San Francisco Bay Area Coffees: Dark and Beyond
Sorry, Seattle and all of those other places, but the American specialty coffee movement started in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course small artisan coffee roasting companies were long in business before Alfred Peet opened his famous Vine Street store in Berkeley in 1966. Small, roaster-in-the-back-of-the-store coffee companies surviving from the early part of the 20th century doubtless helped provide Alfred his model: Gillies Coffee in Brooklyn, Swing Coffee in Washington DC, and, above all, Freed, Teller & Freed in San Francisco, where Alfred apparently worked for a short period before starting his Vine Street shop. Nevertheless, the little antique Royal roaster behind the counter, the crooked pipe rising to the high ceiling, the glass-fronted bins and the dark-stained pine counters of Alfred Peet's first store proved to be particularly inspiring to a generation of entrepreneurs who together took coffee back to the basics and recreated it as an artisan beverage.
Since that first surge of innovation in Bay Area specialty coffee, however, the Bay Area has not exactly vegetated, but certainly the edge of innovation in specialty coffee has gone off to do its cutting elsewhere.
The Dark Roasting Tradition
Perhaps the reason for this uncharacteristically conservative history is the Bay Area's loyalty to the very tradition pioneered by Peet's Coffee. Amateur coffee historians sometimes debate whether Alfred Peet personally created the very dark, "deep" style of coffee roasting associated with his name (I certainly recall that he did), or whether the style was something the company crystallized later, but there is little doubt that the habit of dark roasting everything on the coffee menu from Brazil to Kenya started with Peet's and expanded to the rest of the country via Starbucks and other imitators. And in the San Francisco area, the darker-roasting style completely triumphed, to the point that fifteen years ago it was almost impossible to buy a medium-roasted coffee in fresh, whole-bean form anywhere in the Bay Area.
Hence arguably the most significant development in American specialty coffee over the past ten years, the rediscovery of the pleasures of medium roasting and its capacity to foreground the distinctive individuality of refined small lots of green coffee, largely happened elsewhere: in the Northeast, in the Middle West, in the Mountain States, in Portland, Oregon, even in the Los Angeles area.
Fifty San Francisco Bay Area Coffees
What's happening now? Has the San Francisco Bay Area's loyalty to its tradition of dark-roasted coffee held off the new wave of specialty and its taste for lighter-roasted micro-lots, or have the light-roasters significantly infiltrated the bastion of the oily bean?
We cup-tested over fifty retail-roasted coffees from Bay Area roasters. We included a handful of the older companies that are institutions in the Bay Area, some newcomers that clearly represent the latest wave of specialty coffee, and other companies that fall somewhere between. However, we by no means sourced coffees from every specialty company in the Bay Area. Many companies declined or ignored our invitation to participate. In a couple of cases we felt that we had to have samples of a company's coffees owing to that company's visibility in the Bay Area community, so we simply went to the store and bought some coffee based on the recommendation of the counterperson ("What's good today?").
The Record for the Medium-Roasters
The highest rated coffees were produced by two categories of company.
Predictably, perhaps, representatives of the new wave of medium-roasting, micro-lot-buying companies did well. They included Barefoot Coffee Roasters, founded in 2003 by a youthful Andy Newbom in Santa Clara south of San Francisco, and probably the first of the new-style roasters to establish roots in the Bay Area; Ritual Coffee, a lighter-roasting company that almost immediately attracted media attention after its opening in 2005 by Eileen Hassi and Jeremy Tooker; and Four-Barrel, another San Francisco cafe/roastery recently opened by Tooker in partnership with Duane Sorenson of Portland's Stumptown Roasters, one of the country's earlier and leading roasters in the new tradition. We rated all of the coffees submitted by Barefoot 90 or better; both Ritual's and Four-Barrel's ratings for three samples ranged from 87 to a high of 92.
There is no mystery in regard to why the best of these coffees excelled. They represented exceptionally distinguished, farm-specific lots of coffees whose distinctive character was developed by a sensitive medium-roast that foregrounded the character of the green coffee rather than the impact of the roast.
Surprises from Two Espresso-First Roasters
More surprising, perhaps, was the ratings success of two well-established companies whose business historically has been almost entirely based on roasting espresso coffees for higher end restaurants and other food-service establishments. Mr. Espresso, from Oakland, California, an older (1978), family-owned, genuinely Italian-style roasting company, turned in two very refined single-origin coffees of the newer style, including the 92-rated organic/Fair-Trade certified Ethiopia reviewed here. Ecco Caffe, a small roasting company serving the Santa Rosa area north of San Francisco and specializing in lighter-roasted, "Northern Italian" style espresso blends, supplied two organically certified Ethiopia coffees from the celebrated Yirgacheffe growing region, a wet-processed and a dry-processed, reviewed here at 93 and 90, respectively.
