Tuesday, November 02, 2010

In a Golden State 1: Coffee

golden eagle x 2 fig. a: golden eagle, golden state

It seems like eons ago now, but in the month of August, at the height of summer, Team AEB found itself in Northern California for the first time in five years. Not for lack of desire. Our last trip had been a dream, jam-packed with all kinds of memorable adventures and discoveries. Probably the best AEB expedition of all time. Certainly one of the longest. If you had told us it would have taken five years to get back, we would have said, "Are you loco?" But that is in fact what happened. So when we finally got around to paying a return visit, we were more than ready.

Back in '05, when it came time to start typing up our field notes, we went a little overboard. We broke things down into a series of "revelations." Nine of them. Some were themed (burritos, dim sum, Point Reyes Station), but the overwhelming majority were profiles of specific places/people/businesses (June Taylor, Andy's Orchard, Tartine). This time we've elected to go a more consistently thematic route.

Installment #1, as I'm sure you've figured out, is on coffee. Few things about the Golden State helped to keep us in a consistently golden state as effectively as its rad coffee scene.*

And when we got back from California, one of our most prized souvenirs was this simple bag of beans.

four barrel ethiopia michelle fig. b: the other Michelle

Not only did the bag bear the name "Michelle" on it (never did find out why), but it contained some truly lovely beans from one of the irie-est of coffee-growing regions, Ethiopia, and it hailed from one of our favorite SF coffee establishments, Four Barrel.

It's safe to say that the coffee scene in the Bay Area has changed dramatically in just five years. There may be other cities in North America that have undergone similar coffee revolutions during the same period (Chicago? Portland?), but, if so, we haven't had the pleasure of visiting them. What we witnessed in San Francisco was entirely new to us, unprecedented in any of the coffee towns we're familiar with (Montreal, New York, Toronto, Vancouver). You see, not only had several hardcore, high-end coffee operations opened across town, transforming a town that was already coffee-obsessed into a town that was positively twitchy with meticulously sourced, carefully roasted, and expertly executed coffees using a wide variety of brewing methods, but many of them were sourcing and roasting their own beans (!), and most of these establishments housed their roasting operations on-premises in beautifully designed spaces that were oftentimes minimalist in style (lots of wood, exposed beams, etc.), but gargantuan in size. Think high-end, tech-friendly, funked-up loft style, then add some post-industrial industry back into the brew.

Take Four Barrel, for instance. Here's their selection of freshly roasted coffees:

four barrel 1 fig. c: interior design 1, Four Barrel

And here's the coffee roasting operation that's housed just beyond their twin banks of espresso machines.

four barrel 2 fig. d: interior design 2, Four Barrel

Add a turntable, a sizable collection of vintage vinyl, and a crowd of die-hard coffee aficionados, many of them with new media devices in tow, and you start to get the picture. This place was positively buzzing with Mission cool. And the buzz was addictive. Montreal likes to think of itself as a coffee town, and it is, but this was next-level.

Or take Sightglass, another of our favorite coffee joints.

sightglass 1 fig. e: interior design 1, Sightglass

At the time of our visit, Sightglass was just a tiny hole in the wall in another gorgeous post-industrial space. Just a small counter, an espresso machine, a bench, and some basic appliances.

sightglass 2 fig. f: interior design 2, Sightglass

Their roasting operation was next door, mostly out of view. But only temporarily. You see, they were busy transforming the warehouse space that surrounded the shop into another gigantic new-school café, and all indications were that this too would be a marvel of design.

(Again, to put this into local perspective. Take one of our favorite Montreal restaurant spaces, one that was created/renovated in recent years, and one whose design bears quite a bit of resemblance to a place like Four Barrel: La Salle à Manger. Imagine opening a space like La Salle à Manger, putting just as much care and attention into the reno, and then devoting it entirely to coffee. No food (okay, maybe just a few pastries), no alcohol, just coffee. Crazy, right? Well, that's exactly what's going on in SF.)

Most importantly, though, both places were roasting some truly mind-blowing coffees, like Sightglass' Blueboon Blend, and both had the chops to turn them into the headiest of brews.

Four Barrel Coffee, 375 Valencia St., San Francisco, (415) 252-0800 (Mission)

Sightglass Coffee, 270 Seventh St., San Francisco, (415) 861–1313 (SoMa)

ritual mobile unit fig. g: Ritual mobile unit

Other recommended SF coffee establishments:

a) new school

Ritual Coffee Roasters, 1026 Valencia St., San Francisco, (415) 641-1011 (Mission), plus two other locations

Another of the pioneering new-school cafés/roasteries, and the only one I can think of whose beans are available here in Montreal (at Myriade)

b) "hand-made"

Philz Coffee, 3101 24th St., San Francisco, (415) 875-9370 (Mission)

you know full-well how much we love Philz (Philz's?) original location on 24th--Philz has franchised widely since 2005 (they now have 7 locations!), but the original store still has all the old charm, not to mention those killer Philharmonics


* to use the local parlance

p.s. Way to go, Giants!


Michelle S. said...

I checked out Four Barrel this past visit to SF in October, too. Although I thought the coffee was good, I was a little overwhelmed by the twisting and spinning and professionalization of the baristas behind the counter. I liked the more down-to-earth vibes of Philz where I drank the Philharmonic and reached a certain kind of cardamom enlightenment. Did you guys get a chance to have Blue Bottle coffee? That was, hands-down, my fave cup of Joe in the Bay area. Also, there was a really good place in Oakland called Modern Coffee that I'd visit in the mornings after sharing a hotel elevator with at least three men named Wolfgang (Q was at a German Studies conference and we stayed in the same hotel).

aj kinik said...

You mean three men named Wolf, Wolfie, and Wolfgang... I hope one of them wasn't Wolfgang Schivelbusch...

We did get a chance to go to Blue Bottle, even though we'd been warned by a coffee snob to "just keep walking." Didn't love the macchiato, but did really like the iced coffee (with chicory!). (Should have mentioned that. Guess I just did.) Sorry we didn't try Modern Coffee--we were in Oakland. Speaking of Oaktown--did you go to Bakesale Betty's? Ratto's? Revolution Beer? Oops. I'm getting ahead of myself.