A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my amazing tour of Peet's Coffee and Tea's roasting facility in Alameda. Afterward, I started wondering how many other coffee roasters there were in the Bay Area. I knew we had a few -- from Blue Bottle to Caffé Trieste -- but was surprised to find that we have a long and impressive history as a roasting capital. From James Folger selling freshly roasted beans to dusty and thirsty miners during the gold rush, to the new wave of single-origin roasters like Ritual and Four Barrel, the Bay Area has been at the epicenter of coffee roasting in the United States for over 160 years.
The story of James Folger is one of those classic gold rush tales where an entrepreneur makes his fortune selling a prized commodity instead of mining for gold. Because James was only 15 when he journeyed to the area with his brothers, he was deemed too young to mine. Lucky for him no one thought he was too young to sell coffee, which is what he did in the mining fields out near Nevada City. He then made his way further west where he worked in the first San Francisco coffee roastery on Powell Street, which he eventually bought and turned into the mega Folgers. Hills Brothers -- another local company -- was also part of that first wave of coffee purveyors in the U.S. making cups of American Joe for our grandparents and great grandparents.
It's an understatement to say that the 50s and 60s were a time of change for San Francisco, but what you may not know is that coffee was an integral part of the culture dynamic at that time. Giovanni Giotta opened Caffé Trieste, which started selling lovely dark European roasts in North Beach. In addition to becoming the local purveyor of coffee to the many Italian families in the area, his café was also the hot spot for people like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who, I hear, is still a regular). Where would American poetry and fiction be without Papa Giotta's coffee? It's also reported that Francis Ford Coppola wrote most of The Godfather script (pdf) there. Then, in the 60s, Alfred Peet started his now legendary store in North Berkeley, where he roasted and sold small-batch single-origin and blended coffees to all those students, flower children, and protesters.
And, although you can still enjoy those rich dark roasts provided by Caffé Trieste and Peet's today, the Bay Area is once again at the forefront of coffee roasting in the U.S., this time to a new generation of roasters who are myopically focused on finding the finest single-origin coffees, paying a more than fair price for the beans, and then roasting them for their own unique qualities. These roasts are often lighter than what you'd find elsewhere, the philosophy being that roasting for each bean's unique flavors reveals the innate natural essence inside them. Much like wine, hints of spices, fruits and herbs emerge under the right conditions. When I heard this, I thought fine, but really how much of these can you taste? It wasn't until I had an amazing cup of hand-dripped Ritual coffee at Remedy-- a new café in Oakland -- that I became a true believer. That cup of coffee was actually so good I decided not to add my normal allotment of milk and just sat there, savoring the subtle hints of plum and chocolate arising from my cup.
This new wave of coffee roasters seems a direct response to the Frappuccino world of Starbucks. From baristas to roasters, people associated with these cafes and roasting facilities seem obsessed with the craft and art of making the perfect cup of coffee. Whipped cream and hazelnut flavoring have no place in these establishments -- these places are in business to sell coffee to customers who can appreciate the difference between a single-origin Guatamalan and a Sumatran blend.
Many are neighborhood cafes that roast on the premises. Companies like Blue Bottle, Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel Coffee, and Sightglass Coffee Bar and Roastery -- which are the principal third-wave roasters in San Francisco and the East Bay -- all roast on site and offer espresso drinks, hand-drip coffees (usually made in a Hario brewer or even one of those $20,000 Clover machines) and beans by the pound. Oh, and rest assured that you are drinking seriously fresh coffee. Blue Bottle, Ritual and Sightglass roast daily and sell their beans within 48 hours, while Four Barrel roasts 5 times a week and sells fresh beans within 1-4 days of roasting.
If you're interested in learning about coffee, you can take part in tastings, or cuppings as they're referred to, where you can talk to some very informed people about where the beans come from and how they're roasted, while of course getting to taste the merchandise yourself by slurping steeped coffee with a spoon (apparently this is the tried and true method of cupping coffee, but be sure not to wear your favorite outfit as there's a good chance you'll spill some on yourself). And, if you don't live near one of these coffee shops, most sell wholesale beans so the chances are pretty good that the independent cafe down the street, or a restaurant nearby, carries a local roast. You can also purchase these coffees at grocery stores -- Whole Foods seems to have the biggest local selection -- or even online directly through each company's web site.
I was amazed to learn that Blue Bottle, Ritual and Four Barrel have actually created the budget and resources to seek out relationships with farmers all over the world to grow their beans. When I called Four Barrel, the owner was in Indonesia, visiting a farmer. These companies seem incredibly dedicated to finding the highest quality beans possible. Yet what's equally important to me as a consumer is that they are also dedicated to paying at least the fair trade price, and often far above.
Following is a list of some of our local roasters. If you are a coffee lover, it's definitely worth seeking one or more out to experience the latest trend in Bay Area coffee.
