SANF — May 2008
Change Language:
The Brave New World Of Coffee
Josh Sens



Every son yearns for his father’s approval.

Not every son seeks it by brewing him a cup of fruity Kenyan coffee in an $11,000 vacuum-press machine.

Freudians might argue that Luigi DiRuocco was taking a risk. His father, Carlo, is known in coffee circles as Mr. Espresso, having run an Oakland roastery of the same name for nearly 30 years. A native of Salerno, Italy, Carlo favors coffee the Italian way: He drinks ristrettos, short, full-bodied shots of espresso sweetened with sugar, the remains of which he spoons into his mouth after the fi nal sip.

He doesn’t do drip coffee, and if you mention lattes in his presence, his eyes narrow and his lips curl.

Like his father, Luigi is a coffee afi cionado, and he has worked in the family business for the past seven years. But his tastes range wider than his dad’s. Late last fall, in partnership With a childhood buddy, he opened the Coffee Bar in Potrero Hill, an industrialchic café that bears no resemblance to any spot where Carlo has ever downed a shot.

The split-level space has balcony seating, arranged theatrically above the bar. Organic soups are served. There’s an on-staff sommelier.

Baristas pull espressos, but they also offer brewed coffee from a Clover, a contraption designed by Stanford engineers that produces single servings by means of precisely fi ring water pumps and an elaborate network of computerized settings.

Imagine a gizmo designed by Willy Wonka, modernized and transferred to the coffee world.

Wary of how his father might react, Luigi kept his café plans secret until the Coffee Bar was nearly complete. When he felt the time was right, he called his father over to San Francisco and offered him a cup of Kenyan from the Clover.

Carlo let the subtle fl avors play along his palate. “Good coffee,” he said, in his strong accent. “So what’s the big deal?” That question—or some snarky version of it—has been heard lately around San Francisco, Where the coffee culture fi nds itself in fl ux. Never mind that Starbucks announced in March 2008 that it had purchased the company that manufactures the Clover, thereby drawing fancy-pants brewed coffee from the cultish margins toward the mainstream.

The local coffee buzz runs deeper than that.

A new generation of café owners and roasters has burst from the dark shadow of Peet’s and “Charbucks,” luring its patrons toward a more complex and varied caffeinated frontier. Its members value lighter roasts, the better to unmask a coffee’s nuanced nature. They place emphasis on provenance and preparation, tracing beans to cherished “micro-lots” and prized Producers while geeking out over machines priced higher than your car. They hold public “cuppings.” They debate “fl avor profi les,” gushing over citrus notes and chocolaty aromas. Like chefs fi ne-tuning menus, they approach their product as cuisine.

San Franciscans have been serious about coffee before. But these are heady times for the cast and castaways of a growing subculture—the artists and eccentrics, addicts and obsessives—that populates the specialty-coffee business. And they are curious times for the rest of us, who wonder not only who these oddballs are, but also whether their coffee is worth the fuss.

“It’s subjective, clearly,” says James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee Company.

“Does coffee brewed from single-origin beans in a siphon or a Clover taste more yummy than, say, Folgers from a percolator?

I believe it does. But it would be hubris to suggest that we’re making better coffee than anyone ever has. My feeling is, there are already enough places where you can get a cinnamon latte and a muffi n wrapped in plastic. Why would I want to build another one of those?” What Freeman built, of course, was the Blue Bottle Café, a source of heated, highfalutin coffee talk from the moment it opened in the Mint Plaza earlier this year.

The café has been called a “cathedral to coffee,” which is understandable, given the soaring ceilings and the windows admitting Divine shafts of light. But within its walls, science and religion actually share space.

The main cause for genufl ection is the glass-and-bronze idol behind the counter, a contraption composed of shapely globes and golden heaters that, like the Clover, makes brewed coffee. But unlike the Clover’s, its inner workings are exposed. Water vapors rise from one glass vessel into another, condensing in the upper chamber while a skilled barista, armed with a bamboo paddle, stirs the grounds. It’s called a siphon bar—siphon-pot technology has been around since the 1800s and was incorporated into a bar setup in the late 1980s. The bearing is beautifully futuristic—and Blue Bottle’s name for it, the Siphon Project, makes it sound like a government-funded effort to dispatch a rover to a distant star.

As with a NASA launch, much has been made of siphon prices. “At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee,” read a headline in the New York Times, a reference to the cost of Blue Bottle’s apparatus. Some customers are steamed that a siphon pot for two fetches as much as $12, a complaint that mystifi es many in the coffee business, who rightly point out that consumers gladly pay that much for a glass of wine.

