Chasing the Perfect Brew
Welcome to the Third Wave of Coffee.
Photography by Joe Budd
There’s nothing subtle about the way James Freeman tastes coffee.
First, he lines up ceramic bowls of coffee on a tall table and thrusts his nose into one to assess the brew’s aroma. Then, he slurps up some of the jet-black liquid and swirls it noisily around his mouth. “It’s called aerosolizing: You need to spray the coffee over the palate,” he says.
Freeman, 46, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, says this from the cupping room of the Oakland production facility he opened in September 2009. This is the heart of the machine, where he and his staff critique newly sourced beans from around the world, and decide whether they merit inclusion in the Blue Bottle lineup. Throughout the day, employees pass through the room, which shares a glass wall with the Blue Bottle café, sniffing and slurping and scribbling tasting notes into a ledger. All the while, they exchange views in an obsessive (almost to the point of parody) language of their own, “connoisseur speak.”
“There’s a carbony aftertaste that’s not delicate—great for espresso, not enough character for a pour over,” says Freeman, discussing a Brazilian bean he is evaluating with his green bean buyer, Shaw Sturton.
“I taste chocolate spearmint,” replies Sturton.
“It would be perfect if it had more vitality, more vegetable,” mutters Freeman.
Head roaster Brad Joyce wanders into the cupping room. “But I’ve been trying to roast the vegetable out,” he exclaims. “Sometimes, it’s been like peanut butter.”
Freeman: “I like it flush but snappy green.”
“I can do that,” responds Joyce, who like most of Blue Bottle’s staff is young, hip, and earnest. Tattoos and body piercings are optional around here, but a passion for crafting delicious coffee is de rigueur.
Blue Bottle is part of the so-called third wave of coffee companies: Bay Area outfits—including Four Barrel, Ritual, Ecco, Sightglass, and Barefoot—that follow in the venerable footsteps of Peet’s, the specialty coffee pioneer that opened its first store in Berkeley in 1966. Peet’s spawned the Starbucks phenomenon, as well as companies such as Portland’s Stumptown and San Rafael–based Weaver’s—the second wave, if you will.
The new coffee entrepreneurs share a fanaticism about provenance, freshness, and purity. Most favor direct trade, eschewing brokers and scouting out and building their own relationships with coffee farmers in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. “It’s the only way to get the best beans,” says Jeremy Tooker, founder of Four Barrel. It also increases the odds that farmers get a fair deal.
Once the third waivers have gone to all this trouble selecting their beans, they like to showcase them: Single-origin rather than blended coffee is their preference. The resulting taste, they say, will be cleaner, less muddy. “A single-origin coffee is not always great, but it will always be interesting,” says Tooker.
Many of the coffees are organically grown, and you won’t find syrups, spices, or whipped cream at an artisanal coffee shop. Freshness is paramount: Blue Bottle only sells coffee within 48 hours of roasting it. In comparison, Peet’s coffee is sold within 10 days of roasting.
The new generation of coffee aficionados also shares a geeky enthusiasm for the gear and gadgets associated with coffee: Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and Weaver’s all use hulking cast-iron Probat machines to roast their beans. The machines, made in Germany in the 1940s and ’50s, may break down more often than their modern counterparts, but they’re simple and do the job well, says Freeman.
And then there’s the emphasis on preparation: the water-to-coffee ratio, the optimum grind, and the choice of brewing method, be it a French press, a stove-top espresso pot, or a Turkish ibrik. Tooker and Freeman have embraced the traditional Japanese way of preparing coffee. Both Blue Bottle and Four Barrel have siphon bars at their cafés—a slow-drip method of making coffee that is both painstaking and time consuming. It’s coffee making as theater.
Cups of coffee are made one at a time, with an emphasis on perfect extraction. The result is a delicate tasting brew purists savor sans accoutrements, be it milk or sugar. Freeman invested $20,000 in a Japanese halogen-heated siphon bar, which—with its bulbous glass globes, electronic displays, and bamboo paddles—has been compared to a contraption from a Jules Verne novel.
“It’s about traditional artisanal values and perfect execution,” says Freeman, who visits old-fashioned coffee shops in Tokyo and Kyoto for inspiration. Tooker argues that the time it takes to make the slow-drip coffee pays off with its bright taste, and he points out that it’s also an opportunity for a customer to take a breather, perhaps chat with the barista as he or she performs the ritual of making a fresh cup of coffee.
