The Definitive Top 11 Bay Area Coffee Roasters, according to Thrillist

Posted by on 04 Oct 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

In a first, we encourage you to check out an article published earlier this week on Thrillist: The Definitive Top 11 Bay Area Coffee Roasters.

Thrillist pulls off a useful piece rating Bay Area coffee roastersYes, 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.

Pete Licata getting his nose in there for RoastRatings has been offering public scores of roasted coffee

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 will hopefully shatter some of that. (Kenneth DavidsCoffeeReview 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

Thrillist's compilation of Bay Area roaster reviewsOddly, 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 domain and not (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 “” 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).

  1. Barefoot Coffee Roasters (San Jose)
  2. 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

  3. Scarlet City Coffee (Emeryville)
  4. 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

  5. Blue Bottle Coffee (Oakland)
  6. 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

  7. Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (San Francisco)
  8. 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

  9. Four Barrel Coffee (San Francisco)
  10. 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

  11. Chromatic Coffee (San Jose)
  12. 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

  13. Flying Goat Coffee (Healdsburg)
  14. 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

  15. Mr. Espresso (Oakland)
  16. 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

  17. RoastCo (Oakland)
  18. 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

  19. Highwire Coffee Roasters (Oakland)
  20. 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

  21. Ritual Coffee Roasters (San Francisco)
  22. 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

Trip Report: Iron Horse Coffee Bar (Union Square)

Posted by on 07 Sep 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Opening earlier this year, this daytime coffee cubbyhole/pop-up might remind you of the Cafe Lambretta chain of miniscule coffee shops that dot the South of Market. But instead of Blue Bottle Coffee they serve Ritual Coffee Roasters.

As a daytime front to the Romper Room bar, they also offer the option to spike your coffee drink as a variety of caffè corretti (Italian for corrected coffee). All of which seems suitable for a bar, even if it now seems to follow the current fad of serving coffee in formats that degrade or mask its core quality — e.g., nitro brews, coffee cocktails, partially extracted cold brews with two-week shelf-lives — under the false pretense of “craft coffee”.

Iron Horse Coffee Bar resides in the daytime entrance of Romper Room Service counter inside Iron Horse Coffee Bar

You’ll find Iron Horse Coffee Bar in the pedestrian-friendly Maiden Lane alleyway by the “Coffee that doesn’t suck” signs — perhaps a less lame version of “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” for a modern era — placed around the feeding streets and walkways on its perimeter. You’ll also notice it by the two baby blue café tables in the middle of the street out front of the Romper Room entrance.

Named after the restaurant that stood here in 1950, the service counter barely takes up the front entrance with a sign, a two-group La Marzocco GB5, large bags of Ritual, alcohol bottles, and a few Lucky Charms cereal bowls. For indoor seating you can sit at one of the barstools at a counter that runs along the opposite wall.

Pastries on display inside the tiny entrance to Iron Horse Coffee Bar Inside the Romper Room (nice inflatables) withbar stool seating for sipping Iron Horse coffee inside

Using Ritual’s Ursa Major blend, they pulled shots with a striped darker and medium brown crema. It’s pulled as a rather long shot, but it still holds up in body — so they’re definitely not stinging on their portafilter dosing. Even so, at $3 served in a paper cup at a pop-up with no amenities (hello, $3 club), there is absolutely no reason they should be charging the exorbitantly highest rates for espresso shots in all of SF. This is a temporary coffee dive along Maiden Lane — not some tourist fleecing station inside the gates of DisneyWorld.

The quality is decent but nothing special. It has flavors of pungent herbs and some spice and surprisingly limited acidic brightness for Ritual. Unless you want to “correct” your coffee, enjoy sitting in Maiden Lane, or it’s just too convenient, I would keep walking.

Read the review of Iron Horse Coffee Bar in Union Square.

Outdoor seating in Maiden Lane in front of Iron Horse Coffee Bar The Iron Horse Coffee Bar espresso - not worth the $3 price tag

Trip Report: Mazarine Coffee (Financial District)

Posted by on 28 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

As an ambitious new coffeeshop in SF’s Financial District, they immediately joined the $3 club — i.e., representing the basic price of admission for a single shot (or double shot) of espresso. While other notable SF openings have failed to live up to these lofty new expectations, this one manages to justify much of its expense.

Mazarine Coffee is named after the Bibliothèque Mazarine — the oldest library in Paris. Now that might sound cultured and sophisticated enough on the surface in an I-Love-Eurotrash manner. But given the coffee quality in Paris until just recently, that’s like naming your sushi restaurant after your favorite Nebraska landmark. (Though my coffee insiders have it that the founder’s working title for the café in 2013 was “Bravo Java”, in which case the name is still a huge step up.)

Outdoor seating in front of Mazarine Coffee Entrance to Mazarine Coffee

Coffee merchandising inside Mazarine Coffee Seating inside Mazarine Coffee

That said, founder/CEO Hamid Rafati switched from his electrical and mechanical engineering roots to professionally commit himself to the art of making great coffee. While the café’s name might seem a bit of a faux pas, he built this place with inspiration from quality sources — including the Southland’s Klatch Coffee, where he even recruited multi-USBC champ Heather Perry to lead the barista training. In addition to committing to offering a rotation of sources as a multi-roaster café, they also offer salads and sandwiches with wine and beer on tap.

There’s fenced-in sidewalk café table seating along Market St., front window counter seating, a lot of grey concrete, a white marble counter, a blueish subway tile backsplash to the service area, and bench seating with burgundy cushions at thick wood-finished café tables. The place is usually packed with patrons ordering nitro coffee and other requisite coffee fads. (Sorry, but nitro coffee, coffee beer, and coffee cocktails are no more “craft coffee” than sangria is “craft wine”.) The service counter is divided between pour-over (Kalita Waves and Baratza grinders) and espresso (Nuova Simonelli grinders) stations.

Service area at Mazarine Coffee with Kees van der Westen Spirit and Nuova Simonelli grinders Close-up of Mazarine Coffee's Spirit with Heath ceramic cups on top

Looking back at the entrance to Mazarine Coffee Service counter for espresso with Spirit machine at Mazarine Coffee

For espresso they use a customized three-group Kees van der Westen Spirit and were serving their private-labelled summer Belle Espresso blend from Klatch. They also served Ritual Coffee for some of their other drink formats.

They pull espresso shots with a mottled split between a medium and darker brown crema. It’s not voluminous but weighty. Served three-sips short, it has a thick body and a fully developed roast flavor with molasses sweet edges and some acidic apple brightness at the front of the sip — centered around pungency but rounded and not overly so. Served in Heath ceramic cups with sparkling water on the side.

The use of Klatch coffee is rather unique for the area, and it’s about time. It lends itself to a more complex and balanced espresso than is typically available from many of the area’s Third Wave cliché cafés. And as I believe it is written in a dusty book somewhere inside the original Bibliothèque Mazarine: Joe Bob says check it out.

Read the review of Mazarine Coffee in the Financial District of San Francisco.

Laptop zombies at the rear of Mazarine Coffee Another view of the outdoor sidewalk seating in front of Mazarine Coffee

The Mazarine Coffee espresso from Klatch Roasting beans Kalita Waves for pour-overs at one of the Mazarine Coffee service counters

Trip Report: Bright Coffee (Monterey, CA)

Posted by on 20 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Cameron Davies started this small roaster/café in 2013, and it has changed the face of Monterey’s coffee culture ever since. It’s a small café co-located in the artful Lilify shop along busy Lighthouse Ave. — a few blocks down from Happy Girl Kitchen.

Inside the café takes up one side of the building. The Lilify retail space dominates the remainder. There’s a lot of exposed wood, found-art-like wall hangings, and for seating there’s two thick wooden café tables and a lone stool.

Entrance to Bright Coffee at Lilify in Monterey Branding at the entrance of Bright Coffee in Monterey

While they used to roast locally with a Deidrich IR-7, fights with the local zoning codes have resulted in endless frustration. To work around that, Cameron is now setting up their roasting in Longview, WA (not far from Portland, OR) to be run by her parents. Until then she’s working with select West Coast roasters, such as Seattle’s Kuma Coffee, that don’t require too much equipment adjustment for her roast profile style.

Their two-group lever La San Marco Leva is a find from Phoenix, AZ that was artfully refurbished by her partner, Mike Zimmerer, into something far more decorative. It still operates like a tank — one of the reasons it remains the de facto machine in espresso-obsessed Napoli, Italy.

Entering Bright Coffee in Monterey, with the Lilify retail shop at the right Lilify's retail shop adjacent to the shared space with Bright Coffee

Cameron, like myself, doesn’t get the point of coffee shops dropping $20,000 on the latest overly-gadgetized espresso machine. Sure, they make great conversation pieces. They can also offer a crutch for new coffee shop owners seeking a fast track towards Third Wave credibility — sort of a Viagra for those seeking out coffee-related dick-measuring contests.

The trouble is that virtually every place employing pressure profiling with these new high-tech machines doesn’t know how to do it right, resulting in shots that we’ve invariably found don’t taste any better. This is something Cameron independently observed herself, and she’d rather pour that additional money into her staff and keeping her business afloat. And with the Leva, she not only finds it cheaper but also much easier to maintain.

Seating inside Bright Coffee The La San Marco Leva machine behind Bright Coffee

As someone who has lived near and worked within the Portland coffee scene for some time, she’s also a fan of Heart and Sterling roasters — which are known for they’re very light (almost overly light) roasting treatments. Where she differs is that she also likes to let roasts gas out for far longer than most — sometimes finding that roasts are optimal several weeks after roasting. 2013 WBC champ Pete Licata recently wrote similar thoughts on this.

The result here with Kuma Ethiopia Aricha espresso (their Red Bear Espresso) is a cherry bomb brightness heavy on fruit but is surprisingly not your typical acid bath. There’s some honey, leather, pepper, a pungent aroma, and a dark, dark crema of short coverage and modest thickness. Served in handmade ceramic cups with water on the side. The milk-frothing here is just OK: a little on the light side.

It used to be that Acme Coffee Roasting or Café Lumiere were the only worthy coffee shops around these parts. But that is fortunately changing.

Read the review of Bright Coffee in Monterey, CA.

The Bright Coffee espresso The Bright Coffee macchiato

Trip Report: Modern Coffee (Tribune Tower, Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 16 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

This downtown Oakland coffee house sits at the base of the historic Oakland Tribune Building. It’s a small space with ceiling fans and windows that open, a large front window for people-watching over the 13th St. sidewalk at window counter stools, and a few indoor café tables and chairs/benches with a wall of merchandising in the back. In front, there’s also some red sidewalk café table seating.

As a true multi-roaster café, and part of a tiny chain, their merchandising includes selling Stumptown, Chromatic, and Verve coffee retail.

Entrance to Modern Coffee at the base of the Oakland Tribune Tower Sidewalk seating in front of Modern Coffee at the Oakland Tribune Tower

Service and ordering counter at Modern Coffee Multi-roaster retail coffees available at Modern Coffee

Inside there are many wooden surfaces, large stone tiles on the floor, and a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/80 with Mazzer grinders. They offer pour-over and Chemex coffee as well.

The Oakland Tribune Tower with Modern Coffee at its entranceAs a multi-roaster café, they rotate their bean stocks and were serving Counter Culture Coffee‘s Big Trouble for this espresso review. They served Linea Caffe for pour-overs.

This alone makes Modern a bit of a novelty for anyone from the U.S. East Coast — where Counter Culture’s combined service and supply deals have been known for their financial strong-arm tactics to achieve distribution exclusivity at most cafés.

Here they pulled their shots three-sips-short with a mottled medium-brown crema and a rather broad flavor of spices, some herbs, and brightness with a bigger kick at the end — but still lacking much heavy acidity. It’s a relatively lively cup, but with a flavor profile that isn’t terribly too distinctive. Served in white notNeutral cups.

Read the review of Modern Coffee at the Tribune Tower in Oakland, CA.

Service counter in Modern Coffee Window counter seating inside Modern Coffee

Modern Coffee's La Marzocco FB/80 and Mazzer grinders The Modern Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Yo el Rey Roasting (Calistoga, CA)

Posted by on 06 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

In the 26 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area, I’d never been to Calistoga. Sure, I knew about the touristy mud baths and summer temperatures more conducive for copper smelting than for outdoor barbecues. What I didn’t quite expect was a laid back town that still wears a lot of its history, located in a rather wooded valley.

While the Napa Valley wine culture certainly encroaches on its doorstep, Calistoga has a decidedly different feel than the rest of the Napa Valley vibe — with its food fetishes, wine farming monoculture, lifestyle and housewares boutiques, faux Italian villas, and preponderance of German and Japanese luxury cars. It’s a little closer to a Lake Tahoe mountain town than the quaintly packaged lifestyle branding of a Yountville or St. Helena.

Entrance to Yo el Rey Roasting in Calistoga, CA Front of Yo el Rey Roasting - don't ask what's with the drug-influenced organic coffee sign

The coffee here can also hold its own. This small café, first opened in 2008, is located just off of Calistoga’s Lincoln Ave. “main street”.

Outside there are metal café table for seating along the sidewalk. Inside there is window stool seating and a few chairs and café tables with a Diedrich roaster smack in the middle; they roast organic, single origin coffees in-house.

Baked goods come from ABC, and they offer a variety of coffee options from cold brew to pour-overs with Clever drippers.

Diedrich roaster inside Yo el Rey Roasting Roasted coffees for retail sale, and Clever drippers, at Yo el Rey Roasting

Using a two-group manual lever Astoria machine, they offered an espresso shot from a single origin organic Sumatran — which is a little bit of a bold choice for a smaller town like Calistoga. For example, we could not find such a thing offered retail in Portland, OR, given their obsession with Ethiopian shots supplemented by the occasional Guatemalan or Colombian origin.

The shot had a limited aroma, some strong smoke that hits the olfactory palate quickly, and a medium brown crema of decent heft but still scant on quantity. There was a sharp brightness to the cup with some molasses sweetness and a flavor of dark baking chocolate and spices.

Although the flavors were not in balance and it was clearly a single origin, it emphasized multiple bands of the flavor spectrum. Interesting and good, to say the least. Served in colorful China ceramic cups.

Read the review of Yo el Rey Roasting in Calistoga, CA.

Yo el Rey Roasting's lever Astoria machine and coffee menu The Yo el Rey Roasting espresso

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee at Hanahaus (Palo Alto, CA)

Posted by on 02 Aug 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Blue Bottle Coffee‘s attention to details and quality should have fueled its growth under most any circumstances. But the interest from, and infusion of, venture capital have given that growth a nitro boost: new cafés are opening around the world, and various related services (e.g., Handsome Coffee and Tonx Coffee) and small business chains (e.g., Tartine Bakery) are being gobbled up in the vortex.

That venture capitalists most familiar with the “virtual” tech world (e.g., Google Ventures) are also investing in very brick-and-mortar coffee businesses doesn’t entirely add up to me. Why not Krispy Kreme donuts for that matter?

Of course, the tech world believes it has a special and unique relationship with coffee, identifying with coffee-fueled programmers as it does. But coffee is weird in that 83% of American adults drink coffee, and yet just about every social group seems to identify with coffee and claim it as their own unique and special secret: cyclists, salesmen, radio DJs, writers, chefs, physicians, police officers, etc.

Blue Bottle Coffee at Palo Alto's former Varsity Theater Entering the Varsity Theater courtyard with seating for Blue Bottle

Unlike the virtual world where the word scalability almost knows no bounds, the very physical world of coffee is much more challenging. At one end, its roots are in the ancient art and science of farming. And at the other end, despite all the robotics and artificial intelligence brought to bear through superautomatic coffee brewing systems, the best stuff served in a cup still requires the efforts of a lot of human hands.

So what happens when investors seek hockey stick growth projections for a coffee chain when they are otherwise used to scaling metrics such as billions of selfies and Facebook likes? The pressure and expectations of these growth projections frequently leads to quality trade-offs. Before Starbucks coped with their growth demands by essentially becoming a global fast food chain, with push-button-automated machines operated by an ever-growing army of low skilled button-pushing employees, recall that the original coffee they often produced by true baristas operating La Marzocco machines wasn’t all bad.

Hence the big question for Blue Bottle remains: for how long can they march towards world domination before the quality tanks? James Freeman firmly believes its a fate he can avoid. But as you take on more and more investors and give away more and more ownership of the company, a tipping point edges ever closer as the VC interests in money inevitably weigh down the scales against coffee idealism.

Seating in the Varsity Theater courtyard outside of Blue Bottle Blue Bottle Coffee's wall of merchandising and roasted coffee at Hanahaus

Blue Bottle service counter inside Hanahaus The Hanahaus leased office space next to the Blue Bottle

That strange bedfellow relationship between VCs, tech, and coffee is on full display at one of the latest Blue Bottle Coffee Co. openings in Palo Alto. This former Varsity Theater (and Borders books) has been revived as the “SAP Hanahaus” workspace with an attached Blue Bottle Coffee service.

The historic building offers a unique outdoor courtyard in front, with various secluded café tables and benches, leading to a hall of merchandising (home brewing equipment, bags of roasted coffee) before you reach the front service counter and bulk of the interior tables. Past the service counter is the leasable workspace by the hour for all your start-up needs.

Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada, they pulled a thick, shorter shot with a mottled medium-brown crema. It had a potent aroma, a good body and mouthfeel, and a rich and complex blend of flavors that included dark chocolate, molasses sweetness, and some honey. The shortness of the pull brings out concentrated complexity: this is not your typical pale, narrowband, watery single origin shot pulled by Third Wave sheep. Served in designer logo Kinto cups with sparkling water on the side.

So has Blue Bottle reached the tipping point yet? Based the quality of the espresso here, not in the least bit. However, an espresso-loving friend (whom I converted years ago into a home roasting devotee) was not impressed by it, saying he’s often had better.

Based on that one shot, I rarely have better. But it is extremely rare that you find shots consistently pulled of this style and density, so this will require repeat visits to verify if this just wasn’t a one-off.

Read the review of Blue Bottle Coffee at Hanahaus, Palo Alto, CA.

Blue Bottle's La Marzocco Strada at Hanahaus The Blue Bottle espresso at Hanahaus

Reviving the Neglected Blend: King’s Row Coffee

Posted by on 28 Jul 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

I never understood Third Wave coffee’s War on Blends. Instead of advocating improved access to great coffees and all the flavors they have to offer us, it’s as if a coffee Taliban were telling us what tastes are heretical and forbidden. That if a flavor doesn’t occur in nature, it is an affront to both God’s will and our dogmatic coffee religion.

Today single origins are elevated as the ultimate expression of coffee, only to be surpassed by single microlot coffees. But here’s a major problem: there are good microlots and there are not-so-good microlots. Geographic specificity isn’t a measure of quality — as if the more “micro” the lot, the better the coffee. Nor is micro-geographic purity an actual flavor. But we all seem to act like these were true.

There are times where mixing isn't popularThus there are many industry advocates for coffee’s version of racial hygiene and Jim Crow laws: worshipping at the altar of coffee’s genetic and geographic purity. This despite most of today’s prized microlot coffees being the result of deliberate genetic cross-breeding and geographic transplanting (e.g.: Kenyan SL-28s grown in El Salvador, Ethiopian Geisha grown in Panama, etc.).

Meanwhile, many of the same Third Wave segregationists are now fawning over uses of high-grade coffees in coffee cocktails, stout beers, flavored liqueurs, and shelf-stable iced coffee concoctions where brewed coffee strangely never goes bad… essentially the debasement of elite coffees as a flavoring ingredient. What does this say about respecting the coffee and how it is carefully procured, processed, and prepared? Would advocates of Grand Cru Échézeaux honor mixing it with fruit juice to make a refreshing summer sangria? Or putting it in a saucepan with honey, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise to make a crowd-pleasing spiced mulled wine for the winter holidays?

A single origin espresso walks into a gym...On the one hand, I don’t get the point of pineapple mango guava juice. But when it comes to the breadth and complexity of coffee flavor profiles, exclusively relying on microlot coffees is like following Olympic sport where the athletes can set world-record leg presses but lack the upper body strength to do more than three chin-ups and get winded on 200m jogs for lack of any cardio training. While not every sporting event has to be an epic of decathlete cross-training, a microlot espresso is woefully inadequate if you value that sort of balance and well-roundedness.

The vanguard of quality coffee standards today have often abandoned making coffee blends, and the few who still invest in making blends have not taken them seriously enough to do them well — at least in North America. This has created a quality coffee flavor profile vacuum. It’s a much bigger vacuum than the one for quality merlot wines that developed around the time of the 2004 movie Sideways, when public tastes faddishly swayed away from the grape.

Enter King’s Row Coffee

Like a blast out of 1994, King’s Row Coffee (KRC) — through their CEO, Sam Sabky — approached me with their stated ideals about coffee that seemed both unfashionably dated and radically new & novel at the same time. They are committed to producing multiple high quality blends with flavor profiles targeted for specific environments and purposes, all roasted to order. Encountering such a counter-cultural approach to coffee was a breath of fresh air.

Packaging example with the King's Row Mountain BlendThey begin with a James Beard award-winning master chef in Craig Shelton. That Craig also has legit sommelier chops helps with his role as KRC’s taste-maker and recipe man, approaching coffee much as you might a Bordeaux or Rhone blend.

For the roasting itself, KRC relies on the legendary Oren Bloostein of Oren’s Daily Roast fame (based in NY, but always coming to a CoffeeCON near you). Using beans sourced from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Sumatra, and Celebes, KRC applies a post-blending approach where the five or six varietals in a given blend are optimally roasted separately in small batches. (Other roasters sometimes favor a pre-blending approach — which often espouses the idea that component-based roasting loses some of the potential aggregate characteristics of the blend, as if making a pot of stew or spaghetti sauce.)

As for their recipes…

King’s Row Coffee Blends
Blend Aroma [info] Brightness [info] Body [info] Flavor [info] Overall
The Espresso Blend 8.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 7.50
The Shelton Signature Blend 7.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 7.50
The Coastal Blend 6.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 6.75
The Bonbon Blend 7.0 7.0 6.0 7.0 6.75
The Mountain Blend 7.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 7.00

The Espresso Blend

I made this as an espresso in my usual Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine setup with a Mazzer Mini grinder. The marketing literature calls it “European Style”, which can be quite dubious if by “Europe” you mean France.

They cup it as a “full-bodied, crisp and balanced dark roast”, and there’s clearly some spots of second-crack oils. It’s not as full-bodied as we expected, but there’s a cohesion to it. “Toffee and toasted nuts”? Check. “Bright and clean with no burned aftertaste”? Check. “Great when used with milk”? Quite good.

My shots pulled with a dark to medium brown textured crema — a good sign — with a slightly thin body. The crema was strong enough (we’d rate it an 8.0) to bump the score as our favorite of the lot. Pungent, some spice, some limited sweetness, but no smoke nor ashiness for sure. And some bittersweet chocolate in the base, of which we’re always a fan.

King's Row Espresso blend An espresso with the King's Row Espresso blend

The Shelton Signature Blend

Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. KRC recommends #4 filters for the V60, and I used Hario’s own #2 filters for all the examples here.

This is Craig’s original coffee and the KRC benchmark, which they call “The World’s Most Sophisticated Coffee”. Talk about a serious billing to live up to.

The King's Row Shelton Signature BlendAs described, it’s “an all-day blend for the connoisseur or everyday drinker who takes his coffee black”…”racy, sophisticated and powerful, this coffee is in perfect balance with a lively acidity”… “A ‘Broadband’ medium roast with a remarkable sweetness, large creamy body and smooth finish. Massive complexity and mouthfeel.”

For the most part, the blend delivered on many of its promises. It appears as a slightly dark roast with some second-crack surface oil: few in today’s lightness-obsessed coffee world would call this a medium roast. But the cocoa is there, as is the broadband flavor and balance. However, any acidity is very subdued, but there is a great aftertaste as it truly coats the tongue with sweeter oils. Can we say it?: an excellent blend.

The Coastal Blend

Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They call this, “A Robust Taste for Marine Environments” — so brewing in the fog of San Francisco seemed a rather appropriate challenge.

The King's Row Coastal blendIn their words, “The brine in the salty ocean air deadens the palate, resulting in a flat, dull tasting experience, no matter the quality of the coffee” and call this blend “a darker roast and bold, in your face coffee that rises above ambient smells in salty air while preserving a refined and balanced taste”.

It is a more traditional darker roast style with minimal fruit, some smoke, more pungency, but also a pleasant — albeit not great — mouthfeel. Perhaps a touch harsher than the Shelton Signature Blend, but it is still enjoyable. However, I’m not sure I got out as much of its optimization for the ambient marine air.

The Bonbon Blend

Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder, KRC labels this “The Ultimate Coffee for Foodies”. Why? They say “we designed the Bonbon Blend to reach peak taste profile when paired with sweet and savory delights, making it an ideal accompaniment to any meal, especially breakfast and dessert.” Sweet and savory covers pretty much all types of food, so we’ll call it a coffee for food pairing.

We’ve never bought into the more recent coffee pairing with food gimmick — suggesting that it is mostly wishful thinking by those attempting to graft wine tasting experiences onto coffee. Food and wine pairings go back centuries if not millennia with the old “if it grows together, it goes together” adage. As for a coffee equivalent, it was originally balled up with animal fats as a trail snack — a kind of Paleo energy bar. Hardly the historical stuff of gourmands.

The King's Row Bonbon blendNow some might make the case that coffee previously had only “one flavor” (their words, not mine) and thus there historically wasn’t a diversity of food pairings to draw from. But we have yet to experience coffee as any more magical or practical for food pairing than, say, cigars.

The KRC Bonbon blend is a lighter roast than the others, but it is still on the edges of second-crack oil. Otherwise it’s more of a medium brown.

Their cupping notes call it “a bold coffee, characterized by a balanced body, a vibrant acidity and a smooth and crisp finish to keep the palate refreshed.” The story is you should try it before and after eating something sweet for a comparison, demonstrating how its acidity balances with your “tainted” flavor palate after eating a chocolate bonbon (hence the name).

Before my chocolate croissant, it seemed rather light-bodied with some acidity and salt. But it was balanced and lacked any harsher elements. After the croissant the acidity was more subdued, the body was enhanced, but the flavor profile of the coffee seemed to flatten out. The difference was subtle, and it turned out to be a good coffee before and after eating something.

The Mountain Blend

Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They define it as “Designed for High Altitude Brewing”, noting that “brewing at higher altitudes over-extracts bitter alkaloids and under-extracts desirable oils.” To compensate, KRC blended in a bean with oils that extract at a lower than normal brewing temperature.

Their cupping notes call it “a medium roast with a creamy body and remarkable sweetness. Bright, balanced and smooth at altitude.” I found it to be a medium to dark roast with clear edges of second-crack oils. It has a somewhat thicker body and a little of that felt-like mouthfeel that’s almost part particulate, part oils. And there’s a sweeter finish to the cup.

Brewing this at 90m/300-ft, I didn’t stand to benefit from how the blend was tailored for high-altitude brewing. But it was a good cup of coffee in any case.

The King's Row Mountain blend Cards of King's Row Coffee blends

In Conclusion

Targeting specific environments for coffee enjoyment is an interesting and rather unique approach. I enjoyed all of the coffees, and in particular their flagship Shelton Signature Blend — which is the foundation for all their varieties. And IMO, a good blend is a rare find among newer North American roasters these days.

However, I did not notice major differences in the different blends overall: they were all good, all somewhat similar in roasting style and flavor profile, but not radically that different from each other.

The environmental benefits of one blend versus another seemed incremental, but perhaps not enough to convince a coffee lover in Denver, for example, to forgo their Espresso Novo habit for the KRC Mountain Blend. Not all palates are that sensitive. Still, I have to give them credit for trying something new and not following the herd of Third Wave sheep.

Through King’s Row Coffee, I can also pass along a 20% off discount code of theshot20 if you’d like to try something yourself.

Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone

Posted by on 12 Jul 2015 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Earlier this year I attended Illy‘s Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone in St. Helena, CA for a course titled Coffee Expert: From Plant to the Cup. Effectively it was a slightly updated and “Americanized” version of the introductory Illy course I first wrote about eight years ago when the famed food writer, David Lebovitz, attended it at their headquarters in Trieste, Italy. (Following a few mutual-admiration-society-type exchanges with David, I later wrote a guest post on David’s blog the following month.)

Flash forward to April of this year (if you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to post this, I really have no excuse), and I finally had the opportunity to attend this two-day course myself in the Napa Valley.

Despite what many Third Wave fanboys might consider an “establishment” coffee company, I’ve long admired the detailed science, style, ethics, and quality controls behind illycaffè. I’ve also been a fan of their coffee — particularly in Europe more than in any other continent for yet-to-be-explained reasons. In more recent times I’ve also come to know a few members of the illy caffè North America team and have become a real fan. Connecting with them opened a door to attend one of their professional courses — held at one of two Culinary Institute of America locations in the U.S., typically a couple times each year.

The CIA Greystone CIA Greystone's Rudd Wine Center

Mark Romano instructs the class on green coffee origins Carlos Chavez serves up some great espresso drinks throughout the day

Held at CIA Greystone’s Rudd Wine Center, it’s a facility and environment designed expressly for educating the sensory evaluation of wine… or also, as it turns out, coffee. Students sit at curved, lab-like tables surrounding an instructor equipped with various A/V controls. Each student station has access to a sink, running water, and multiple counters for performing sensory evaluations and comparisons.

Carlos Chavez styling out in his Illy regaliaKey illy caffè North America instructors included Mark Romano, their Senior Director of Education, Quality and Sustainability. There was also Giorgio Milos, their Master Barista & Instructor and famed coffee blogger. I learned his mother was an Illy employee for 35 years and his father was a dairyman: how’s that for barista pedigree? And there was also the Seattle-based Heidi Rasmussen, their Senior Manager Education and Quality … and chief wise-cracker. Also on-site to both serve attendees excellent espresso drinks and assist with the hands-on training was Carlos Chavez, 22-year veteran of SF’s Caffè Greco.

Student attendees included a number of coffee industry professionals, including a contingent from Seattle’s Caffè Umbria (such as Stefano Bizzari, son of Caffè Umbria founder, Emanuele Bizzari, and grandson of Umberto Bizzari of Torrefazione Italia fame). Other students — there was a total of about 25-30 — were either in the food or restaurant industry but typically humbly called themselves “coffee enthusiasts”.

The course covered the usual suspects of coffee history, processing, brewing, demand issues, trends, sustainability and supply chain concerns. Much of the material was already familiar to me, but even so it was worth experiencing it in a cohesive course. Even if you’re not a complete novice, there are always details that add something — such as learning a lot more of the nuances that go into making a proper Moka pot. (Or, what Heidi exemplified: “Bad Moka vs. Good Moka”)

Interspersed among the more textbook lessons were various sensory evaluations of coffee: blind tastings of different preparation methods (including blind triangular studies), arabicas vs. robustas, different geographies, decaffeination comparisons, different roasting levels, and different extraction levels. Or even just noticing the flaws in espresso as it cools.

Giorgio Milos addresses the class on the physiology of tasting coffee A triangular comparison of robusta and arabica

Coffee evaluation notebook from the course Rice puffs are used to clean the palate between coffee tastings

Lunch in the CIA Greystone cafeteria, as staffed by culinary students Full moon over CIA Greystone after class

After a couple of days of all that great coffee — for both enjoyment and evaluation — the absurdity of the term “coffee addict” came clearly to mind. The classic definition of addiction requires ever more of a substance to achieve the same desired physical effects after building up a tolerance. However, there was not a single coffee lover attending the course who could reach the late afternoon without saying, “no more, please” to the continual onslaught of more coffee.

On the final day I probably learned the most with a bit of hands-on labwork among three coffee stations:

  • alternative brewing methods: Ibrik, multiple vac pots and techniques, Aeropress, French press, different Chemex attempts, the Neapolitan flip pot, and of course: Bad Moka vs. Good Moka,
  • espresso, cappuccino frothing, and minimal latte art practice on a La Spaziale two-group S9, and
  • grinder calibration.

The high level of hands-on feedback provided in this format was of particular benefit — something where the educational format of a Chef Steps falls flat.

In summary, the course probably won’t revolutionize how you think about coffee. However, it’s a methodical approach towards ensuring that you have the basics covered, from bean to cup. I found the hands-on aspects of the course particularly beneficial, and you’ll also get to hang out with some pretty cool fellow coffee fans. The price tag is quite steep unless it’s a business expense, but it is in line with other layman culinary courses offered at the CIA. All said, I really enjoyed the entire experience.

Breakfast in the hall of the Rudd Wine Center with the illy caffè North America crew Another shot of Illy espresso enjoyed throughout the course...

Making ibriks of coffee in the hands-on lab Monica - a Sicilian native, ex-Milan barista, and now runs NY restaurants - teaches students at the espresso machine

Espresso in Portland, Oregon

Posted by on 30 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Living on the Left Coast for so many years, it’s almost shameful that the closest I came to Portland, Oregon before 2011 was an SF Slim’s show by The Dharma Bums while on their Bliss album tour. (Yes, I was a fan.) Sure, I’d been to Crater Lake and Coos Bay even, but never Portland. By 2011, a couple of day-job-related day trips to Portland afforded the brief coffee walk through town. But it wasn’t until last month that I did a serious deep dive.

This lapse had nothing to do with the sun-spoiled Californian stereotype: wishing to avoid Portland’s damp cold, clouds, and legendary rainfall. Although I must say that arriving from the land of drought shaming that has turned neighbors into water narcs, watching local Portlanders casually hose down their sidewalks was a little like watching them blow their noses in gold leaf.

The Colombia River Gorge from Vista House at Crown Point Flowers in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square

The Portlander in their Native Habitat

Today merely the name “Portland” carries its own serious baggage and presumptions — some accurate, but many not. This post will attempt to sift through both of them from my own limited perspective with particular attention paid to the town’s much-celebrated coffee culture.

