Welcome to the Fifth Annual edition of the Sprudgie Awards! The Sprudgies reward the previous year’s greatest coffee achievements, in a variety of pertinent categories determined on a year-by-year basis.
These awards began cheekily, back in the early, funny days of Sprudge, as a way to announce ourselves to the world. Five long years later they remain an annual exercise in debate, assessment, and compromise for Your Sprudge Editors, and a break from the usual documentarian tone of this website.
With no further ado, here are your Sprudgie Award winners for 2013.
We first learned of this project from Dalla Corte‘s Holger Welz, whose company has helped back the Orang Utan Coffee Project in Medan. The effort is headed by Swiss biologist Regina Frey, who has spent decades in Sumatra helping rehabilitate the orangutan population ravaged by poaching and deforestation. This innovative coffee program has fused together the environmental aims of Frey's organization, PanEco, with the needs of the local community in Medan, by addressing the area's underdeveloped coffee production.
This new project in the Central Gayo Highlands of Sumatra has produced some of the finest quality Sumatran coffees we've ever tasted, imported by Sustainable Harvest. Proceeds fund organic certification amongst coffee growers, help facilitate much-needed infrastructure in the area, and benefit the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.
It's a win-win situation for everyone, but above all, the coffee is simply incredible.
Backed by an unstoppable Beyonce track, this project, a collaboration between Hey Girl blogger Maria Hill and videoist Nicholas Cho, is a light-hearted introduction to a world of coffee we all know too well. For most who've never been to a cafe like Cognescenti in Los Angeles (where the video was filmed), it can be an intimidating experience.
The video is a humorous, fact-filled, and educational look at decoding the high-end boutique cafe experience, and our favorite of 2013.
Best Subscription Service
Mistobox offers what some might consider a lifestyle subscription. Sure, you get a box of coffees delivered to your door from notable roasters across North America, but you also get an inside track to some of the best coffee education on the web. From brew methods to coffee guides, Mistobox and its staff make coffee accessible to just about anyone, and their appearance on the American reality television program Shark Tank helped bring the enjoyment – and marketability – of speciality coffee to a broad viewing audience.
The company offers a carefully curated selection of products on the web store that's easy to navigate and fun to get lost in. You can tell that the folks behind Mistobox enjoy what they do. At its core, coffee is fun, and Mistobox knows it.
Drop Coffee, Stockholm, Sweden
What a year for Drop Coffee! From fielding their nation's World Barista Championship delegate (Oskar Alverus) to a remodel at their flagship Södermalm cafe in Stockholm (now sporting a new La Marzocco Linea PB espresso machine), we've watched as Drop has established themselves as an important Nordic roaster with a worldwide following. Drop Coffee was one of the first Nordic brands to be featured in regular retail and service rotation at a North American coffee bar, making their debut at the Joe Pro Shop in New York City in summer 2013. We'll see their coffees more and more in North America in the months to come.
Their quality has made leaps and bounds in the last year, owing in no small part to an offerings sheet closely tied to Nordic Approach, a boutique and fanatically quality focused Norwegian green coffee importing company founded by Tim Wendelboe and Morten Wennersgaard. Drop's Ethiopia Debello, sourced by Nordic Approach, was a standout coffee for us in 2013. This is some of the best light roasted coffee on the market, a difficult feat to achieve by any measure, and good enough to win over non-believers.
But the most challenging, notable thing about Drop in 2013 is their approach to coffee shelf life. Drop's lauded new packaging – a cardboard box with a glassine sealed pouch inside designed by Simon Ålander – features a “Best Before” mark that, as of this writing, runs about 3 months past the roast date. This is anathema to the commonly accepted groupthink in speciality coffee, which says that beans have lost their worth at anywhere between 14 and 24 days past roast.
Drop thinks differently, and they say they've exhaustively cupped and tested to support this hypothesis. We make no claims of agreement with Drop's decision making on the issue of coffee shelf life, and once that glassine sealed pouch has been opened, you can't expect what's inside to taste great 90 days later. But in a retail environment full of imitation, it's wonderful to see a roaster taking chances and backing up their claims with thorough testing. Debate them, ask them questions – it's a fascinating conversation, and Drop Coffee is ready for it.
