Over the past year, London-based Lamberton brothers Derek, 33, and Mark, 23, have rolled out Best Coffee iPhone apps — the kind of comprehensive, searchable interactive map of cafes that java enthusiasts dream of — for London, San Francisco and New York. A few weeks ago, their Blue Crow Media took aim at Los Angeles' cafes and independent roasters with plans to officially launch the app — available for both iPhones and Androids — in early July. Recently we caught up with Mark to talk about where to buy Blue Bottle, why London isn't just for tea drinkers and the emotional peaks and valleys of the overly espressoed. Grab a cup of coffee and turn the page…
Squid Ink: It is 10 a.m. How many cups of coffee have you had already?
Mark Lamberton: Too many. I've probably had three or four and have a couple more to go. To be honest, though, I do try to hold back. Sometimes I just taste each coffee so my brain doesn't fall apart by the end of the day.
SI: Not to throw down, but in search of L.A's best espresso, Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold drank 27 shots. We were there when he showed up for dinner at a restaurant and burst into tears.
ML: Really? [laughs] It does give you mood swings. I have these rollercoasters throughout the day. After my second coffee, I'm on this ultimate high — very excited to be in Los Angeles for the first time. Two hours later, I'm sort of groaning about the next couple of places I have to get to. I am walking around mostly. Obviously, this is not the ideal way to get around L.A.
SI: Let's backtrack. This is the fourth coffee app you and your brother have rolled out?
ML: Yes. We started with London, then San Francisco and then New York. Now here.
SI: Where are you and Derek from?
ML: We're from Washington D.C., but we both live in London now. We're based there and that's largely because our mother is English. We've grown up going back and forth.
SI: London has a coffee history dating back to the 18th century. But modern London? Most people don't think of it as coffee mecca.
ML: I've run into baristas — and I am one myself — who've told me that they left [London] three years ago and that there were only five or ten places of note. But it's really exploded in the last few years. There are a few notable roasteries: Square Mile is probably the biggest and most well known. But there's also Monmouth and they are really at the forefront of third wave coffee movement. The thing that they did as they began to expand was that — like Intelligentsia here — they offer training to any cafes that weren't under their name but were using their beans. That has a really phenomenal effect. Essentially, both of these companies, they roast in London. They're able to deliver beans that were roasted in the morning and arrive that afternoon or the next day to be immediately ground and served up at these coffee places, some under their name and some independent.
SI: If we were in London and used your app, what part of town would it direct us to?
ML: If someone were to be visiting London, I would send them first to Soho. That's a very central area in London and within maybe eight blocks there's six or seven cafes which are certainly amongst the top twenty in all of London. Other than that, it's sort of East London, which is a sort of hipster area, Shoreditch, which has quite a few notable cafes — particularly this one called Prufrock. It's owned by a guy named Gwilym Davies, who was a world barista champion a few years ago. That's the kind of caliber of baristas you should expect.
SI: How do you rank the cities that you've been to?
ML: I have to be honest: I helped out in London and I'm doing L.A. on foot right now. My brother was on foot for New York. Then we had a coffee geek family friend of ours whose on foot for San Francisco. So from a personal standpoint? I'd probably pick out London at the top. I think if you're judging the quality of the coffee, perhaps San Francisco comes next.
SI: You keep saying “on foot.” Why that? Meaning that you're so jacked up on caffeine that you want to walk off the jitters?
ML: It is important to get some exercise and work it off. No. What I meant was that “we're on the ground.” Here in L.A., I have a friend who drives so I essentially get dropped off in identified pockets of cafes and then on other days, when he's free, we go to some of the outliers. London we did entirely by using the metro system.
SI: What kind of research do you do before you arrive at city?
ML: I identified about 55 cafes that were potentials before I came here to L.A. Then essentially the places that you find that are of higher quality, they always have advice as to where else they would go. Through that you'll identify another 10 or 15 more places.
SI: What was a big surprise in Los Angeles?
ML: The ubiquity of Intelligentsia. Originally, they're Chicago-based and then they opened a roaster here. I knew they had three cafes under their own name here in L.A. But I've probably come across 20 other cafes that are carrying their coffee. It's not always to their benefit. But they have a training [program] so most of the cafes are serving it well.
SI: Why not to their benefit?
