Locked & Loaded: Meet the City's Newest Old School Roaster, Ecco Caffe



One of the Bay Areas most established roasters will soon be a San Francisco newcomer. Ecco Caffe, the Santa Rosa-based roaster known for its amazing selection of organic coffees, will soon be roasting out of (and opening shop in) San Francisco. We sat down with company founder Andrew Barnett to find out more.

Andrew Barnett is a coffee industry legend, and a fixture in the Bay Area coffee industry since the 1970s. In 1977, while in art school at San Francisco State, he found a job at Higher Grounds in Glen Park working as a barista "although we didn't call it that then," he says. In 1981, he moves to Sonoma county, seeking a quieter more rural existence. "I wanted a garden and a dog," he explains. 

In Sonoma, he got into the local food movement. And when he opened his first cafe, in 1994, he was selling local organic food along with it. The spot, Caffe Western was ahead of its time. They were selling lighter roasts, and doing late art. He served salads grown from his own garden, and barbeque from a grill outside the shop. Sue Conley, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery, was a consultant. It won an award from the local paper for the best new restaurant in Sonoma county, and then folded within a year. "It was in a bad location," explains Barnett.

After managing another cafe and a Starbucks, Barnett tried again with his own business in 2000, Ecco Caffe. Barnett bought a Diedrich Roaster IR 12, and started roasting his own beans in Santa Rosa. "We really wanted to get closer to the ingredients," he told me, over a shot of Kenya Nyeri Tegu espresso at Four Barrel. 

"Like in a restaurant, you are only as good as the ingredients you use. You can dark roast, or light roast, or try various things, but if you don't have great ingredients you won't get great results. We weren't going to have a huge volume, so our focus was on handing a handful of great coffees. I thought it was better to keep it honed in, rather than to go all over the map."

In 2001, Barnett bought his first Cup of Excellence winner, and by the next year he was traveling to origin (a term roasters use to mean going on trips to meet with the farmers and buyers there coffees are grown). But he kept focusing on a handfull of regions (like Ethipoia, Brazil and Nicaragua) and building relationships with growers. 

Over the next decade, Barnett developed a stable of excellent and interesting coffees, with a focus on single origins. He also has, in my opinion, some of the best organic offerings around. But big changes are afoot at Ecco. For starters, Barnett sold the company in 2009 to Chicago-based Intelligentsia. While he still maintains a role, he's no longer running day to day operations.

But the even bigger story is that he's been working on relocating and setting up operations here in San Francisco in Potrero Hill, and that process is finally nearing completion. 

As other roasters have found before him, setting up a new roastery in San Francisco involves navigating a maze of paperwork and permitting. The new location at Mariposa and Texas, just around the corner from the Bottom of the Hill, is "within 12 weeks of roasting" reports Barnett. 

"We're going to have a roaster in the space, and also a coffee bar," he says. The 5,000 foot space will place the roaster up front and center as a focal point of the design. (The architect is Delfina-designer Douglas Burnham, of Envelope A+D.) Barnett compares it to an open restaurant kitchen, that lets patrons see the process behind the production. Perhaps the most interesting element, however, will be the stadium style bleacher seats. "It'll be a little different," Barnett promises. 

Even better news is that the staff is being educated in Intelligentsia's training program, led by 2010 US Barista Champion  Michael Phillips

"Coffee isn't finished, like wine. It has to be well-prepared," explains Barnett. "People winning championships now have to be well-educated and have spent a lot of time, like a great chef. They're able to connect with the coffee. Great baristas have to make the coffee approachable." (And you thought it was just hot water and beans.)

Locked & Loaded is looking forward to Ecco Caffe's San Francisco opening, which should happen before the end of the year. It's going to be a great addition to our already vibrant scene.


Mat Honan writes about coffee every Wednesday for 7x7.


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