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Diesel and 1369

Name: Diesel Cafe
Location: 257 Elm Street, Somerville, MA

Roaster: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea
Rating: 3-

Name: 1369 Coffee House
Location: 757 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA

Roaster: Barrington Coffee Roasters (espresso) and Kahve Koffee (filter)
Rating: 3-

Diesel and 1369 represent a certain slice of Boston’s coffee scene. As one Boston coffee person put it, a lot of people in Boston are into cafe culture more so than coffee culture. That’s not to say that these two venues ignore coffee. They do a decent job, but performance falls short of the steps being taken elsewhere in the city.

While Diesel and 1369 are different shops they do share a number of similarities.

  • Both shops come in pairs. Diesel is the older sibling of Bloc 11 while 1369 on Mass Ave is the second of two locations. The first is at namesake 1369 Cambridge Street.
  • Both shops are decidedly casual and coffeehouse-like with chalkboard menus and a variety of coffee specialty drinks. Diesel offers a bigger food menu and more closely resembles a bar with pool tables, high-backed booths and decorated with chotchkies and street signs. 1369 goes more traditional with wooden cafe tables, original building features, and a wall-sized mural of the nearby area.
  • Each cafe uses a LaMarzocco GB/5 for espresso (good) and brews a multitude of coffees (good) on their Fetco brewer and stores them in thermal carafes (could be better).
  • The choice of filter coffees (at least based on my single visit) consisted of a French Roast, some sort of medium to dark origin or blend (Colombia at 1369 and Black Cat at Diesel), a lighter roasted single origin (Tanzania Peaberry at 1369 and an El Salvador at Diesel) and a decaf.
  • Both produced above average, but could-be-better coffee.

It’s worth noting that Diesel uses coffee from Intelligentsia while 1369 uses coffee from Khave, a local Boston coffee roaster that seems to have some quality coffees but also caters to a wider, less coffee conscious audience. As evidence, I point to their stock of flavored coffees, multitude of dark-roasted blends and the implication on their website that “varietal” refers to a country of origin rather than a type of plant. (8/25/10 correction: as noted above and in the comment below, 1369 uses coffee from Barrington Coffee Roasters as well as Khave).

Diesel’s use of coffee from Intelligentsia ought to give it an edge and I think it does, but only barely. The shot of Black Cat I had at Diesel had some really nice pear and cocoa notes and a subtle sweetness like a delicate white wine despite a minor alkaline bitterness up front and a slightly thin body. (3)

The only El Salvador currently on Intelligentsia’s menu is the Finca Matalapa, Guayabo, which someone handed me a cup of the other day. I didn’t catch whether the El Salvador at Diesel was the Guayabo, but if it was, it fell way short of that coffee’s potential.  My cup at Diesel was sour rather than tart and lacked the requisite sweet and fruity qualities it should have possessed. (2+)

I didn’t catch which Kahve blend 1369 uses for their espresso, but despite reservations I may have had about this roaster, the shot I had wasn’t bad (8/25/10 correction: as noted in the comment, the espresso is Barrington Coffee Roasters Gold Blend, which may explain my surprise at the better quality.).  It had a silky mouthfeel and a tea-like body. The thin but enduring, reddish crema gave way to a shot with toasted marshmallow sweetness that was, unfortunately lacking acidity to balance. It also left a slightly ashy aftertaste. (3)

The cup of Tanzania Peaberry was a perfectly pleasant coffee with some nice acidity and mildly sweet notes. Unfortunately, this coffee has something of a muted, flat quality that I couldn’t easily pin on brewing, storage or coffee quality. I suspect, though, that this coffee might have fared better if brewed to order. (3-)

What’s difficult with both cafes is that they are doing a a lot of things right. They are offering options, decent coffee, have good equipment and staff appear to have a decent degree of skill at their craft. At the same time, I had some issues with coffee quality and felt only the illusion of choice. While both cafes had many coffees on tap, most were not one’s I’d pick bases solely on the roast levels of these coffees.

If made to chose, I’d probably lean towards Diesel given the fact that Intelligentsia coffee is likely to be better on average. Plus, pool tables and a bigger food menu make it seem like a more fun place to hang out. It’s also easier to get to, if a little farther out from the center of things, given that it’s located right at the Davis street T stop. Bottom line is that both shops are fine and serve above average coffee, but I can’t say that either shop impressed me, especially given the other, better options that now exist in Bean Town.

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10 comments to Diesel and 1369

  • As I drank that Tanzania Peaberry at 1369, all I could think about was what I overheard someone say at SCAA 2010: “Does Tanzania produce any non-peaberry coffees?” Seriously, that’s a good question.

