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Trip Report: Wildcraft Espresso Bar (Castro)

Posted by on 05 Sep 2016 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Local Brew

Former lawyer (and Xoogler), Theresa Beaumont, returned to her former neighborhood and opened this small space in Dec 2015 at the base of the Bank of the West building — following a concession the bank made to the neighborhood to retain its lower level retail space. A lesbian of color setting up shop in a predominantly gay white male neighborhood? You know it. She aims to make your brief time here in the small space “the best 10 minutes” of your day, and would you believe they do a rather good job of that?

There are a couple of small sidewalk tables out front. Inside, there’s tall glass for making the small space seem as bright and open as reasonably possible. There’s one indoor metal café table with two chairs at the front window; any more and it would feel cramped.

Entrance to Wildcraft Espresso Bar in the Castro Inside Wildcraft Espresso Bar: menu and retail coffee for sale

White walls, a concrete backsplash, some roasted coffee on display for retail sale (Ritual Roasters and Calgary, Canada’s Phil Sebastian Roasters). With the small service space behind the counters, the menu is similarly focused: espresso, drip coffee, and pastries with the curious addition of bone broth and sheep’s milk.

The baristi here are friendly and engaging. And impressively so. I’ve formally reviewed a few thousand coffee shops around the world for CoffeeRatings.com over the past 13 years, and Jordan here was arguably the coolest barista I may have ever met.

Lone table seating inside Wildcraft Espresso Bar and the sidewalk seating beyondThey pulled shots of Ritual’s Last Exit seasonal espresso blend from a shiny three-group La Marzocco GB/5. It’s daringly one-sip short, but it’s a well-crafted shot at that: pungent, dynamic, and lively with a flavor of orange zest and a strong brightness without being overly fruity.

Ritual’s coffee didn’t afford much of a healthy crema on extraction — it was thinner and a pale yellow — but that didn’t detract much from the overall quality of the end product. Served on a decorative dish, in an organically spun ceramic demitasse, with a side of sparkling water and a twist of sugared orange peel.

Read the review of Wildcraft Espresso Bar in the Castro.

Jordan preps for the Wildcraft La Marzocco GB/5 The decorative Wildcraft Espresso Bar espresso

Trip Report: Equator Coffee & Teas (Tenderloin / Mid-Market)

Posted by on 01 Sep 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

Opening in April last year, this Mid-Market outlet of the slowly growing Equator chain espouses being a decidedly populist place for coffee. Like we never heard that before. But given its location and the surrounding environs, you can’t get too precious about your coffee when you do your business among more than a few addicts, panhandlers, and the chemically enhanced. “Mid-Market” being realtorspeak these days for parts of the Tenderloin.

Surrounded by the venerable Warfield Theater and near the landmark Crazy Horse flesh-o-teria, this gentrified space is bright and decorated with inclining angles and lots of exposed concrete — warmed up with leafy green stencils/murals. They display their roasted coffees and teas for retail sale on the rear, service wall.

Sidewalk seating in front of Equator Coffee & Teas, Mid-Market Service counter inside Equator Coffee & Teas, Mid-Market

Window counter seating inside Equator Coffee & Teas, Mid-MarketInside there’s a sort of cherry wood counter with four metal stools at the service bar plus two more similar benches at either side of the entrance for window counter seating. Just beyond that, there’s sidewalk seating beneath two parasols and benches sectioned off from the sometimes-sketchy but always entertaining sidewalk traffic. They offer beer and wine on tap, sandwiches and “boards” to eat, and of course coffee: as espresso and pour-overs.

Pulling shots from a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/70, their espresso comes with an even, medium-to-dark-brown crema. It’s a relatively deep, darker espresso of fuller volume for a doppio shot: four sips large at that. The flavor has some pepper, spices, a hint of molasses, but it is a bit limiting on brightness despite some slight cherry fruit. Served in white English ceramic cups with a decorative spoon and short glass of still water on the side.

Neighboring Warfiend and Crazy Horse Murals around the corner, behind the Warfield

It’s a good shot, but I expect more. Especially when comparing it with their Mill Valley surf shop location. A place with Equator’s award-winning coffee stature really ought to do better. It barely gives a Peet’s a run for the money.

