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

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.com 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 RoastRatings.com 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 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).

  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: 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: 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

Trip Report: Showplace Caffè (SOMA)

Posted by on 07 Apr 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

It’s hard to say why I like this place as much as I do, but I do. Though it’s just not the espresso.

Opening in late 2010, this place is pretty much a dive in a part of no-mans-land SF. But it melds with the neighborhood and transports you to another place — if that place is a location shoot from a Quentin Tarrantino movie. Don’t ask why I’m into that sort of thing, though I like expecting to run into Tim Roth. But suffice to say, it’s a tiny, corner spot planted in a neighborhood full of auto repair shops and industrial garages.

Showplace Caffè from the corner Showplace Caffè from the front sidewalk

Inside Showplace Caffè looking out Looking out the windows at Showplace Caffè

Ryan, a former Blue Bottle Coffee employee in a previous life, is typically the lone staffer operating this place. And even he can occasionally disappear outside for smoke breaks. Lines are short and it’s kind of a locals-only thing.

Outside, there are two beat-up outdoor tables on the front sidewalk. Inside, there’s one table for seating at the corner windows. To the rear corner there’s something of a mini-lounge consisting of a couch, a turntable, books, and art magazines. (Oddly, on first visit they were playing a vinyl LP of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street just as I had heard at nearby Sightglass the day before.)

At the plywood counter, they have a two-group La Marzocco Linea. But they also sport a red, 1-lb Sonofresco roaster and beans currently from Sweet Maria’s.

Ryan working the La Marzocco at the counter at Showplace Caffè - with coffee menu posted behind Showplace Caffè's Sonofresco roaster

Tiny but sweet digs inside the tiny Showplace Caffè Working auto garage behind Showplace Caffè

While they currently offer De La Paz coffee for drinks and retail sale (and formerly did the same for Sightglass), they ultimately plan to roast their own from Sweet Maria’s Coffee Shrub commercial sister.

Sometimes you can catch them running experiments with their batch roaster, playing with how to extend typical roast profiles. Their ideal roast is an expressive light roast as they’ve experienced from Seattle’s Slate roasters — where in spite of the lightness they can still somehow extract dark chocolate and other notes characteristic of darker roasts.

A decaying Earl Scheib sign marks that you're near...They’re also big fans of dry-processed coffees, their bright and fruity flavors, and the dangerous high-wire act needed when processing these coffees. (They find the washed-coffee-only types in the industry to be a little limiting… if not irritating.) Lest we forget that Illy — about as quality-control-obsessed as they come — makes their flagship blend from a standard nine coffees, four of which are always naturals.

For now Showplace serves espresso using the Peel Sessions blend (two Africans) as a full double shot with an attractive tiger-striped crema. It’s a larger shot with slightly lighter body. It has a reserved brightness and decent flavor balance of spices, mostly herbal pungency, and some edges of caramel sweetness. Milk-frothing here is pretty solid, producing velvety textures and rosetta latte art. Served in black Espresso Parts cups.

Come to Sightglass for the scene and variety, but come here when you want great espresso and a whole other experience. Highly recommended if you’re ever doing jury duty at the SF Glamour Slammer (as I was recently).

Read the review of Showplace Caffè in SF’s SOMA district.

The Showplace Caffè espresso The Showplace Caffè cappucino

Trip Report: Ritual Coffee Roasters Redux (Mission District)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.

This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.

A new parklet under construction outside the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership Inside the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.

But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.

Art and benches at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Wall o' merch at the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)

A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.

When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.

Service counter looking towards the rear of the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Succulent garden at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.

They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.

The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.

The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters looking to the entrance from the rear 3 Fish Studios/Eric Rewitzer art design on the walls while you wait for your Ritual Coffee order

Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.

Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.

Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.

Read the updated review on Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission.

Synesso machines and Mazzer grinders at the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters service counter The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters espresso

Trip Report: Mountain Grounds (Martinez, CA)

Posted by on 17 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

As we mentioned in our last review of a remote Martinez, CA coffee house: good coffee is everywhere. In fact, the modern boom in good coffee purveyors is akin to the boom of mom & pop video rental stores in the 1980s and ’90s. And as some of these small businesses grow a little larger to form local chains, they’ve become a little like the current surge in home solar installation businesses. The local demand is there and the barriers to entry are generally low.

