192 Espressos – The Best of Seattle Coffee 2012

I really dislike the Top Coffee Shop lists. They are cheap content usually written by people with minimal coffee knowledge. Hello Seattle Weekly! Rarely do I see a list where the author declares the metrics used to get their rankings or their own personal biases. At the start of 2012, I decided I would try and quantify the best coffee places in Seattle.

Metrics and Biases

I created a spreadsheet and entered every single espresso I consumed in the Seattle area. All 192 espressos. I captured the date, place, my rating, and drink notes when important. I also tracked post-tax price to see if price can be a predictor of quality (it can’t).

The rating for the drink was between 1 to 5. It was based solely off the quality of the espresso. I could care less about the hours, WIFI signal or seating. A rating of 1 would be undrinkable swill worthy of a spit take. A rating of 5 would be perfect and worthy of a memory. I go into more detail on this rating system in Espresso as a Lottery Ticket.

In addition to only caring about espresso, I am biased against dark over-roasted coffee. When Brazilian coffee is roasted too dark, it develops a nauseating ashy quality. It may be fine in a 20 ounce mocha, but it is vile swill as a straight espresso. I also don’t always like the very light roasted single origin coffees, as they can tend to be too bright or sour.

I live in Ballard and tend to avoid the East side since they started tolling the 520.

This means my data set doesn’t represent every coffee roaster. It does represent every local roaster that I deem to make a quality espresso, be it blend or single origin. Now you know my biases.

Caffe Delia espresso on July 18, 2012. Roasted by Velton’s Coffee.

The Best Espresso in Seattle 2012

For places I visited 5 or more times, here are the best espresso places in Seattle. Note that places with more than one location have been averaged together.

PlaceVisitsAverage Rating (1-5)
Trabant Coffee174.00
Tougo Coffee203.93
Caffe Ladro73.71
Seattle / Ballard Coffee Works363.57
Victrola Coffee113.50
Aster Coffee233.46
Milstead & Co133.35

Here are the best coffee places I visited between 1 and 4 times.

PlaceVisitsAverage Rating (1-5)
Urban Coffee Lounge14.50
Broadcast Coffee24.25
Caffe Delia44.13
Bluebeard Coffee44.00
Anchored Ship14.00
Cloud City14.00

This chart lists the 8 best espressos for 2012. They are in date order. If I had to pick the single best espresso for 2012, it would go to Neptune Coffee on March 19th.

DatePlaceDetals
1/1/2012Trabant UniversityEpic: El Salvador La Guachoca + Guatemala Pulcal
2/1/2012Victrola - PikeStreamline
2/15/2012Milstead & CoSO Ethiopia Doyo (Intelli)
3/19/2012Neptune CoffeeNespro: Brazil Natural + El Salvador (7 days old)
6/20/2012Tougo CoffeeSO eth jimma by Velton
7/18/2012Caffe DeliaVelton Bonsai
8/9/2010Tougo CoffeeKuma: El Salv (3 days)
12/29/2012Bluebeard CoffeeNarrows Blend

The 3 Best Coffee Roasters in Seattle

RoasterEspressosAverage Rating (1-5)
Kuma Coffee94.06
Velton's Coffee153.90
Caffe Ladro 73.71

The 8 Worst Espressos in Seattle 2012

Here were the worst espressos of the year. East Madison, Enlighten and Whistle Stop are now out of business. Guess others disliked them as well?

DatePlaceDetails
1/26/2012Cafe Javasti Wedgwoodworst shot of the year
2/18/2012East Madison CoffeeDancing Goats in paper cup
2/29/2012Caffe Fiore (Sunset Hill)bitter
4/28/2012Enlighten Cafeoverpulled, watery
6/16/2012Burien Presspaper cup, over-pulled, harsh
7/25/2012Victrola - PikeSO Ethopia (2 days)
8/18/2012Peets CoffeeEspresso Forte
11/21/2012Whistle Stopvile

Last Words

Collecting and analyzing this data was a lot of work. I don’t plan to do it in 2013. For those of you in Seattle, who were your favorites this year?

More Data Analysis: 192 Espressos – More Data From Seattle Coffee 2012

Comments

  1. Richard says

    I miss Seattle coffee. I was just talking about this with some of my coworkers earlier today. Austin has its charms, but coffee is not among them, at least not that I’ve found. Anyway, my favorites were Trabant, Aster and Zeitgeist.