Best New Cafe
Intelligentsia Logan Square, Chicago, USA
This category is always the most difficult to decide, always the most hotly contested year in and year out. But our editorial staff enjoyed three separate, lovely experiences at Intelli Logan in 2013 – one of which resulted in this essay by assistant editor Alex Bernson – and in the end, we peacefully arrived at the same decision. All three of us were charmed by Intelligentsia's approach to the urban neighborhood cafe at Logan Square, and impressed by their ability to deliver on the promise of an inviting, recognizable, and yet singular service model.
This is speciality coffee bar service. One quite literally bellies up to the bar, sits down on bar seats, and enjoys service from a barista recast into the role of barkeep. Empty beverage vessels are cleared from in front of you, and water glasses are refilled. There's a box-checking toast menu reminiscent of dim sum (or maybe the dearly departed back bar at Intelli Venice), milk drinks poured at your individual seat, tea steeped and presented with a conversation throughout the process. There's two La Marzocco Strada EPs, one for milk drinks, the other for espresso service. There's a magazine rack with everything from Quark to Middlewest to Us Weekly. It sounds so simple, so seemingly effortless, but places like this don't just happen; they are in fact composed from a great deal of effort. It is a remarkable new cafe.
Alex Bernson said it best back in August, in a feature that helped secure his promotion to assistant editor at Sprudge:
Get one of the milkshakes.
Outstanding Achievement In The Field Of Excellence
Mssrs. Glanville and Babinski had an excellent year in 2013, though it's hard to tell if they truly know it, so thoroughly all-consuming is their dedication and hustle as cafe owners. They opened two of the very best cafes in the world last year, an awe-inspiring and surely exhausting feat. They're wildly different spaces: G&B Coffee is like no other cafe we've seen, exposed to the elements and street scene of downtown Los Angeles; Go Get Em is a recognizably neighborhood coffee bar with excellent product, whose neighborhood just happens to be a shopping thoroughfare in one of Los Angeles' toniest residential neighborhoods. The quality of product and service offered at both is world class, and we've covered both extensively on Sprudge in 2013, mostly through the reportage of our Los Angeles bureau chief Julie Wolfson (whose presence in LA amounts to a textbook J-school example of right place, right time, right journalist).
What's remarkable about Glanville and Babinski's year in 2013 is that it's something of a second act, a continuation of their equally remarkable 2012. The duo's first foray, a successful pop-up at SQIRL, made for a fun coffee experience, if a tad surreal: regional champion and USBC finalist Charles Babinski on the bar, and bonafide United States Barista Champion Kyle Glanville taking your drink order on the iPad. That doesn't happen every day, except that it did, for a number of months at a converted jam shop doing brunch and toast in Virgil Village. It was a highly interesting time. You kind of had to be there.
The new bars they opened this year are better, and that's saying something. It's hard to replicate success. It's hard to go from a successful pop-up to a successful brick-and-mortar, much less two in the space of one year. Their cafes are an extension of Babinski and Glanville's personalities, and yet so thoroughly and charmingly reflective of their environments, from the market stall workers seated next to you at G&B, to the famous food writers perched at GGET, to the regulars at both who think nothing of driving in across town from Santa Monica, or Marina Del Rey, or hell, Pasadena, and have the staff's shifts memorized.
All this in a city where it's famously hard to make a splash! Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski are two of the most exciting entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, and their product happens to be excellent coffee bars. But that's 2013 for you, in a nutshell, as they say: a year of achievements and truths unimaginable when we started the Sprudgies in 2009. And if last year was Act 2 for G&B, we can't wait to see what's next – we just hope the guys behind it all are able to take a brief intermission at some point, and to revel in a bit of deserved satisfaction at what they've accomplished.
Best New Product
2013 was a special year for coffee technology. Acquiring the latest prestige coffee equipment became one of the focal points for both new coffee ventures looking to stand out from the pack, and established brands looking to reinvigorate their bars. What’s on the counter has never been more interesting, or more hotly discussed. The high-end espresso machine market was one of the year’s most hotly contested battlegrounds, with both new and established brands introducing all manner of exciting machines.
