First of all, let's get this straight: I love Los Angeles, and Los Angeles food. Right? I'm rather violently disagree with, say, the people that come round from New York and complain that nothing comes even close. I specialize in taking New Yorkers and San Franciscans and Chicagoans around Los Angeles and making them weep and cry and bang their chests with bereavement when they have to depart. So when I say that Los Angeles is seriously lagging behind in some food department, I don't mean it as some sort of general eye-rolling-hand-waving-a-priori-dismissal of Los Angeles as a cultural center - I mean it as a deep lover and believer in the Neverending Gobstopper of Wonder that is the Los Angeles food world.
But Los Angeles, your coffee sucks.
I speak out of sorrow, love, and endless hope.
Let me get some things straight. First, I drink a lot of coffee. And I drink a lot of *crappy*, *CRAPPY* coffee. I'm OK with this. I'm a grad student, and an occasional writer. I spend two thirds of my life in some cafe or other, that I like for the space or the quiet or the feel, sucking down terrible coffee. I have no problem with it. Like John Thorne says - we have to, in the end, admit to ourselves that coffee is, first and foremost, a drug, and we are addicts. So most of my life is spent sucking swill. That's cool. I don't expect great coffee from your average coffeehouse. Most coffeehouses are more about space than coffee. That's fine.
But then there are your Coffee Beverage Establishments. And that's a different story.
Second, I'm talking about pure coffee, here, not foamed-milk beverages. Foamed milk is a different art, and it's not the center of my love. I've also found that many places that are expert with milk foaming arts don't match it with glorious beans. They're different aesthetics - a cappuccino is closer to a cocktail, and what I'm interested in is closer to pure, straight liquor. So: I'm talking about drip coffee, uncut espresso, and all the oddball in-betweens - like vacuum pot coffee, Aeropressed coffee, french press, etc. etc. Pure coffee.
Third, I'm a Convert to the Cause of Glorious Coffee. I used to be a tea man, first and foremost. My heart was in Taiwanese high mountain oolongs, Chinese greens and whites, Japanese gyukoros. I would talk friends flying to Beijing into making buying trips for me. I nurtured contacts on the mainland. I drank a lot of coffee, with appreciation, but never with love. I favored Peet's Major Dickison's. And then came The Experience. This was my first sip, in a farmer's market in San Francisco, of Blue Bottle.
And the skies shattered, and the heavens opened, and the light of a New Black God shone down upon me.
Blue Bottle was nothing like anything I'd tasted before - deep, intense, surging with crazy flavors. Loads of crazy flavors. Long, enormous narrative tails - multi-minute long aftertastes, with wild trips through citrus flavors, spice flavors, lemon flavors, funky meaty flavors - everything. It was wonder in a cup. It was coffee that matched oolongs, wines, my favorite bourbons. Madness, insanity, depth, beauty, and wonder in a cup. Glory.
When I came back after that trip to the Bay Area (where I tried to get at least two cups of blue bottle a day), I was in sorrow. I mean, I've always looked for good coffee, but I searched again, hard - nothing came in close. I bought bags of blue bottle for awhile, air mailed. It made me, in the end, start roasting myself. (This is the source of the article I wrote for Chow on home coffee roasting, at http://www.chow.com/stories/10621). What I found out was: it wasn't that hard. Using $5 a pound quality beans from sweetmarias.com, and using a $3 thrift store popcorn popper, and a $25 aeropress, I started turning out, in a month, coffee that was, say, reliably 80% as good as Blue Bottle, and sometimes as good.
It's not that hard.
So why doesn't LA have it?
So: two claims about Los Angeles coffee.
1. The state of coffee, on average, is worse than San Francisco, New York, or Seattle.
Basically, the average LA coffee is swill. The average San Francisco coffee is not swill. I think the break-line for LA is Starbucks. The average coffeehouse in Los Angeles serves drip coffee that is not as good Starbucks, and far below Peet's. This is something to be embarassed about.
2. The high end of coffee in Los Angeles is seriously, seriously lacking.
Definitions: the high end of coffee is, for me, varietal coffee, preferably single-estate, recently roasted, and, typically, ground and dripped to order. These are not hard and fast rules, but every single truly great cup of coffee been that.
I also tend to prefer light roasts, because I think they bring out varietal character. But this varies widely depending on the bean - some prefer dark. But in general, light. Though I still love Peet's uber-dark Major Dickison's blend.
The difference between a single-estate, light-roasted coffee and most very dark, blended coffees is like the difference between a good single malt scotch, and a cocktail made from well scotch. Single-estating it gives you constant change, newness, wonder. And light-roast tends to emphasize acids (I think), which, (to my admittedly limited knowledge of food science, tends to create long, long, complicated aftertastes). A good cup of Blue Bottle can give me a 30 minute, evolving aftertaste, easily. (I think there are similar things that happen with wine and tea - but there are people on this board that know about a zillion times more about this than me.)
I also tend to think that espresso isn't the best way to experience single-estate. It's a little too concentrated. You want a little space - like how you throw in a drop or two of water into a bourbon for maximal flavor. The best coffees I've ever had in my life - the heaven-breaking experiences - have all been dripped, french-pressed, aero-pressed, or vacuum potted.