  2. Joel says

    I agree on the best roaster ranking. I moved from Seattle to Anchorage but continue to order Kuma coffee online.

  3. Stuart says

    Curious, did you use Google Forms to collect the data? That could be a pretty easy setup for 2013 with voice input if your metrics stay the same.

  4. says

    @Stuart – I used Google DOCs to collect the data. Then I exported the data to SQL Server to perform averages and grouping. There may be a way to do it Google DOCs, but I am most comfortable with SQL.

    I was unaware of Google Forms. Just watched this video. Thanks.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-SDku0BV2o

  5. Sunny Yuen says

    Rarely do people drink shots let alone judge a coffee shop by such. Just not sure how useful this info is to most people…. Would be nice to get more people involved, with a larger # of coffee shops and drive thrus in more Seattle neighborhoods. But thank you for your input in 2012.

  6. says

    @Sunny – I disagree.

    Espresso quality is the single greatest predictor of overall quality of a coffee establishment. To have consistently excellent espresso requires that a coffee shop pay attention to many details from the roast to equipment to training. If they can get this right, other things tend to fall into place.

  7. sunny yuen says

    yes that may be so for you who appreciates “good” shots alone. i’ll place my bet on your results being different had you done your studies based on actual drinks from the same cafes.

  8. says

    @Sunny – Again I disagree. The group of coffee shops that made my TOP list excel at everything they do. Great drinks, customer service, clean establishments, etc. And let us not forget that the espresso shot is the cornerstone for many drinks.

    I’ve been to almost 200 coffee shops in the Seattle area over the last 5+ years. As as organizer for the Coffee Club of Seattle with over 600 members, I get instant feedback from coffee fans about quality. Places that serve great espresso tend to serve great lattes and mochas. Places with poor espresso don’t.

  9. Maxwell Mooney says

    I would definitely agree with MAS. I’ve very rarely had bad milk based drinks from a place that focuses on espresso. Frankly, if the espresso sucks, the milk drink probably won’t be very good either, unless it’s more syrup than espresso. There’s only one shop I’ve been to that served an excellent espresso and poor milk drinks and it was the Blackbird Coffee House in Port Angeles (seriously one of the best shots of Hairbender I’ve ever had).

    Another indicator for me, and I know people are going to hate me for this, but I look for latte art. Chances are, if baristas give a damn enough to learn some level of latte art, they’ve probably cared enough to work on their espresso technique too. Latte art is one of those things you can typically judge from visuals, such as pictures on Yelp, as well. I’ve been to one shop that did latte art that their coffee sucked, Urban City Coffee in MLT.

    Minimalistic syrup offerings are also a pretty good sign. My 3 cents.

  10. Janice Wilke says

    Hands down…people all over the worlds and others know that Vivace is the bet Roaster and coffee in this town. Second is Cafe Solstice. Bizarre list…sorry.

  11. Rick Storm (Stormy) says

    A year ago i moved away from Seattle, and the only regret i have now that i no longer own a umbrella is not being close to Cloud City Coffee, the allways have excellent brew and never bitter, keep up the good work?

  12. says

    @popbites – Great post. Thanks!

    RE: Vivace

    Espresso Vivace changed their espresso blend in 2009. They removed the premium robusta component. As a result the espresso lost that famous mouth feel. The new blend is a shadow of what it used to be. I’ve home roasted many pounds of Dolce blend – even before moving to Seattle. I am very familiar with the blend. It is still good. It is no longer great.

    I have tremendous respect for Vivace and everything they have done for espresso, but I can home roast a better Dolce blend that what they now serve at Espresso Vivace.

    As for Cafe Solstice, I’ve never been there. I didn’t think they were a roaster. I thought they served Caffe Vita. So does 50 other cafes around Seattle. What makes them special? The best Caffe Vita espresso is served at the roastery location of Caffe Vita on Pike. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  13. says

    @Rick – Cloud City is even better than it was a year ago. Their owner has since bought El Diablo Coffee in Queen Anne is fixing things there.

