Philz Coffee presents with something of a dilemma. Things were a little more straightforward when Philz offered espresso — the basic yardstick for all the ratings on this site. And the 18th St. Philz (since closed) rated among the worst 10% espresso purveyors in the entire city. It practically takes effort to be that bad.

Now owner Phil Jaber may have gotten into a business dispute that shut down this original 18th St. location, but he seemed to get wise in not even attempting to make espresso anymore. Well, legitimate espresso, that is. More on that technicality below. But given the recent attention paid to high-end brewed coffee in S.F., the loyalists of Philz Army whom e-mail us regularly to ask what we think of Philz, and the fact that this site is called and not, Philz is a local force that cannot be ignored.

Philz new 18th St. location The China Basin Philz at Berry and 4th Sts.

Phil and His Philniks

Philz is also a cult. Now we don’t mean to imply that they’re a branch of Scientology, and that S.F. coffee lovers should expect to find Tom Cruise lounging at one of their cafés in a black turtleneck, spouting off how Philz coffee drinkers are the only people capable of saving the world. But it’s a cult in the same vein you’d find for In-N-Out Burger (which we find to be only slightly less revolting fast food) or even Krispy Kreme donuts a few years back.

For one, wild-eyed people hanging out within 100 feet of a Philz will approach you at random and tell you how you must stop in and have the best coffee you’ve ever had. And once you’re inside, you’ll typically be greeted by extremely friendly staff — so much so, it can be a bit scary and off-putting if you’re not used to total strangers coming on that thick. Phil Jaber himself makes no mistake that he’s out to make a coffee convert of you.

Once inside, at first you might appreciate the wide array of coffee varieties available for you to sample. But upon closer inspection, you’ll discover that all their coffee blends are laden with adjectives and yet lack any descriptive nouns. It’s as if Phil fancies himself as the Willie Wonka of coffee; his blend names have more in common with scented candles than with any recognizable geographic region, bean varietal, farming estate, or roasting style.

But that’s also perhaps some of his appeal to his loyalists: all those nouns represent a bothersome, scientifically-precise pretense about coffee — whereas adjectives are egalitarian, universally approachable, and can be appreciated as art unencumbered by facts. (I once asked Phil’s son and Philz co-owner, Jacob Jaber, if I could “buy a noun”. He had no clue what was in what blend.)

Philz Coffee, China Basin

The Philz location in China Basin (201 Berry St., at 4th St.; 415.975.3847; M-F 6am-9pm; Sa-Su 6am-7pm) opened in early 2007. It’s a large corner space filled with leather sofas and chairs with tall windows facing the new Muni T-line. Besides filter coffee, they also sell pastries, brown paper bags of roasted coffee, and even replicas of Phil’s fedora (that says a lot right there).

To get as close as I could to ordering an espresso here, I ordered #20 on their menu of blends: “Phil’z Handmade Espresso.” It is espresso in name only. Like all the other coffee here, the beans are pulled from plastic bins, ground to order in BUNN equipment, and brewed with hot water passed through a paper filter. Calling that “espresso” is akin to cracking an egg on a plate and calling it an “omelet”. (Never mind that many S.F. establishments serve espresso that poorly looks and tastes like filter coffee.)

Philz charges by the adjective Philz ready makes their filter coffee from bins of various blends behind the counter

Still…it’s some of the best filter coffee in S.F.

However, Philz does produce a very good cup of filter coffee. If I were rating it as an espresso, it would rate about a 4/10. But it’s not espresso. As filter coffee, I’d rate it an 8 — better than all but a few filter coffee options in the city. It had a smooth body and a bit of lively flavor with spices.

So what makes Philz coffee that good? You are paying a serious premium ($2.50 for a small cup of filter coffee). I’ve purchased beans from Philz before (their Heavenly Blend). But when I brewed them at home, I didn’t find them to be any better or worse than most anything you could buy from local roasters in the area. Thus what seems to set Philz apart is that they grind to order, they brew single servings on the spot, and the brewed coffee isn’t left sitting on a burner or even in a thermos.

Another big plus is that they offer a great variety of bean options. With filter coffee, you can get by with carrying a wider inventory of roasted beans. Espresso is far more sensitive to the freshness of the roast and thus inventory turnover is crucial.

Interestingly enough, all their roasts are blends. This in an era where we read about the “death of the coffee blend”. Yet some people go for single malt scotches, some like a blended Johnny Walker; there’s nothing wrong with either one of those choices if done well.

Counter at Philz Coffee in China Basin Phil'z Handmade Espresso [sic]

What Would L. Ron Hubbard Drink?

So while we’ve ruled out Philz as an espresso non-starter, and hence inappropriate for the reviews database, their filter coffee is quite good. But is “quite good” worthy of a cult following?

Once again, I don’t see Phil Jaber as any more notable than his Sunset roasting contemporaries: legendary, friendly neighborhood “loners” such as Alvin Azadkhanian of Alvin’s and Henry Kalebjian of House of Coffee. Phil does a bit more to ensure the freshness and variety of his filter coffee, but with Alvin and Henry you at least have the opportunity to learn something about coffee — and your own likes and dislikes. Yet even the most rabid Blue Bottle addicts we know don’t prowl the streets like zombies after fresh brains, uncontrollably frothing at the mouth about how Philz must infect you too. (Though many Blue Bottleheads do seem to have an unhealthy, singular fixation with their stuff — and are incapable of considering other great area roasters.)

Perhaps a number of Philz loyalists don’t like espresso (or, as is often the case, never had someone make them a proper one). When it comes to quality coffee, espresso drinks — and their profit margins — still dominate the retail coffee landscape. Even some of the best espresso bars in the city give short shrift to their filter coffee. (And all those espresso drinks/milkshakes have names that are just too damn prissy.)

Or perhaps it’s a revelation coffee — the analogue to the revelation espresso we often talk about. Through Philz, many customers first realize what flavor and freshness can do when your coffee isn’t left burning on a BUNN warmer for hours after being made with stale, pre-ground coffee. Date abusive boyfriends or girlfriends all your life, and you too might be ready to marry the first person who doesn’t take a swing at you on the first date.

And there is a reactionary element, where Philz appeals as a sort of anti-Starbucks or anti-Tully’s: local, with a local personality, and not mass produced. But perhaps most of all, it comes down to Phil Jaber himself: a uniquely qualified coffee showman and huckster. A cult of personality.