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Feb 9, 2012 11:08 AM

What is up with all the lousy coffee?

OK, yes, PNW has some of the greatest coffee roasters and purveyors in the world. And that said, I regularly get served cappuccinos that look like cafe au lait, the burnt foam off the top of the pitcher, overextracted bitter brew, shots with no crema, shots in 12oz paper cups or 8 oz cold ceramic ones.

The thing that puzzles me is why the crap places have lines and customers. This makes coffee the low hanging fruit of the restaurant world.

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  1. It isn't just the PNW, it's everywhere, and it's simply because the popularity of espresso has far outstripped the availability of competent barristas, in my opinion. That, and the notion that anything you make with coffee and something resembling milk can be called a cappuccino. The phenomenon is especially noticeable in Seattle because thet think they invented coffee, and have somehow conned the masses into believing it. My experience is that it's almost impossible to get a properly made cappuccino in Seattle.

    Anything is bound to be ruined when the masses discover it.

    1. Hi, likbez:

      With shots being pulled on every (and may places two) corner, and 4G solipsism the raison de siroter, can anyone be surprised? Watch, and you will see the same thing happening with restaurants.


      1. Seattle didn't invent coffee.

        But, the Seattle coffee scene, led by the scientific and engineering approach of David Schomer and others, did *optimize* the process of espresso coffee. Their contributions, and now the contributions of many other espresso innovators within and beyond Seattle, have created the current much advanced espresso environment in the US, such that in every metropolis and in many medium sized cities, there are 1 or 2 cafes roasting, extracting, and serving top-rate espresso.

        Recall, it was only 5 years ago when in the 4th largest city in the US (Houston), you could not buy a high quality espresso. I tried every cafe that people blogged about over the course of a year, and they were all poop, and refused my offer to show them an alternate method for their consideration. Even the snobby cafes there were serving tar. As of a year ago, they finally have one cafe serving up the good stuff.

        Similarly, Washington D.C. had only one good cafe 5 years ago when I moved to the area, and Baltimore had one good one hidden in a public library of all places. Now each city has two.

        I'm not surprised the average espresso in Seattle serves the same crap the average espresso place in Tuscon, Tulsa, or Tallahassee serves. But the top 5% of coffee in Seattle blows the doors off of the top 5% in most other cities.

        Don't even order espresso drinks except where you know they will be good, especially in Seattle, since you will be frustrated to know there's probably a much better place within a mile which you could have patronized. I'm infuriated by being served a bad espresso, as it always feels like an insult to my intelligence.

        I guess these places still have lines and customers because the majority, even in Seattle, still can't tell the difference between fresh-squeezed and Sunny-D.

        7 Replies
        1. re: alarash

          This reads like a puff piece for Seattle coffee, and I'm not buying it. The first espresso I ever had was in Greenwich Village in 1965 (not an espresso drink — just straight espresso), and that is the standard for me. I have had countless espressos since, and never one like that one. I don't think it's possible to get it anywhere anymore because of the great popularity of espresso drinks nowadays. The product has been dumbed down for the masses.

          When I read the phrase "'optimize' the process of espresso coffee," I interpret it as meaning "maximize the sale of our espresso."

          "Don't even order espresso drinks except where you know they will be good, ..."

          I do agree with that. The only place I will order cappuccino is Caffè Greco in North Beach.
          Allegro in the U District used to be reliable, before the espresso boom. I wonder if it is still there, and if so, how it compares.

          1. re: GH1618

            While I am a Seattleite, and admit some degree of bias, I also feel that it makes my opinions about Seattle coffee informed. Plus for about a decade I have been a very coffee-curious person.

            So curious was I as to why David Schomer's caffe latte was so much less bitter and so much more flavorful and nutty than any coffee I had ever had, that I bought his book. And after reading it, I bought his video tapes (now dvds). And after watching those, I bought my own la marzocco commercial espresso machine, modified it just as his was to optimize the temperature control of the extraction.

            So curious was I that I then opened my own Cafe to bring the espresso process he and others meticulously optimized from 1988 through 2004 to Bellevue, a neighbor of Seattle, where at the time there was no good espresso.

            In SF, I would recommend Ritual and Blue Bottle, though there may be other greats by now.

            Allegro has always been and still is a nice place to sit around and hang out.

            When I am in Seattle, I try to visit Vivace, Lighthouse, Stumptown, Victrola, Umbria, among others

            I'm not claiming to be an expert, but I assure you, no puff.

            1. re: alarash

              Blue Bottle (Oakland) is just a few blocks from me, and I never buy their coffee. I'm sure it's reasonably good coffee by today's (US West Coast) standards, but that's not sufficient reason. There are scores of local roasters and countless places to have coffee, and more reasons than merely the coffee that make a hangout, so a recommendation is not of much use to me.

              It's just a matter of taste, which is subjective. Tastes have changed, making it impossible to get the old style espresso I remember. It's a matter of the beans and roast more than the extraction. If you have only been interested in coffee for a decade, you can't have tasted it, and if yoy could, I expect you wouldn't like it. That's ok. If you're selling what most people today want, more power to you.

              1. re: alarash

                This article nicely covers the problem with modern espresso:


                Schomer comes down on the side of putting some robusta in espresso, so perhaps he isn't all bad after all.

                1. re: GH1618

                  Most of the best (or my favorite) roasters use 8-20% robusta.

                  I guess I can't speak about espresso in the 1960's. I don't think it was better. Technology and effort, largely spearheaded by Schomer and others after him, have optimized each step (roasting, grinding, dosing, tamping, extracting) and also steaming milk, such that espresso drinks that taste how coffee smells can be had in most cities.

                  If you like your espresso otherwise, more power to you.

                  1. re: alarash

                    There you go again with "optimized."

                    In the 1960's and no doubt earlier, espresso in Greenwich Village had a "bite." it wasn't something marketed to the masses, most of whom would have found it unpalatable. Nowadays, anyone can drink espresso. Whether something is "better" is a matter of personal preference, but it was definitely different.

                    1. re: GH1618

                      Let me put it another way:

                      In 1988, David Schomer set out to find espresso that tasted the way coffee beans smell, without the ubiquitous bitterness that coffee drinks had at that time. After traveling through most of Italy specifically on this quest, the closest thing he found was espresso roasted in the northern Italian style.

                      He then returned to the US and "tuned" each step of the process with the goal of making espresso which tastes how coffee beans smell. He "tuned" the roasting process, grinding, dosing, tamping, extracting, milk steaming, and also modified espresso machines with the help of company engineers. This took years of effort to tune each of these steps toward his end goal.

                      He largely achieved this objective through this process of trial and error. If optimized implies better, and if better offends you, then consider the process "tuning" to the aforementioned goal.

                      Of course everyone retains the right to prefer smooth aromatic tasting non-bitter coffee, or coffee with a "bite."

                      To each his own...