  14. Sunny Yuen says

    I have been fairly objective with my comments and so my only hope is that you would as well. You titled your study “Best of Seattle…”, there are well over 400 coffee shops in the area, yet you rarely frequented outside of Ballard. Your list represented less than 10% of the total coffee shops in Seattle. Therefore, your list is a fair representation of your local neighborhood at best.  You’re also making a biased assumption based on one key ingredient in a typical drink where there are a fair number of other variables which may ultimately affect the outcome of the whole. Again, thank you for your effort in putting your thoughts in a detail study of your past 2012 coffee experience. Your opinion is as valid as any who has a taste for coffee. Coffee does not need to be judged by an expert such as yourself. It can be simply validated by the thousands of receptors in our tongue. 

  15. says

    @Sunny – Did you even read the section titled “Metrics and Biases”? I did what NO OTHER best of list for Seattle coffee has ever done.

    1- I defined EXACTLY the metric I used. Judging from your previous comments, you don’t seem to think espresso quality is that important. That is OK. This list was written for other espresso drinkers, which I make very clear at the top.

    2- I quantified the experience and used averages to determine the ranking. Did Seattle Weekly or the Stranger or any other list for Seattle coffee EVER attempt to to take data points for an entire calendar year? Nope. My method was MORE FAIR than those lists, which make no attempt to inform their readers how they arrived at their ranking.

    You stated falsely that I “rarely frequented outside of Ballard”. That is a lie. Want some data? I had 59 espressos in my neighborhood of Ballard, which represents just 30.7%, which means 69.3% of my data came from outside my neighborhood.

    59 Ballard
    21 CD
    16 Capitol Hill
    16 Fremont
    12 Pioneer Square
    10 University
    9 Greenwood
    8 Downtown
    7 Kirkland
    7 Tacoma
    4 Sunset Hill
    4 White Center
    3 Queen Anne
    2 Issaquah
    2 Burien
    2 Beacon
    1 Belltown
    1 Bremerton
    1 Edmonds
    1 Greenlake
    1 Madison Valley
    1 Madrona
    1 Magnolia
    1 Maple Leaf
    1 Othello
    1 Wedgwood

    I also visited Vancouver, Canada, but did not include that data for obvious reasons. My only location bias was to avoid the Eastside, which unlike other lists, I openly declared in the “Metrics and Biases” section.

    Just so we are clear, all Best Of lists are flawed. It is impossible to collect enough data to truly say what coffee shop is best. We are humans. These are opinions. I do believe, however, that my 2012 list is more open and honest with how I arrived at the ratings than any other list I’ve ever seen for the Seattle area.

  16. sunny yuen says

    i can’t help to think that your comments are to “teach” me rather than to see your pt view from the perspective of your reader. pls stop teaching me or put words in my word. it’s your bias to think the single most important factor in determining the best coffee in Seattle is the espresso. Never once I said espresso is not important. Quite on the contrary, i mentioned “one key ingredient” in a coffee drink is the espresso. as for your 31% figure. you would need to frequent the same # of times from all other areas in Seattle in order to justify the percentage. there is a consistency factor that you seemed to have ignored. just because you visited that one shop once doesn’t mean that the same can be said on your next visit. you would need to do the same # of visits from all surrounding areas. if you meant best espresso in Seattle, say it on your title. it’s misleading to say best coffee in Seattle when you really mean is the espresso.

  17. says

    @Sunny – You said: “as for your 31% figure. you would need to frequent the same # of times from all other areas in Seattle in order to justify the percentage. ”

    No I don’t. It is simple math. I had 31% of my espressos in Ballard.

    I stated in the “Metrics and Biases” section that I live in Ballard. You were the one that said I “rarely leave Ballard”.

    I proved you wrong.

    I don’t need to visit every coffee shop and every neighborhood in equal numbers to have an opinion. Remember, I’m the one that volunteered the data. Other lists don’t even use data. I showed that I travel from Mukilteo to Issaquah to Tacoma to Bremerton trying espresso and supporting many local coffee shops.

    And yes my bias is that I only care about espresso, which was stated clearly in the post. So yes, the title would have been better had I used espresso and not coffee. Oh well.

  18. Sunny Yuen says

    So you’re saying that one shop you visited 10X bears the same weight as 10 single visits to ten different shops. Does that sound remotely logical to you? You needed not prove me wrong. Neither of us or whatever the argument may be is right or wrong. It’s a matter of ones perspective. Especially when the subject matter is a MATTER Of PERSONAL taste.