ML: Technically anyone can buy the machine and buy the coffee, but it's the same as a bartender, it takes experience to perfect a drink. The baristas at the higher quality places are treating it as a craft. Everything from how fine you grind the coffee to the temperature of the water going through the coffee when you're pulling an espresso to your technique when heating up the milk, all of these are factors when producing a quality coffee. It's noticeable when there's a skilled barista behind the espresso machine and when there isn't. My hats off to places like Intelligentsia and Monmouth in London who make sure that their [programs] are well represented by trained baristas.
SI: You're one week into your Los Angeles coffee sampling. How many places have you visited?
ML: I've probably been to about thirty places. The local roasters I've tried so far are Jameson Brown and Jones Coffee Roasters.
SI: Pop quiz: Where can one find Blue Bottle coffee in Los Angeles?
ML: There are two places. One is a cart called Drip Bar. They have a website which lists their locations. In the next few months, they're going to be opening up a permanent location at 1520 N. Cahuenga Blvd. inside of the Urban Outfitters. I think they're going to be IN the Urban Outfitters. The other place is Spring for Coffee which is downtown. They are only of the only places I've been to that serve multiple quality roasters. They had Intelligentsia, Stumptown and they've just opened up a new location on 817 S. Los Angeles St. which is strictly Blue Bottle.
SI: How did you get the idea for producing a coffee app?
ML: It began with my brother. Last summer, he was in the mind to start his own business. He had been doing web-producing and a lot of new media for National Geographic and Current TV and that included apps. He's a coffee geek himself and he noticed just how many independent cafes there were in London but how few people knew more than just a few of them -but that everyone had a different list. So he began visiting these places and the idea just came to him: Why not create an app that brings it all together?
SI: How much does it cost to subscribe to your app?
ML: The ones in America cost 99 cents and the English one costs 59 pence.
SI: What's the reaction been?
ML: It's done very well in London. I think we came at the exact right time: The scene was growing but it wasn't hugely established. It was catching people's eye. People know in a city like London how many independent spots are tucked away. In London, the roads are very dense and difficult to navigate because it's such an old city. You'll be going down one street and it will have three different names in one mile. It's wonderful to have someone point the way – as opposed to, “Oh, I guess I'm just going to grab a Starbucks or a Nero or something on the main street, because I don't know where else to go.” If the café is independent and is using artisanally roasted coffee, chances are we'll include it.
SI: You work as a barista in a café in South London in Brixton Market called The Good Bench. Were you trained in a specific style?
ML: I worked in an art gallery that sold Monmouth coffee. Monmouth offers free training and I thought, “Why not?”
SI: When you drink a bad cup of coffee do you ever feel the urge to give the barista suggestions for improvement?
ML: I don't want to get involved. I think a lot of people in the coffee world have a lot of ideas about what is the right way to do it. But obviously it's very subjective.
SI: How many cups can you drink in a day?
ML: Maybe four or five. But it's never a good idea.
SI: That's surprising. We'd have imagined many more.
ML: I order coffee everywhere I go. I always get either an espresso or a latte — those are very telling about the skills of those behind the bar. You don't have to drink the whole thing to understand what goes into it.
SI: So it's like a wine tasting where you just take a sip?
SI: Do you ever spit it out?
ML: I have tasted espressos when I was particularly wired so I spit them out. At one of the places I trained at in London that was how they taught us to refine our espressos without getting totally wired. There's exceptions: I went to a place called Espresso Cielo on Main Street. They are the only people I've come who use coffee from a roaster called Forty Ninth Parallel. It's one of the best espressos I've had while in L.A., just extremely complex and full of all these fruity flavors. I couldn't help but drink the whole thing. I just had to go for it.
SI: What's next after L.A.?
ML: We haven't settled on a next one. We want to see how Los Angeles reacts. Hopefully, it will do well and we'll move on to another city. The coffee scene here is destined to take another giant step. I've talked to a lot of baristas and they're very positive about where it is going. I visited a lot of places that opened up this last year: CoffeeBar downtown, Bru Coffee bar at Vermont and Hollywood. That was suggested by the people by the Drip Bar cart. Everyone is aware of what is going on. I think when people are passionate about something they're going to gravitate towards those who are similar thoughts.
If you'd like a small preview of L.A.'s Best Coffee app, check back later today for a few of Mark Lamberton's tips.