Portland — aka “Stumptown” (from the many felled trees of its development), aka “Rose City” — may have over 90% of the population of Seattle, but it feels nearly twice as sleepy. Portlanders love their runs and parades, and I arrived in time for the Starlight Parade of their annual Rose Festival — complete with marching bands and floats from many of the area’s high schools. A city like San Francisco is too cool and cynical for this kind of small town sentimentality. But the Portland locals line the downtown streets many hours before the event, parking their lawn chairs with great anticipation, social camaraderie, and a packed picnic basket.

Portland State University float at the Starlight Parade Starlight Parade of the Rose Festival, downtown Portland

Wait... sending a text at the Starlight Parade Posing with stormtroopers at the Starlight Parade

Speaking of public gatherings, not unlike Oakland’s First Fridays, Portland has its own First Thursday in the gentrified Pearl District — with its many cobblestone streets, cookie-cutter modern lofts, public storage units, and chain stores. In contrast is the artier Last Thursdays in the NE Alberta District — which is something of a front line for the town’s current gentrification battles, adjacent to one of the town’s very few hotbeds for gang violence.

From Rose City to White City

The story of gentrification is not uncommon among American cities. Some of what makes Portland a little different is how overwhelmingly, well, white the city is. So white, it’s almost blue. The last U.S. census figures may count the city’s racial breakdown as 76% white (for comparison San Francisco is 54%). But observationally throughout the city, those figures seem like an understatement.

In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.
–“Skinhead Against Skinhead“, TIME Magazine

On the TriMet streetcars that run all across town — the closest thing the locals have to the Bay Area’s BART — station stops and instructions are announced in Spanish as well as English, but there’s hardly a Latino to be found on the system. (And yet BART audio is English-only.) Thus in true stereotyped Portland politeness fashion, it eerily seems like the system goes out of its way to culturally accommodate people who aren’t even there.

Even Portland’s Chinatown seems so in name only, save for a couple of old gates spread among a district of what one local called “douchey nightclubs”.

Portland's Chinatown: as Chinese as it gets Barista PDX's Pearl District location

Portland’s lack of racial diversity may stick out like a sore thumb to someone from the Bay Area, but that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it — although some rightfully point out that it’s partly a product of historically racist state and local policies. But given that coffee ranks #1 on the list of Stuff White People Like, all that whiteness can’t be all bad, right? Except this theme of diversity — and Portland’s general lack thereof — comes up again when we talk about Portland’s coffee culture (more below).

Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? … This city is still very white. Why does that matter? According to the National Coffee Association, Caucasians drink a half cup a day more coffee than blacks or Hispanics.
— “Drip City“, Willamette Week

The Portlandia Stereotypes

Of course, we have to address the Portlandia stereotypes — a term that even the locals have amusingly embraced. Enough of them are true enough to support parody: the beards, the many yoga instructors, the dog walkers sporting discount tattoos, the animal freaks, drivers who are extremely (and charmingly) courteous, etc.

Yet there’s a distinctly higher hipster quotient in SF’s Mission District. What you don’t hear about Portland is at the roots of the city: the historically dark, weathered, slightly dirty Pacific Northwestern Gothic about the place. (Note that these are some of my favorite and most unique characteristics of the town.)

Some of 'old' Portland Portlanders enjoying the outdoors along the Willamette River

In fact, “thriving” is a word I definitely would not use to describe Portland and its anything-but-vibrant downtown. Like Porto, Portugal, I found it hard to tell if it’s on its way up or way down. Downtown there are derelict vacant lots, sometimes filled with food carts and lined with sidewalks coated in layers of mystery stickiness. Homelessness and mental illness are on prominent display along with too many strip clubs to count (and yes, there is even a vegan one).

And despite many fantastic wilderness options nearby, the bicycling stereotypes, and a trendy Pearl District that hosts a retail outlet for every outdoor enthusiast store imaginable, obesity is a noticeable problem here as in much of America. Portland does not size up to the outdoorsy fit-city-in-spandex stereotype you get in places like Boulder, CO or Austin, TX.

A pork festival in the Willamette Valley outside of PortlandA good part of Portland’s allure includes a local food scene high on the local, organic, and artisanal, an abundant beer microbrewing culture, and a location with a much cheaper cost of living than most. Although you can get the hipster/foodie/microbrew/slacker/cheap-living mix in almost equal measure in a place like Austin, TX, Portland seems to draw much of its appeal along the coast.

Most Portlandia stereotypes seem defined by the expectations of recent residents who aren’t from the area, just as the “fruits & nuts” stereotypes about Californians in the 1970s were primarily driven by refugees from the Midwest rather than the California natives themselves. It’s a little like how residents of Las Vegas lead rather normal and mundane lives, whereas its tourists feel obligated to destroy their livers and lose their minds because of preconceived expectations of behavior once they arrive.

In other words, from what I’ve observed, it’s the more recent immigrants trying to self-fulfill false stereotypes who are among the most exaggerated Portlandia examples — a lot of California and Seattle expats who came for what they thought was in the marketing brochure. (Just don’t ask me what Florida’s problem is.)

Portland the Coffee City

Street mural in downtown PortlandMany publications have made out Portland to be some magical, mythical place inhabited by barista leprechauns, where rivers of microlot espresso run down streets adorned with portafilter handles and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders. Although we’ve seriously questioned what a “coffee city” actually means in today’s environment, Travel + Leisure has regularly ranked Portland at the top among “America’s Best Coffee Cities,” and The Daily Meal recently ranked Portland #1 in the same category.