San Francisco and East Bay Coffee Roasters with Cafes and Outlets
Blue Bottle obtains its beans in three ways: from farmers at origin; through auctions; and through a network of U.S. brokers who have presences in particular growing regions. James Freeman, the owner of Blue Bottle, is dedicated to finding not only the highest quality beans, but paying more than fair trade for them.
Blue Bottle has various local cafés and kiosks. You can also go to their roasting facility and café in Oakland's Jack London Square area or their new café at SFMOMA. They are also available at farmers' markets, in retail stores (such as Whole Foods), various local cafes and restaurants, and through their online store. Cuppings and tours are available at the Webster St. Oakland location.
And, if you go to the cafe, try their New Orleans Style Iced Coffee. It's amazing.
Ritual purchases most of their beans directly from farmers, but they are not opposed to buying "spot" (from an importer) if the coffee is delicious enough, especially from countries like Ethiopia and Indonesia where their sourcing relationships are not as strong. The price ritual pays for green coffee is always well above fair trade.
Ritual has three cafes and also sells their beans wholesale to various local cafes and restaurants including my new favorite, Remedy, on Telegraph in Oakland. You can also buy Ritual at the Alemany Farmers' Market, The Creamery at 4th and King, Haus on 24th St., La Stazione in the dogpatch, The Coffee Caboose in Yountville, and Slow City Cafe which operates on the Civic Center green in front of City Hall. Various restaurants, such as Delfina, Firefly and Heirloom also offer Ritual coffee.
Ritual has three cafes:
- 1026 Valencia Street
- Inside Flora Grubb Gardens 1634 Jerrold Ave
- Oxbow Public Market 610 First Street, Napa
Four Barrel Coffee
Four Barrel has one café on Valencia Street in San Francisco. They also roast their beans at this location. Roasting takes place five times a week. The café serves various espresso drinks and hand-dripped coffee, as well as beans for purchase. Cuppings are offered on site.
Four Barrel has invested time and resources to work with farmers and build relationships to put together micro lots of the highest quality coffee at origin. They also work with farmers to raise the quality of the beans.
Other cafes serving Four Barrel include: Tartine; Subrosa; Grand Coffee at 2663 Mission St at 22nd; Dynamo Donut; and Ironside
Grocery Stores selling Four Barrel include: Bi-Rite; Whole Foods; and Rainbow Grocery
Sightglass Coffee Bar and Roastery
This is the newest coffee roaster in San Francisco and everyone is talking about it. They are currently building their café, but have an espresso bar and coffee-making stand next door on 7th at Folsom. Sightglass roasts daily (they started only four weeks ago) and they offer cuppings for the public daily. Their barista, Kelly, made me a truly excellent latte.
Although Sightglass currently purchases their beans from boutique importers, who buy directly from origin at direct-trade prices, they are looking into forming their own relationships with farmers. You can buy Sightglass at Matching Half Café, Hooker's Sweet Treats, Outerlands, Comstock Saloon, Hapa Ramen, Farmer Brown, and Rainbow Grocery.
Sightglass Coffee Bar and Roastery
270 Seventh Street at Folsom in San Francisco
Other Bay Area Coffee Roasters
Located in San Jose and Santa Clara. Beans available at local grocery stores, and various San Francisco cafes sell their coffees. See the Fully Caffeinated map for details.
Located in Santa Rosa, Ecco Caffe is a Certified Organic coffee roaster that sources directly from growers and importers. They roast in a Northern Italian style. All coffees are shipped within 24 hours of roasting to insure optimal freshness. See the Fully Caffeinated map for cafes and restaurants carrying Ecco in San Francisco.
Ecco on Facebook
Weaver's Coffee and Tea
John Weaver was a master roaster at Peet's Coffee and Tea for years and was trained by Alfred Peet. He started his own roasting facility in 2007 in San Rafael. Weaver's Coffee and Tea distributes widely in the Bay Area.
John Weaver's Blog
Weaver's on Facebook
The first and only roaster in the United States to roast coffee beans exclusively over a fire fueled by Oak Wood. Carlo Di Ruocco began selling espresso equipment to Italian restaurateurs across the Bay Area in 1978. In 1980 he officially began commercial roasting in tiny batches. Today Mr. Espresso is a main provider of espresso equipment, service, training and coffee to numerous Bay Area restaurants and coffeehouses.
696 3rd Street in Oakland
Mr. Espresso blog
Mr. Espresso on Facebook
Wholesale and Online Coffee Roasters
Roast Coffee Co.
The Roast Coffee Company has a roasting plant in Emeryville, where they roast small batches of coffee daily. Their coffees are organic, shade grown, and fair trade whenever possible. Each batch is roasted to order for their wholesale customers, which include Whole Foods and Spruce. They also take online orders.
Scarlet City Coffee Roasting
Located in Oakland, Scarlet City Coffee Roasting focuses on roasting only single-origin beans to "their fullest flavor potential." As a woman-owned, organic and green certified company, Scarlet City tries to promote coffees grown, milled or imported by women. You can purchase Scarlet City coffees at Berkeley Bowl West, Cafe Biere, and Blackbird Cafe at the Marin Farmers' Market.