I love cafés and bistros and above all I love good coffee. There is almost nothing that compares with a good cappuccino or latté in the morning, particularly if I’ve ridden my bicycle to get there. So, for lack of a better place to put this, some of my thoughts on coffee.
If your coffee world is freeze-dried drip and Starbucks, you may be missing out on a bit of enjoyment. Following are some brief reviews on local places followed by making coffee at home. If I can figure out how I’ll leave comments open for others to provide their input
THE BEST CAFÉS
Similar to above, personal preference plays a critical role. I go out for a cappuccino just about every morning except Christmas and have for around 40 years so I’ve developed my own personal preference for what a good cappuccino is.
I want to avoid bitter or weak espresso and scalded milk. I want froth and not foam or suds (air bubbles should be almost invisible) and the proper amount of espresso, milk, and froth. I prefer a bit of espresso in my froth (and a bit of powder cocoa is nice). Many paper and plastic cups have acids and other chemicals that react with the coffee and give a bad taste. Safest is to always use a ceramic mug. That said there are some paper cups that avoid these problems and these are fine (and are what are often used for coffee taste tests).
Others will have different and equally valid opinions. As I have time I’ll expand on this list.
Nina’s Coffee Café / Cahoots – Best in the Twin Cities. Fairly consistent across employees, espresso isn’t bitter, froth is froth and not suds, proper amount of espresso in the froth, etc.
Blue Moon / Black Dog / Angry Catfish – Sometimes froth can be a bit sudsy and espresso slightly bitter but that’s somewhat rare. Generally these produce a good cup.
Dunn Bros – Most Dunn Bros are pretty good and fairly reliable, but not all. The Dunn Bros in Roseville has been quite good for years, particularly Travis who is often there in the mornings. Recently, since about February 2015, they’ve seemed to have gone downhill. Hopefully this is temporary. Dunn Bros in Vadnais Heights (Festival Foods) is consistently one of the worst though I’m occasionally surprised with a good cup. Others are generally reliable though.
Quixotic – Froth is kind of sudsy and they say they pull their espresso shots ‘ristretto’. This should result in a less bitter cappuccino than a normal shot but theirs have sometimes been quite bitter and unpleasant in my experience.
Starbucks – A great cup is rare, but so is a bad cup. Mediocre, but consistently mediocre so a good option if nothing better is available.
Caribou – Almost consistently the worst in my opinion. Espresso is consistently bitter and froth is often suds rather than froth. It’s not unusual for the froth and steamed milk to be scalded. They also do not have ceramic mugs for larger drinks (paper imparts a bad taste in cappuccinos). About a decade ago the Caribou in White Bear Lake was quite good, but that is no longer the case. One bright spot is Shirley in North Oaks Caribou who does better than most.
And, some places I haven’t been to enough to form an opinion, but seemed good and are worth checking out; Amore, Claddagh, and Fresh Grounds.
Coffee at home
Best is really a matter of personal opinion. What I like may well not be what you like.
Among coffee snobbery you’ll hear a lot of debate about Aero Press vs Pour Over vs French Press vs Vacuum Pot. They’re different but none are really better than the others – in my opinion. All are my preferred methods for my daily morning cup and I alternate between them. Vac Pots are more fun though and do make great coffee.
For a push button machine, Nespresso is in my opinion the only option. Better than Aero Press? Not to me. Different, enjoyable, not better but also not necessarily worse.
If you order ‘coffee’ at a café outside the U.S. and they recognize you as American (and they will), they’ll often ask if you want coffee or American coffee. If you say American coffee they’ll pull a shot of espresso, add a fair bit of hot water to it, and you’ve got a really great cup of joe. You can do much the same at home with a good espresso machine such as a Rancilio Silvia. Again, different, but not necessarily better.
So, here are some thoughts on coffee at home:
Chemex – Produces a weaker coffee due to a much finer filter than any other below and no pressure beyond gravity. Very enjoyable though and you will notice tastes that are absent in other brew methods.
