Move over Peet’s and Starbucks. The third wave of coffee, epitomized by transparency around origins and processing methods, light roast profiles, latte art, and made-to-order pour-overs is taking over San Francisco. Once viewed as a commodity, relatively homogenous and inexpensive, coffee is now an artisanal beverage, one that you might have to wait in a long line and pay upwards of $4 for, just for drip. But when you think about the trajectory of coffee, from seed to cup, as industry folks say, it all makes more sense—the price, if not the cult mentality. These five coffee shops get it all right: great sourcing, conscious roasting, careful preparation, friendly service. And they aren’t the only ones; they’re just the ones I’ve had a chance to enjoy over the last month.
Linea Caffe is a tiny corner store, first famous for its waffles, with just a few tables outside on the sidewalk. Inside, master roaster Andrew Barnett, who founded Linea in 2013, is best known for his finesse with espresso roasts, and while there’s an Italian bent to his reputation, frankly, he produces coffees with much more nuance and complexity than the average espresso you’ll find in Italy these days, valuing the beans’ inherent sweetness and specific terroir. Currently on offer for drip are single-origin coffees from Guatemala and Colombia. And if you must drink decaf, this is the place. Barnett blends Swiss water-processed beans from El Salvador and Ethiopia and roasts them to produce a sweet, balanced, even floral cup. An added pleasure is the Heath ceramic mugs the coffees are served in.
Stanza is a dimly lit, cozy space, a welcoming respite on a sunny day, especially for its compelling local art exhibits hanging on the walls and its rotating selection of nearby roaster Turning Point’s fine coffees, where roaster Dustin DeMers approaches each coffee creatively and with an appreciation of its origin. Stanza is the only shop on this list that serves coffee roasted by others, allowing a focus on preparation of coffee drinks and service. The morning I stopped in for a cappuccino, I inquired about the Turning Point Gesha, a rare and expensive coffee variety grown mostly in Panama. This version, which is almost certainly sold out by now, was a natural-processed coffee, meaning the coffee cherries were dried whole, as opposed to being pulped, washed and dried. Because it’s typically light-roasted, it’s an unusual choice for an espresso drink, but it actually presented beautifully in milk, which muted its brightness a bit, but enhanced its chocolate tones. And I was only charged for a regular cappuccino, despite the fact that Gesha coffees sell for up to $50 per 12-ounce bag.
Entering Four Barrel’s roaster and café in the Mission is a little like landing on the set of a Willy Wonka production. The highly stylized space, with an eye toward those for whom coffee is an aesthetic principle more than a wake-up beverage, is roastery in back, café in front, with options for espresso drinks (made with organic, cream-top San Benoit milk) in one line and a slow bar for multiple methods of drip coffees in another, with a tasteful retail display on the side. You can’t go wrong here, unless you’re in a hurry. It’s an experience to be savored, and the people-watching is museum caliber. It’s also possible to get a sense of the roasting operation, which centers on a vintage German roaster that seals the deal on this spot’s hipster cred. Despite all that (or because of it?), the servers are as friendly as can be, happy to explain any lingo to newcomers.
Acre in San Francisco is the urban branch of a Petaluma coffee roaster that was an immediate hit after it took off in 2011, mostly for its single-origin, very small-lot coffees roasted light to medium, but also for its relaxed, rustic vibe. The SF shop is more of a gun-metal gray and sleek white experience, but nonetheless casual. Whether intentional or not, latte art here is sort of anti-hipster, with a simple circle of foam on top, as opposed to the typical fancy milk-flora. I can’t confirm that this is consistently the case at this branch—perhaps the barista just didn’t know how to make swirly flowers or hearts—but it was kind of refreshing, with an uncompetitive air. And delicious, too, of course.
Hearth is the place to go when you want food with your coffee. Their website indicates that they’re a roaster first, but when you walk in the light-filled Castro shop, the first hit is, most certainly, “bakery.” And it would be a crime to leave without at least one homemade butter croissant, brie en croûte, or wild boar Danish, all made daily on site using Giusto’s organic flours. No apologies for this digression, but Hearth is also a destination coffee-roaster, with a rotating selection of origins, all roasted to medium, as opposed to usual third-wave tendency toward light. Medium roasts are particularly good for espresso drinks, but also show off, and sometimes tame, the fruit-forward presentation of natural-processed coffees, such as the single-farm Ethiopia I recently had there. (Cooperatively produced, rather than single-farm, coffees are the norm in Ethiopia, so this was a chance to try a coffee whose lineage was tightly controlled all along the way.) And I left with a loaf of pain au levain and couple of salt bagels, to boot.