Finding nirvana in the coffee capital of the United States
In “Mad Flavor,” the author describes his occasional forays from the farm in search of exceptional culinary experiences from small artisanal producers.
While covering Slow Food Nation recently, I stayed in an unremarkable hotel located in a relatively uninteresting part of San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood. But I was as happy as a clam — ecstatic even — because my hotel stood a block and a half from Blue Bottle, one of my favorite cafes in the world.
Why can’t I just declare it my favorite? Because I didn’t have nearly enough time to spend in Four Barrel, a terrific coffeehouse that recently opened in the Mission neighborhood. I also missed out on San Francisco’s other coffee temple, Ritual, right around the corner from Four Barrel (though I did have the pleasure of visiting Ritual on a previous trip.)
All three feature coffee grown on small, sustainable-minded farms and bought at a decent price. And they then roast and brew that coffee with respect that borders on fanaticism. San Francisco has recently emerged as mecca for U.S. coffee lovers; and only the distractions of Slow Food Nation kept me from plunging deeper into its offerings.
(To be fair, Slow Food Nation itself offered a fabulous espresso bar at its Taste Pavilion, but I was too busy to spend much time there.)
At this point, I’m a bit of a Blue Bottle veteran. I had the good fortune of having visited it in January, just after it had opened. I came away starry-eyed about its now much-hyped “siphon bar,” an elaborate, Japan-made contraption that teases bright, crystal-clear flavors out of Blue Bottle’s carefully sourced, delicately roasted coffee beans.
Now I love Blue Bottle even more. In the morning, sunlight streams into its high-ceilinged, spare space. A long communal table dominates the room; stools and a bar line a long picture window. Behind the bar, people in black calmly and briskly brew and serve coffee in a dizzying variety of ways.
You can order from the above-mentioned “siphon bar,” in which case your coffee will be served in a kind of suspended orb, to be poured into a cup; you can get a classic cappuccino or espresso from a gleaming Le Marzocco machine; you can order a “single-origin” espresso, this one from a vintage, hand-pulled La San Marco machine; and finally, not one but two kinds of iced coffee.
I tried everything; each took my mind from the chaos of Slow Food Nation and brought me to a place of joyful contemplation. Most impressive of all might have been the Kyoto-style iced coffee, cold-brewed in yet another beautiful, rarefied machine. At first sip, you get a powerful round, mouth-filling punch of coffee — almost a little over the top. Add a little milk, though, and you get this velvety, deep brew with a bitter-chocolate finish. Addictive.
Blue Bottle also serves simple, rigorously sourced, cafe food. Try the poached local eggs over thick toast.
Then there was newly opened Four Barrel, which has been generating buzz in coffee circles for months. Launched by a partner in Portland’s highly regarded Stumptown and a former part-owner of San Francisco’s Ritual, Four Barrel presents itself as a church of espresso. Walk in, and you’re confronted by not one, but two vast Le Marzoccos angled so that you can watch the baristas perform their craft.
The place was teeming with tattooed coffee nerds. In a rush to make an event, I ordered an espresso and sipped it at the bar. It showed a thick, brick-colored cream and delivered a deep, sweetish flavor with a properly long finish. I found the texture a little thin. I would like to give Four Barrel many, many more chances to pull a perfect espresso.
As I said above, on this trip I didn’t have time to try the third of SF’s Big Three, Ritual.
In general, I applaud this upsurge of artisanal coffee and hope it spreads. Not only do these shops force us to stop and think about this deeply troubling, endlessly alluring tropical beverage, but they’re also creating skilled jobs in a rapidly deskilling services industry.
Locally owned processing infrastructure like coffee roasters and fancy espresso machines require skilled hands attached to engaged, thinking brains. Blue Bottle and its ilk give glimpses into the rewards of revived local-food economies.