Aero Press – Makes a very good and somewhat strong coffee. I usually add a little bit of hot water to mine. If you like to experiment do some web searches or check out Coffee Geek for alternative methods with the Aero Press. There are also fine mesh metal filters available that I recommend.
French Press – Makes a very robust coffee but not as strong as Aero. Confused? French Press has more oil from the coffee beans than Aero which filters most of the oil out. The health affects are debated but it seems that most believe that the higher cholesterol of the coffee oil outweigh the benefits. I use my Aero more than French Press but still have a couple of French Press cups per week. We also have several large French Presses that work well for entertaining.
Vacuum Pot – Vac pots make great coffee that to me is very similar to French Press though not quite as strong. They’re a bit more of a pain to use but a lot of fun, especially with guests who’ve never seen one before.
Nespresso – From a user standpoint a Nespresso operates similarly and as easily as a Keurig or Tassimo. Behind the scenes there are significant differences however. Nespresso is a higher pressure espresso type machine while Keurig is closer to drip with just enough pressure to get water through the k-cup. Nespresso takes greater care in producing their coffee pods than is taken in producing k-cups with grind to sealed pod, and thus air exposure, much quicker. The cups are metallic rather than plastic and the overall result is a much fresher and better tasting coffee than other similar systems.
Rancilio Silvia – This is, in my opinion, the ‘best value’ espresso machine for home. Lessor machines (some of which cost more) aren’t nearly as good and better will run you over $2k. Many aficionados will buy a Silvia and then add modifications from PIDSilvia.
Baratza Virtuoso Grinder – Fresh and properly ground coffee is perhaps the most important element to a good cup. There are many good grinders and many that are much better than this, but for the money ($229) I think this is the best. Next up the list would likely be a Mazzor Mini. For good coffee this is the first place to invest your money.
Bonavita Kettle – Water temp is important and the Bonavita nails it every time. I use 89c for coffee and 97c for black tea. A Bonavita is also easier to use. Fill it up, press a button, and you’ll have perfect temp water quite quickly. It’s easier to pour from and the handle never gets hot. Even though I was familiar with them I didn’t know what I was missing until my son and daughter-in-law gave me one for Christmas.
Making A Good Cup
A good and properly roasted bean is critical. I generally prefer French Roast Columbian and this works well for both coffee and espresso/cappuccino. Beans are generally best within about 7-10 days from roasting so I buy a 1/2 pound each week. However, if stored in a cool dry place (like in original bag and then in a sealed plastic bin) they can still be relatively good after two or three months. Do not store in a refrigerator! Dunn Bros in Roseville is the best option I’ve found in the NE Metro.
Freshly ground beans are critical. And by fresh I mean seconds matter. If you watch a good barista you’ll see them move extremely quickly once the beans are ground (and they’ll always grind beans fresh for each drink). This is the same at home with an Aero Press or any other method of making coffee. Don’t grind until everything else is ready and then move quickly to brew.
Water and temp are important. Bottled water is best, followed by filtered tap water (though if your community over modifies your water with chemicals then this won’t be such a good option). I like well water, others don’t. Distilled water and softened water should always be avoided (for coffee and for cooking). Generally 195-205f is considered ideal. My teapot whistles at 198 so I let it whistle for about 10 seconds and I’m at about 202-205. Boiling water will scald the coffee and below about 195 produces flavorless coffee.
Soap or detergent is the enemy of good coffee. My French and Aero presses get rinsed in water after each use and that’s it. I wash them in the dishwasher about once each year. If, like ours, your dishwasher doesn’t rinse well then it may be worth rinsing your coffee mug under warm water, wiping it with a dish towel, and then rinsing again (this also applies to wine and whisky glasses). Also, before pouring coffee in your mug let it sit with some hot water in it for a few seconds or minutes to warm it up.
In the end, it’s all still personal preference. If you’re happy with your drip, Keurig, percolator, or freeze-dried Sanka there may be no reason to change. Once you try any of the above though you may be hooked. Fortunately, the first two are the least expensive of all methods (except for my Swedish mother-in-law dumping ground coffee in a pan of hot water and then breaking an egg in it).