But from the moment it debuted, the Modbar modular espresso system stood out. It was seemingly all anyone could talk about, from the center of the geek storm on the SCAA show floor in Boston, to stunning new service spaces in Waco, TX and Ann Arbor, MI to the New Yorker’s profile of the increasingly high-end world of coffee nerdery.
While most of their competitors were going maximalist above counter with chrome hotrods and retro-futurist craft, Modbar flipped the script, putting the internals of the machine below the counter, condensing the above-bar experience into a single sleek tap of coffee brewing power. The resulting machine has the potential to redefine how people approach coffee machine and bar design.
While still very much in its first run, the Modbar was one of the few new products announced this year to actually make it all the way to market, and thus qualify for this award. That first run has gone out in the wild to a fascinating petri dish of adventurous cafe owners around the United States, some in deceptively small markets, others in places like Manhattan and Los Angeles. Modbar is a focal point for Counter Culture Coffee’s sumptuous New York training center, and there's another one uptown at Little Collins. In fact, the Modbar might just be the single most mentioned coffee story of 2013 in the mainstream press. Our exclusive first look was the fourth-most read Sprudge story of the year, and it made numerous appearances in our Build-Outs of Summer series.
As 2014 gets under way and more manufacturers bring their concepts to market, the Modbar is going to face stiff competition for the hearts and pocketbooks of coffee gearheads. But for this year at least, there is no doubt that the Modbar was the most ogled at, lusted after, and debated over new product in the speciality coffee world.
Best New Packaging
Assembly Coffee, Melbourne, Australia
For cafe design, coffee quality, and sheer riotous abundance of cafes – not to mention its role as the host city for the World Barista Championship – it felt like the whole world was talking about the Melbourne coffee scene in 2013. It's tough to know where to start with a city that offers so much, but Melbourne's small multi-roaster community is a useful entry point, with shops like Patricia Coffee Brewers, Everyday Coffee, and Assembly choosing carefully from top Australian roasters such as Small Batch, St. Ali, Seven Seeds, Market Lane, Reuben Hills, and more.
But the packaging at Assembly Coffee stands out. It's those little wrapped silver cylinders, in the forest and seafoam shades of green, or robin egg blue, that wound up displayed on our shelves and bookcases back home long after returning from Melbourne. This packaging is simply beautiful, remarkably executed by the Melbourne design firm The Hungry Workshop, and part and parcel with the overall design dream that is Assembly's Carlton coffee and tea bar.
In a uniquely Melbourne twist, Australia's best roasters trust cafes like Assembly, Patricia, and Everyday to repackage their coffees for retail sales. This phenomenon is largely unheard of in the rest of the world, and emblematic of the chance-taking and innovation taking place at the very top of Melbourne's endlessly tasteful specialty coffee scene.
Best Coffee Writing
Bitch Magazine & Dr. Lisa Knisely for “Steamed Up: The slow-roasted sexism of specialty coffee.”
2013 has seen a major upswing in mainstream interest in the specialty coffee scene, and that has clearly caught the attention of editors at all sorts of media outlets. There’s a lot of interesting pieces being green-lit that are doing much to help bring greater exposure and perspective to the industry. Dr. Lisa Knisely’s article on sexism in specialty coffee for Bitch Magazine was the apogee of this trend in 2013: an excellently written outside perspective that sheds critical light on an immensely important subject.
The piece is a thoroughly engrossing examination of the gendered disparities of the specialty coffee industry. She digs deep into the discourse of the industry, creating a detailed, well-cited summation of a whole host of issues while incorporating important concepts from the wide field of feminist writing on service and work. Dr. Knisely's feature also included a variety of valuable first-person perspectives, vividly illustrating the effects these issues have all across the industry.
The issue of gender in specialty coffee has long been a subject of debate, and in recent years people have become increasingly vocal about the need for change. But the conversation has still largely been on the back burner, and still, unfortunately, focused on male voices. Dr. Knisely takes an unflinching look at the industry’s sacred cows–from the masculinized valuation of the technical to barista competitions, to customer interaction norms, to some of the industry’s stalwarts. What results is a picture with a lot of room for improvement. Here’s to hoping Dr. Knisely’s extremely considered work can help provide a guideline on where to start.
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