While the ubiquity of good coffee has its obvious benefits for coffee lovers, it also raises the spectre of market saturation and business sustainability. As good coffee houses open everywhere, they’re no longer rare nor special.

Strip mall entrance to Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA Inside Mountain Grounds with its Nuova Simonelli and 3rd Wave menu on the rear wall

Earlier this month, in response to news of Verve Coffee Roasters planning to open a future location in SF’s Castro District, SFist asked a newly valid question: “Hasn’t the Castro reached Peak Coffee”?

SFist is probably being a little alarmist before we have to worry about carpet-bombing-levels of good coffee in the neighborhood. Verve would have something a little different to say than the others already there, but the nagging old question of espresso sameness comes up. I would be particularly concerned if someone was planning to open yet another coffee shop serving Blue Bottle from La Marzocco machines just like the seven others within a three-block radius.

But in such a saturated environment, discovering a new coffee house with something a little different to offer can be a draw. Sometimes you have to go as far out as Martinez to find something that unique.

Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli machine and some of its roasted coffee menu above Pour-over brewing set up with a Chemex aside of Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli

Mountain Grounds + Revel Coffee = Something Different

Opening in the latter half of 2013, Mountain Grounds is in the middle of nowhere but is unique enough, and has high enough quality standards, to make it well worth a visit. If nothing else for the uniqueness of its coffee sourcing.

Located in a Martinez strip mall of four stores (what else are you going to find outside of old downtown Martinez?), it’s a tight space inside with window counter seating in front and hardly a few seats next to the service counter. Outside there are a few café tables along the sidewalk under the strip mall porticos — along with a couple of lounging chairs and a heat lamp.

Mountain Grounds resells Revel Coffee Roasting beans in plastic cupsOwner John Cassidy and his wife, Danielle, gregariously operate this shop. One of John’s longtime friends is Gary Theisen of Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings, Montana. Revel ships in the coffee from Montana every Monday. (The shop’s working business phone number also betrays John’s Montana roots.) Mountain Grounds also follows the unusual practice of prominently designating their coffee options by their growing altitude (1900m, etc.).

Mountain Grounds follows some creative small-town practices, such as accepting orders via SMS text in advance. (Easier to handle with low volumes.) They also offer a variety of specialty coffee drinks, including crème brûlée lattes (set aflame before being served for the crispy top) and the S’more. At one side of the cramped shop is a menu on the wall titled “A Taste of 3rd Wave Coffee Shops”, which features a double ristretto, a 1 ‘N 1, a macchiato, a cortado, a cappuccino, and a con panna.

The Mountain Grounds espressoThey pull espresso shots from a newer two-group Nuova Simonelli with a modest layer of even, medium brown crema with good coagulation. There’s a fruity brightness in the cup of cherry and berry, but a lack of the apple-like acidity that you might find with typical coffee from newer Cali roasters (e.g., Sightglass). This makes it a unique and rather balanced cup.

Milk-frothing here is pretty even. They offer weight-measured Chemex and pour-over coffee. The shop’s loyal following includes those who also take home Revel beans, which are packaged in clear plastic drinking cups with lids. With no real sink in this tiny shop, coffee drinks are served in paper only except for large ceramic logo cups for the bigger milk-based drinks.

Read the review of Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA.

Trip Report: Barrelista (Martinez, CA)

Posted by on 04 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

“You can find good coffee just about anywhere these days.” That’s been something of a mantra of ours over the past few years — whether it’s to question the point of archaic-yet-always-cited “America’s Best Coffee Cities” surveys in popular media or the need for coffee travel kits. Yet another case in point is my brother’s longtime home town… the Contra Costa County outpost of Martinez, CA.

Joe DiMaggio pitching Mr. Coffee in the 1970s on the little screenMartinez is an old Gold Rush town, located some 35 miles from San Francisco on the south side of the Carquinez Strait. Its small-town legacy includes John Muir’s home from 1890 (and home to the John Muir National Historic Site) and unconfirmed rumors as the birthplace of the Martini. There are also confirmed rumors of Martinez as the birthplace of Joe DiMaggio — before he came to be known for/as Mr. Coffee … and for his slugging percentage as a New York Yankee and an abusively jealous husband.

I’ve found at least two notable places to get coffee in Martinez in recent months. The first, Barrelista, was formerly a coffeeshop named Legal Grounds. This downtown Martinez corner coffee house was opened in February 2014 by the owners of the popular Barrel Aged bar/restaurant across the street.

