Cafe Bene

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Bene is a unique spot in town because it is different from the other shops in the area. It offers an older, moderately priced, laid back atmosphere that seems far more focused on creating a space than producing top quality products. The atosmphere is “homey” to say the least; it feels like you walked into a household kitchen and your roomate is there making coffee. That being said, I error on the side of caution by saying “homey,” because some people may take that as unkempt and too laid back.

The machine is definitely the most attractive aspect of Cafe Bene. While it works as a functional centerpiece for the store, it seems better suited for a museum. The 1981 San Marcos is a three group, completely manual, totally mechanical, lever opperated machine from a much older age of coffee. As a collector’s piece (literally), it is a stunning machine. Though aging, the metal accents, manual levers, vintage knobs, and general aura of the machine are fascinating and inspiring. We have come a long way in the last 30 years.

The skills a barista must have to operate one of these machines is unparalleled; no modern machine operates in such a manner nor are these kinds of skills taught to our generation of bar operators. This method is, for all intensive purposes, obsolete. These kinds of machines are essentially “antiques.” Furthermore, the courage one must have to operate such a temperamental machine is definitely an acquired skill. They require a precise hand to operate to keep it from literally exploding.

My cap, unfortunately, left a lot to be desired. While the foam was nice and done by an ex-Lulus barista, the espresso was so incredibly dark that it was hard to taste anything other than burnt flavor and oils. They use Java Bob’s coffee and I know very little about his operation other than it is located on the Westside here in SC. He is a nice fellow, but so far I am not a fan of his coffee.  The beans Bene was using for their espresso were incredibly dark, shiny, and not very flavorful. Although the grinders were Mazzers, the hoppers had been coated with a film from what appeared to be old beans. They also looked like it had not been cleaned for quite a while. My cap was served in the right proportions, but the flavor was unpleasant so I cannot give it a good recommendation.

Atmosphere-wise, Bene holds true with the “homey” feeling with a laid back, easy going, local aesthetic. It is very “old Santa Cruz,” slow but well traveled by a few regulars. This place certainly does not take coffee “too seriously” which was both good and bad; no ego but also not a whole lot of motivation for quality. Bene is quaint and in all respects an extremely modest operation. The “cup wall” is a testament to the kind of coffee culture they aspire to represent; patrons can leave their personal dishware up on the rack and use when they come to visit.

One thing I noticed on this trip was how easily one small issue can ruin the entire process. In this case, it was choosing a poor quality bean, something so fundemental and easy to fix, that ruined the cap. By using an over-roasted, oily bean, the drink is already mired with a poor building block. I know the barista who made mydrink personally and she has solid technique. She doesed out of a good grinder on an adjusted grind, tamped it well, put it through the San Marco (I have used an older pump operated San Marco and the shots were good), and followed all the steps well. However, the final product was detracted by that single small issue, which ultimately resulted into a big one. Coffee is so tempramental, it is important to be critical at every step.

I liked:

  • The manual San Marco
  • “Cup wall”
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