Q & A With Coffee Geek Mark Lamberton + Blue Crow Media's Best Coffee In L.A. App
David Bernstein Mark Lamberton at work
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?