  19. Stuart says

    @MAS

    Try filling Google forms on your phone. Works great. I had a nice blog post on how I used forms to track my dog’s diabetes (blood glucose, insulin doses and meals) but I can’t link it at the moment.

    You could also distribute that form to your coffee club and get much more feedback.

  20. says

    @Sunny – I agree with your point about weighted visits, which is why I broke the list into 2 groups. Those I visited 5+ times and those I didn’t. Those that received 5+ visits have more data points. More data points will equal better data.

    It would be impossible to visit every coffee shop and visit them all an equal number of times. Even if it were possible, I wouldn’t want to do that. My goal is drink amazing espresso, not to give every place an equal chance.

    I did say above: “…my data set doesn’t represent every coffee roaster. It does represent every local roaster that I deem to make a quality espresso, be it blend or single origin. ”

    Although there may be hundreds of coffee places, I can count 43 independent coffee roasters in Seattle. Of those, only 15 are capable of making excellent espresso. And of those, only about half of those are innovating with new blends or single origins. That is where I spent most of my coffee dollars. That is where my data points are stronger.

  21. says

    @Stuart – I will play with Google Forms. Thanks for the tip.

    I will say, this is the last year I do this coffee data thing (obvious reasons). I may use it for a future health experiment.

  22. Maxwell Mooney says

    I appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into this. I think that when you’re dealing with something as subjective as taste, there is no possible metric by which to fully judge a tasting experience. You’ve obviously done a lot of legwork in that you merely documented YOUR experiences and told us your results, with data, transparency, and forthrightness. Obviously, for a single person conducting a documentation, this will not be a truly “scientific” evaluation as the sample size isn’t large enough. But that’s okay! We don’t need a truly, 100% objective analysis of which is “The Best Coffee in Seattle.” It’s fallacious to assume that something that isn’t fully substantiated by multiple sample sizes and truly “scientific” results bears no relation to reality. This is a great example of a misappropriation of scientific theory. Sure, we can (and MAS did) document our experiences, add metrics to them, and try to quantify our subjective experiences… But those things may not have a universal application, because of its objectivity.

    The fact that Sunny is having problems simply with your assumptions and biases exemplify this problem: we can’t even agree on characteristics by which to judge a coffee shop! I think MAS did us all fairly by stating his assumptions and doing a serious amount of good, scientific documentation (don’t confuse scientific documentation for scientific substantiation) for us to share his experience. I, for one, appreciate it. Because I buy many of his assumptions. Sunny, you don’t. That’s fine! But you don’t have to dismiss his relatively sound methodology in documenting PERSONAL experience because you don’t like his outcomes. This is a disagreement of ideologies.

    Also- it’s of note that this is a blog, not a journalistic publication. There’s far more transparency from this personal blog than from any journalistic publication I’ve read dealing with similar subject matter. Bravo to that!!

  23. Eric (Ponytail) says

    Michael: wow, this is an awesome (detailed, careful) analysis you have done! Makes me want to visit some of the caffes on your list that I’m unfamiliar with.

    Also, regarding the interesting conversation about Michael’s list, subjectivity and objectivity, and his working assumptions regarding coffee (ie: a great espresso means the caffe will also make good lattes, good americanos, etc.): Michael’s perspective is not just another perspective, as if he and any random coffee drinker have the same history, experience, and knowledge of coffee. Michael is an espresso surgeon: if your serving espresso he will know what he is smelling, tasting, feeling on his tongue, noting about acidity, and so forth. Other drinkers are medical students, others are undergrads, and others are drop-outs (still on the surgeon metaphor). I won’t trust any of the latter folks to operate on my body: only the actual surgeon. Sunny, perhaps you are not as involved with espresso / coffee as Michael: that’s ok. However, your perspective and his are not just two perspectives whose subjectivity means we can’t say anything definitive about his list. His list is trustworthy because he knows (think “know” in the hebraic, intimate sense) coffee, while most people who drink coffee / espresso lack such knowledge. As for those for whom his list is unacceptable because he visited some stores more than others – it is not to the perfect scientific standard – while there is validity to the method, how will you ever enjoy life with such expectations?

    Michael, did you anticipate your list provoking such a philosophical discussion, touching on epistemology and beyond?