At any rate, the sticker shock is minimal compared with the surprise that accompanies a fi rst sip. The siphon produces clean, lean coffee, bordering on thin for palates accustomed to the dark roasts that still dominate the Bay Area coffee scene. Drink slowly and concentrate, though, and you’ll sense the complexities emerge: blueberry, honey, grapefruit, clove. Sometimes you taste them; sometimes they’re just descriptions on the menu. The power of suggestion is prevalent in coffee. But as with wine, once you feel you know the good stuff, you can’t turn back. Coffee provides similarly fertile ground for converts and skeptics. For every believer, two suspect charlatanism, parody, or scam.

“I used to worry and wonder a lot about what people were saying,” Freeman says.

“Being in this business, I’ve had to develop a thicker skin.”



Call it prissy, or just another upscale culinary pursuit. Whatever the charge against siphon coffee, it is far less silly—and far more delicious—than a pumpkin Frappuccino, a poorly made latte, or much of the coffee that decades’ worth of San Franciscans have drunk.

Around the turn of the last century, San Francisco gave rise to such corporate giants as Folgers and Hills Bros., whose dehydrated crystals became lingering proof of mass atrocities committed against coffee. Later came the era of North Beach native Joe DiMaggio, who batted for the Yankees but pitched for Mr. Coffee. Joltin’ Joe may not have known any better. The Greatest Generation drank the world’s worst swill.

Big, commercial coffee—with inferior beans produced for maximum output—is frequently referred to as the industry’s fi rst wave, aka caffeinated rotgut that stimulated heart rates but little else. Peet’s, and later Starbucks, ushered in the so-called second wave, which introduced a wider audience to steamed-milk drinks. The current third wave represents what many perceive as coffee’s return to more authentic roots: lighter roasts, fewer frothy-milk drinks, and respect for a coffee’s origin. Many in the industry dismiss such categories as simplistic, which


They are. However you cast it, today’s wave contains currents of the Slow Food movement, focusing on seasonality and sustainability.

“Until recently, there’s been little emphasis on decommodifying coffee,” says Eileen Hassi, who opened Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco in 2005. “We want to make sure that the people producing it are being fairly treated and compensated. Part of that involves educating the consumer so they’ll say, ‘Oh, so this is why this coffee costs what it does.’” Like many in the industry, Hassi is a recovered academic who found in coffee a blend of activism, intellectualism, and social interaction that she hadn’t encountered in the ivory tower. A graduate of Brown University, she was pondering a PhD in religious studies when she fell into a café job. She worked at Washington, D.C., coffee and literature mecca Politics and Prose before moving to San Francisco and opening Ritual on Valencia Street, where coffee is emphasized in its socioeconomic context.

Most mornings, employees can be seen hauling burlap bags to the back of the café, where raw, green beans are roasted in a small-vat vintage machine for all to watch.

On its chalkboard menu, Ritual lists its products in a manner that gives credit where credit is due: fi rst to the coffee estate, then to the type of bean, followed by the country in which it’s grown. Patrons pick up primers on single-origin espressos, the single malts of the coffee world. They learn, for example, that Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Haicof exudes a “cornucopia of lush fruitpunch notes,” while Moka San’ani, an estate in Yemen, yields beans with “soft fl avors of guava, apricot, and peach gummy candy.” “Our goal in roasting is to be invisible,” says Hassi. “If you can taste our roast, we’ve done something wrong.”

Just as the coffee has distinctive qualities, so does the crowd at Ritual. The tattooed baristas seem sprung from central casting, though most don’t match the stereotype of the surly coffee snob. Take Gabe Boscana, a genial barista turned roaster who was drawn to café work for philanthropic reasons: He enjoyed helping people start their day. The politics of coffee also captivated him, not to mention the aesthetics of a perfectly made drink.

Still, he says, “there are times when I feel like I’m in a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

I’m serious about my job. But every now and then I want to say, ‘Come on, guys, it’s just fucking coffee!’” Cafés are fat targets for spoof. At a Halloween party last year in the Mission, an attendee came dressed as a Ritual customer. He spent the evening planted in the corner, acknowledging no one, wearing hipster glasses, with a cup of coffee and a laptop arranged before him on a makeshift desk. It was a caricature, of course, but to visit Ritual today is to understand the source of the joke. If you had a nickel for every blog or business plan in caffeine-powered progress, you could easily


Afford a $6 cup of Clover-brewed Guatemalan San Jose El Yalu (french vanilla, plum, Dutch cocoa, white peach).

Such scenes are nothing new. Coffee shops have always made good gathering places for renegades, writers, and assorted refugees from the real world.

