a cup of Elizabeth St Cafe
While driving through Austin last week we stopped at Elizabeth St. There were a couple of reasons for our stop, croissants and coffee. The former because they are a vietnamese/french restaurant and i’d only tried their vietnamese food on my last visit. (?)This was incredible, everything we had was delicious and flavorful and made me want more. Especially the last item which was a goat cheese and lavender tart. I knew they must know what they were doing to make a delicious dessert like that but I had no room for anything else on that visit.
I wanted to try the coffee because it was Stumptown. They are one of the world’s best when it comes to specialty Coffee. They have the most expensive array of coffee beans and they pride themselves on traveling to location and developing direct trade relationships. They only have a couple of shops in Portland but have started expanding lately. On our first trip, we tried the vietnamese style with sweetened condensed milk and it was just what you would expect. Very dark, one note and a good contrast to the milk. They also had the signature cans of Cafe Du Monde coffee on the walls so that is what I assume they used for the vietnamese style since it is normally with chicory.
I couldn’t wait to see how Stumptown’s growth into the Texas market was going. We sat at the counter in front of the espresso machine and I excitedly awaited my cappuccino. That was until I heard the sound of screeching stretching milk and lots of foam from the steam wand. I wasn’t too concerned about the unimpressive machine or the fact that they still used the traditional portafilter instead of the naked one but that sound let me know that this was not going to be the type of coffee that many have come to expect from Stumptown. My fears were confirmed. The drink was overly hot and had a large pat of foam dolloped on top. She used the same pitcher, unrinsed, to foam a little more milk after not having enough to complete my drink. The espresso was very dark and tasted much like the coffee used for the vietnamese iced coffee, no complexity or interesting acidity. I was confused, because I had paid four dollars for a small beverage that was at the quality level of any non specialty chain.
This is a major problem for specialty coffee. How do we expand without compromising quality? When I asked about the coffee and Stumptown the barista told me that she’d met John and that he visits often to train and speak to both them and Mellow Johnny’s, (a bike shop cafe that I hear serves Stumptown very well). So efforts are being made to maintain and uphold their standards but still I received a very underwhelming coffee beverage with Stumptown’s name on it. I don’t mean to put all the blame on Elizabeth St either. They are an incredible restaurant, the croissant was mind blowing, with wonderful atmosphere and we really enjoyed our visit. And I understand that restaurant’s first priorities can not be the service of coffee. Yet, if I had not enjoyed Stumptown’s coffee in the past I would have walked away thinking less of specialty coffee and would have been reluctant to pay more for coffee in the future.
The point of whole sale coffee is of course to boost sales for a roaster, yet its also to allow people who would not normally try specialty coffee the chance to enjoy it without going out of their way, to advertise and spread specialty coffee. This is not what is happening at Elizabeth St. There must be a way to ensure that the people who produce the coffee are passionate and able to complete microfoam and a delicious shot. If this is not possible specialty coffee will be not be able to be a large, transforming market for delicious coffee and I and many others will be very disappointed.