In a CoffeeRatings.com first, we encourage you to check out an article published earlier this week on Thrillist: The Definitive Top 11 Bay Area Coffee Roasters.
Yes, it is that Thrillist — the same one that gave us such cringeworthy coffee listicles as “19 Things You Didn’t Know About Coffee” (who doesn’t love an article that starts by presuming you’re ignorant?), “The 8 Best Coffee Cities in America, Ranked” (which again begs the question: what is a “coffee city” anyway?), “12 Ways You’re Making Coffee Wrong” (you ignorant slut), and the gold mine that is “Every Coffee Shop Chain’s Pumpkin Latte, Ranked“.
It is also an article to which I contributed as a reviewer. Author Jack Houston pulled together an end product that is quite good, and the list is one I can comfortably endorse… down to the top spot ranking of the frequently overlooked Chromatic Coffee.
The Untold Backstory: The Challenge of Getting Qualified Opinions About Roasters
What is also noteworthy is the untold story of how this listicle came to be: the challenge of creating it in the first place. Mr. Houston started soliciting input for the piece in early July of this year. The reason it took three months to publish was, to quote Mr. Houston, “whether it was affiliations with certain roasters, distaste for the scene (had multiple people tell me they couldn’t think of any, let alone 11), reluctance about attaching their name to rankings, travel or just a plain lack of knowledge, it’s been difficult to find people willing to speak on Bay Area coffee.”
Given both the quantity and quality of Bay Area roasters available, this should be more than a little concerning. On the one hand, you have the “our friends and partners at ___” cronyism of a Sprudge — a Lake Wobegone land where every roaster mentioned is above average, and yet no one dares to utter the suggestion that one might be better than another.
On the other hand, you have industry people careful to avoid conflicts of interest — or at least unwilling to risk hurting the feelings of business partners and associates. However, I also suspect that more than a few in the industry have not done enough to comparatively study more than a handful of (competitive) area roasters outside of controlled cuppings for singular origins and/or focused industry events. As a contrast to similarly qualified palates in the wine industry, I get the impression that wine professionals are generally more keenly aware of what everybody else is up to.
The result is the author spent months scrounging enough souls who were both qualified and brave enough to go on record with a qualitative ranking of Bay Area roasters. For all the lip-service given to consumer education and transparency of quality scoring, etc., honest public discussions of comparative coffee quality still seem taboo in many contexts. Which is why we hope exceptions such as Pete Licata‘s RoastRatings.com will hopefully shatter some of that. (Kenneth Davids‘ CoffeeReview is also in that category, but they continue to keep much of their content hidden behind a paywall.)
Another backstory oddity about the article is that a number of the reviewers included Counter Culture Coffee in their lists, which Mr. Houston correctly pointed out is anything but a Bay Area roaster.
Our Own Roaster Rankings in the Raw
Oddly, I quite often come across educated coffee professionals convinced that I only drink espresso or that I only follow espresso culture. This despite the fact that 12 years ago I deliberately registered the coffeeratings.com domain and not espressoratings.com. (Pete Licata, eat your heart out.) This despite a Tasting Methodology page off of our home page, describing why I chose espresso as a yardstick, that hasn’t changed in 11 years. This despite being a home roaster for over 15 years — and that our Twitter avatar for the past few years is of a Madras-style South Indian filter coffee with “CoffeeRatings.com” written in Devanāgarī.
All said, the biggest challenge of comparatively ranking coffee roasters — compared with prepared espresso — is that there are many more uncontrolled variables when comparing two roasters head-to-head: their green bean sources are different, their roast styles vary, but also the eventual brewing and preparation steps are out of their hands.
And while I never professed to be a coffee cupping expert, scientific measurement and comparison has been in my blood for a long time. By the age of 16, I was quantitatively comparing chemistry samples in a professional lab (albeit for industrial adhesives). By the age of 18, I was performing similar comparisons in a professional food lab (for a spice company). So the general practice was somewhat old hat to me before I started formally and quantitatively reviewing espresso shots 12 years ago.
But because of the great lack of common controls to compare roasters as opposed to espresso shots, I was forced to be less “scientific” in my approach for the Thrillist article. I succumbed to a much more primitive, overly subjective scale of whatever seemed to generally please my palate for home use coffee. And particularly at the moment of being asked. A week or two later, and I may have snuck Andytown or even Josuma Coffee in my list.
For the complete record, here’s how I filled out my “ballot” form for the Thrillist piece:
List your favorite Bay Area coffee roasters, starting with No. 1 (most favorite) to No. 11 (11th most favorite).
- Barefoot Coffee Roasters (San Jose)
Why? These guys have always had great coffee shops, but it’s the coffee itself that’s the star. When using their roasts at home, they regularly produce subtle and surprising flavors I’ve been able to create with the coffee of few other roasters. Even if I sent some to an Intelligentsia loyalist friend of mine in Chicago who called it “dessert coffee”.
