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It’s called Coffee Places Where You Can Think, and its right there.  A word of caution though.  Ariel is a connoisseur of coffee houses but his preferences are guided mostly by the atmosphere of the place and not at all by the quality of the coffee.  Indeed his bad taste in coffee rivals only his bad taste in web site designs. So use this guide accordingly.  (Here is a series of pictures of Ariel’s tin can of instant coffee traveling to exotic locales across the world.)

But the picture above is from The Mudhouse in Charlottesville, Virginia which is a place I can also highly recommend, having been there and had an exquisite cappuccino just last month with Federico Ciliberto.


From a design point of view with lots of beautiful pictures, like this one:

This part was news to me:

The man to finally surpass the two-bar brewing barrier was Milanese café owner Achille Gaggia. Gaggia transformed the Jules Verne hood ornament into a chromed-out counter-top spaceship with the invention of the lever-driven machine. In Gaggia’s machine, invented after World War II, steam pressure in the boiler forces the water into a cylinder where it is further pressurized by a spring-piston lever operated by the barista. Not only did this obviate the need for massive boilers, but it also drastically increased the water pressure from 1.5-2 bars to 8-10 bars. The lever machines also standardized the size of the espresso. The cylinder on lever groups could only hold an ounce of water, limiting the volume that could be used to prepare an espresso. With the lever machines also came some some new jargon: baristas operating Gaggia’s spring-loaded levers coined the term “pulling a shot” of espresso. But perhaps most importantly, with the invention of the high-pressure lever machine came the discovery ofcrema – the foam floating over the coffee liquid that is the defining characteristic of a quality espresso. A historical anecdote claims that early consumers were dubious of this “scum” floating over their coffee until Gaggia began referring to it as “caffe creme“, suggesting that the coffee was of such quality that it produced its own creme. With high pressure and golden crema, Gaggia’s lever machine marks the birth of the contemporary espresso.

By the way this is the 2000th Cheap Talk post.

Now you can add coffee stains to your LaTeX documents without wasting coffee:

Your readers will appreciate you saving them the effort. From the package documentation:

This package provides an essential feature to LATEX that has been missing for too long. It adds a coffee stain to your documents. A lot of time can be saved by printing stains directly on the page rather than adding it manually. You can choose from four different stain types:

1. 270◦ circle stain with two tiny splashes

2. 60◦ circle stain

3. two splashes with light colours

4. and a colourful twin splash.

Dunce Cap Doff: Jordi Soler.

I tweeted a picture of my coffee yesterday:

And @gappy3000 asked “isn’t that favoring presentation over content (literally)?”

It turns out that the answer is essentially no.  To make latte art you do not need to compromise at all on the quality of the coffee.   In fact the parameters that facilitate a good design are also the ones that make the best cup of coffee.  You need rich crema for the canvas.  And rich crema is the hallmark of a well-pulled espresso.  You need milk that is steamed enough to be ever-so-slightly foamy but not “frothy”.  If you cannot pour the milk smoothly into the cup without spooning, the coffee will not taste good.

To make that design the milk must pour heavily into coffee and then the foamy part floats back to the surface behind the “wake” of the stream as you paint.  In order for milk to be of that consistency it must not be steamed too long or hot.  Excessively steamed milk tastes burnt and is one of the most common defects of commercial latte/cappucino.

So, on the contrary, a beautiful design on your coffee is almost always a signal that the coffee is going to be good.  You should insist on latte art.

Pronounced ‘Ely’ (unless Marciano corrects me.)   They are expanding their ‘Artisti del Gusto‘ program in the US in which

Illy supplies shops with Italian espresso machines, coffee cups, artwork, drink recipes and intensive training, after which the cafe becomes a certified Illy purveyor. In return, the shop must agree to serve only Illy coffee for at least three years.

This can’t be bad, but I would guess that Illy coffee is too light for American tastes.  I have tried the Illy in vacuum sealed cans and it is never fresh enough to be worth buying.  Will the coffee sold in the Artisti del Gusto shops be shipped from Trieste?

