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Superior coffee: a Q&A with Oliver

Posted by Lucy Fennings on July 14th, 2008

As promised, we’ve been quizzing top New York Times coffee blogger Oliver Schwaner-Albright about all things brown and beautiful (that doesn’t sound quite right, but you get the gist of what I’m trying to say!), as part of our quest to track down the Best coffee in London.

Tam – who is the real-life Mrs Smith, in case you hadn’t already worked that out – caught up with him over the weekend. So here it is: everything you ever wanted to know about coffee but were afraid to ask*

*NB possibly not completely true: please don’t come crying to us if your coffee question is not answered here. We have tried to cover all bases but, sheesh, we’re only human…

What advice can you give us on how to ‘taste’ coffee, Oliver?

First, unlearn what you know. Most people have the same gold standard for coffee, an espresso, which is like measuring all wine against Bordeaux. Coffee can be rich and dark like espresso, but it can be light and citrussy, or fruity and round, it sometimes tastes like chocolate and leather, and it sometimes tastes like berries and jasmine. I guess it’s a one-two step: shelve your preconceived notions of how coffee should taste, then open yourself to the possibilities of how coffee might taste.

Which coffee producers do you think are the best over on your side of the pond?

The West Coast is the most forward-thinking part of the United States, and San Francisco is the natural coffee capital of the country. Green coffee beans store best at about 50˚F with no humidity, which is what you have year-round in the warehouses in the San Francisco Bay, or to be more accurate, the port of Oakland. Portland and Seattle have similar conditions, while New York is either too cold or too humid. It means that most of the coffee moves into the United States through the West Coast, so it makes sense that they have a developed a culture of brokers and roasters.

Now they‘ve taken it to the next step with “direct trade”, where a company will travel to a coffee plantation and buy directly from the farmer. Rather than treating coffee like a commodity – something to be graded and sold by weight like wheat or corn – this is treating coffee like wine, and identifying a superior coffee from a particular cultivar on a specific part of a hill. The most exciting roasters pioneering direct trade are Stumptown in Portland, Caffé Vita in Seattle, Intelligentsia in Chicago, and Terroir Coffee Company outside of Boston.

Ah, we just looked at the home page for Stumptown (more coffee porn!) – easy to see why you’re a fan, and we haven’t even tasted the stuff yet. Incidentally, if anyone’s interested, they also have a good online brewing guide, too. Oliver, which country produces your favourite coffee?

Coffee is the seed of a seasonal fruit, which means you’ll get coffees from different regions at different times of years. Unroasted beans keep for six to nine months, but the best stuff is produced in small quantities and is roasted and sold soon after arriving in the United States — it’s like seasonal fashions, and the best clothes go early. Right now is a great time for Brazilian and Colombian coffees, and I’ve been brewing nice Costa Ricans from Stumptown. But in three months time (around October), I’ll follow the shift in the seasons.

How much coffee do you drink a day? Honestly?

I have two cups in the morning I’ll make in a French press, and maybe an espresso in the afternoon. If I have coffee after dinner I have nightmares.

Ha ha, us too.

[By the way, if you're reading this in Blighty, a French press is what them over there call a cafetière.]

Where in the world are your favourite cafés?

I won’t leave San Francisco with visiting Blue Bottle; Stumptown, in Portland, Oregon is one of the reasons why I love that city as much as I do; the best cup of coffee in Los Angeles is to be had at Intelligentsia, in Silver Lake, in an old stucco pile on Sunset Boulevard, but the company is based in Chicago, and the last time I was there I chose my hotel it was close to their branch on Randolph Street, right in the Loop.

London’s Monmouth is wonderful, but it’s been three years since I was there so I won’t swear by it. By and large, Paris cafés serve horrible coffee, but they’re such wonderful places, and right now I’m partial to Sole Caffe e Cucina at 1 Avenue Trudaine, but it’s more because of the view of the street than what’s in the cup. I’ll be in Rome in a few weeks, and I’m already planning my morning at Tazza d’Oro near the Pantheon, where they make the world’s best granita di caffe.

In New York, my favorites are Abraçco, Gimme! and Ninth Street Espresso. They’re so small they don’t have tables, just counters, and thin ones at that. You can find all three in downtown Manhattan; Gimme!, which is actually from upstate New York, has a branch in Williamsburg. I recently posted my favorite Manhattan cappucinos for the New York Times and asked readers to weigh in with theirs. Check it out.

Actually someone mentioned Monmouth Coffee to us just this morning, so it must still be good; Flat White is another London place that we hear good things about. However, pressing on…

Is there such a thing as good instant coffee?

Is there such a thing as good powdered tea?

Touché! If coffee didn’t exist, what would you blog about?

Architecture.

Three guesses what our next blog chat might be about then! Thanks Oliver, we’ll catch up again soon (plus we may have more need-to-know coffee questions for you).

So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: Best coffee in London? Monmouth Coffee Company on Monmouth Street, Covent Garden.

Oliver’s promised to get back to Smith soon with some more superior coffee revelations soon, including which hotel serves the best coffee, and some insider tips on the best coffee makers. And, in the absence of a superior coffee option near Smith HQ, I’m off to make a nice cup of tea…

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10 Responses to “Superior coffee: a Q&A with Oliver”

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    By Carie Law

  2. Coffee will ruin a hotel room. I’ve never been to a hotel with a really nice coffee, lot’s of cheap sachet ones, with a small kettle covered in limescale that has to be filled up in the bathroom. Spoilt my evening!

    As for coffee outside Borough Market, on a cold morning it’s pretty damn perfect with all the smells in the air…!

    By Gareth

  3. Hey Gareth,

    Yes, the ‘tea tray’ with its sad little portions of dessicated (and/or damp) instant coffee, stale tea bags and fairy-sized kettle is definitely something I’d happily see outlawed! Check out our second Q&A with Oliver (Superior coffee #2) if you’re interested in finding out where to get the best hotel coffee!

    He’s with you on the Borough Market thing, too – wish I was there now!

    By Lucy

  4. The best coffee on the globe is Kona coffee, grown in a specific area of Hawaii. The growing conditions are ideal and yield the most incredible coffee beans. To experience the full flavor, you need to buy pure Kona coffee (plenty of shops sell blends which are really only about 10 percent Kona coffee). I get pure Kona coffee from https://konaluna.com where you can also find out more about why Kona coffee is the ultimate java experience.

    By Stacey

  5. [...] I hope that was good coffee. [...]

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