  • The other pressing question is why the heck is Intelligentsia still producing a French Roast? I think the question is especially relevant when Geoff Watts on Intelligentsia’s own web page seems to trash talk French Roasts.

    To be fair, I think Geoff Watt’s comment is that he is really lamenting the fact that roasters use a French Roast to obscure bad coffee quality rather than eschewing the roast level, per se. I guess I’d argue, thought that although there may be a place for darker roasts, there seems to be little room in quality coffee for French Roasts. Even if I can taste the difference between different bean qualities taken to a French Roast, do we really care what kind of coffee was used since we’re still mostly tasting roast?

    I’m only speculating here but it seems like Intelli’s French Roast might be something like a legacy system that they can’t quite yet shake. I understand the purely economic factors that may be driving the decision and I don’t fault them for wanting to make money, but given Intelligentsia’s high standards and recent desire to push the business forward, keeping around a French Roast seems a little hypocritical.

  • my understanding – peaberry is typically less than 5% of a crop… peaberries appear at the end of branches, smaller cherry, denser bean, higher caffeine content and (thus) higher overall acidity… which usually translates into higher quality/durability. separating out peaberry during dry milling is not very complicated and serves to create a bit of higher grade/specialty grade product out of what might’ve otherwise been an unremarkable or seriously defective lot.

    I imagine a lot of the non-exclusively-peaberry coffee coming from the same harvests is cupping out at sub-specialty grade. The Tanzania estate coffee that Intelli brought it was pretty decent and was not exclusively peaberry.

    There are some valid excuses for keeping french roast around in the small quantities that it is done (I think Stumptown may also offer it)… some of it is economics and the brutal realities of creative inventory management, some of it falls under the strange rituals conducted to make a roaster sanctified for roasting organic coffees… I can’t speak specifically to intelli’s current rationale, but I wouldn’t be too quick to judge them for it.

    • Good quick summary on Peaberry. Meshes with my understanding too and makes it clear why we might only see TZ Peaberry in specialty coffee. I guess I’m just kind of curious where all that non-peaberry TZ coffee ends up and is it really that much worse than the Peaberry?

      The organic piece about French Roasting sounds intriguing. I’ll have to look into that. I also don’t want to give Intelli too hard a time. Let’s put this in perspective, it’s a minor quibble. What I mostly care about is having access to really good coffees and Intelligentsia and Stumptown and others offering French Roasts have more than proven they can provide these coffees that I drink. If they want to continue to provide French Roasts as part of their marketing strategy as a bridge to customers or wholesale accounts, I can see the business merit of that.

      Still, I do find it somewhat hypocritical that Intelligentsia and others (or at least their staff) regularly preach about expansive efforts to improve coffee quality and yet provide a coffee at a roast level that does little to reveal that quality. Intelligentsia has done more than many roasters to lead the way in these efforts to improve coffee quality. I’m not sure if that means they deserve some slack or get held to a higher standard.

  • richa

    Hey guys, Peaberries form when one of the two beans in a cherry doesn’t mature. The single bean fills the space, takes on an ovoid shape and typically has more acidity than its flat counterpart. Some origins grade them out to be sold separately.

    Peaberries are no higher in quality than their flat-sided coutnerparts. They merely offer a more focused, intensified expression of a given coffee. Quality is grown into all the beans and realized through careful picking and processing (or it isn’t).

    “Tanzania Peaberry” now has marketing cachet, so we see it frequently. Since around 5% of every crop is peaberry, you can bet there are plenty of lackluster Tanzania Peaberries out there. On the other hand, I’ve had delicious non-peaberry Tanzanias.

  • blue

    FYI, 1369 doesn’t use Khave for espresso – we only use them for about half of our drip coffees including the French Roast and Columbian. The espresso is Barrington’s Espresso Gold, and we also use Barrington’s for the rest of our drip coffee offerings. (The Tanzanian Peaberry is Khave.)

    • Thank you for that clarification on the roaster. I tried to determine this information the best I could, but for whatever reason it wasn’t easy for me to figure out through labeling or a conversation with the staff. I’ll correct the post. Sorry for any confusion.

      I do want to take this opportunity, though, to point to the importance of transparency. A lot of people in coffee use that term to refer to roasters’ coffee prices, or a kind of catch phrase for capturing the business dealings of direct trade, but I’m a big advocate for it’s use in information to consumers when it comes to the coffee they drink. Most consumers still don’t get the role of a roaster as compared to a cafe – both are important – but both really should be doing more to make this aspect of the supply chain transparent as a way of supporting the notion of conveying quality to the customer.

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