Friday, April 20, 2007

Caffé Calabria: Full of Beans in North Park

One Wednesday last October, the LA Times food section devoted most of its space to coffee. Where to find great roasters. The best brewing methods. Recipes that incorporate coffee. I’m not a coffee fanatic, but I do enjoy the stuff and, because my rebellious body can now only tolerate decaf, I’ve felt challenged to find a truly flavorful roast.

So, I scoured the stories for any hints on where to buy good decaf beans in San Diego. They were filled with great information, but the Times doesn’t cover San Diego anymore so I was left to my own devices. Research led me to Caffé Calabria on 30th St. in North Park, a coffee roaster and coffeehouse that also serves panini and desserts. And, the lovely and very knowledgeable folks who work there, in turn, led me to two different coffees: their full-bodied decaf Costa Rica, a hard-bean Arabica that is indescribably flavorful (not just strong for strong's sake) and their decaf Calabria blend, a rich house-blend espresso that is so much better than the canned Illy I've been using on the weekends with my Gaggia classic.

At the time, I told the saga of my frustrating quest to one of the baristas, who called over owner Arne Holt. He stopped what he was doing and showed me around the premises, which are far more than a mere coffeehouse storefront. It’s a full on coffee mecca with 22- and 45-kilo roasters, the latter a restored 1958 German machine with gleaming stainless steel.

In a back room, he was preparing to set up a retail space for selling home brewing equipment and accessories. Upstairs are the business offices. In the basement, bags and burlap bags of coffee beans. He told me about his plans to add an authentic Italian pizza oven. All this, and I was just a person who had walked in off the street looking for a good cup of coffee.

I stopped back a couple of days ago to buy some more coffee and the first thing I noticed was the blue-and-white tiled beehive-shaped pizza oven, still a work in progress, but a formidable presence in the coffeehouse.

Holt was in, having just returned at 5:30 that morning from a trip to Italy where he had bought a coffee bar that will be the centerpiece of a remodeling aimed, as he says, “to bring the culture of Italy to our front door.

“We’ll serve coffee and panini during the day, and five nights a week we’ll shut down at 3 p.m. and re-open at 5 p.m. as an enoteca, or wine bar, and serve pizza,” he says. “And, it will be verra pizza Napoletana,” he emphasizes, “authentic, true Neapolitan pizza."

In fact, the oven is being constructed out of materials from Naples by Neapolitan builders. Holt has also brought over master pizza maker Ernesto Caciolli from Naples to train the staff. Stay tuned for the opening date; there’s a lot of remodeling to take place, including the addition of mezzanine seating, before pizza will be served.

In the meantime, however, there’s always the coffee. Caffé Calabria roasts between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds a day, both for the store and customers throughout Southern California and beyond. Holt counts 15 varietals and numerous blends among the offerings. A full listing can be found on their website, www.caffecalabria.com.

And, for tea lovers, the back room, still in transition mode for the retail space, has endless canisters of teas, blended by the staff and sold under the name Sochi Teas.

In the coffeehouse, I noticed a stack of burlap bags below a cup with the lettering, “Get Smart,” and asked Holt what this was all about. Before I knew it, we were heavy into a discussion on Fair Trade issues. He explained that for years, they regularly piled the bags there for people to take, but that they have started a donation project, Get Smart, to raise money to help pay for children in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, to attend school. Take a bag, put a little money for it into the cup and help provide an education, with Caffé Calabria matching donations.

More than that, though, it represents a larger effort spurred by a profound skepticism Holt has with the Fair Trade certification program. “I don’t think the money’s going to the right people,” he says. Concerned about abuses in the program, he has decided to visit the farms he buys beans from to determine for himself if they meet his criteria, which includes using organic fertilizers and compost, maintaining the land and trees and treating the people who work on the farm with respect. “I want to see that they’re growing coffee with the earth, making sure everything is sustainable, whether they are ‘certified’ or not,” he says. “It’s a matter of treating the land with love and the people who work on the farm with love.

“The goal is to have all our coffee purchased under this criteria,” he notes. “The larger goal is buying consciously.” His first farm visit was to Matagalpa, where he’ll be returning soon. Hence, the burlap bag donations.

While buying sustainably is commendable, ultimately, the coffee has to taste good or there are no customers. Monday through Friday, Caffé Calabria holds coffee cupping sessions, a technique to evaluate the flavor profile of a coffee. (Coffeegeek.com has a good step-by-step guide to this.)

“Coffee is so volatile,” says Holt. “It’s always changing. It can start out with a fruity flavor, then develop more citrus tones. We need to cup it out everyday to make sure we’ve got a good product.”

As if the pizza and sustainable buying projects aren’t enough, Holt has one more novel twist to add to the business, a Clover bar.

If you haven’t heard of this, it may be because San Diego doesn’t yet have one and they’re only just springing up in other parts of the country. Three years ago, two entrepreneurs, Zander Nosler and Randy Hulett, started The Coffee Equipment Co. (in Seattle, of course) to developed a sophisticated machine they call The Clover. At its most basic, The Clover produces upgraded drip coffee by the cup, combining vacuum brewing with the French press. So, we’re talking brewed coffee, not espresso, but this isn't any old drip coffee. The technique of matching the brewing to the specific flavor profile of the bean creates a coffee experience that is apparently far superior to and more complex than any brewed coffee you’d get out of traditional equipment. If this appeals, head on over there May 10, when Holt says that The Clover will be installed and ready for action.

Caffé Calabria, which has been in business for six years, has become a gathering place for more than buying a pound or two of coffee or tea. They hold tea tastings on the third Saturday of each month from 10 to 11 a.m. and the San Diego Home Roasters meet there on the first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m. I was also happy to find that Caffé Calabria is dog friendly.

Oh, and if you go in to buy coffee beans at lunchtime, pick up the grilled vegetable panini (a wonderful melding of eggplant, zuccini, red onions and tomatoes on crunchy foccacia) and have the barista make you a Café Viennese. This (decaf, for me) espresso concoction made with steamed milk, honey and cinnamon is layered with so many delicious, complementary flavors, it made me weak in the knees with pleasure.

Caffé Calabria is located at 3933 30th St., just north of University.

Have some thoughts about Caffé Calabria or other coffee roasters in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below: