Smith Travel BlogTravel tales and hotel news from the boutique hotel experts at Mr & Mrs Smith

Superior coffee #2: the daily grind

Posted by Lucy Fennings on July 17th, 2008

Today we bring you more insights on superior coffee from NY-based coffee-oracle Oliver Schwaner-Albright. To distract ourselves from the Sisyphian nightmare that is trying to find a coffee good enough to make our daily commute tolerable (mission: impossible, unless you can make a lengthy detour to Monmouth, purveyor of the best coffee in London, according to Oliver), we’ve decide to pose him an altogether more inspirational (and stylish travel-related) question:

So, London coffee fantasies set aside for a moment, where can we get the best hotel coffee in the world?

(Mr & Mrs Smith’s first suggestion would be Losari Coffee Plantation Resort & Spa, a boutique hotel in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where you can drink a cup of Javanese coffee grown a stone’s throw away, while you look at a volcano from your verandah – but Oliver hasn’t been there yet)

Ah yes, Monmouth: waiting for a cappuccino at the Borough Market branch of Monmouth is one of the best ways to start a day in London (if you work near there, obviously). I also hear great things about the roaster Square Mile Coffee, but I’ve never tried it.

The best hotel coffee in the world? Easy: the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon, because they invited Stumptown, one of America’s best coffee roasters, to open a café in the lobby. Stumptown is legendary for its discipline, standards and skills — they will grind and brew a single cup of microlot direct trade coffee to order — but this is Portland, one of the most friendly and relaxed cities anywhere, and even if you’re tasting a work of art it’ll feel like you’re at a party.

I wanna get me to Portland! Maybe we need to check out this Ace Hotel (great marketing-savvy name, for starters. and their website is pretty funky)…Actually I just asked Katy in our office and she’s already on it! She’ll be heading out there in September to sniff out more US boutique hotels for Mr & Mrs Smith, so we’ll be able to give you the low-down when she gets back. Things move so fast at Smith HQ…

Why is it that so many hotels get it so right in the bedroom department but can’t sort out a decent cup of coffee do you think?

I don’t know why hotels don’t take their coffee more seriously. The same hotel that puts so much into the thread count of their sheets and electronics hidden in their cabinets will soft-pedal when it comes to coffee, sticking a cheap brewer in the room and delivering hours-old urn coffee for room service.

I’m waiting for a hotel to outfit their rooms with Technivorms, the Dutch coffee brewer that’s unquestionably the best machine in the world. But that’s just the first step: the hotel would also need to refresh each room with fresh-ground coffee every day. Once coffee is ground it deteriorates quickly — vacuum bags only do so much — and the best way to make a good cup is to grind the beans as close to brewing as possible. It’s a lot to ask, but someday a hotelier with taste and style will make the commitment.

HOTELIERS: ARE YOU READING?! Urn-brewed coffee?! <gags a bit> Urrgh, I thought (hoped) that stuff died along with loon pants and platforms. Though sadly, I should know better, having stayed in establishments that probably made up their breakfast trolleys days in advance (these are not hotels that made it into Mr & Mrs Smith’s boutique hotel collection though, I can tell you).

Can hotels do anything instantly to make things better, without one of these wünder-machines?

It’s not a lot to ask for a hotel to get its coffee from a good local roaster instead of from the same food-service company that delivers its cooking oil and flour. Stumptown, say, will happily deliver or mail coffee on a regular basis to a hotel (or restaurant, or individual), ensuring a steady supply of freshly-roasted top-grade coffee.

And yes, it’s inexcusable when room service delivers urn coffee that was brewed hours earlier. Coffee should be brewed to order and delivered hot, and made with some attention and skill. A bad cup of coffee won’t spoil the morning, especially when you’re traveling and standards are lowered, but an exceptional cup might be memorable, and is as salient as any of a hotel’s amenities.

I hate to disagree with you there Oliver, but I think a bad cup of coffee can ruin your morning! (and I know Mary would agree with me on that front, based on her comment.) Especially when travelling. Unless it’s ‘emergency coffee’, if you know what I mean. Imagine my elation when, this morning, on the way to work, a shiny new coffee stand had appeared at the train station <me: drooling at prospect of Brazilian-style cafezinho>. And imagine my dismay, if you can, when said coffee outlet handed over another tiny but devastating portion of disappointment.