    See you at Delia’s!

    -Eric

  24. Maxwell Mooney says

    We coffee enthusiasts are arm chair philosophers (apparently also armchair theologians! Nice Hebrew idiom reference, Eric!), everything gets turned into philosophy.

  25. says

    @Eric – Wow, an “espresso surgeon”. I’m honored by the title. I also know as skilled as I am at tasting espresso, there exists a group of master tasters that skilled beyond me. A lot of the leads that I used to seek out espressos came from those individuals. They have also helped me over the past 5 years gain greater appreciation for flavors of espresso.

  26. AlexH says

    I appreciate your meticulous approach. My son and I like to venture around, checking out new bike shops and espresso places, and until now, ‘Yelp,’ has been the primary, mixed bag/results source. –We’ve got new coffee places to try now. Thanks

    We drink americanos, espresso, and/or cappuccino

    We’ve run out to Beacon Hill, Georgetown, North Greenwood, West Seattle/White Ctr. –Maybe we caught some of these places on bad days? All City Coffee in Georgetown’s been pretty good, but a few times it’s not been as good: watered down shots. Bird on a Wire, is a nice neighborhood shop in West Seattle/White Ctr that serves Raven’s Brew: ok, nice neighborhood gathering spot. Empire espresso’s cappuccino and americano were not good. Too bad: Bikeworks is an awesome bike shop. Beacon Hill’s, ‘The Station,’ wins out over ‘Victrola.’ — Beacon Hill’s ‘Hello Bicycles’ is an awesome bike shop.
    I’ve tried ‘Diva Espresso’ in North Greenwood several times:
    not very good: watered down, bitter, metallic taste. Maybe they did not clean the portafilter, or? (Not sure why: the place wasn’t busy when I’ve gone.)
    If anyone knows of a decent espresso place in Lynnwood, please let me know.
    Caffe Lladro was very disappointing. Urban Espresso has disappointed too many times. –Both places produced watery yuck, no crema at all, bitter, ‘throw it away’ americanos. There are a few, struggling roadside stands up there that were also disappointing. Apparently corporate coffee rules up in Lynnwood. Ick.

  27. says

    @AlexH – I’ve heard the same issues with Diva.

    My only top would be to give Caffe Ladro another chance. The company has improved tremendously in the last year or so. You can use my trick of validating yourself to get a superior coffee drink. (scroll halfway down)
    http://ineedcoffee.com/11/espresso-lottery/

  28. Sunny Yuen says

    Alex. Visit daily coffee & tea a drive thru close to Georgetown the next time you are back in that area. you may be pleasantly surprised.

  29. maxwell mooney says

    RE: espresso in Lynnwood- I would echo Michael’s encouragement to check out Ladro again. Fair warning- I used to work there, but its easily the best in Lynnwood.

    I know they hired two new people in the wake of my leaving, so you may have run into one of the new folks. If TJ, Sarah, or Raelynn are working, you’ll get good espresso. Also recommended are Michaels suggestions for “validating” yourself. I always give extra care to espresso and machiatto drinkers. During my time there, about three months or so, I saw the number of espresso and mach drinkers more than triple. Sometimes things aren’t perfect. But most there really do care about your coffee.

    Also, if you like traditional, old school chocolate bomb espressos, Walnut St Coffee in Edmonds serves Vivace to great effect. I would often head over there after work for a change of pace, flavor profile wise.

    Also, try the Spotted Cow in Mill Creek. Lame name. Quality coffee. The lead roaster is Verve trained. They just don’t shout about it from the rooftops.

  30. says

    I second the Walnut Street recommendation.

    Caffe Ladro is also in Edmonds. I’ve been to that one and they did a great job. All I said to them was that I was happy they were roasting their own coffee now, because the blend now reminds me a little of Black Cat from Intely. That got their attention. :)

  31. says

    I really appreciate your Seattle coffee analysis. Any suggestions for West Seattle roaster and/or coffee shops?

    Thank you,
    Lisa

  32. says

    @Lisa – For West Seattle, I like Caffe Fiore best for cafe. Not aware of a good roaster in West Seattle. If you consider White Center to be part of West Seattle, I REALLY like Caffe Delia, which is moving locations and will be open again in early 2014. Dubsea is also excellent and kid friendly if you happen to be a parent.

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