On recent trips to the US, I’ve been to iconic coffee scenes such as Seattle, Portland and New York. None of them seems as thorough, cool and naturally a part of every day life as the one in San Francisco though. For Seattle it seems historical, for Portland it seems up and coming, and for New York it almost seemed as a fad that hadn’t stuck yet at the time (2011). San Francisco is, in my humble opinion, so far number one on my list of coffee experiences not to be missed by anyone seriously interested in coffee culture.
Ritual Coffee roasters, if I understand this correctly, were one of the first in the city to create a real impact on Third Wave coffee. Now, with four locations, and a roastery in the heart of SoMa, they’re a natural asset to all coffee fanatics in the Bay. Upon my arrival to the city, my girlfriend had purchased coffee from the local shop in the Mission where we were staying. All jet lagged, and in need of a hit, there was a bag of El Naranjo (El Salvador) from Ritual waiting in the kitchen for me ready to be brewed. An amazing experience to rent an apartment with Swiss Gold Filter and a grinder available, and local roasted coffee around the corner from the grocery. Later, I met with Allen of Ritual, at their roastery, and had a chat and some coffee. I really appreciate the philosophy of Ritual. In my opinion, probably the most Scandinavian in flavor, but also with a down to earth approach to growth and quality control. Only visiting the Valencia location, it was a gem for punters in search for wifi (not so popular among coffee shops otherwise) and a great cup of coffee. A never ending line, yet fast and efficient. I’d say the coffee here was on par with the best of what I’ve had in Sweden.
Now, the next level of coffee was the following morning, walking down Valencia to Four Barrel. Hands down one of the best espresso I’ve had, but also a great customer experience. If I got this correctly, Four Barrel is the break out child of former Ritual people. Where the Ritual coffee bar seemed a bit formal, the Four Barrel experience was as personal and warm as you could possibly experience in a busy place like this. Also, the location is absolutely stunning. I was sitting in awe, just watching them work. If Ritual was as Scandinavian as it gets in America, this was the next level. Ironically, when chatting to one of the staff and mentioning my origin, they said they had looked for inspiration from over here. But, this was, no doubt, a way better approach in my opinion. Four Barrel is probably the place I returned to most times, and also which felt mostly at home. Had several coffees from their brew bar here, which were all very well executed.
Also visited their bakery, The Mill, that was a slightly different, yet still clean and cool, approach to the Four Barrel experience.
As I was heading down to Santa Cruz later, it was somewhat a taster of what next to come when literally stumbling across Verve‘s little coffee kiosk hidden inside a laundrette. Just opened a few weeks ago, a couple of lovely ladies served me an amazing espresso in a very quirky environment in the beginning of Valencia. Quite similar to the Four Barrel experience actually, a big fat juicy espresso that just hit you in the face! Wonderful!
Later in Santa Cruz, we visited all three locations of Verve. The one in downtown Santa Cruz, to me, was an outstanding design fest. Maybe the customer flow wasn’t optimal, but the use of light and various bespoke furniture really blew my mind. As did the espresso. Someone said it actually looks like an Urban Outfitters, which is not far from the truth, however this was definitely my favorite among the designed spaces. As far as design goes though, I think maybe Verves roastery could be one of the most beautiful houses I’ve seen. The angles, the texture, the materials. The roastery does have a bar as well, that was well visited even though it was just in the middle of nowhere (for a pedestrian). In the hot sun, I had my one and only cold brew, that was just perfect. Not a fan of cold brew, but an occasional one, and with the perfect timing, it can be a hit. This was definitely one for the charts. We also had time to visit the very first Verve shop, that in comparison with the other two units felt a bit like being in a time machine going back to just being very good in terms of design. In terms of coffee, it was still one of my favorite. I was served a SO espresso from Colombia (I think), that didn’t taste anything like what you get in Sweden in terms of SO espresso. I can understand why Americans score high in the WBC. Also a big part of what I love about Verve, is the laid back vibe that comes from being based in a surfer town. It was a lot like Fremantle, and I haven’t been this relaxed in many years as visiting Santa Cruz.
Back in the city, I had two San Francisco icons yet to visit; Blue Bottle and Sightglass. Now, being a sucker for cafe design, Sightglass was just ridiculous. It was so stunning that I felt overwhelmed and couldn’t almost grasp it. The coffee was really good, but the hospitality was quite bland (professional, but not that warm), with the exception of the guy in the brew bar upstairs who was really friendly. Sightglass is an even more perfected circle of roastery, café, bar, trainingspace and offices, in a stunning layout that will leave few people unimpressed. Extra bonus plus for the barista in Darkthrone t-shirt serving up my Kenyan, while blasting out some punkrock on the vinylplayer in the bar.
The Blue Bottle visit was short but sweet. Got an espresso in the original store downtown (well, the original outlet was in the markets apparently), but not from the lever machine but the Linea. Being considered sell outs (due to the great move east and getting some cash into the company), I still thought the hospitality and maturity was that of a very stable and genuinly passionate coffee company! The cold drip bar is just crazy, and I felt that there definitely were aspirations of continuingly trying to lift their game there. The espresso was very good, and I left satisfied.
The overall impression of San Francisco is that there is room for growth for all the companies there, and people seem to definitely get into what is good quality and locally produced regardless of what produce it is. For instance, the local deli Bi Rite provides coffee from all above mentioned roasters, and in addition also other local players such as Wrecking Ball as well as Oregon based Stumptown. Also, in many supermarkets in California, locally grown produce of all kinds are marked on the shelves for consumer choice. That said, we found a vast selection of Mikkeller beer in the Whole Foods store, Mikkeller that by the way are opening up a new bar in San Francisco on Mason street.
General recommendation for San Francisco, besides the usual tourist attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, is to hang out in the Mission Area for food and drinks. We went to numerous winebars, cheesebars and just regular bars. Some dives, some posh. One of our favorites for the afternoon was Mission Cheese, where both the cheeses and the Pinot Noir I enjoyed were local. A bit more upmarket, but still as good and local, was Locanda Osteria. Service here was splendid and relaxed. Another of our favorite haunts were Zeitgeist, a beer garden that blasted out Doomriders, Hüsker Dü and Slayer while serving up a pitcher of some stunning local beers. We also made time to go for some burlesque action at the Elbo Room, movie at the Kabuki (we saw the wonderful The Bling Ring, by Sophia Coppola, after being served some of the most vile coctails ever in the beautiful cinema bar) and tons of shopping downtown after being stuck at a jazz festival on Fillmore street. Best breakfast in town was definitely Tartine, best Mexican no doubt was The Little Chihuahua. We had some great Indian, Italian etc. and food in general is just amazing throughout the whole of SF.
I can’t wait to return…
NP: Dead Kennedy’s California über Alles