Sunday, 24 July 2016


Kafe Karlín
Sokolovská 46/51
18600 Prague
Yesterday I tried this tiny coffee shop as the place that I had intended to check out, Cafe Frida,  was not open yet. The place is modern and the abiance is great. The large variety of coffee available to choose from is one thing but the fact that it has also become a bit of a restaurant with its nice choice of foods made me wonder as there is no seating. The place is designed purely on the "coffee and food to go" market. My suspicions were not grounded and the coffee was great. The best thing here was that the service continued well beyond the check-out counter. At some of the places where I have recently been but which I do not find worthy of a review, the service was good up to the moment that you paid. This was mainly the case in various Starbucks and Costa chains. There is one Starbucks where the service is personal and teh place is frequented daily. The service at the private espresso bars such as this place near the main Jan Žižka monument of the horse on the hill. The phone rang, orders were taken and at teh same time the staff had time to chat with the customers with a smile. It proves teh point that "everyone loves a smiler". A smile brings so much joy, is forgiving and works motivating. I am not sure if it also makes the coffee taste better but one thing is for sure, this coffee tasted great and the place will remain on my list of places to frequent.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Espressionista Café & Starbucks

Last week we made an interesting discovery. Due to circumstances and the fact that we did not get a hot espresso more than 5 days in a row at one often frequented espresso bar, we went looking for an alternative and stumbled upon two options; Starbucks and a place that I had not heard of before; Veolia. Yep, Veolia Environnement S.A., branded as Veolia, this is a French transnational company with activities in three main service and utility areas traditionally managed by public authorities – water management, waste management and energy services. They have apparently also started with espresso bars; “Cafe by Veolia”. The place is modern, the seats are comfortable and the coffee, believe it or not, is pretty good.  The Espressionista Café seemed like a great place to check out. The prices are en par with most other espresso bars in Prague: with an average of 50ck per shot, served with a glass of water and a tiny jug of hot milk. We were served at the table. The cups were hot, the flavour was full and the service with a smile was appreciated. It is a great start to the day. We were the only customers and this seemed a bit strange considering that Starbucks just a stone throw away was packed.  It rated high for a first impression and it was a place to be visited again.

The return visit was a day later. We passed a packed Starbucks and arrived at an empty cafe. We arrived a minute before 9. The initial question was... is it open? The door was open, the lights were on but outside the chairs were still upside down on the tables and as I walked in, I was rather brutally informed in Czech that the place would not be open before 9, when I appologetically informd her that my Czech was rather limited she simply said, closed, open at 9. Wait. One whole minute left to go so worth the wait... We walked outside and took two of the chairs that were still on the table and decided to wait that whole minute in its entirety. Time may be measured precisely, but it is experienced very individually and these 60 seconds lasted an eternity... A young well-dressed lady, customer number 3, came and walked in the door and received the same cold treatment. One lost customer for Veolia and one gained at Starbucks, where she left with 6 large coffees to go and a bag of what I can only assume were biscuits or cakes. At around 9:10 the waitress came outside and took our order, but not after having informed us that the terrace was not supposed to be used before she gave the sign that the shop was opened.  One espresso was brought out at 9.15, we enquired about the other and were informed that it was on its way... 5 minutes later it finally made an appearance and then a bit of a hissy fit as I paid with a 500ck note for two 42ck espressos…  Unfortunately I did not have the exact change.

Perhaps this was a one off experience so we tried it again a day later. Being the only customers in the joint, we were made to wait 15 minutes and eventually we just left without having touched an espresso. Thankfully the waitress had not started with the preparation of the coffee either. Patience may be a virtue but it is not one that I am blessed with when it comes to my morning espresso. 

The rather grumpy mood of the waitress has scrapped this rather nice place off the places to go to for our early morning, pre-office espresso. 

