Although it's not until July, the anxiety has begun. My mom has a little summer cabin in upstate New York; I’m not sure if you've been to upstate New York, but there’s not a lot of coffee going on. You can buy vacuum-sealed packs of Starbucks at the local Walmart, but it tastes like just that: vacuum-packed coffee that's been sitting on a shelf forever. My sisters and I visit over the July 4th weekend, and the caffeine situation always disappoints. Last year we made the mistake of having my Aunt Jill bring us beans in from the city. She brought Folgers. Jill will not be bringing coffee again this year. So I've decided to be proactive. I'll obviously bring some beans when I come up--probably Blue Bottle or Four Barrel (who both do shipping, by the way) but I've been doing a little research for my mom who will be there all summer and who has resorted to those little instant sleeves of coffee. So Mom, this post's for you or for anyone who could use some good beans arriving on their doorstep.
Let's face it: coffee's come a long way from the days when the gals from Friends had their foamy latte or when picking up a bag of Sumatra on the way home from work felt pretty exotic and edgy. In his recent piece for Time Magazine, Josh Ozersky details where we find ourselves today, the "Third wave" of coffee: buying prized lots of single-origin beans and roasting them less frequently, treating coffee as seasonal, and paying attention to slight nuances in bean selection and roasting technique. Essentially, the artisan roasters I'm about to discuss have left Starbucks in the dust.
And a quick side note: While I've tried some of the coffees below, I haven't sampled all of them. I've done some research and talked to coffee folks about the most highly respected roasters and what they're up to. So this post is really more about options and starting to think about coffee in a new way more than it is a "Best of" piece.
This was my go-to spot when I was in Chicago for a wedding a few summers back. The space itself is stark and modern yet simultaneously warm and inviting. And the espresso is almost sweet on its own. I was hooked. They work closely with the actual coffee producers, not just the importers or exporters, so they control quality from the beginning. While many roasters claim to do this, Intelligentsia is there each month of the year--aiming to forge a true collaboration. Intelligentsia is also known for their adamancy that coffee is seasonal, and they try and educate their consumers daily. As a mass product, so many of us are in the mind-set that good coffee is a year-round crop, and it's just not. Depending on the origin, the coffee bean is just like any piece of produce at the store: it has its high season. Intelligentsia only wants you to try it then, so you choose your coffee depending on when it was harvested. For this reason, you won't see twenty different types of coffee on their website: you'll find a few blends, a few single-origin coffees and two or three reserve coffees.
Terroir's impressive education page
George Howell's been on the fine coffee hunt since 1975--some people see him as the trailblazer for sourcing fine boutique lots around the world. The thing that makes Terroir stand out is their firm commitment not to use blends, and their belief that in the same way you wouldn't mix fine wines, you shouldn't mix fine quality coffee. Like some of the other roasters listed here, educating the consumer is part of their mission, so they've actually created an excellent link page with information on everything from How to Keep Roasted Coffee Fresh to Principles of Brewing Coffee. In their shop, you can search by Region, Top Selling Coffees, Category (Organic, Decaf), or even pick up brewing equipment. When you click on a specific region, Terroir provides an overview of the area, and in-depth information on the coffee beans for purchase. They go farther than typical information about taste and origin, listing considerations like the type of soil, altitude, and farm size. They want the consumer to feel a similar connection with the bean that they initially felt when purchasing it.
Searching by region at Counter Culture
Out of Durham, North Carolina, Counter Culture is known for their "micro-lots" and fabulous single-estate coffees. They don't keep much roasted coffee on hand because they're adamant about roasting to order and bagging and shipping on the same day. If you happen to live in North Carolina, they extend their mission to create cutting-edge coffee people by offering a variety of coffee courses, from Beginning Espresso Lab to Milk Chemistry Lab. They also offer free weekly cuppings or tastings. For those of us who aren't so lucky to live close by, they make purchasing online a cinch with brief notes on each coffee, allowing you to search by region (Africa, The Americas...), microlot, or their custom blends (I've heard from an old college friend that the Crook's Corner blend is like nothing else--a little bit sweet and nutty at the same time). For the online or mail-order shopper, they also do Coffee subscriptions.
Sonoma's artisan coffee roasting company has a thriving online and wholesale business and a cache of major industry awards. Andrew Barnett's signature organic coffee roaster, custom roasts each batch in the Northern Italian style--with enough time for the flavor profiles to surface but not long enough for bitterness to ensue. All coffees are shipped within 24 hours of roasting--not something that many roasters claim or guarantee these days. On his website, Barnett says, "I like to introduce to people flavors that open them to the world of exemplary coffee...premium coffees that are roasted properly taste great and leave a pleasant sweet aftertaste, similar to great wines and chocolates." And good news for us: Eater SF reported last month that Ecco is moving to an undisclosed location in Potrero Hill. It's slated to be a café and roastery, allowing Bay Area folks to taste the sweet, single-origin espresso whenever the urge should strike.
Barefoot is another artisan roaster that's adamant about seasonality and freshness of the bean. On the landing page of their website, they have a big space advertising a few coffees that are "Fresh Arrivals" and discuss treating coffee like any other high-quality, sought-after kitchen ingredient. Online, they explain the importance of "Realizing that each bean is affected by soil, varietal, processing, farm, elevation, micro-climate and every hand that crafts it, we are determined to let the coffee speak for itself." They don't describe their coffees as "dark" or "bold," but work to actually describe the flavor and essence of each roast. What I really love about Barefoot is their humble, straight-up way of explaining what they do and why they do it. They genuinely believe that good people who love what they do produce good coffee, so they travel to seek those folks out and work to maintain relationships with them. Their motto, "If you love the coffee, it will love you back" just makes sense and translates to whatever business or endeavor you find yourself in. They're also a recognized leader in sustainable and environmental stewardship, making great strides with green energy, composting, and using a small, local dairy source for their café.
Bringing Them Together
On some days, I find myself bombarded with irrelevant information and promotions from food PR people. But a few weeks ago, I got a note from GoCoffeeGo just to introduce themselves and tell me what they're up to. Since then, I've basically fallen in love with the site. If you're not familiar with them, they were founded by local coffee junkies, Scott Pritikin and Elise Papazian, with the goal of bringing together the country's top award-winning artisan roasters on one site with one stream-lined checkout. The coffee is roasted to order and shipped directly from the roaster to the customer (that being said, the shipping time can vary so if you need it pronto, do a little research on the ETA). It's kind of like the Amazon of artisan coffees: organized, streamlined, great customer service, and a really good product. The coffee selection is stellar. They carry most of the roasters I mentioned above, but they also carry one of my favorite local roasters, Equator Coffee and Tea out of San Rafael. Other great choices include Ritual, Verve, and Higher Ground.