Signature drink: Guatemala Finca Hermosa
- Scarlet City Coffee (Emeryville)
Why? Jen St. Hilaire exhibits a great deal of skill and experience as a roaster. She has even taught a few big names among roasters in the industry today. And yet she continues to follow her own path, aware of but not swayed by the many roasting fads and trends that surround her. She primarily roasts to develop the sugars inside the beans so that they are fully caramelized, creating fully developed roasts that avoid the sour fruit flavors so adored by many of today’s roasters. The coffee world desperately needs more women like Jen.
Signature drink: Warp Drive Espresso Blend
- Blue Bottle Coffee (Oakland)
Why? James Freeman’s company has been pioneering new ideas about quality coffee in the Bay Area for over a decade now. They offer some excellent single origins and Cup of Excellence coffees in addition to OK blends, and do so in a rather impressive range of origins and styles. And despite their skyrocketing and bloated growth fueled by venture capital and M&A, at least for now the quality has remained very high.
Signature drink: Mexico La Cañada Cup of Excellence
- Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (San Francisco)
Why? Co-founder Trish Rothgeb may have coined the coffee term “Third Wave“, but her roasts exhibit an accumulation of coffee roasting knowledge and experience –- rather than a knee-jerk reaction purely defined by rejecting the fads of previous “waves”. Whether selective single origins or solid blends, this is what Third Wave coffee should be once it evolves beyond being such a conformist, angst-ridden teenager.
Signature drink: 1Up Espresso Blend
- Four Barrel Coffee (San Francisco)
Why? Founder Jeremy Tooker anguishes over the details. When he started up his shop’s roasting operations six years ago, I had pointed out some of the rough patches and he would send me heartfelt emails always seeking thoughts about how he could improve. Today the results of a lot of obsessing and optimization speak for themselves, as they’ve dialed in their quality on roasting styles that suit them. It’s heavy on fruit and acid and a bit lighter on body and breadth of flavor profile, but they’ve hit their stride with a good vein of green sources from Africa and Central & South America.
Signature drink: Rwanda Cotecaga Bourbon
- Chromatic Coffee (San Jose)
Why? This art-inspired group of roasters is relatively new on the local roasting scene, but in a short time they have made a major impact. They custom modify everything about their “coffee delivery systems”, from roaster mods even down to the dissolved solids in the water they brew with at their Santa Clara café. Their single origins and blends are inspired, tweaked, and frequently taste a bit different than the rest -– often aiming for “liveliness” in the end product. Applying what they call “The Radio Approach”, they’ve taken the Scandinavian roasting style and darkened it somewhat to account for the greater hardness of the water here.
Signature drink: Papua New Guinea Kunjin
- Flying Goat Coffee (Healdsburg)
Why? “The Goat”, as the Sonoma County locals refer to it, is often overlooked in the Bay Area due to its remote North Bay locations. But for some 23 years under co-founder and green coffee buyer, Phil Anacker, they have exhibited excellent quality and a longer tradition of seasonally rotated coffees. Style-wise, they’ve long aimed for a bean sweetness and body to wean their customers off of demanding milk, but more than anything they’ve specialized in adapting the roasting style to the qualities of a given bean supply they are working with.
Signature drink: Panama Finca Don K
- Mr. Espresso (Oakland)
Why? Since their founding in 1978, they’ve adopted a traditional oak wood roasting style inherited from their Salerno roots and its nearby — and globally recognized — Naples, Italy coffee culture. This alone is akin to finding a Bay Area sushi place that serves real baran leaves instead of the green plastic cutouts to which we’ve become accustomed. While the roasting profiles that predominate here may not be in vogue today, they exhibit great balance, care, and quality. The newer local chain of Coffee Bar shops showcases their quality along with some of their single origins. And whenever I’ve attended (or organized) coffee events where they have served, I invariably line up for more shots of theirs than anybody.
Signature drink: Neapolitan Espresso blend
- RoastCo (Oakland)
Why? Originally promoted by the Bacchus Management Group as “by the restaurants, for the restaurants”, RoastCo has expanded their vision of small batch, microlot roasting exclusively for the restaurant industry to include other “projects” and even home subscriptions. Using a 1960s cast iron Probat, they source their beans from farms or co-ops and aim for more fully developed roasts with a balance between acidity and sweetness.
Signature drink: Kenya Nyeri
- Highwire Coffee Roasters (Oakland)
Why? The three friends who founded this roasting business in 2011 are perhaps too humble for their impressive coffee pedigrees. The short version of their roasting approach is probably “balance” -– which is probably the inspiration for their name. They aim for balanced coffees that walk that highwire between the origin characteristics of the bean and a roast that brings out a fully developed coffee. They partly achieve this through cupping constantly. When it comes to espresso blends, they adhere to an approach of dividing each bean source for either “hot blending” or “cold blending”, typically optimizing among no more than three bean sources to dial in the right balance.
Signature drink: Ethiopia Kochere
- Ritual Coffee Roasters (San Francisco)
Why? Fairly or unfairly, Ritual could be stereotyped for roasting a lot of coffee that tastes like baked apple pie. Adhering to a rather strict lighter roasting style, they excel at bright, acidic coffees with origins typically in Central America, South America, and Africa. Floral and citric flavors often predominate. And while they may not be at their best when they venture outside of this profile, they know where their strengths are and execute to it very well.
Signature drink: Fazenda do Sertão, Brazil
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