Over the past couple of years, San Francisco has undergone something of a revolution in great espresso. Although the quality revolution has yet to trickle down to the typical corner café, great changes have taken place at the upper eschelon.

At the forefront of this revolution is a troika of relative newcomers: Blue Bottle Coffee, Café Organica, and Ritual Roasters. These three cafés have come to represent what some people have (ridiculously) referred to as the Third Wave of coffee in San Francisco. (I’ve come across a poster on CoffeeGeek.com’s forums who once said of me and this site, “He’s not very Third Wave” — as if it was some kind of management cult akin to California’s est craze in the 1970s.)

Personally, I simply prefer the term “good” coffee. This isn’t Moore’s Law or a generation of mobile phone technology that becomes obsolete every 18 months. While the approach and the suppliers have been finely tuned, great espresso has been that way for decades. Hold the techno-foam and the marketingspeak.

Now on to the troika…

Blue Bottle Coffee

I suppose if you had to choose an order, I’d start with Blue Bottle Coffee. James Freeman started in the Easy Bay with the bold statement of actually posting the roasting dates on his small batch coffee roasts. He emphasized freshness above all else, making it a policy to never sell beans roasted more than 48 hours ago. (Of the troika, Blue Bottle is the only member that roasts their own coffee.)

By 2004, James took his Berkeley farmers market stint on a roadshow, establishing a weekend espresso cart presence on farmers market days at the newly remodeled Ferry Building. Long lines soon followed.

However, perhaps the biggest imprint James first left on San Francisco was his partnership with the Ferry Building’s Frog Hollow Farm. Known more for their peaches and baked goods, James’ influence on Frog Hollow Farm’s coffee was total: from the installation of a La Marzocco FB70 … to the use of Blue Bottle Coffee beans … to impeccable staff training for how to produce the finest espresso.

The partnership was so successful that CoffeeRatings.com rated Frog Hollow Farm as the #1 espresso in San Francisco throughout most of 2004 — ranked even higher than James’ own weekend cart service next door. But it was perhaps too successful, as James seemed to have designs of his own for a regular presence in SF. The result was the opening of a rough storefront in a Hayes Valley alleyway. Meanwhile, James appeared to pull out of his partnership with Frog Hollow Farm, and the quality there, while still very good, hasn’t quite been the same since.

Their espresso has a real sweetness in the cup that I like, and they make mean macchiato. I also recommend picking up a bag of their Temescal Espresso blend for making your own milk-based espresso drinks at home (I’ve found it can be better than their own milk-based drinks!).

Blue Bottle's Hayes Valley location A Blue Bottle espresso with a richly colored crema

Ritual Roasters

Ritual Roasters is a great success story. Opened in May 2005 by Northwest expatriates, Eileen Hassi and Jeremy Tooker (and cover boy in the latest issue of the recommended Barista Magazine), Ritual Roasters shows an obsession with great espresso in a neighborhood that has largely neglected these values over the years: the Mission District.

Jeremy and Eileen met when they were first lured to San Francisco to help staff the once-excellent, Seattle-based Torrefazione Italia chain as it developed operations on Union Street and two downtown (on Montgomery Street and on Battery Street). (Disclosure: the son-in-law of Torrefazione Italia’s founder once worked for me.) For those who missed out, Torrefazione Italia may have changed owners several times, but the chain brought a modern quality and aesthetic to San Francisco espresso that previously did not exist here. Elegant Deruta ceramic cups (what, no paper?!), latte art, and baristas who strived for the best behind their dueling Elektra machines were their hallmark.

However, Torrefazione Italia’s last suitor, Starbucks ( a company that, for the record, I am quite neutral about), actually lived up to their normally undeserved Evil Empire moniker. By 2005, the staff was replaced by less competent baristas making far lower wages, and the product suffered terribly until all outlets were (deservedly) closed in San Francisco by September 2005. But like a phoenix from the ashes, Ritual Roasters was born out of the demise of SF’s once great Torrefazione Italia.

But here the owners of Ritual bring a passion for Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee. In fact, despite their occasional mumblings about roasting their own on site, Ritual has benefitted greatly from a relationship they established with Stumptown owner, Duane Sorenson.

Today, it’s great to see Ritual packed with many locals who have come to recognize the real quality in the product they produce.

Entrance to Ritual Roasters on Valencia Shorty J and Shorty G at the Ritual helm Anatomy of a Ritual espresso Inside Ritual Roasters Ritual macchiati

Café Organica

Café Organica is frequently rated as pulling the #1 espresso in SF on CoffeeRatings.com. It also opened in early 2005, but it has a different lineage than the others. Owner Eton Tsuno developed his taste and knowledge of excellent espresso in Southern California and, later, Mountain View. And where I might describe Blue Bottle and Ritual as places of espresso artists, Eton is more of an espresso scientist.

The scientific approach is evident at Café Organica. Sure, they time their shots and apply methodical preparation techniques like the others. However, Organica leans a bit more on the experimental side. Here the baristas more frequently pull and re-pull shots for customers — partly as a measure of quality control, but also as a way of allowing their customers to taste the differences in both shots when they are prepared slightly differently. And of course, offering a selection of at least four different bean varieties underscores their commitment to customer experimentation and learning. Meanwhile, Eton is often trying new bean stocks and roasters, single-bean roasts and blends, and he was likely the first in the Bay Area to offer shots “naked” or “with spouts” (i.e., with open or the usually closed portafilter).

Eton has big ideas. If you catch him there, he can go on about his visionary ideas for espresso cocktails, educational centers with home espresso machines and training, and other industry trends that may or may not ever materialize. But whatever the espresso topic is, you quickly realize that he has thought about it a lot.

The espresso shots at Organica aren’t the sweetest and most full-bodied (when looking for those qualities, I am more apt to visit the other troika members). However, a visit there is like a wine tasting excursion. They produce some of the most meticulous shots you will find in the Bay Area — and always coated with a crema of dark flecks that I often associate with Chicago’s Intelligentsia.

Entrance to Café Organica Organica's decidedly North of the Panhandle interior
Organica's five grinders for their different espresso blends Organica's La Marzocco beneath modern artwork that suggests dentistry
The dark flecks in the crema of an Organica Redwood Espresso Even darker flecks in an Organica Ruby Organic espresso