The place has a funky, independent coffeeshop vibe — but without being run-down, cheap, and skanky as is the case with many less-than-urban independent coffee shops. (And many in cities for that matter.) There are a couple of benches for seating outside in front on a Main St. parklet. Otherwise, inside it’s a cozy spot with a lot of decorative, unique tables and chairs.

It’s not as stuffy as a stereotypical downtown Martinez antiques shop, but it’s much nicer than your typical thrift store. There are mirrored walls, there’s an old bicycle on the wall, and there’s even a shiny metal National cash register at the service counter. A collection of board games keeps some of the locals occupied.

Entrance to Barrelista in a 1905 building in downtown Martinez, CA The chaos inside Barrelista in downtown Martinez

Barrelista's shiny National cash register with Four Barrel beans for retail sale on the side Barrelista's La Marzocco Linea, and Mahlkönig EK 43, behind the counter

They sell panini, pastries, and sweets in addition to their coffee, which comes from Four Barrel (they also sell their beans retail). Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the side of the service area, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema of little detailed texture but yet good thickness.

It’s a modest pour, and it has some of the characteristic Four Barrel brightness but without it being overwhelming. There’s a pleasant roundness to the cup — a fuller mouthfeel accompanied by a decent blend of flavors from herbal pungency to mild spices and cinnamon to some apple-like acidity on the finish. Served in multi-colored Cost Plus World Market cups and saucers. The milk-frothing here is a bit wet and restrained, and yet their cappuccino runs very milky here — like a latte. They also do a decent job of trying their hand at latte art.

A solid espresso that would be worthy most anywhere. But there’s another notable Martinez coffee shop review to come…

Read the review of Barrelista in Martinez, CA.

The Barrelista espresso The more latte-like Barrelista cappuccino

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at Heath Ceramics (Mission District)

Posted by on 01 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew

One of Blue Bottle Coffee‘s great challenges today is to continue growing with the success of their coffee and café operations while avoiding becoming a commodity: a boilerplate coffee shop with a flavor profile so consistent that it becomes a little monotonous and boring, despite its obvious quality. Back in 2007 we wrote about Blue Bottle’s role in the Bay Area’s budding espresso sameness fatigue.

Coincidentally, that reference was in an article about Piccino Cafe — which has since closed, reopened to a larger restaurant space, and switched from Blue Bottle to Sightglass roasting. Sightglass has also since opened a second roasting operation in the Mission District where they immediately addressed the sameness concern by roasting and offering select coffees that aren’t available at their other locations.

Garage entrance to Heath Ceramics and the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Inside with the Blue Bottle Coffee to the left and the Heath Ceramics plant to the right

Just a few blocks from the second Sightglass roastery is this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet located inside the garage door of a Heath Ceramics production and retail warehouse. The location suits Blue Bottle’s alliance with Heath, and it also offers another unique space for them to operate. Even if Blue Bottle has yet to diversify their coffee offerings as much as the smaller-scale Sightglass.

Off to the left in this space is the in-house Blue Bottle retail café, with a decent-sized service counter, a lot of shelf space dedicated to whole bean sales, and a rear shelf of merchandising. To the center is the café seating area, adorned with the warm colors of wooden benches and chairs for seating inbetween the café and Heath’s production plant residing behind glass windows.

Open seating area for the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Heath CeramicsThe area is decorated with succulents and tall white ceilings with a lot of exposed pipes. At the service counter they employ a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. Going just a little off what was expected at the visit, they served espresso using their Colombia Las Margaritas Red Bourbon Honey single origin roast instead of their traditional three-bean blends. This gave the cup a bright fruitiness that shown throughout the cup — or disrupted the balance, however you perceive it.

The flavor is sharp: mace, cloves, and bright spices. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and is served with a small glass of sparkling water on the side in a Heath Ceramic cup (of course).

While it’s a very astringent cup, at least they are experimenting beyond the expected at some of their cafés. Even if we had to deduct a few points for the annoying hipster barista who insisted on calling our shot a “spro”. (The groan-worthy “spro” being the #yolo of coffee vernacular.)

Read the review of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company at Heath Ceramics in SF’s Mission District.

Baristi behind the La Marzocco Strada at Blue Bottle Coffee in the Heath Ceramics Espresso with a side of sparkling water at Blue Bottle Coffee in Heath Ceramics

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