A few years ago there was a lot of professional chatter about how Portland unseated Seattle as America’s coffee capital. Then add over 60 microroasters in the city, regional champion baristas (back when that was a thing), three national coffee magazines (Fresh Cup, Barista Magazine, Roast Magazine) — plus many quality coffee shops, equipment makers (though Able since moved to CA), and specialty retailers — and you can justify the hype. However, there are several factors that dim the shine here.

First is the question of size. Much about the greatness of Portland’s coffee culture gets weighted relative to the town’s seemingly small size — scaled as if by an “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” disclaimer. Instead of using purely direct yardsticks such as nationally renowned quality, reputation, variety, or industry awards, Portland’s relatively low population density is often applied as that fun-house-mirror-like lens through which many gauge the local coffee scene.

Which brings us to the second factor: quality. There are some really good coffee shops and roasters here, no question. But are they standouts among the best in the country? For the most part, not exactly. Kansas City has some great roasters and cafés as well, and I wouldn’t necessarily crown Portland’s best as superior to KC’s finest.

A lot of what’s good about coffee in Portland naturally traces its influences back to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. And as much as Stumptown is one of the nation’s elite roasters and coffee chains, we’ve always felt it is a slight underachiever among its peers — whether in rival Seattle or Portland itself.

Taking the TriMet streetcar east over the Willamette River Mount Hood in the distance looms over Portland's east

Visible signs of wear in downtown Portland Hipster sock department, Powell's Books

Portland’s Coffee Monoculture

Which brings us to the third and most critical factor keeping Portland from reaching its quality potential. Stumptown may be a slight underachiever for its elite class, but they are to be commended for taking a great risk and establishing a new kind of coffee operation for the region. Most other Portland shops established since Stumptown seem rather risk-averse and are instead focused on execution, sticking with the formula, rather than taking the risk of offering new ideas of what coffee could be. This is where Portland’s lack of cultural diversity seems to also manifest itself in its coffee culture.

With few exceptions, what Portland has is a number of micro-businesses following a slightly updated Stumptown blueprint in miniature. The degree of this conformity here is palpable and even gets a little monotonous. As with the Seattle music scene in the 1990s after Nirvana made it big, nearly every notable new band in town was donning their grunge flannels and crunching the same power chords. (Nirvana coincidentally having a dubious rumored historical connection to the aforementioned Dharma Bums, btw.) Whether that was because there weren’t enough bands differentiating themselves from Nirvana or whether the market/industry was only interested in bands that sounded like Nirvana knock-offs, the effect was the same.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters' wall of cold brew A Stumptown cappuccino

Similarly, Portland “brew bars” (everything is a “bar” or “lounge” these days, whether you’re getting a coffee or getting your eyebrows waxed) tend to follow a rather narrow definition of roasting (microroasters), roasting styles, use of microlot coffees (and the inevitable Portland single origin Ethiopian shot), rather poor attempts at blends when they aren’t outright verboten, accompanied by cut-and-paste ad copy about seasonality and bean-to-cup attention to detail, etc. as if read off of a checklist.

Where’s the pour-over-only shop like a Phil’z that serves only blends and defiantly eschews the notions of geographic traceability entirely? Where’s the Latin American perspective as you get from a Cumaica Coffee? (Though Portland has a great exception with Brazil in Nossa Familia — no wonder it’s one of our favorites in town.)

There are a few multi-roaster shops, but they generally toe the party line: self-imposed rules about geographic specificity, sourcing from the same half-dozen producing countries, and roasting only well this side of the second crack. There’s always nitro (invented at Stumptown) and cold brew, but those are completely different beverages, really. (Not to mention they’re also doing it in Cleveland too.)

But where do you go for a vac pot coffee? Where’s the Third Wave coffee house co-located inside an S&M shop? Even a place such as the tiny Mountain Grounds, who prominently classifies their roasted bean stocks by growing altitude (2200m, etc.), would be guilty of heresy in this environment.

A Mecca of Conformity?

The American Barista Coffee School calls Portland a Mecca, so why not?This isn’t just Portland. We have the same issues with the restaurant scene in San Francisco; when everybody is serving locally sourced, organic, farm-to-table cuisine, a great thing quickly becomes a repetitive mantra and ultimately a self-parody.

While SF has some excellent restaurants, it is rather narrow and limited when compared to places like Chicago or New York. Places where Mexican food isn’t exclusively the same seven Taco Bell ingredients recombined for meals under $10-$15, where dangerous ideas such as offering a tasting menu based on the unique cuisine of Jalisco is even attempted.

If Portland is to ever become a coffee “Mecca”, as is often stated, such a “center of activity or interest” simply cannot play it safe with with a single formula, even if it is a great formula. It should attract diverse and even conflicting influences and nonconformist ideas from all over the world. Because what is the coffee lovers’ benefit of having 40, 60, or even 2,000 local microroasters to choose from if they all are pretty much copying each other?

In conclusion, if you like the philosophical approach to coffee that a Portland roaster or café takes, chances are that you’ll find much to love in abundance throughout this city. It’s a great thing and many people do it well. But if you want to try something different from that insular, narrow definition, you pretty much have to leave town.

Espresso Ratings in Portland
Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Public Domain 603 SW Broadway Downtown 8.00 8.00 8.000
Coava Brew Bar 300 SE Grand Ave. Central Eastside 8.30 8.00 8.150
Good Coffee 1150 SE 12th Ave. Buckman 8.30 8.50 8.400
Heart Coffee Roasters 537 12th Ave. Downtown 8.00 8.00 8.000
Nossa Espresso Bar 811 NW 13th Ave. Pearl District 8.40 7.80 8.100
Barista PDX 529 SW 3rd Ave., Unit 110 Downtown 8.20 8.00 8.100
Spella Caffè 520 SW 5th Ave. Downtown 8.50 8.00 8.250
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 128 SW 3rd Ave. Downtown 8.00 8.20 8.100

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