So here's the reviews:
1. Groundworks. Decent, fresh roasted coffee. But they're not super-varietal, and they're not trying for heights.
2. The Conservatory. Excellent with the milk-foaming arts, decent with the coffee. Not aiming at the heights.
3. Intelligencia. Aiming for the heights. Good varieties, roasted dark, and they drip stuff to order. And the coffee's *good*. But I think their soul is in espresso, rather than drip and other stuff. Their espresso is reliably perfectly pulled, their drip is - variable. Sometimes it's weak, sometimes it brings in off-flavors, or kills the coffee. They're not... adapting, I think. Each different bean needs to be learned and treated a little differently - and when you do it, like they do at Blue Bottle, you get reliable wonder. This may sound like it's asking a lot of coffee - but I don't think it is. It's just treating coffee as seriously as wine, or beer.
Anyway: Intelligencia pulls fantastic espresso. (I took an expatriate Frenchman here, who'd been complaining about not getting a decent espresso in the States for the last decade, and he drunk three doubleshots and actually, literally, shed a tear.) Their single-estate drip is good, but somehow... not quite great. It tends to have a short tail.
4. La Mill. La Mill proves to me that a Clover machine and single-estate beans does not necessarily make great coffee. I've had good Clover-machined coffee (in San Fran, at Ritual), but the stuff here seems... weak, and off. Not full-bodied, flavors are recessed, muted... It's nice - it's got some character, you can definitely *tell* that the different varieties are different. But it's sort of... I don't know. The coffee here feels like an afterthought. I don't know, it's weird... they've got the process down. It *looks* like they're taking their coffee seriously. They're going through all the proper motions of making perfect coffee. But I don't sense love in the final brewed cup - somewhere in the line, whether it be in the roasting, or selection, or training of their baristas, they haven't done what you need to do produce.
Some of the coffee here has tasted like it was the dirty dishwater run-off from a cup that had held a good cup of coffee three hours ago.
5. The Fix.
OK, this is why I'm writing right now. I'd temporarily given up on Los Angeles coffee, then I started hearing about The Fix. They take their coffee seriously here, people told me. Varietal, light-roasted, people told me. It's great, people told me.
I went. I walked in the door, and the first thing I saw was those big thermal carafes, full of premade coffee, being kept at a high, high temperature.
You know, I don't want to be a snob. I hate being a snob. I don't want to be one of those people who has rules, and "ways to tell" that a place is good. But - thermal carafes. For varietal coffee... it's like walking into a wine bar and seeing them pour wine into plastic cups, over ice. Or pouring your espresso shot out of a premade jug. With really good, varietal coffee - it's the first few moments that are magic. And then constant evolution of flavor for the first ten minutes. But, especially, something about being held in those big thermal carafes kills great coffee. Somebody once explained to me why - it involves some sort of chemicals. Rhizomes or something. I don't know. But I would rather have, for single estate, the coffee dead cold, left out, then held in a thermal carafe.
I was reading reviews of this place, on Yelp, and somebody complained about Fix as another in a long line of places devoted, wrongheadedly, to light roasting. "Great, another prejudiced ass," I thought. "Be open," I thought. But I can see why he's complaining. Because light roasted coffee is like sushi. It's delicate. It requires care. And if it goes wrong, it goes really, really wrong. Not the least because, if it's light roasted, and acidic, it gets a really, really long aftertaste. If it's bad, you're stuck with it. Most food won't wash it out. Maybe Sichuan, but I didn't have any Sichuan handy.
But, you know, all these rules? I would throw them out if I got a great cup of coffee. I would throw out any beliefs I had about coffee, and thermal carafes. I'm open.
So how was the coffee?
I had: Nicaraguan, told it was fresh-brewed. It was: a first taste of dull sour. Changing, in the mouth, to: a slightly higher note of dull, flat sour. Followed quickly by a descent, after 10 seconds, into flavors of ash. Not interesting ash. Dull, boring ash. Followed by musty. A flat, empty, blank, ash-and-must flavor, that lasted in my mouth for an hour.
So my plea is this: please, Los Angeles coffeemakers. You are behind. You are behind San Francisco, behind Berkeley, behind New York. It isn't hard. I figured out how to make good coffee with a thrift-store popcorn popper, a single web page, and a month of experimentation. And I'm not exactly a great cook, or anything.
Part of it may be the crowd. We have to be willing to pay more for non-complex espresso drinks, we have to be willing to wait the time for it to be fresh-ground and dripped, and we have to be willing to praise it. But it's worth it. A full-power cup of properly roasted, varietal coffee... it's a full-throttle, ever-widening, ever-evolving mouthful of wonder.
Alright: the one hooray.
About a month and something ago, Intelligencia started offering single-estate espresso. It turns out to be awesome. They seem to just get espresso more than they get drip. Their single-espresso nails the big, wide, complicated flavors. It's really optimized for espresso, too - getting it Americano doesn't do as well as espresso. It's probably, oh, 70% as good as Blue Bottle.
It's really, really good.