Longing for a shot of espresso, we stopped at Starbucks instead. The place was busy with suited up yups and well-dressed ladies and the two waitresses behind the counter were beaming.  Our order was taken, to go or drink in and the instant the order was registered from a possibility of choices that would make any visitor an instant coffee connoisseur, the beans were ground and two shots were pressed into preheated porcelain cups and servd with a beaming smile. The price…. 48ck a shot, with a complimentary glass of water (just remember that in Prague, served water is generally more expensive than beer and is almost always charged for)

Second time round, the next morning, I was a bit later than my work colleague. She had already ordered two double espressos. Just to make a note of the service, yet again with a beaming smile and even though the place was busy, my double espresso was only served when I took a seat at the table with my colleague; hot, freshly prepared and no messing about. Top marks for service and much to my surprise, the coffee was pretty good too. I have to rethink my initial impression of Starbucks.  Guess where we are having our daily dose tomorrow….

Sunday, 29 May 2016

What makes a good espresso?

It is kind of hypocritical to judge something if you have not provided a basis to judge it on. This is my guideline. Most people strive to make the espresso taste like the coffee smells. I am no exception.

An espresso should be very pleasant, a drink you can and would want to roll around in your mouth before swallowing. I emphasis this point because for the first 6-months I made horrid espresso that I thought was good, but it was like strong liquor; something you chug to prove how tough you are. 

There are no guidelines for espresso taste and aroma. You can find many different notes in coffee, and many people prefer some styles of coffee to others. That being said there is a standard for the oral sensation, the feeling it generates in the mouth: full-bodied, round and smooth; A good espresso should coat your tongue like condensed milk, and its taste should linger. Of critical importance is how coffee is extracted. I've taken beans just a little out of the desired extraction range and the flavours fell apart. Just a little under extracted for example can destroy things. The means of extraction is another thing.  The human race discovered that there was goodness in the coffee bean and the art over the past centuries has become to extract that. 

It's easy to forget that coffee comes from a fruit, since hardly anybody outside of coffee-producing countries ever gets to see the stuff ripening in its natural state. With my father working in the diplomatic agriculture sector, I have had the opportunity to chomp on a few of these little beauties while visiting coffee farms in Mexico. 

Coffee grows on spindly, bush-like plants, and its cherry-like fruit ripens over the course of several weeks to about nine months after the shrubs' jasmine like blossoms bloom and fall. When ready for picking, most coffee cherries are anywhere from a lovely blood red to a kind of deep, romantic burgundy, becoming sweeter as they mature. Some varieties are yellow when they reach their peak; under-ripe ones are an almost avocado green.

The fruit's skin is hard and snaps like a ripe paprika when you pierce it. Inside there's a sweet, sticky pulp layer that tastes something like watermelon, hibiscus, roses, oranges and vanilla beans all at once. Just note that there is hardly any fruit behind that thick skin and cracking the cherry too hard may result in some serious dental repairs. 

The flavour is very delicate and fleeting, and you'd have to mow through quite a few of these caffeinated suckers to fill up at snack time, so I recommend sticking to the brewed stuff instead.  For anyone interested in getting as close as possible to tasting coffee fruit, try “cascara”; this is a tea-like infusion made from the dried husks of the coffee cherries. “I Need Coffee” was the first place in Prague where I saw cascara on the menu. 

As for the bean, that is where the goodness is extracted; The original coffee was a stew from green (unroasted) beans, or rather, the whole fruit and the extraction process has been adjusted and perfected by discovering that if the beans were shelled and roasted, the caramel and chocolaty notes made a pleasant entrance. I can probably write a book on the different types, roasts and variations of coffee but right here I will stick to espresso and try to deviate only occasionally. 

There is a range of grades to which coffee roasters roast their beans. The classic filter coffee roast is medium and results in golden chocolaty coloured beans. Freshly roasted beans are ground just before the extraction process by adding hot water. The grind is generally quite coarse.  For espresso, the roast is usually a tone or two darker. These are known as French or Spanish roast; the grind is also finer and here comes the kick in the nuts for many. Espresso is a brewing and extraction method rather than a type of bean. 

