Greg Sherwin, who hopes to remain incognito when rating cups of coffee around the Bay, submitted this photo of himself.
Meet Greg Sherwin, the man whose coffee break is a break from drinking coffee
By Joe Eskenazi
Greg Sherwin drinks so much coffee, I think he gave me a caffeine buzz through the phone. And whether it’s the coffee or just the way he goes, I may never have interviewed a faster-talking man. But, then again, Sherwin has a lot to talk about.
Over the past five years, he’s spent thousands of hours and dollars criss-crossing San Francisco and ordering a cup of Joe in virtually every coffee-selling establishment in this city. And, in a remarkable display of meticulousness that probably fits the definition of obsession, he’s rated every cafe and its espresso in town, from best to 587th and worst.
“It became a goal or a quest to rate everything, and it gave me a chance to explore parts of the city,” said Sherwin, the coffee maven behind the Web site www.coffeeratings.com.
“I wanted some sense of completion. I generally don’t take my habits to the more obsessive level, but this one definitely turned out that way.”
Sherwin isn’t just rating cafes American Bandstand style: His methodology is far more nuanced than “It’s got a good beat and I can dance to it.” He grades each cup of espresso on ... (click for more)
acidity, aroma, body, flavor and crema, the “liquid-gas-solid emulsion effect sitting on the surface of the coffee.” Cafes are also rated on ambiance, presentation, barista skill and overall espresso savvy. Sherwin rates out of 10 in each category and then averages the numbers to create rankings for “espresso,” “café” and “overall.” Thankfully, no algorithms are involved (though Sherwin, a software engineer by trade, could doubtlessly handle the complex math).
A visit to Sherwin’s Web site reveals that the No. 1 espresso, café and overall rankings are all held by Blue Bottle Café (which I hit up recently on SF Weekly’s dime – actually, SF Weekly’s $13.02 for a vacuum pot of coffee from their siphon bar). Blue Bottle snagged 8.5 out of 10 on all three rankings.
But – just like with movies – reading the negative reviews is much more fun. A list of 587 cafes has to have a No. 587, after all, and the winner (actually, loser) is Lee’s Deli on Market Street, with 0.8 out of 10 in all three categories.
When I bring up his Lee’s review, Sherwin bursts out laughing. It’s been five years since that abysmal cup of Joe, and he can still taste it.
“Most of the [espressos] in the bottom quarter tend to be stuff that unless someone put it in a cup in front of you, you wouldn’t guess it’s espresso. Is this drip coffee from the office someone left on the burner for too long? But in Lee’s case, it was a perfect storm of all the bad things,” he recalled with gusto.
“There was bad staff training, the equipment was out of tune, it was old equipment with caked on coffee oil that had grown rancid from years of no maintenance and stale coffee. I had a perverse curiosity, so two weeks ago I walked back there. And they’ve actually discontinued espresso at their store.”
In that case, the worst extant espresso in the city is served by the 586th-ranked Delicia Café on Second Street, of which Sherwin wrote “Bitter, ashy flavor — to the extent that it tastes like the thing that went awfully wrong, such as a chemical residue. One of the most foul-tasting espressos in S.F.”
Sherwin figures he’ll suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously bad (and good) coffee for a few more years at least: “I’ve been reading about how in Switzerland, Nestle is creating espresso-tasting machines. That could make me irrelevant, so who knows?”
One question: How fast do the espresso-tasting machines talk?
Artwork | Courtesy of Too Much Coffee Man Magazine