I think the only option really now is to just stop being so LAZY and make my own. Is there any special kit I need? I think a Gaggia machine is a little out of my price range (and a bit impractical for the kitchen at Smith HQ), but I think I could stretch to a cafetière (or French press, as you say in the States – tomarto, tomayto, etc) and some good coffee. So tell me: anything else I should spend my dosh on?

As far as I’m concerned, the most important piece of coffee equipment, and the first thing you should buy, is a burr grinder – the kind where the beans go in the top and the grounds come out the bottom – because the first step to making superior coffee is grinding each pot to order. Coffee grounds oxidize quickly, and you should no sooner use grounds from the day before as you would serve somebody a bottle of wine uncorked last night. (Which of course you might do at home, but which would cause a fuss at a good restaurant.)

That’s taking me back to my childhood (no, I wasn’t necking espressos when I was 8 years old – ok maybe one or two): my mother used to have a wall-mounted coffee grinder with handle on top and a little drawer that the coffee came out of. But then she’s Continental, so she understands about such things.

Anyway thanks again for all your superior coffee knowledge Oliver – now we all know how to turn the daily grind into a less forehead-smackingly frustrating time! (And we have a whole new criterion for how hotels make it into the Smith collection!)

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12 Responses to “Superior coffee #2: the daily grind”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Oliver – Monmouth Coffee is unquestionably the best in London.

    However, you don’t have to travel all the way to Borough Market to get some. You can head over to Monmouth’s store in Covent Garden (on Monmouth Street, of course)

    Or even better – there is a Kiwi coffeehouse right in the heart of Soho which serves Monmouth exclusively:

    Flat White @ 17 Berwick Street.

    By Olli

  2. @Olli Yes, Flat White is getting a lot of name-checks on these pages, along with its sister café, Milkbar; I did try going to Flat White once when I used to work on Broadwick Street, but unfortunately on that occasion the service was so slow I walked away again – clearly I didn’t know then that it probably would have been worth the wait!

    By Lucy

  3. Flat White do sell a pretty good NZ-style latte. Also, their gravity-powered door closing mechanism is thing of beauty. On the subject of hotels with good coffee though, take a look at Tigerlily in Edinburgh. Their bar staff are all trained baristas, graduates of the Matthew Algie Coffee School, and their beans are Matthew Algie’s Fairtrade, organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified blend. Great stuff.

    By Tony

  4. @Tony Tigerlily – one of Smith’s favourite Edinburgh hotels; must confess to having overlooked their superior coffee prowess and, as mentioned above, is definitely something I’ll be paying a lot more attention to on future research trips!

    nb just checked out your blog – re: Nicholson Barker, totally agree – you’re a Glasgae boy, anywhere in your fine city we should be looking at coffee-wise?

    By Lucy

  5. Thanks Tamara for leaving a comment on my Little Cream Life blog. As I type this, I am sipping a skinny latte (yes, I’m off my detox!) from my favourite neighborhood (think a block away from Opus Hotel) coffee shop in Vancouver…www.citoespresso.com. But http://www.jjbeancoffee.com is also worth an aquabus ride to Granville Island.

    Coffee is such an integral part of making one’s home away from home enjoyable that M&M Smith should institute a coffee rating system as well, whether it’s availability of good coffee in the hotel itself or within walking distance. And of course, highlighting local coffee variations. I love Vietnamese coffee (it’s just not quite the same, like pho bo, outside of Vietnam) as well as Japanese-style Sumiyaki (even though in Japan, my preferred caffeinated drink is a well-whisked matcha).

    By Winnie So

  6. Portland! My hometown… Mecca for coffee lovers, artists, poets, veggies, hippies, musos and bohemians of every ilk plus outdoor enthusiasts, bookworms and beer aficionados. Katy, you’ll have a glorious time… I’m jealous :-)

    By cila

  7. [...] What’s for afters? While you’re in this neck of the wood, after you’ve had a stroll and a paddle on the gorgeous sandy stretch at Viking Bay, check out Morelli’s, a 1930s ice-cream parlour on Broadstairs promenade, for proper, covered-in-sauce-and-nuts knickerbocker glories and banana sundaes, and foamed-to-perfection cappuccinos. [...]

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  9. I reckon a latté at Minkie’s in Kensal Rise is pretty hard to beat (Origin brand of coffee)… although the Monmouth coffee from Salusbury deli is a pretty close runner up…

    By Juliet

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  12. Thanks to Remodelista for this hot coffee tip in Oregon: Coava Coffee Roasters in Portland

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