Read the review of Equator Coffee & Teas in SF’s Tenderloin / Mid-Market area.

Equator Coffee & Teas' La Marzocco FB/70 The Equator Coffee & Teas espresso, Mid-Market

Trip Report: George and Lennie (Tenderloin)

Posted by on 07 Aug 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

Opening in August 2015 in one of the rougher parts of this softening town, Brett Walker combined his experience as a former Four Barrel Coffee barista with his love of houseplants and large-format prints of his photography in establishing what is very much a personal space. It also happens to serve coffee.

On the ground floor beneath new residential apartments (The Lofts at Seven) and nearby UC Hastings and its law students, this café’s name is an homage to his favorite book (John Steinbeck). There’s often a selection of eclectic music playing on the turntable, blaring through cheap speakers.

Tenderloin murals as you approach George and Lennie Mo' mural...

Entrance to George and Lennie in the Tenderloin Service counter inside George and Lennie, with of course Brett at the helm

Besides Brett’s massive plot printer off to the side, the space includes two live-edge cut counters at the front windows with two wooden stools (courtesy of his wife, furniture designer Katie Gong). There’s also a short, two-person wood bench out front for sidewalk seating.

Inside the chairs are mismatched and, along with the occasional cactus, cover the concrete slab floors. He sells Chemex brewers, filters, and roasted coffee plus baked goods, pour-over coffee, and espresso from a three-group La Marzocco Linea Classic. There’s even a chalk menu of drinks and prices that states “Butter Coffee – Yes”.

Brett Walker's plot printer for his photographs takes up one side of the space - with houseplants Front window counter at George and Lennie

Tenderloin mural around UC Hastings, near George and LennieHe pulls shots of Four Barrel’s Friendo Blendo (he also serves De La Paz) with a moderately thick, even, medium-to-pale brown crema. Served out of a short glass jelly jar, it has a distinctive brightness that you can sense at the back of your throat and tastes of spices, some apple, and a little molasses. But this is mostly about the brightness.

Some SF smartphone zombies with a jones for the gram might whine about the lack of WiFi here, but that would detract from Brett’s one-man-show of a coffee space. This place reminds me of some of the edgier SF coffee bars of the 1990s — just with much better coffee.

Read the review of George and Lennie in SF’s Tenderloin.

Brett works his La Mazocco Linea Classic The George and Lennie espresso - served in a jelly jar

Trip Report: Sightglass (SFMOMA)

Posted by on 16 Jul 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine

This Sightglass location was announced in 2015, in the middle of SFMOMA’s three-year hiatus while being expanded into the largest modern art museum in America.

It opened with the museum in May 2016, inhabiting a modern, open air space among photography and interactive exhibits on the third floor. The space employs blonde wood and a sleek, minimalist design and is surrounded by modern sofas, small café tables, and video art installations.

Approaching the service counter at SFMOMA's Sightglass Service bay, roasted Sightglass coffee, and a Kees van der Westen Spirit machine

Stairwell to SFMOMA's 6th floorThis is the new coffee stop in the expanded museum. Cafe 5 on the fifth floor is where the former Blue Bottle Coffee at the Rooftop Garden used to be (with its three-group, manual Kees van der Westen Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette espresso machine relocating to the Outer Sunset‘s Andytown Coffee Roasters during the hiatus). Cafe 5 now serves illy coffee, and they’ve added two more floors to what was once the museum rooftop.

This was the third incarnation of SFMOMA I’ve visited — the first being at the cramped and dated War Memorial on Van Ness, where the collections were more heavily weighted towards interactive and video arts. Some of these installations have returned on the 7th floor of the new building.

Despite my inability to relate to much of the new Fisher Collection on the 5th and 6th floors, overall the new museum is quite impressive — including the extensive outdoor space. Of the new things on exhibit there, I was perhaps most drawn in by Wayne Thiebaud’s Canyon Mountains, excerpts from Jim Goldberg’s poignant Rich and Poor photography/essay series, and the gravity-bending Sequence from Outer Sunset mega-sculptor Richard Serra. Nina Katchadourian’s Under Pressure was also rather comical, but you need to put on the headphones.