Brewing coffee was time consuming. Each individual broth hat to be brewed and it took an average of 2-5 minutes to get a brew which closely resembles today's Arabic and Turkish coffees. 

In 1884, in Turin, Italy, a chap named Moriondo designed a device with which he could speed up the extraction from the coffee beans by pressing steam. The first espresso machine was patented and just over a century later, the espresso conquered the world. 

The espresso machine was a device designed to extract the goodness from the beans in as short a time as possible. If you are interested in the tasting notes of various types of coffee, I would suggest that you check out “coffee cupping” which is the art of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. 

Taste is subjective as to what we like, but talented and trained palates can really find a lot in the little bean.
The standard coffee extraction is the espresso (a single espresso shot). Although you can get double or triple espressos, if you are comparing quality, the single or double espresso are the standard. Regardless of which type of shot you order, if you are comparing quality across different cafes, you should always order the same thing (ie don't order a single at one cafe and a double at another).
Once again for standardization, I order a standard straight espresso each time.
My explanation of good espresso will be about straight espresso (no milk, no sugar) in an espresso cup.
Here are some characteristics of a quality shot: 

The espresso should be quite hot when served. If it is only lukewarm or warm right after it is made, then the barista did not heat the cup that it was served in.
It should be to the temperature where it is too hot to drink (for most people). It should only take a minute or so to cool off. 

There should be a nice layer of crema on top of the espresso (a few millimeters thick, completely covering the espresso). This comes from the release of carbon dioxide when the espresso is extracted under pressure.
The colour should be golden-brown to dark brown.
The colour will not always be uniform, it will sometimes be slightly lighter where the shot actually poured in the spot on the crema.
The crema should remain for at least three to five minutes if not longer.

The espresso should be bitter, but not too bitter (high levels of bitterness are more characteristic of espresso long shots).
It should be rich, but not too rich (again, high levels of richness are more characteristic of espresso ristretto shots).
It should NOT be sour. If it is sour, it has been sitting for too long before being served or was over-extracted.
It should not taste watery, this is usually a characteristic of under-extraction.

Hard to describe for espresso and the aroma will vary a lot. One thing to avoid is a 'sour' smell, which usually indicates a sour taste, as described above, or that the coffee being used is inherently too acidic.

Espresso is going to be thicker and more viscous than regular drip coffee, but it won't be syrupy. When you are done your espresso, the drop or two that remain at the bottom of the cup, when dried should leave a distinct brown residue on the bottom of the cup.

These are just the guidelines that I go by. I love to stand corrected and I am open to discussion or debate. Any feedback will be welcome. Positive feedback is welcomed with open arms and negative feedback will be sneered at, countered and possibly be taken aboard. If I stand corrected, it implies that I have learned something new again and that can only be a good thing. 

OK, that was enough typing for today. I'm off for my daily fix. Have a fantastic Mothers day, for those of you who celebrate it today (like the French) and those who do not, make it count anyway.  

I Need Coffee

If you love modern design and watching people in a relaxed atmosphere, you will love I Need Coffee.  It is located on the corner of Na Morani and Dittrichova. There is something appealing about its bold black sign, large windows, and painted black ledges with menu items marked on the blackboard. The place is small, bright and quite hip but lacking the hipsters that you would find in similar style places in Berlin and Amsterdam. Unlike the other places, this espresso bar does not have WiFi, but who needs WiFi if you have books, company and great coffee. The name indicates coffee but the place has become an exclusive store for farmhouse products, yoghurts, chilled drinks, teas, soups and biscuits. The coffee was served with a smile and was pretty good though the Spanish roast is not to everyone’s taste. The overtone due to the slight over-roast is bitterer than most other espressos served in Prague. I guess that it comes down to personal taste. Spanish and French people will love this as this is, with no pun intended; just their cup of espresso.