“Anyone who drinks coffee, and that’s a lot of people, probably thinks they know at least a little bit about it, which they do,” says David Kastle, a Berkeley-born, Seattle-based coffee trader and industry veteran. “But the specialized industry itself, the people immersed in it, we’re like the Island of Misfi t Toys. We’re people who don’t fi t in anywhere else.” After making coffee in nine cities, Giulietta Carrelli found a home for a café in the foggy reaches of the Outer Sunset in 2007. Trouble Coffee Company, a tiny shop, is an outgrowth of its owner’s eccentricities. Its walls are decorated with ever changing displays of found objects—a skateboard, an Etcha- Sketch, walkie-talkies—that Carrelli collects on regular strolls around the city. What she never takes down is her hand-scrawled manifesto encouraging patrons to create a Social network: swap favors, exchange job leads, like a brick-and-mortar, caffeinated Craigslist. “Local people with useful skills in tangible situations,” reads the Trouble Coffee motto.

The café specializes in coffee and fresh coconut, as well as two other staples of Carrelli’s diet: cinnamon toast and pickled vegetables.

Energetic and effusive, Carrelli greets each day by skinny-dipping at Ocean Beach. (“Just me and a bunch of fat old Russian guys,” she says.) But what really jump-starts her is her own rich, chocolaty, earthshaking espresso, made with beans she buys from Ecco Caffè, a respected Sonoma County roaster.

Carrelli’s appreciation for the pragmatic carries over to her view of coffee: She respects it as a stimulant, which is refreshing.

Most new-wave coffee types seem reluctant to discuss their product as a drug.

When talking about their drinks, they downplay the infl uence of caffeine, as if acknowledging that the addictive power of, say, a cappuccino would diminish the artistry involved in making one. It’s a sweet sentiment, but no more convincing than the gin-blossomed bartender who tells you he took the gig for the zucchini sticks.

Carrelli not only acknowledges caffeine, she celebrates it. She serves fresh coconut because, she says, the electrolytes in its meat and milk enhance the buzz. The one-two combination, on a cold, misty morning by the ocean, is both comforting and bracing, like hot chocolate with an adrenaline chaser.



“Yeah, it’s a drug, but trust me to administer it properly,” she says. “Come on in. I’ll make you an espresso. I’ll make sure it’s balanced, delicious, nutritious. I’ll give you that jump you need and send you on your way.” Though Carrelli sells her coffee blends to Rainbow Grocery, you don’t get the impression she’s getting rich. Passion, not profi t, is what motivates a woman who crashed on her friends’ couches while scraping together resources to open her café. Such bootstrap stories abound in the coffee world’s newest wave. Consider Freeman of Blue Bottle, who launched his business by roasting sevenpound batches in an Oakland potting shed.

“A lot of people on the outside think of cafés as a license to print money,” says coffee trader Kastle. “But I can’t tell you how many people there are who open cafés thinking about big profi t. A few years later, they get bought out by their baristas at 10 cents on the buck.” Those who fl ourish, meanwhile, often suffer slings and arrows from the very customers who fi rst sustained them; ingrained in the new coffee culture, after all, is a punkrock wariness of commercial success. As Blue Bottle has grown from a potting shed to a warehouse, spawning the Mint Plaza café and a Hayes Valley kiosk, Freeman has heard grumblings that he’s grown too big.

He’s learning to ignore them.

“There’s part of me that thinks, ‘Will this next step be our downfall?’” Freeman says.

“But I believe we’re roasting higher-quality coffee than we did at the outset. And the upside of growth is that I can offer my employees quaint little things like raises and healthcare.” Uneasy lies the head that wears a frothytopped crown. Yet coffee’s hipster royalty continues pressing forward. Later this year, Ritual Roasters’ Hassi will unveil an outpost at Napa’s Oxbow Market, the wine country counterpart to the Ferry Building and a popular day-tripping tour-bus stop. Her former partner at Ritual, Jeremy Tooker, plans to open his own café on Valencia Street around the same time.

Though still a modest force in an oceanic industry, the new wave is swelling. A leviathan’s decision to purchase the company that makes the Clover is just the latest sign of a general drift.


Starbucks’ recent move makes Luigi DiRuocco jittery, but only a little.

“I worry a bit that it will make the Clover seem less special,” DiRuocco says. “But the bottom line is, you still have to use good coffee. You still have to know how to operate the machine.” On a recent weekend morning at the Coffee Bar, DiRuocco tweaked the setting on his Clover, adjusting the specs to best complement the beans he’d decided to brew. It was a fi ne Kenyan coffee—fruity and balanced, with a strong fl oral aroma.

He set his cup on a table with a platter of dried mangoes, a pairing meant to enhance the coffee’s nuanced fl avors. He sipped and nibbled. He nibbled and sipped.

That Luigi’s father wouldn’t have his coffee that way doesn’t mean it wouldn’t make the elder DiRuocco proud.