In an effort to chart the ever-expanding specialty coffee scene in the Bay Area, we’ve been engaging a selection of local coffee personalities to pick their brains about why coffee and why now. Today we talk with Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffe.
As a coffee aficionado and a thirty year veteran of the industry, you’ve been vocal about the weakness of restaurant coffee. Could you say a little more about that?
Restaurants aren’t held accountable for their coffee by critics in the same way as a weak link like a wine program or service. Coffee is the last thing you taste at a restaurant, and there’s some really nice restaurants serving really bad coffee. If they served bread that was as stale tasting as their coffee they’d be taken out to the woodshed by a critic.
I get it. No one wants to spend the time cleaning the machines and back flushing, or, if the shots not pulled right, pulling it over and over again. They just want to get it out to the customer quickly. Honestly I’m surprised that more places don’t just stay away from espresso. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of espresso, and I would want nothing more than for a restaurant to do great espresso, but so often I think it just becomes an afterthought.
Why is this?
Coffee becomes a headache for the restaurateur because it’s a lot of rigmarole. You think about a bar and how much 10 or 15 dollars for a drink or 7 dollars for an entry level glass of wine or 15 for a really good glass, and then you look at how much they charge for coffee. Even though coffee is more labor intensive, involves more cleaning, and is so much more of headache in terms of managing the program. A lot of restaurants are saying, ‘I carry this “third wave” blend, and I have nice equipment,’ but it takes more than that. It takes more investment..
What does it take then to get coffee on par with the food in high-quality restaurants?
The chefs nowadays are going to really transform it. It won’t be because specialty coffee people say, ‘Your coffee sucks.’ There’s a new generation of chefs that are getting their coffee in the morning from places like Intellegentsia and Four Barrel and Stumptown and Counter Culture and they have this coffee and think, ‘This is how I want to represent coffee in my program.’
How would you most prefer Ecco Coffee to be consumed by today’s coffee customers?
I want to taste the coffee without anything in it. However, I think there are ingredients that are complimentary to coffee. I’ll use the metaphor of mixology: What if you had a bar that only served shots of alcohol? You’d be able to get the highest-end bourbon and rye and whatnot but only in shot form. This is the producer saying, ‘Our product is so fine it should never be mixed.’ How many people would go to that bar?
I think there are synergies that take place with really good ingredients, and I think coffee is an ingredient. There are some espressos that pair very well with steamed milk, and there are some that fight it. It’s ingrained in some cultures to have sugar in their coffee. If you have really great coffees though, the flavor is naturally sweet.
It isn’t necessarily just about drinking your coffee black then?
I think we as coffee people get excited about our experience and want people to share that experience of coffee tasted black. But some people just want coffee with milk in it. There are coffee professionals who are like, ‘These stupid consumers are ruining my coffee!’ It’s a gradual process though and milk is the gateway. Maybe you start someone out with a 16 oz. latte, and then they move on to 12 oz. lattes, and then it’s cappuccinos and then machiattos and then finally they’re ready and willing to taste espresso.
How then do you finally get people to experience coffee the way you do? Experience these amazing flavors?
There are flavors and experiences that are unifiers. You might not be able to articulate some of these but there’s a certain type of sweetness that unifies people. Certain foods bring people together. We can’t articulate why people love them or what’s so great about them, but it unifies us. You don’t have to have any words for it, it’s just fucking great.