Team members from Ritual Coffee Roasters and Dandelion Chocolate share a “cupping,” or coffee tasting. / Image via Ritual Coffee Roasters
The San Francisco Bay Area is known for a lot of things—avocado toast, skyrocketing rental rates, and that oh-so-specific sourdough bread. But there’s something a little more caffeinated that doesn’t always make the list—unique specialty coffee. While brands like Blue Bottle or Philz may pop immediately into your mind when it comes to coffee, there are an overwhelming number of independent coffee roasters that call the Bay their home.
These roasters bring their own unique background, history, and skillset to the beans they serve, making each brew a little different from the next. Whether you’re a light-roast aficionado, a morning grump looking for a little joy, or you’re simply trying to find your new favorite cafe to work for the day, this guide has a hand-crafted selection for everyone.
“I think San Francisco is one of the best cities in the entire world for coffee—if not the best,” says Eileen Rinaldi, founder and owner of Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco.
Rinaldi takes a lot of pride in creating a physical product in a city now known largely for its technology production. “I think there’s something about the ecology of the Bay Area,” says Rinaldi. “It’s part of our ethos to push the boundaries further and see how we can do things better...We’re just never satisfied with the coffee. We love it, but we always want to do better.”
Ritual joins a long line of San Francisco coffee roasters—including famous brands like Folgers and Hills Bros.—and product manufacturers that aren’t always associated with the city’s booming industries. “I’m excited about this scene of San Francisco coffee roasters that is connected to a scene of manufacturing in San Francisco” says Rinaldi, “And I think that’s critical to us maintaining a diverse economy here.”
Rinaldi says that Ritual specializes in lighter roasts, a process that is delicate and difficult to produce in large quantities. Where some would compare roasting coffee to steaks on a grill, Rinaldi prefers to use baking a cake in her analogy.
“If you throw steaks on a grill, it’s great if the inside is pretty much still raw,” says Rinaldi. “But when you bake a cake and the inside isn’t cooked, it’s inedible. [With] light roasting, you want to get the center of the bean fully cooked essentially without scorching the outside.”
“What makes that especially challenging for roasters is different beans have different densities, different moisture contents,” continues Rinaldi. It’s only a few seconds that separates not-quite-roasted coffee that doesn’t brew properly from a roast with a lot of flavor.
Ritual has cafes all across San Francisco, and one in Napa, where you can grab a cup for yourself—the location in Hayes Valley is just about perfect if you’re looking for some window shopping. If you’d rather craft your brew at home, you can check out their handy brew guides that will walk you through just about every way to make coffee you can think of—and a couple you might not have known before.
With four locations all across the Bay Area, and many more cafes serving their beans, you’ve most likely seen Highwire’s striking packaging while in search of your morning cup—simple brown bags with bold black typeface and intricate images reminiscent of woodblock prints that were created in Highwire’s early days by a barista and graphic designer named Katie Miller. With names like “The Core” and “Conscientious Objector,” the whole presentation is hard to ignore—much like the ethos behind the company itself.
Robert Myers, one of the co-founders of Highwire, got his start in coffee in the Bay Area while working at Peet’s. He saw coffee’s ability to build community and was inspired to start his own roaster—one that makes space for people to help one another.
“Most of the people I’ve ever met who work in coffee are just good people. They’re interesting people,” says Myers, “When I became a coffee roaster I didn’t want to be in competition.I didn’t see that it needed to be competition.” His admiration for the people in the coffee business has impacted his business ethos in a deep way. In fact, over the last few years, Highwire has helped several small roasters get their start by teaching them how to roast (if they need it) and renting them space within their own roastery.
“One of the biggest barriers to entry for people who want to realize their dream in coffee is how prohibitive buying a coffee roaster has always been,” says Myers. “We could open up our space [at Highwire] to other business people and really be part of people realizing their dream. And that to me is a much nicer space than who’s doing better in sales or who has more followers on social media.”