One of the best campus coffee shops I know is on the UCSD campus where I had the great fortune to spend a month this summer (much more on that coming soon.)  The place is called Perks.  Its not the coolest place to hang out.  It shares space with the campus bookstore, the lighting is industrial, and the furniture is not conducive to lingering.  But I don’t know of any other campus cafe so focused on the quality of the coffee.


The assistant manager’s name is Jason and he is a serious barista.  It is apparent that he has also trained most of the regular staff.  Their espresso roast is on the light side, a departure from the tendency toward over-roasting from Starbuck’s and Peets.  They make drinks one at a time: the baristas are not multi-taskers.  Listen to the sound as they steam milk.  You don’t hear the usual bubbles-through-a-straw sound that must untrained baristas learn as the quick and easy way to make glue foam.  And you see and taste the results.


Today at Peet’s in Evanston I was trying to work out a model for this idea Sandeep and I are working on related to the game theory of torture.  I started drawing a litle graph and then got lost in thought.  I must have looked a little weird (nothing unusual there) because the woman next to me started asking me what was up with this squiggly plot on my pad of paper.

Most economists dread these moments when someone asks you what you do and you have to tell them you’re an economist and then prepare to deflect the inevitable questions and/or accusations “what’s going to happen with interest rates?”  “when’s the economy going to turn around?”  Usually I just mumble and wait for the person to get bored and go on with her reading.  For some reason I was talkative today.

I told her I was a game theorist.  “What’s that for?” I told her I was working on a theory of torture.  She looked horrified.  “How do you make a theory of torture?”

I told her that using game theory is a lot like screenwriting.   Imagine you were a film-maker and you wanted to make a point about torture.  You would invent characters and put them in the roles of torturer and torturee and you would describe the events.  You would depict how the torturer would plan his torture and how he would the torturee would react and how this would lead the torturer to adjust his approach.  If the film was going to be effective it would have believable characters and it would have to show the audience a plausible hypothetical situation and what happens when these characters act out their roles in that situation.  In short, its a model.

(As I was saying this I remembered that I learned to think of economics and literature in this way about 20 years ago from Tyler Cowen.  And he has a nice paper on it here.)

She looked even more horrified.  But I was pretty pleased.  I started thinking about Resevoir Dogs (nsfw).

While scripts and models are constrained by a similar requirement of coherence between character and events, there are differences and this makes them complementary.  A model necessarily maps out the entire game tree, while a script describes just one path.  In a model every counterfactual is analyzed and we see their consequences and this explains why those paths are not taken, but a film is a far more vivid account of the path taken.  In a model the off-equilibrium outcomes are the results of mistakes while a well-conceived script can bring in plausible external developments to place the characters in unexpected situations.

Of course film-makers get invited to better parties.

It is not hard to make a good espresso nor is it hard to steam milk to the right temperature and frothiness to make a cappuccino or latte.  But virtually all coffee houses fail both, especially the supposedly high-end ones.  The espresso should not run much beyond the point it turns dark brown/black to blonde.  The milk should be lukewarm, not hot, and it should be pourable.  If you see your barista spooning milk into a cappuccino, run away fast.  The milk is almost certainly scalded.

Most people think that coffee just tastes bitter and they grin and bear it.  Or they pour in a lot of sugar. But the bitterness comes from over-run espresso and burnt milk.  In fact, properly done, a latte is sweet and needs no sugar.  Milk is naturally sweet and gentle frothing accentuates the sweetness.  Coffee is nutty.  A good cappuccino can have flavors of hot chocolate or even peanut butter cookies.

