Four industry professionals—and one connoisseur—take a sip and a sniff of some of the Bay Area's finest coffees and declare a top dog.
San Francisco has always been a coffee town. Around 1900, one of the Hills brothers invented the vacuum tin here, drastically improving the freshness of beans. In 1966, Alfred Peet kicked off the coffee roasting movement in America from his little shop in Berkeley. After that though, SF coffee took a back seat to cities such as Seattle and Portland. But those days are over. Audacious roasters like Ritual, Four Barrel, and Blue Bottle have put the Bay Area back on the map, leading some critics to claim it may be America's new premier coffee capital.
But is there truly a best—or is everyone a winner? To find out, we pitted seven of the Bay Area's top roasters against each other in a blind taste test (with Peet's thrown in for fun). Aside from that one ringer, the results were very close. Turns out in the world of third-wave coffee, the competition is stiff.
We purchased from each roaster a Central American or Mexican coffee, all of which had been roasted in the past 10 days. Since I was participating as a judge, my wife transfered the beans into blank, numbered bags before the competition so no one, including myself, would know what was what. Coffees were prepared as they would be served in a cafe or home in Hario V-60s by Phillip Ma, the owner of the coffee-serious Mavelous Coffee & Wine Bar in Mid-Market. (That is to say, we didn't do a coffee industry cupping.) Each was prepared in the same manner. Our judges, minus myself, were coffee and food-industry heavyweights. We each rated the coffees on a scale of one to eight.
Owner of Farm:Table and roaster for Roast Coffee Co.
Top Pick: Ecco and Sightglass (tie)
Executive chef of Incanto and owner of Boccalone
Top Pick: Ecco
Pastry chef-owner of Humphry Slocombe
Top Pick: Barefoot
Coffee blogger, writer for 7x7 and more
Top Pick: Sightglass
Owner of Mavelous Coffee & Wine Bar
Top Pick: Sightglass
Surprise! Sightglass—which finally unveiled its full SoMa store and bar to the public in July—only began roasting in 2010. But it's already making some of the city's best beans. This coffee delighted every taster, winning more top scores than any other and just edging out second place. The coffee had a mellow flavor with a floral aroma. "I like the apricot notes, and it's low in tannins," said Cosentino. Amitin raved, "It's complex and sweet. It has a beautiful acidity and excellent body."
Long a bastion of sourcing and roasting, Ecco helped launch this whole third-wave trend. Although it's moving its operations from Santa Rosa to SF, and Andrew Barnett sold a controlling stake to Intelligentsia, one thing that hasn't changed is quality. Our judges spent more time talking about Ecco than any other. "This is the most intriguing coffee of the bunch," said Cosentino. "I keep going back to it again and again." "This is so good," Amitin said. "If you're a coffee geek, you would go for this."
The San Jose roaster was a dark horse. It has a small cult following, but generally isn't considered in the same league as some of the others. Yet Barefoot made everyone yearn for an aroma kit to place its odd combination of flavors. Was that cinnamon? Rum? "It's like Christmas," claimed Godby. "It's perfect for apple pie," said Cosentino. Ma thought it had some umami hints and maybe a Cherry Coke quality. Cosentino had a different beverage in mind: "I swear I can smell Jägermeister!"
|4. Four Barrel
Since Jeremy Tooker left Ritual to start Four Barrel, the roastery has gone from back-alley kiosk to one of the nation's finest, and this coffee showed why. Although it placed right in the middle, everyone loved it. Both Amitin and Cosentino described it as having a bourbon-like flavor. "It has a nice finish and would pair well with food," raved Godby. Personally, I loved it—it was my second favorite of the bunch—and thought it was mellow and relaxing with a a sweet and buttery flavor.
Verve, which is based in Santa Cruz, has an amazing reputation, both locally and nationally. But every roast is different, and our testers felt this coffee had been roasted a bit too much. Cosentino described it as "toasty." "As a flavor, I like it," said Amitin. "It's very earthy and strong. But the varietal characteristics are overwhelmed by roast flavor." Ma had the opposite take though, calling it complex, sweet, and floral, while Godby thought it was simple in a good way, claiming that his mom "would really like it."
The line outside of Eileen Hassi's Ritual Roasters on Valencia Street is always out the door, and with good reason: It sources some of the highest quality beans, roasts them with artistry and precision, and prepares them with care. This one, however, didn't amaze anyone. "I find it bright and punchy, but I don't have too much to say about it," noted Godby. This writer found that it was solid but just not that interesting. It wasn't bad at all, but there was nothing really special or distinctive.
|7. Blue Bottle
Blue Bottle, owned by James Freeman, truly put SF coffee on the map. Its locations at Mint Plaza and Ferry Plaza are highlights of the city. Blue Bottle has expanded to New York too. Nonetheless, this Chiapas coffee didn't score well. While we found it pleasant, it didn't wow anyone. "It's a nice lovely coffee," said Godby, "but not terribly complex." For the rest of the group, it largely failed to make an impression, either good or bad. Amitin described it as "flat." Ma was a little more blunt, labeling it straight-up "boring."
The next time you think of buying a coffee from Peet's, keep in mind that this bag of single-origin beans cost as much as the other coffees. Yet it had every bit of flavor roasted out of it. Our judges didn't dislike it—they hated it. "I am not a fan," said Godby, who likened it to being "clobbered over the head." Cosentino was kinder, comparing it to being caught in campfire smoke. But everyone agreed: Anything special that there might have been had gone up in flames.