Myers says it’s gratifying to see roasters graduate to their own space and continue to contribute to the diverse voices within the Bay Area coffee scene.
Bicycle Coffee has the type of over-the-top scrappy origin story that makes it distinctly Bay Area—including roasting their first batch in a popcorn maker and getting it into the hands of top-floor FiDi execs via a little phone-call trickery. Now, Bicycle is an international enterprise with locations in the Bay, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.
The roastery takes its name from their delivery method. All orders are delivered via bicycle, with the bags of coffee stacked into small trailers specially designed for the task.
“We have trailers we designed and built ourselves,” says Brad Butler, co-founder. “They hold hundreds of pounds [of coffee] and there’s nothing else like them on the market.”
Initially, bicycles were the most cost-effective form of delivery they had. But they later discovered that it was also a great way to beat traffic and avoid parking fees in San Francisco’s downtown area. Butler also feels that by moving through their local communities via bicycle, it helps keep them connected with their customers in a more personal way.
“You have a competitive advantage if you do everything you can to do good and create community with your business,” says Butler. And after doing business in the Bay Area for nearly ten years, he says that’s been key to staying power in a place changing as rapidly as their home-base in Oakland.
“You see old-timey places going away,” says Butler. “You see new places popping up and [then] going away...you feel the squeeze, and recognize that the only way [you’ll] win is by building long-term relationships. "Butler explains that those relationships expand to everyone who walks through the door of each Bicycle location—either via a simple conversation while the coffee is brewed or through offering free cups of coffee every Friday.
The newest roaster on this list, Slojoy has only been in Oakland for four years, but in that time they’ve graduated from a small space in the back of a local market to their very own walk-up window on Webster street.
Christopher Stites, founder, says that his path to coffee was quick and borderline spontaneous. “We came back from a visit in Maui to a coffee farm and fell in love with the process,” says Stites. He started roasting in his kitchen, sending bags to friends and family, then rapidly graduated to their current location.
Slojoy’s signature slogan is “spread joy,” which comes from the founder’s desire to deliver something joyful in coffee and community faith building. Stites is both a coffee roaster and a pastor, helping lead services at The Movement church in East Oakland.
“Joy is different from happiness where it’s slow, but it’s lasting,” says Stites of the roastery’s name.
Part of the “joy” in “Slojoy” is that each batch of coffee is small—usually around 50 to 60 pounds a week—and is roasted just about every 6 or 7 days. In addition to a dedication to freshness, each cup of Slojoy coffee served at the window comes with a little something special to put a perk in your step.
“We just want to encourage folks,” says Stites. “We write a handwritten note for every cup that goes out. We have a built-in ‘pay-it-forward’ option where we’ve seen over $600 go through of people buying other people coffee.”
Finally, for the vegan coffee lover who doesn’t want to second-guess their pastry choices, there’s Timeless.
Founder RJ Leimpeter was working in San Francisco at Sightglass when he decided he wanted to bring a specialized cafe to his own neighborhood in Oakland.
“I grew up in the East Bay,” says Leimpeter. “I really wanted to be part of my neighborhood.” He also really wanted to create a shop with all-vegan offerings.
“We make everything in house and our entire kitchen is vegan,” says Leimpeter. But despite his life-long coffee career, he needed some help in the baked-goods department.
“Violett Slocum was a major part of the reason why I started the business,” says Leimpeter. “She’s so talented at baking, and I got her to join on with me to do all the kitchen stuff. All the food stuff is her.” The pastry options at Timeless range from donuts and other single-serve items to entire cakes which you can custom order for your next special occasion.
Leimpeter also wanted to keep things as local as possible. “One of the key things that we do is the importers we use are based in Oakland,” says Leimpeter, citing Coffee Shrub and Red Fox Coffee Merchants as a few of the importers he works with. “Their practices of importing beans are top-notch.”
Timeless now has two locations—one in the Piedmont and one in Berkeley on College Ave—and a coffee subscription service where you can get their fresh-roasted beans delivered to your front door.