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    Coffee in San Francisco: Reviving and Re-roasting History

    by Katherine Sacks
    Antoinette Bruno, Katherine Sacks, and Will Blunt
    June 2013

    In the city that helped foster the American coffee industry, roasters are taking on craft coffee full steam. And with San Francisco’s unwavering dedication to product and farmer, it’s not surprising that the coffee industry here is fully embracing the artisan approach to sourcing and roasting.

    A Big Beginning San Francisco was once a coffee hub. During the Gold Rush, companies like Folger’s, Hills Bros., and MJB Coffee got their starts in the port city and the industry became a major part of its economy. But by the early 1990s, all three companies had moved out of the city. Although other Pacific Northwest cities influenced modern micro roasting culture—Seattle first, with Starbucks, then Portland with Stumptown—today’s San Francisco roasters are showing the city’s roots are still firmly grounded in a goof cup of joe.

    Roaster Eileen Hassi Rinaldi of Ritual Coffee

    Roaster Eileen Hassi Rinaldi of Ritual Coffee

    Contraband Coffee Bar – San Francisco, CA

    Contraband Coffee Bar – San Francisco, CA

    Yayo Ethiopia Pour-over Finca Columbia Pour-over

    Yayo Ethiopia Pour-over Finca Columbia Pour-over

    Yayo Ethiopia Pour-over Finca Columbia Pour-over

    Yayo Ethiopia Pour-over Finca Columbia Pour-over

    Cappuccino from Roaster Jeremy Tooker of Fourbarrel Coffee

    Cappuccino from Roaster Jeremy Tooker of Fourbarrel Coffee

    Roaster-owner Jeremy Tooker and Head Trainer Brett Whitman of Fourbarrel Coffee

    Roaster-owner Jeremy Tooker and Head Trainer Brett Whitman of Fourbarrel Coffee

    While most of these roasters shy away from the label “third wave,” the philosophy behind it—dedication (bordering on obsession) to honest and ethical coffee sourcing and quality production—exemplifies this class of roaster. Back in the early 2000s, coffee authorities Trish Rothgeb and Nick Cho helped coin this phrase, defining an artisan-driven approach to coffee. The couple has since moved to the Bay Area, where they continue to influence the industry.

    Third Wave Reaches the Bay San Francisco was a little behind the bean curve—Stumptown and Chicago’s Intelligentsia were obsessing over the minutiae of coffee making more than a decade ago. When enthusiasts like Jeremy Tooker and Elieen Rinaldi traveled north from San Francisco, they were caffeinated with Stumptown’s latent passion, and brought it down to San Francisco, eventually founding Ritual Coffee Roasters in 2005. Now expanding on a national and international level, shops like Ritual and Blue Bottle Coffee have paved the way for better beans and quality brews in San Francisco.

    “The thing that drove us to establish direct relationships [with farmers] is everything we’re trying to do; [it’s] how to make coffee taste better,” says Rinaldi. “From the bags we’re using, to how quickly we get coffee to customers, to how quickly the coffee bean gets to us, we’re always looking at how we can make the coffee taste better. Having direct relationships with farmers is a direct part of that.”

    As Rinaldi developed the Ritual concept, Tooker moved on, opening Four Barrel Coffee in 2008, which has become wildly popular in the vibrant Mission District. His latest project, Portola’s Coffee Lab, is pushing limits for sustainability. The greenhouse will include solar panels, wind powered generators, and eco-energy focused equipment. And although Tooker has plans for two new ventures in the upcoming year, He isn’t looking to expand outside of San Francisco anytime soon. “Four Barrel is San Francisco. People support coffee really strongly here, and we’re very oriented [toward] making people have a good experience. It's difficult to expand and keep that quality,” he says.

    Verve Coffee Beans
    Verve Coffee Beans

    With a similar mentality 2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Roaster, Verve Coffee, brought the third wave to the South Bay in 2007. Dedicated to single-origin green beans and balanced acidity, college friends Colby Barr and Ryan O’Donovan set up shop with an eye on traceability and consistency. “We source all our coffee; we taste everything blind,” says Barr. “We mash up our vintage roasting equipment with the newest available technology. That allows us to roast the coffee beautifully but also consistently,” adds O’Donovan.

    The coffee scene in San Francisco is continuing to grow and expand on this trend that allows for the mashing-up of old school production methods with modern advances and necessities. In a small shop on Market Street, the De La Paz crew has found success with blends rather than the strictly single origin and micro-lot coffees for which many third wave coffee shops have become known Although Four Barrel recently purchased the South of Market roaster, construction is still on track for their upcoming coffee bar, which Head Roaster Shark Senesac said is modeled after a cocktail bar, complete with DJ booth that will feature a rotating list of both brewed coffees and pour-over options.

    Brewing Expansion New comers like Contraband Coffee Bar are introducing cutting edge coffee to some of the city’s underserved markets, offering customers in Russian Hill a taste of the new wave. “We have a few corporate coffee chains and independent coffee shops here,” says Owner Josh Magnani. They’re still working out the kinks in their coffee operation, but it’s clear that customer service is a priority. “We want to get rid of the attitude that is associated with high-end coffee,” says Magnani. “We want to make high-end coffee more fun and more accessible.”

    Rothgeb and Cho continue to move the coffee industry forward with their Wrecking Ball Roasting Company, which focuses on high acidity and rare coffee strains. Like many new roasters, the couple shares equipment in Oakland. (Contraband also employs this strategy, sharing a space in West Berkeley.) Although they recently closed their pop-up shop inside Nob Hill’s Firehouse 8 Center, Wrecking Ball continues to look for a permanent space and operates the successful wholesale business via restaurants and coffee shops throughout the area.

    Weighing Beans at Contraband Coffee
    Weighing Beans at Contraband Coffee

    Modern Hospitalities Unfortunately, the obsession early-adopters of the third wave had with product integrity led to snobbery and many coffee shops developed a reputation for being unwelcoming. Today’s roasters know better, says Rinaldi. “We’re realizing that customer service is a huge part of [the business]. Being accessible and approachable is more important than seeming like you know more than your customer or holding that knowledge over them.”

    Barr sums it up, “The two most important parties in the whole supply chain are the farmer and the customer. The farmer needs to create this product or there is no product and the customer needs to decide they want to drink it and to pay for it. For us customer service has always been paramount.”

    New wave roasters are interested in complexity and the nuanced flavor of coffee, and with this added appreciation for customer service, we’re excited to see what the future of San Francisco’s coffee culture brings.