Dealing with the media can often feel like waiting for a Muni bus. Just when it’s been so long that you forgot that they exist, suddenly three pull up in a row over the span of a few minutes. This time the media frenzy surrounded the recent openings of Blue Bottle Cafe and Coffee Bar — with additional curiosity spent on filter coffee from the Clover brewer and James Freeman’s $20,000 siphon bar.

Trouble is that there are a lot of eyes that roll when they see things like $20,000 siphon bars and $11,000 Clover machines. “It’s just coffee!,” they mockingly say. “These pompous coffee snobs are rightfully getting ripped off.”

So we at CoffeeRatings.com wanted to put our 15 minutes of media fame to good use: to help promote better coffee in the Bay Area. (By saying “we” instead of “I”, it at least helps me to believe there’s more than one Bay Area resident who wants better coffee standards in town.)

James Freeman on camera describes how his infamous siphon bar works James and Amy Hollyfield on camera for ABC 7 TV Morning News

Coffee Achievers, Coffee Believers, and Coffee Agnostics

Fortunately, I didn’t encounter much “are you out of your caffeinated mind?!” reporting. ABC 7 TV (KGO) Morning News, for example, had a lot of fun doing a recent coffee story — as I did shooting it with them: abc7news.com: San Francisco coffee bars offer unique, expensive brew 2/08/08. This wasn’t entirely surprising, given that Amy Hollyfield and the rest of the morning TV crew has to get out of bed at 3 a.m. every day for the 5 o’clock News. Let’s just say they have developed a deep appreciation for chemical stimulants, yet they’re rather particular about their morning coffee. (Big Peet’s fans — they thumbed their noses at Starbucks.)

Last month they brought me along as their “expert taster” (their words, not mine) for a TV segment ride-along to Blue Bottle Cafe and Coffee Bar to evaluate some of the newer technologies in brewed coffee. (Classically, at Blue Bottle Cafe the next day, James Freeman asked me if I saw the piece that aired on TV that morning — as he doesn’t own a television.)

Blue Bottle Cafe's cold-brewed coffee setup Coffee Bar's coffee menu

Jason Paul of Coffee Bar on camera with Amy Hollyfield Luigi DiRuocco demonstrates Coffee Bar's Clover brewer for the camera

Then last weekend I hooked up with Josh Sens, a reporter writing a story on Bay Area coffee for San Francisco magazine, and his food-writing/TV-show-producing friend, Sarah Alder, for a coffee-tasting ride-along in San Francisco. Also quite a caffeinated road trip blast, we visited Blue Bottle Cafe, Trouble Coffee, Ritual Roasters, and Caffe Bello. They particularly enjoyed Trouble Coffee for its off-the-wall quirkiness and good macchiati — but they were most impressed with Trouble’s “build your own damn house happy meal” consisting of coffee, toast, and a coconut (the entire shop menu) for $7. (Sarah gets the credit for all of the Trouble Coffee photos, save for the Happy Meal sign, associated with this post below.)

Given their mutual appreciation for good food and wine, my obsessive coffee habits weren’t too off-putting. Josh asked a lot of intelligent, detailed questions about coffee production, preparation, and the industry, and I’ve put him through a bit of my address book for follow-up interviews. It promises to be an interesting piece that should come out in the next 2-3 months.

Trouble Coffee is in Trouble Coffee advertises their own Happy Meal

Coffee shop or found art installation? It's Trouble Coffee The Trouble Coffee Happy Meal: coffee, toast, and coconut

It’s Just Coffee!

A bit more unusual was my interview with Joe Eskenazi, who wrote a similar story for the SF Weekly a couple weeks ago: San Francisco – News – SF’s $12 Cup of Coffee at Blue Bottle Cafe. (Their Web site even included a brief bio piece: News & Politics: The Snitch – Too-Much-Coffee Man: San Franciscan’s Java Obsession Has Led Him to Rate Every Last Cafe in The City (From 1 to 587).)

From that experience, I learned a little more about the art of the media misquote. In the article, Joe quoted me as saying of Blue Bottle Cafe’s siphon bar coffee, “It’s probably not something I’d pay for more than once a month.” However, just as the article’s title misleadingly mistakes a $12 pot for a $12 cup, I was referring to a personally drinking an entire pot of the stuff by myself. Simple mistakes, or examples of poetic license to amp up a story intended to expose the excess of coffee gluttony? You be the judge.

The question is valid — but more for the line of questioning that (thankfully) never made it in the article. In typical SF Weekly socialist bias fashion, I was asked, “There are a lot of homeless people living around the Blue Bottle Cafe’s neighborhood. How can you justify a $10 cup [sic] of coffee when you have to step over the homeless to get it?”

Champagne ethics on a beer budget

Forget for a moment the illogic of buying a $1 cup of dreck at Lee’s Deli as a cure for homelessness. Some people in this town will whine to no end demanding the purest organics, sustainable farms, and well-paid workers with living wages and health benefits … and yet have a coronary if somebody actually expects them to pay for all of that.

One could argue that you could save the spare change from buying cheaper coffee (though screw the workers exploited to grow, store, ship, and serve it to you) and donate the difference to the needy. But what is it about good coffee that is somehow less ethical than buying your clothes somewhere other than Goodwill or relying on a mode of transit other than a bicycle?

Of course, getting this line of questioning from a publication largely funded by its final few pages loaded weekly with ads for escort services and every other form of female sexploitation imaginable raises a whole other set of ethical questions, but let’s stick to coffee.

Even Dante’s Hell puts good coffee in only the third circle

Is premium coffee at a premium price so self-indulgent as to corrupt the moral fiber of our nation? Every time I think that I’m getting too obsessive, elitist, or pretentious about coffee, all I have to do is look at a site like Chowhound and read users’ “trip reports” of restaurant meals, their price tags, and their insular critiques of citrus foam or xiao long bao. Believe you me — we had better hope One Laptop per Child doesn’t succeed at connecting much of the Third World to the Internet. Otherwise hoards of outraged, starving villagers will want to suicide bomb the living crap out of this country after reading sites like Chowhound.

The critical consumptionism of CoffeeRatings.com is already shaky ground. But when you elevate that to competitive criticism of consumption — while seeming so blissfully unaware of how offensive that might be perceived by anyone else — you may as well hand out duct tape, bags of nails, and explosives.

Yet another reason why CoffeeRatings.com might never solicit open user reviews…