One of the odder, and better, espresso adventures in San Francisco is the outdoor Blue Bottle Coffee tent that descends on the Ferry Building Marketplace every week like a traveling Burning Man exhibition. Starting in 2004, East Bay artisan roaster James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee brought his coffee cart out to the weekend farmers’ market at this location.
James has long (and accurately) recognized the dire neglect of quality coffee by restaurants and cafés, so he’s been big on freshness since the beginning of his days at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. He won’t sell beans roasted more than 48 hours ago, and he’s always bucked the local trend of charred roasts by promoting more moderate roast profiles. Not surprisingly, Blue Bottle was the 2004 coffee winner of the SF Bay Guardian‘s “Best of the Bay,” and they’ve received numerous awards ever since.
More controversially, before establishing a greater Blue-Bottle-branded footprint in SF proper, James also provided the original coffee service and training for the once-excellent Frog Hollow Farm inside the Ferry Building. Frog Hollow Farm’s espresso hasn’t been the same since they dissolved their business relationship, but more on that below.
Blue Bottle operates two temporary locations here: one electrified kiosk on the West (arcade) side using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, and the other kiosk on the South side running off propane and marine batteries using two Astoria manual/lever machines (a four-group and a two-group). (Coincidentally, last week we hinted at James Freeman’s pragmatism this week, and his choice of Astoria machines in the field at this location speaks volumes.)
The lever machines give it the feel of the Toy Boat Dessert Café. Though the off-the-grid nature of this spot reminds me of perhaps my favorite lever machine espresso experience: in a fog bank atop Mt. Vesuvius, just before reaching the crater wall.
The lines here have always been long. But the fresh coffee pilgrims have made it so that I now recommend making up a unique, fictitious name for your order. I heard orders for ‘Greg’ called up four times within the 15-minute wait after ordering, which made things very confusing. This despite the larger pit crew James now fields here (James rarely makes appearances himself now). This location has a couple of benches, but most customers drink it standing up or order “to go”.
They pull shots with a speckled, textured mixture of dark and darker brown crema that is surprisingly thin — at least on warm weather. (James told me their favorite days for consistency are socked-in August Saturdays.) Double shot ristretti are the default, and so are the paper cups — so order it in the traditional brown Nuova Point cups before they run out. For a ristretto, the body is a bit too thin, however — at least with the warm day of my last spot check. It has a flavor of smoke and smooth tobacco combined with a little honey, nectar-like sweetness. The brightness in the coffee shines through, but not as much as their Hayes Valley location. They also offer custom drip filter coffees.
While the overall quality of the espresso here is quite good, this location has never matched Frog Hollow Farm‘s espresso at its best in 2003-2004 — before James pulled out. Frog Hollow Farm seemed to bring together the best of James’ coffee and training with a fixed location and great equipment. Independently, both have suffered a loss of quality at this location since the split.
Following my farmers’ market visit, I headed home to compare my morning Blue Bottle experience with my own home espresso setup — using an espresso blend I made from “micro batches” of four different beans I had roasted with my Fresh Roast+ three days earlier. While it was clear I couldn’t create anything close to the milk microfoam Blue Bottle could produce, my espresso shots had a richer, thicker, and more colorful crema, a slightly weaker aroma, but a more robust flavor profile, greater brightness, and a thicker body. The Bay Area espresso elite should always give my home espresso a run for the money, and in the past three years this cart service has yet to do that.
Read the updated review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the Ferry Building Marketplace.
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