his blog, Mattatouille, and find him behind the counter of Scoops Westside.

Related Categories: Coffee, Food Insights

Comments

  1. Toni Tardino says:

    bring on the yummy morning fuel!!!

  2. Nick says:

    Nice article Matt.
    I couldn’t agree more that the more specialty coffee retailers in LA the better the culture will become. Not to mention an even larger variety of quality coffees to choose from!

    I also feel the need to expound a bit more about my tweet concerning the customers at Intelli Silver Lake. With the limit of 140 characters and my inability to be concise and to the point it could easily be seen as a slight against the customers (which I happen to be one of). Because part of my job is to talk to people about Intelli and what we do, I meet a lot of people in and out of the coffee industry with varying degrees of knowledge or interest in the coffee industry. Because of this, most of the people I talk to have more of a perceptive understanding of Intelli based on what other people may have experienced or what websites or other forms of media have chosen to focus on, usually with a lack of context, or they go expecting the exact same coffee experience they get everywhere else. When we first opened people knew as the cafe with the $10,000 coffee maker. Then we were the cafe that didn’t have fair trade coffee. Then we became the cafe that sold coffee for $6 a cup. Now, we seem to be the ‘hipster’ coffee bar that sells ‘expensive cups of coffee’. While the Clover had it’s place, and we don’t sell fair trade coffee the two labels I’m always shocked by are that we’re too expensive or that we’re a hipster cafe.

    First, I don’t think we charge enough for our coffee. With the amount of money spent to get that coffee, picked when ripe, sorted, washed, sorted again, dried, sorted again, hauled, sorted again and then bagged, shipped, roasted within 4-6 months of being harvested and prepared within days of being roasted by baristas that go through over a year and half of training before being certified… $4-6 for a 12oz cup of coffee is a bargain (How much does a 16oz beer cost from your local bar?) Is there cheaper coffee? Yes. Is it as good? No. The cheaper $1-2 cup of coffee comes from places of undefinable character and untraceable history. These are coffees that can be riddled with under ripes, insect damage, mold issues and fermentation defects and mixed with coffee from dozens and sometimes hundreds of other farms. That coffee is then shipped to a warehouse in the states where it can sit for 1, 2 even 3 years before it gets roasted and served. And, I didn’t even get into whether or not the coffee was produced under sustainable circumstances. But, you know, some people like that coffee. That’s fine. You’re allowed to like that coffee. We don’t. We don’t claim to be the cheapest cup of coffee out there but we’re also not sitting in the back laughing at the people paying for it like it’s a joke. It’s coffee handled, prepared and thought about differently. I wouldn’t go to Chez Panisse and be pissed at their menu and say I could easily get a full meal at Astro Burger for an 8th of the price.

    As far as it being a hipster cafe… ITS IN SILVER LAKE! Of course there are hipsters!! But, that experience is dictated more by the neighborhood then by the company. Our cafe in Venice has a completely different vibe as does our cafe in Pasadena and all three of the shops in Chicago are completely different from each other as well. The shops are meant to reflect the environment they are in.
    I also think, on some level, there’s an expectation for us to be or do something ‘snobbish’ and that is skewing the experience for some people. I mean, really, sparkling water conveying a snobby attitude? Could it get any more pretentious then that?! What’s next, serving coffee with a spoon?!
    Could it get any worse?
    We’re a cafe that does things a certain way. Usually because we think its pretty and looks cool, makes service easier or improves the over all quality of the beverage. That’s all.

    I hope that sheds a little more light on my tweet.

  3. Frank says:

    Great article, thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a few things I would like to touch upon though.

    I feel as if you’re a little biased when it comes to Intelligentsia. They were mentioned in the article several times, but it’s understandable. Their contributions to this new coffee movement have been valuable and influential and no one can dispute that. However, I shuddered quite a bit when you mentioned that Los Angeles is seen as an “Intelligentsia town”. What Los Angeles needs to become is a well-known coffee town like Chicago, Seattle, or Portland. The city needs to slowly stop catering to roasters outside and start to build reputable roasters from within in the city (and I am not talking about places like Cafecito Organico or LA Mill). I also believe Intelligentsia needs a little competition and who else but Stumptown to provide it. If Stumptown built a roasting plant in Los Angeles, it would be a huge turning point for coffee and maybe then would we start to build confidence in coffee loving business-type individuals to start their own ventures. I also think it would change the perception of coffee in the minds of Angelenos who think the scene is too snobbish or hipsterish. Because, let’s face the truth, you do get a bit of the snobbery at Intelligentsia sometimes. For every five great employees that love what they do at Intelligentsia, you get that one who thinks he or she is God behind the Synesso and that’s all it takes for someone who hasn’t been there to feel belittled. I welcome places like CoffeeBar to open up shop in the city, however, I feel we should take the Spring for Coffee approach and concentrate on that business model for the city. We already have enough Intelligentsias to go around.

