Unless you’re wearing a tinfoil hat and staying off the grid (except for this blog), you probably know that Peet’s Coffee & Tea — through JAB Holding — bought out both Intelligentsia and Stumptown last month. Predictably, there was much hipster angst on social media (as if that isn’t the whole point of social media), and at first I didn’t see the need to cover the story again.
After all, it is essentially an updated rehash of a post I wrote four years ago. This time around there was an enormous amount of mainstream media coverage as well. But prodded some here, there’s probably another chapter on this topic.
Some of the mainstream media have come to the defense of the acquired, noting the dual standards of how an Instagram sells for billions of dollars to Facebook and its founders are congratulated while Intelligentsia and Stumptown are showered with “sellout” scorn on social media.
However, most Silicon Valley startups scale by merely replicating data and code. With many leveraging Metcalfe’s Law, these businesses naturally improve the customer experience with scale. Contrast this with the business of coffee, which scales through the much higher friction of skilled labor and quality coffee sourcing.
These two factors are subject to a sort of inverse Metcalfe’s Law: the bigger the scale, or the more customers they serve, the poorer the quality of what they serve. Starbucks didn’t dumb down their baristas and throw out their La Marzocco machines for brain-dead, push-button Verismos because it would improve their coffee quality. They did it out of the necessity to scale to thousands of outlets in the face of a dearth of skilled baristas to hire en masse (and less expensive ones at that).
Thus do not be fooled by any of the founder rhetoric about how joining Peet’s provides access to better supply chains and whatnot. I cannot think of a single coffee purveyor that has improved with scale — at least from the consumer’s perspective of a quality end product. Investors and shareholders are a different story, however. It’s also worth remembering that Starbucks’ scaling genius was in getting millions of people who don’t like coffee to believe that they did — through flavored milkshakes and the like.
But I don’t begrudge the founders of Stumptown and Intelligentsia for taking a great risk in the marketplace when much fewer cared as much about coffee quality, for making a great product, for working hard at it, and for growing their businesses. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and for helping to popularize better coffee. I thank them heartily, but make no mistake: effectively this is their stop. This is where they get off.
You could argue Stumptown got off earlier than Intelligentsia. While Intelligentsia was still producing barista champions, Stumptown was already downgrading itself as a bottled coffee purveyor as its founder preoccupied himself with becoming a restauranteur. Stumptown counter-intuitively went beyond producing wholesome basics to embarking on the packaged foods path of processed, shelf-stable consumables — just as much of the food world was headed in the opposite direction. In other words: more pumpkin spice latte in a can, less Cup of Excellence.
Why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee
In fact, the world of coffee today seems obsessed with the brewing-gadget-of-the-week and “new and exciting” coffee beverage concepts as a complete distraction from the basic quality of the fundamentals. These fads and come-ons hint at the side-show desperation of coffee in the 1980s when the emphasis was on faddish gimmicks such as flavored coffees (French vanilla, mocha creme, hazelnut whatever, anyone?).
Every time I see the words “new” or “innovation” associated with coffee, I know they have completely lost the plot. Those are the marketing buzzwords of factory production and packaging. “New” beverage concept introductions such as cold brew and nitro coffee (another thing to thank Stumptown for) are just a page lifted from the Jack-In-The-Box food fad marketing playbook for the Spicy Sriracha Burger. May as well package nitro coffee in a cardboard box along with an action figure from the next Star Wars movie and call it a Happy Pack. Offer good while supplies last.
I do hope both Intelligentsia and Stumptown have a ways to go still under their new ownership. But then I look no further than Starbucks and how its buyout strategy of competitors with better product played out. Whether Torrefazione Italia, Teavana, or the Clover Equipment Company, Starbucks seems to have taken a deliberate scorched earth approach that ultimately eliminates consumer access to better end product.
Thus I recommend fans get their Intelligentsia and Stumptown fixes while they still can, because there really is only one direction for them to go from here.
One of the greatest espresso blends on the planet has remained something of a Bay Area secret for the past 23 years. It is almost certain to remain such, as popular tastes have moved on to single origin espresso shots to the pour-over-device-of-the-month to today’s quality-regressive fads being heralded as the forefront of coffee: cold brew (hello, 17th century Kyoto, Japan), nitro coffee, and bored mixologists treating coffee as if it were merely a Torani syrup flavor.
All of which makes Josuma Coffee Company and their flagship Malabar Gold blend seem like dinosaurs of a lost age. But if you enjoy an espresso of balance and technical precision, Malabar Gold is a tall order that few American espresso purveyors have been able to match.
Disappointed by virtually all pre-blended green coffee supplies designed for espresso, I first encountered Malabar Gold about a dozen years ago as a home roaster. Buying from off-beat green sources such as Hollywood, CA’s The Coffee Project, the proprietary nature of the Malabar Gold blend strikes you as a false industry secret. For example, purchasing from The Coffee Project requires you to claim your status as a home roaster and not an industry professional.
This makes more sense when you understand Josuma Coffee’s business. Founded by Dr. Joseph John in 1992, they company pioneered the Direct Trade model with India coffee growers a good decade before Intelligentsia came up with the term (and two decades before Intelligentsia became Peet’s Coffee & Tea). They promote themselves largely through industry trade shows and today walk an even balance (i.e., 50/50) between their roasted and unroasted greens coffee businesses.
Visiting the Josuma Coffee Company
Over the summer Dr. John’s son, Melind John, invited me down to Josuma’s modest “headquarters” in a Redwood City office park. They had been importing approximately 6 to 7 containers of green coffee from India each year — which most recently has grown to about 9. They store their green coffee in some three different Bay Area warehouses (mostly in the East Bay) and roast in South San Francisco on Mondays.
Their coffee continues to be almost exclusively sourced from India, and most of their blends consist of 3-4 sources. However, Josuma has more recently started seeking out some coffee sources outside of India to aid the flavor consistency of some of their blends and to help round out their offerings to customers — many of them cafés — to provide them with a complete coffee sourcing “solution” as it were.
I’ve found knowledge about India’s coffee to be staggeringly poor in the West. For one, there’s often a presumption that India is purely a British-inspired tea-drinking nation. In South India, there are at least as many, if not more, coffee drinkers than tea drinkers — plus a tradition of it dating back to the 17th century. In 1670, India became the first location in the world outside of Arabia (i.e., Ethiopia, Yemen) to cultivate coffee when the Indian Muslim saint, Baba Budan, smuggled coffee beans from Mocha, Yemen to Mysore, India in what was then considered a religious act.
I joked with Melind that I had encountered the name “Malabar Gold” on multiple occasions around Mysore (officially Mysuru today). But instead of finding the mythical coffee blend, I only encountered locations of a popular chain of jewelry stores.
The great majority of coffee consumption in India isn’t of the “specialty” variety, but that’s also true of the rest of the world. Even so, India — with the Coffee Board of India — have invested heavily in growing and testing quality coffee. That includes wet- and dry-processed arabicas, the unique Monsooned coffee, and some of the highest quality robusta in the world (something you learn as a home roaster if you like a little quality robusta in your espresso blends). And 98% of India’s approximately 250,000 coffee growers remain small growers.
Melind demonstrated some of their own roasts with the two-group La Marzocco FB80 they crate over to trade shows, complete with naked portafilters. Whether straight up espresso shots or Melind’s favorite cortado option, the shot quality was unmistakable.
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thus 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?
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.
They 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.)
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.
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.
As 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.
In 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.
Now 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.
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.