The new coffee-makers tend to be self-taught and often started out selling their wares from humble carts. Case in point: Sightglass, which Blue Bottle and Four Barrel alums Jerad and Justin Morrison started as a kiosk, upgraded to a full coffee bar and roastery on Seventh Street in San Francisco this summer. But the brands continue to grow as the number of their devoted followers swells. Freeman is expanding, adding two new stores in Manhattan this year to his roster of eight locations, and Tooker says he’s looking to open a second space in San Francisco.
Could their horizons stretch further? As Freeman says: “In Cairo in the 1530s, there were 3,000 cafés serving single-origin coffee: It had to be single origin, as it all came from Yemen. We’ve got some catching up to do.”
Coffee is grown in five principal regions of the world—Central America, South America, Africa, Arabia, and Asia (mainly Indonesia)—and in about 70 countries, from Bolivia to Java, and from Sumatra to Zambia. Here are five brands to try.
1 / El Salvador
The Brand: Sightglass’ Finca La Fany ($18.50/pound).
The Source: The 27-hectare Silva family farm at 1,450 meters above sea level in the Apaneca-Ilamatepec mountain range.
The Taste: Bright, with orange and grapefruit qualities, and a dry fragrance balanced by a cocoa flavor. Substantial body.
Great for: People who love their coffee black to savor the sweet, clean taste.
2 / Sumatra
The Brand: Weaver’s Sumatra Organic ($16.45/pound).
The Source: This complex single-origin bean from Indonesia is both organic and fair-trade certified.
The Taste: Earthy and smooth, with a robust body. Inherent subtle flavors reminiscent of sweet pipe tobacco, with woody cedar undertones and a warm maple in the finish.
Great for: A reviving midmorning coffee.
3 / Brazil
The Brand: Blue Bottle's Fazenda Sertaozinho ($23/pound).
The Source: The Barretto Farm, in the state of São Paulo, has been in the same family since 1895 and was one of the first farms in the country to receive organic certification.
The Taste: A blend of sweetness—think mango and refined cocoa—balanced by balsamic acidity. A full body and upright constitution.
Great for: Prepare in a French press for an energizing bolt to start the day.
4 / Colombia
The Brand: Ritual Coffee’s Los Idolos Decaf ($21.25/pound).
The Source: Named after nearby burial sites, Los Idolos is a blend of beans from Grupo Asociativo San Agustin Los Cauchos in the Hulia department of Colombia.
The Taste: Cakelike sweetness with flavors of banana, berries, and cherry.
Great for: A shot of after-dinner coffee that won’t keep you up all night.
5 / Guatemala
The Brand: Four Barrel’s Antigua Chuito ($15/pound).
The Source: Father and son Luis and Luis Pedro Zelaya grow healthy plants shaded by Grevillea trees on a 45-hectare farm on the Guacalate River.
The taste: Heavy bodied cup of raisins, molasses, and cocoa, accented by the crisp acidity of blackberries and boysenberry jam.
Great for: Pour in the milk, flat or frothy, as the bean’s full body will easily maintain the coffee’s flavor.
Making the perfect cup
You can probably make your first cup of the day in your sleep. But are you making the best possible morning joe? Here are a few tips from Blue Bottle and Oakland’s Sweet Maria on how to use a French press.
• Keep your press pot clean; old sediments make for rancid flavors in the cup.
• Using a burr grinder, grind whole beans: They should be gritty, resembling beach sand, but more Santa Cruz than Carmel.
• For each eight ounces of water, use three to four level tablespoons of ground coffee.
• Heat water in a kettle until it is nearly but not quite boiling (198 degrees is nirvana).
• Rinse your press and coffee cup with hot water from the kettle.
• Add ground coffee to the press pot, and pour water over it.
• Gently stir the coffee with a thin wooden spoon or chopstick.
• Place the stem on the pot, with the filter about half an inch above the coffee.
• Wait three minutes.
• Remove stem, and stir once more.
• Gently push the plunger to the bottom of the pot. No pressure means the coffee grind is too coarse; too much pressure means you ground it too finely.
• Coffee is fresh for 10 minutes or less. So, get sippin’.