  4. carter says:

    Interestingly, the denigration of Peet’s as being Starbux. Well, in select locations it may be. But in the Studio City location, it beats anything Intelligentsia puts out, any day of the week. Kim Allred, the manager, really cares about coffee(she used to work for the ‘bux), really knows more about it than nearly all in the Peet’s so/cal division. And she instructs every staffer to make sure you are putting out the best product you can.
    And they do, unlike many of their other locations.
    Dedication to coffee, the customer, and the customer satisfaction are paramount.
    Not all places keep that mantra in the foreground, yet they should.

  5. David says:

    Dave,

    Do you really think they are purposefully trying to be pretentious by offering you a cup of water?

    For me these third wave coffee shops, are just as much about the experience as it is about the taste of the coffee. If I just wanted coffee, I would just make some myself or just go to Starbucks.

    I’m curious what you mean by “belittle.” Did they laugh in your face or something when you mispronounced the word?

    Also how much of an open mind did you have going into the experience? Did you go into the shop with already an image of what it was going to be like?

  6. TreasureLA says:

    Thanks for always answering my coffee questions, Matt. Definitely helped me grow as a coffee drinker. I’d love to see everything you mentioned here come to fruition.

  7. Dave Lieberman says:

    Well written, Matt, but

    The problem I have with so-called “third wave” coffee is the same problem I have with molecular gastronomy and the same problem I had with high-end sushi when it was in its heyday: the pretense that goes with it. I’m discouraged by Intelligentsia’s Silver Lake shop, because it turns a pleasurable moment into a rushed, stressful ritual, accompanied by a heaping helping of disapproval from behind the counter if you haven’t bought 100% into that ritual or are perceived as not sufficiently revolutionary. A carbonated-water palate cleanser? Give me a break. How pretentious. Not being able to pronounce the varietal? (Abangakurushwa? Not a word that roll off the American tongue—even my multilingual tongue.) Intimidating, and the hipster attitude doesn’t help. I’m not cool enough for fancy coffee, I guess. I drink Intelligentsia when I see it elsewhere, but I’m not about to patronise their shop and be belittled and treated like some backwoods rube just because I can’t pronounce Ngogomo and don’t want to drink their stupid glass of seltzer.

    Coffee is excellent in Europe and it’s not a big deal. It’s not fetishised the way it is by a small group of people in California.

    The next problem is the people pretending to be third-wave coffee purveyors who still don’t have a clue what they’re doing. Sure, they buy pourover funnels and fancy coffee beans, but at least half the time I’ve had third-wave coffee it’s been awful, bitter stuff that required cream and sugar in it, so I’ve pretty much paid $5 for something that would cost me $2 at Peet’s (which is no better than Starbucks).

    Finally, there’s the inevitable clash with the prevailing culture. The single unifying theme around every single one (yes, every one!) of these new coffeehouses is that they are as slow as snot rolling uphill in January. It takes time to create that perfect cup of coffee, and it butts up against the prevailing culture. Coffee breaks are not an hour long. I have had some really, really excellent coffee (and without the snotty attitude) at Commissary Coffee, and at Portola Coffee down here in OC, but when there’s a line at these places (and due to the aforementioned tendency to fetishise the new), it can take forty minutes to get and consume an eight-ounce cup of coffee. No other country spends so long on a cup of a coffee, except perhaps the coffee ceremony in Ethiopia.

    It’s great that these companies are trying to elevate our coffee to something special, and it’s even better that people are starting to drink coffee and not a pint of hot milk with a shot of coffee in it for colour, but the education has to go both ways: the public has to be willing to taste, and the coffee artisans have to swallow a dose of reality.

    • Joshua Lurie says:

      Dave,

      We’ve discussed coffee before, and while the experience at certain coffee bars can be aggravating and generally not worth the wait, the coffee available in America has probably never been better. Good espresso might be more widespread in Italy, as you say – I haven’t been there since 1992, so can’t comment – but it’s hard to imagine the top level coffee being any better than what you’d find at a coffeehouse like Intelligentsia, Kean or Stumptown. These top level companies almost certainly source better beans, and brew fresher coffee, than what you’d find in Italy, so what you find in the cup has more potential. Of course a shoddy pull by an unseasoned barista can easily ruin even the best shot of espresso, but that’s the case anywhere.

      It would of course be wonderful to find better coffee in more places. We’re not there yet, but the American coffee scene is tracking in that direction. It’s kind of like craft beer. The American craft beer movement has exploded, but their share of the market is still well below 10%. Give it time, Dave.

  8. Darin says:

    Well-written and informative article, Matt.

    I think you raise an interesting point comparing the ice cream scene in SF and LA. Given the difference in weather, one would think LA would have many more exciting options, but that just isn’t the case to me at all. Maybe some of that is the pre-occupation with the calories involved, and may explain why fro-yo really took off.

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