A bit harder to categorize is wine-country roaster Flying Goat, whose roast style over the years since its founding about fifteen years ago by then newcomer Phil Anacker has tended to sit the fence a bit between moderately dark and medium roasting. There was little waffling, however, with this month's medium-roasted samples, a Don Pepe Farms Panama (93) and a San Jose Ocana Guatemala (90).
The Real Dark Roasters
Now for the difficult admission: None of the samples we sourced from companies committed to traditional Bay-Area dark or ultra-dark roasting attracted ratings over 89. This is a bit of an embarrassment, since I prefer not to be seen as prejudiced in favor of the newer school of lighter-roasting. Nevertheless, in our view none of this particular set of dark-roasted to very-dark-roasted samples displayed the completeness and balance we look for in a top-rated dark or extremely dark roast: depth of sensation and aromatic complexity persisting from aroma through finish combined with minimum bitterness and astringency. Most of this month's dark-roasted samples tended to be either a bit too dominatingly bitter/astringent on one hand, or a bit too aromatically subdued and shallow on the other. I certainly have sampled balanced, complexly complete dark-roasted coffees from San Francisco-area companies; we simply may have been unlucky in our selection for this month.
Achieving a balance between robust intensity and smooth mouthfeel in a true dark roast (a roast that carries the bean well into what roasters call the "second crack") is also difficult, at least it has been in my own experience. It seems to require not only the right bean, the right equipment and excellent technique, but maybe a little roasting-day luck as well.
The Grown-Up Peet's
Peet's Coffee & Tea, now one of the country's larger specialty companies, has done its best to maintain a genuinely hands-on, artisan approach to roasting despite a controlled growth-oriented business model that demands ever increasing volumes of coffee. Peet's coffees have maintained their signature depth of sensation during this long transition, although often displaying significant variation from batch to batch. Perhaps reassuringly so from an artisan perspective, since some inconsistency could be taken as confirming that human beings rather than computers still are ultimately responsible for the roasting. Over the past ten years I have found myself assigning ratings of between 87 and 91 to Peet's samples. Of the two samples we tested this month, the signature Peet's Major Dickason's blend attracted a rating of 89: rich, balanced, though perhaps a little underpowered in relation to the robust, pungently earthy character typical of this famous blend.
Other, smaller Bay Area companies that have stuck to their dark roasts appeared to be producing pretty much the same decent, reliable coffees as they typically have for years. Generally, there did seem to be some easing back on roast levels; one or two companies that I recall ten years ago roasted their single-origin coffees to almost black, they-all-taste-the-same levels supplied samples this time around that retained a definite dark-roast character while showing some complexity and distinctiveness.
The Artisan Ideal
The original specialty coffee ideal as proposed by Alfred Peet was, of course, small-scale and artisan, imagining someone virtually turning from roasting machine to customer to hand off the coffee. This local, freshness-first orientation is an ideal to which most of the Bay Area coffee companies reviewed here have stayed reasonably loyal. In general they depend on small batches and frequent sales rather than technologically extended shelf life to maintain freshness. Even Peet's, despite caving in to the demands of the marketplace and delivering its product to supermarkets and office coffee programs in technologically sophisticated packaging, maintains roaster-fresh practices in other areas of its business.
So here perhaps, in maintaining a focus on local sales and freshness, the somewhat inward-looking tendency of Bay Area specialty coffee has paid dividends. One locally celebrated Bay Area roaster might be seen as particularly admirable in this regard. Blue Bottle Coffee is an Oakland-based micro-roaster that retails its coffee through several kiosks at Bay Area farmers markets as well as at its flagship cafe in San Francisco's SOMA neighborhood. In other respects, however, the two samples we tested from Blue Bottle hardly overlapped in any of the categories developed earlier in this article. The roast level was situated roughly in the middle of the roast spectrum, at about what in the industry we call medium-dark to just into dark. The green coffees bore distinguished names. But in the cup these samples revealed a rather unorthodox sensory profile, foregrounding an attractive rough, robust pungency but also revealing, as the cup cooled, clear soapy or even rubbery notes. Either these particular lots of green coffee were mildewed or musty owing to flawed drying practices at origin, or the roast profiling was overly aggressive, or both. Blue Bottle has a devoted following, however, and its local focus and tendency to eccentric cup profile could simply be taken as more confirmation of the new vitality and range of expression in the San Francisco Bay Area specialty coffee scene.