Café seating among art installations at the SFMOMA Sightglass Café seating and video installations at the SFMOMA Sightglass

A line forms away from the Sightglass service counter to allow pedestrians to pass through, and behind the counter there are dueling two-group Kees van der Westen Spirit machines and bags and bags of Sightglass coffee. For retail sale they also sell their roasted coffee, over-packaged and in a reduced-size (8-oz).

Other than some pastries, it’s largely about the coffee service here. They pull shots with a complex medium-brown mottled crema of lighter thickness. It has the flavor of mild spices, some acidic brightness of lemon peel, wood, and some limited cherry fruit but yet it’s not the stereotypical Sightglass brightness bomb you’d expect. Served two-sips short in logo porcelain cups with a glass of sparkling water on the side.

About as serious an espresso shot as you will find in an American art museum.

Read the review of Sightglass at SFMOMA.

Café seating outside the service area of SFMOMA's Sightglass The SFMOMA Sightglass espresso

Trip Report: illy Caffè (Sansome St., Financial District)

Posted by on 18 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

I hadn’t seen the illy caffè North America crew since attending Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone. I’ve long admired them as a privately-owned company: run by cool people, with an attention to coffee quality and investments in coffee science long before anybody thought that made any sense, and even being named a world’s most ethical company for four years running now. So when they invited me to another San Francisco illy caffè opening last month, of course I accepted.

This is another illy Caffè in SF (and not another Espressamente) — this one located in the eastern shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, in the heart of the Financial District. Like the other illy caffè on Union St. that predated it, the food menu is a bit more involved and the service levels are just a touch higher than you’d get at an Espressamente.

Entrance to illy Caffè on Sansome St. in SF's Financial Distrcit The illy chandelier at 505 Sansome

Tricked out illy mobile cart and too many models in black at the illy opening Pastry counter at illy's 505 Sansome location

It’s a 1352 square-foot space capable of seating 32 patrons, and there’s the requisite illy Art Collection chandelier made of their designer cups as you walk in. Tall windows overlook the modern SF firehouse across the street with various café tables spread about for lingering.

Behind a large pastry counter (from City Bakery and Tout Sweet Patisserie) they operate a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. With it they’ve pulled shots with a picture-perfect, medium brown tiger-striped crema of modest thickness. The flavor profile is classic illy: mild spices, wood, and a broader flavor profile. Served in designer IPA logo cups.

Inside, the illy caffè NA crew showcase the company and menu Master Barista, Giorgio Milos, looks on at the event

illy caffè NA's Mark Romano explains their coffee sourcing illy's affogato specialty drink

Milk-frothing here is good: it may not be the prettiest, but it has a good texture and density. As illy has gotten into signature drinks lately, upon visit they were featuring their summer-ready illy Espressoda and a dessert-worthy illy Cinnamon Vanilla Affogato. For those bored with good coffee.

Read the review of illy caffè on Sansome St. in San Francisco’s Financial District.

illy Caffè's La Marzocco Strada The illy Caffè espresso

Cappuccino served at illy Caffè's 505 Sansome location

Trip Report: Josuma Coffee and the Ancient Quest for Malabar Gold

Posted by on 01 Nov 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting, Robusta

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.

Or to paraphrase Nick Cho: “Second Wave wolves in Third Wave sheep’s clothing“.

The non-descript office of Josuma Coffee Company (center) Melind John works their La Marzocco inside Josuma Coffee Company

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.

Josuma Coffee's Malabar Gold blend - roasted Monsooned Malabar from a family's kitchen in Bangalore, India

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.

Pulling a shot at Josuma Coffee Company Naked portafilters at Josuma Coffee Company

The Josuma Coffee Company espresso The Josuma Coffee Company cortado

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.

A photo I took of one of the Malabar Gold jewelry stores in Mysore, India Inside Bangalore's Coffee Board of India: a display featuring some of the local greens

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.

David Schomer doesn't kid aroundMelind 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.

As quality espresso pioneer and “dinosaur” David Schomer (of Espresso Vivace fame) said at the recent Portland Coffee Fest about Malabar Gold: “This is the only other espresso I’ll drink. And you can quote me on that.” So we will.

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

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