Small World coffee in Princeton consistently makes a good cappuccino.  The right volume, the right temperature and sweet.  I have been in Princeton all week and had two cappuccinos per day from 10 different baristas and all but one was drinkable and a few were downright excellent.  I highly recommend this place.  A few details:

  1. the internet is free for one hour but somewhat flaky.
  2. stay away from the biscotti.  Grab a muffin from the bakery at Olives which is three doors away.
  3. the layout of the place is nice.  The mirrored columns have a funny effect on you when you try to find a place to sit.  If you are by yourself take a seat at the bar looking over the lower level.
  4. even a good barista makes a bad coffee from time to time.  today the barista dumped the first latte he made for me because he could see it was not perfect.
  5. as i said, it is easy to make a good coffee.  but it took me years of practice to do this:


The Small World baristas are still working on it:


After my Cafe Milano post yesterday, I got some great comments that took me north of the Berkeley campus.  (First, I stopped at Peet’s on Telegraph so I had the requisite amount of caffeine to be able to walk from the south of campus to the north.)

One comment suggested Nefeli Caffe.  Comment 7/33 on yelp offered up the blandishment of seeing sexy Europeans sipping coffee after a hard night of posing.  I was not sure I would fit in but thought I would enjoy it anyway.  In typical European fashion, Nefeli was closed. Europeans don’t like getting up too early on a Saturday, or speaking for myself as a pseudo-European, any other day.  Brewed Awakenings, on the other hand, seems to be run by hard-working Middle Eastern immigrants and is open.  It has free wifi.  Quiet classical music in the background.  Very few people.  Good coffee and good almond croissant.  And a great place to hang out and BS.  Ideal for research I would say.  This is my first stop on future visits to Berkeley.  Ariel Rubinstein and Shachar Kariv have great taste.

From Coffee Culture, Jerry Baldwin’s blog at The Atlantic:

A few specialty roasters in the US have begun to experiment with putting robusta into their espresso blends. The typical reasons are to make it more like Italian blends or make a thicker crema. I do understand the preference for the texture of a good crema, but I don’t understand sacrificing flavor to achieve it.

whoa, I thought I was a coffee snob but I never would have thought to ask the robusta question.  Wikipedia says this about robusta:

[Robusta] is easier to care for than the other major species of coffee, Coffea arabica, and, because of this, is cheaper to produce. Since arabica beans are considered superior, robusta is usually limited to lower grade coffee blends as a filler. It is however often included in instant coffee, and in espresso blends to promote the formation of “crema“. Robusta has about twice as much caffeine as arabica.

back to the Coffee Culture article:

Why try to make espresso “more Italian” when specialty roasters in Italy are either abandoning robusta completely or have developed 100 percent arabica blends at the top of their product range? Torrefazione Mexico in Milan, Illycaffe in Trieste, and Caffe Kimbo in Naples are just a few of countless roasters who are 100 percent arabica or, “prefer the excellence of a 100 % arabica blend,” as Kimbo says on its website. Even Lavazza, the Folgers of Italy, has 100 percent arabica blends that are at the high end of their offerings.

Lavazza:  the Folgers of Italy. (cap tap:  The Browser.)


Alchemy coffee in Wilmette is in a strange location for a coffee shop.  Its in a standalone little shack in an area which does not attract a lot of foot traffic and is not along many natural commuting routes.  Its the kind of place you would drive by and never know there’s a coffee shop there except that you never even drive by there.

The place is owned and run by exactly one guy and he sells exactly two things, the main thing being coffee.  His tiny shop has only one table and a small bar.  There isnt much room for any more than that because most of the space is taken up by this gleaming machine which sits right in the middle of the shop.


Its a coffee roaster.  All of his coffee is roasted right there in that machine and you can usually buy coffee that has been roasted less than 24 hours ago.  If you love coffee, you know that coffee loses aroma and flavor very quickly after roasting and so this kind of freshness is a big deal.    He puts a few pounds in bags on the counter but if you tell him what you want it for (espresso, drip coffee, french press) and a little about your tastes, he will disappear behind the machine for moment and come back with a blend put together on the spot.

Business is not brisk.  I’ve been in there about three times and I have seen him sell a few lattes, but not much more than that.  But each time I have gone there for beans I told him in abstract terms what I wanted and he came pretty close to assembling the perfect blend.  The other thing he sells:  scones.  And he is about as obsessed with his scones as he is with his coffee.

The guy is old school: cash only and here’s the sound system.


Keepin it reel in Wilmette.

Back home:


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