Coffee Shops

Chai Bar by David Rio Launch Party

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In a few short weeks, the Chai Bar by David Rio, the flagship storefront location for the highly successful David Rio Chai company, will be open at 1019 Market St., San Francisco. I think this new café/bar/lab/restaurant hybrid will be a lot of fun to visit, based on my experience at its recent launch party.

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The party was a chance for David Rio employees, their loved ones, and a few other invited individuals such as myself and visitors from upstairs neighbor Zendesk, to take a peek at the space before it opens. Fresh off two wins for their new tea frappé mixes at the Specialty Coffee Association of America Expo in Seattle, the excitement and anticipation of the company’s employees was palpable. Everyone wants to get this storefront opened!

The tiling and giant centerpiece of a bar were complete, but furniture, equipment, and the final interior design touches were yet to be installed.

I’m no stranger to using my imagination, so I could see the potential as described by David Rio’s co-founder, Scott Lowe. Opening a storefront was his and his wife’s, co-founder Rio Miura, original dream when they launched the company. It’s only taken 18 years to get there!

The bar.

The bar.

There will be a long, winding, and inviting couch along the left wall leading toward the experimental lab in back, where customers will be invited to give their opinions on the chai and tea creations under development. Teas from all over the world will be sampled here, not just Masala blends.

The Chai Lab.

The Chai Lab.

At the bar, one side will focus on making espresso drinks and the other will be full of wands for steaming milk. Different types of and methods for steaming milk products will be highlighted—and I don’t just mean dairy milk, of course. Not in this day and age.

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Sweet Bar Bakery

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There’s a lot that I love about Sweet Bar Bakery: their commitment to locally sourced, fair trade, and cage-free ingredients; that they know the difference between a latte and a cortado; that you can usually get a seat without too much of a hassle on a weekday. But I’m befuddled by how their baked goods, with bakery as part of their name, have continually been dry.

Case in point, the “whoop-ass” mocha pie.

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Obviously meant as a play on a whoopie pie, I was so disappointed to bite into dry, dry chocolate cake rather than the moist sponge cake I’ve come to expect from that particular sweet sandwich. Perhaps the bitterness of the coffee flavor affected my perception? The middle frosting layer was rich, but more like a dense, hardened frosting than the fluffy ones I associate with whoopie pies. It was also a skimpy helping of frosting.

Luckily, the day I had the “whoop-ass” pie, I also had an amazing cortado, thus sparing the café from my sour impression.

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That cortado is on the top. The one on the bottom is from my second trip to Sweet Bar Bakery. Slightly less impressive than the first, it still did the job of giving me the milk to espresso ratio I most prefer. The first was a touch sweeter and more beautifully layered. I will continue to order cortados with confidence at Sweet Bar Bakery.

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Coffee Fest Atlanta: America’s Best Espresso Competition

The America’s Best Espresso Competition at the Atlanta Coffee Fest

The crowd watches Bout #1 on Saturday, 2/7.

The crowd watches Bout #1 on Saturday, 2/7.

One of the fastest-moving events at a Coffee Fest is the Best Espresso Competition. I’m not just saying that because an integral part of the espresso-making process is using intense water pressure to extract a shot of espresso in around 30 seconds, give or take 10 of them. I’m saying it because the baristas competing in this event do a lot more than simply press a lever and a button. Rather, they work their way through all the major steps of pulling a shot with precision and intent. Those steps?

  1. Selecting the beans for their espresso. Arguably, this is the most important part of their preparation, and ultimately, they compete as the coffee roasting company, not as an individual. But you can bet these professionals have sampled and combined multiple types of beans ahead of time to find what they think will make a unique, memorable blend that will impress the judges.

I should note here that the judges and competitors tend to be Third Wave coffee aficionados, meaning that the traditional Italian roasts most associated with espresso by consumers, especially in Europe, are not what you’re likely to find at a Best Espresso Competition—or at least not at the bouts I saw. Instead, Third Wave fans prefer single-sourced, often washed, lightly roasted beans and blends as such processing leaves more of the beans’ unique flavor profiles intact. I spoke with Head Judge Cortney Kern of Barista Maniac, however, and he assured me that “sometimes a darker roast will come into the element—you’ll notice what it is visually and by smell. But most [competitors] do use a specialty light roast.”

Judge Cortney shares his rankings.

Judge Cortney shares his rankings.

Let’s continue with the other steps in a Best Espresso Competition!

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