Coffee Shops

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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The Indie Coffee Passport – East Bay

Last week, Marc Callado, who launched Shift Local in 2012 with his fiancée Mari, swung by my About Me page to let me know about an amazing opportunity for lovers of coffee on this side of the Bay.  When I say this is a bargain, folks, I say it as someone who knows just how much a standard drip coffee can run these days, much less a pourover or espresso drink of any form. I’m a freelance writer, I work at home, I know coffee. Even more so, I know the value of local coffee shops.

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The Indie Coffee Passport costs $25 + tax, and it is good for 22 drinks at the participating cafes. 22 drinks! That’s an amazing deal! And with that work-at-home cred I just established, I also know how important getting out of the house is, which is the fun part of this bargain. Because each of those 22 drinks represents 22 locally owned coffeehouses in the East Bay, and you can redeem 1 drink at each of them. Maybe you are someone who takes comfort in always showing up at the same café…I am not. I try somewhere new nearly every week, and the Indie Coffee Passport would increase my motivation to do so, if that’s even possible.

And what’s better? Those coffeehouses are easily accessible. As Marc wrote, “These 22 shops are all independent coffee shops in 8 East Bay cities along Highway 580 and BART. The idea is to get people to try out and experience the blossoming independent coffee scene in the East Bay and also to explore a variety of interesting neighborhoods in Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, Hayward and Dublin.”

A pourover from Eko in Hayward, which I reviewed last year and is participating in the Passport.

A pourover from Eko in Hayward, which I reviewed last year and is participating in the Passport.

Walking distance from BART?! This promotion couldn’t smell better to me if they dipped it in tri-tip seasonings and set it on the grill. As I can attest from using the Santa Cruz Winegrowers’ Association Passport, simply getting stamps on my passport will keep me entertained. (Yes, it’s that easy.)

Coffee Passport

 

That’s a scan of the passport, which folds up to business card size to fit easily into a wallet so that it’s easily accessible. And yes, that’s the full list of participating cafes as well, nicely divided by city.

The Catch? You can only use the passport through August 31, 2015. Why? Because this is a promotion, my dears, designed to introduce you to the wonderful coffeehouses you’ve overlooked so you’ll go back again, again, and again in the future. And you can bet there will be very little money made on the endeavor. At a little over $1 per drink and considering printing and mailing costs, the coffee shops are basically giving them away. Knowing all that, I honestly think the end date of August 31 is generous. I know I’ll be drinking that amount of coffee times a million in the next 5 months, and that’s likely an underestimation.

The Catch #2? You can only pick from a menu of 6 drinks at each cafe, but those menus have quite a range as most of the cafes are wisely showing off some of their signature drinks. Chrysanthemum tea, frappuccinos, iced coffee, and peppermint mochas are a few of the offerings I’ve seen. You will find something that works for you at each of them, even if you don’t drink coffee. The full list of participating cafes and their menus is right here.

Are you in?  Purchases go through their website here. You will eventually be able to purchase them at some of the participating cafes, but that’s not an option quite yet. While you’re at it, why not also check out Marc and Mari’s Shift Local site and sign up for the newsletter?

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This dynamic duo is coming up with lots of ways to make buying local fun, and I’m excited to see what’s next. I’ll sure be caffeinated enough to enjoy it.

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