Saturday, April 30, 2011

San Francisco Barefoot Ritual

Our view of San Francisco
Picture by Brad Guzman
San Francisco is famous. Famous because of the Golden Gate and because of Alcatraz; from pop-culture and from politics; for food and for coffee. I love San Francisco, and that is why on my road-trip through California last week we stopped in Baghdad by the Bay. Twice.

Salem is rainy. And this spring in particular, the sun seems a bit more shy than usual. The weeks ticked by with only occasional sightings. Of course, these sightings made us drop what we were doing, don t-shirts, run outside, and stand blinking up at the sky. But I was getting impatient and the grass looked greener in the Golden State. Thus, a road trip was planned. And, by planned, I mean we jumped into a car and started driving South... and then two hours into that drive we all pulled out our smartphones and started to map out our trip. It looked like this: four friends, five days, six beaches, seven cities, and two thousand miles - stopped whenever we wanted to, saw whatever was interesting, and stayed wherever we could.

My illustrious traveling companions were the following: James (Games) Hamer - Mafia master, gaming guru, and programing prodigy. Bradley Guzman – our soon-to-be-dreadlocked photographer extraordinaire, and Brent Hayes – Europe adventurer, professional barista, and the brother of yours truly. The trip was amazing – filled with dangerous detours, cliffs and high-tides, excellent food and awful, cheeky characters and sea monster or two.

But, that tale is for another time. And perhaps for another blog. What I want to do here is give you a review of two third-wave coffee shops we visited under the shadow of the Golden Gate: Ritual and Barefoot.

Like so many of the best roasters I know, I was introduced to Ritual by Barista. Not by a barista, but by Barista – Billy Wilson's Portland based coffee shop. This is one of my favorite places of all time. They pull three different coffees by three different roasters as espresso at the same time. And they rotate their selection often, which means many trips to Portland and three macchiatos in a row for me. I've always been impressed whenever one of the baristas at Barista pulled me a shot from Ritual. And I was very excited visit Ritual Coffee Roasters in person.

Ritual's pour over bar
Photo by Eat Love Drink
Super fun space, simple menu, single origin coffee choices, good music. The place was packed, and I happily waited in line enjoying the whole scene. I ordered a single origin macchiato and a pour over. While waiting I tried to strike up some nerdy coffee conversation with the barista preparing my pour over on a custom-built bar filled with V-60s, but was quickly shut down. Sad face. But I shrugged it off, as the shop was busy, and wrote it off as bad multi-tasking. Hurrying over to my table with my two drinks and a water, I quickly snapped a picture and took a sip of my macchiato. Frowny face. Over extracted. I took a sip of my pour over. Meh face. Alright, but not what I was expecting.

Now, I'm not in a hurry to shelve Ritual Coffee Roasters because I got a couple mediocre drinks. In fact, I know they are capable of roasting a mean single origin. This just goes to show how rare exceptional coffee is, and how easy it is to mess it up. If any piece of the puzzle – from growing, to harvesting, to processing, to transporting, to roasting, to (in this case) extracting – if any piece is slightly out of place, what you have in your cup is no longer extraordinary.

I would still recommend a visit to Ritual if you're in San Francisco. Their reputation for producing face-melting coffee should not be trumped by one bad experience. They're doing a lot of things well.

My good friend and fellow coffee-nerd, Stephen Davis is a big fan of Barefoot Coffee Roasters. He's the reason I started getting into these guys. He brought a bag to my house and we brewed it up on the Chemex back in the day. Beautiful. Beautiful enough to make me want to drive a few hundred miles to visit the source.

I was surprised by the location of Barefoot's retail coffee bar. My phone led me off the highway, down the ramp, along a palm tree-lined road, into a U-turn, and straight to a... strip mall? Yup. A strip mall. Despite being located in a strip mall, they did a nice job with the interior, which was quite pleasant.

Barefoot's bar
Photo by Coffee Geek
Barefoot was also bustling with people. Each barista would greet a customer and stick with them until drink was delivered – an enjoyable and slightly more personal approach. I ordered a macchiato (only one drink this time as we were pressed for time). Smiley face. Sweet and complex. Not absolutely mind-blowing, but very solid nonetheless. I meandered over to the pour over bar and tried once again to strike up a nerdy coffee conversation. Success! The barista was friendly and fairly knowledgeable, and we geeked out for a couple minutes before I had to bid farewell to my Barefoot experience.

Next time you're down in the San Francisco area, I'd recommend a trip to Barefoot. They're doing some solid work.

It's too bad that I had so little time in San Francisco, since there are so many other roasters and shops that I wanted to visit. Oh, well. That will give me something to look forward to on my next road trip.

Questions for discussion:
1. Have you had coffee from Ritual or Barefoot? What did you think?
2. What else in the coffee scene is worth visiting in San Francisco?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Great Coffee

Great coffee is not bitter, it is not sour, it is not something to be covered up with heat, cream, and sweetener. Great coffee is an experience – it is complex and nuanced, sweet and bright, intense and graceful. Great coffee is riddled with subtle notes that hint of the most beautiful flavors in cuisine – chocolate and caramel, lemon and cherry, jasmine and rose. Great coffee is a lesson in history, economics, science, and anthropology. Great coffee is meticulously crafted with passion, skill, determination, and an eye for the smallest detail.

Photo by EP | Photography

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I am an archetype.

I started drinking coffee in high school. It was 2:32 in the dead of my first all-nighter, and the paper was kicking my butt. The minutes began to tick by two and four at a time. Blink. 2:36. Blink. 2:47. Still nine pages to go. Still nine pages to go. I needed something to wake me up, something to get me through the next nine blurry-eyed, double-spaced, fumbling-fingered, MLA-haunted pages. 2:51. I pushed myself away from my computer, stumbled out of my room, creaked down the stairs, padded onto cold tile, flipped on the light switch. Blink. The kitchen. And inside the kitchen, the freezer, and inside the freezer, my solution: a red and blue plastic tub of Folgers coffee.

I never really drank coffee. A sip from my Uncle Mike's trucker sludge here, a taste of Denny's brew drowned in sweetened creamer there. My hands pawed at the lid until it came free and my eyes peered at the black powder with suspicion. I sniffed. Blink. Grimace. But no matter. The deed had to be done and the paper had to be finished. There was just one problem: our drip brewer was stored far, far away from the kitchen, collecting dust on a shelf in the garage. I had no time to get it. That would be time wasted. Time better spent writing. Or sleeping. No. No brewer necessary. I dug out a hefty scoop of coffee, dropped it into a bowl, added a half cup of tepid water, and brought the slurry up to my lips. I sipped. Choke. And tried again. I managed to swallow this time, and slowly worked through the rest of the sludge.

One of the worst concoctions ever brewed by man.

I scowled, swore to never again drink coffee, and turned back to the stairs. Despite the taste, the Folgers mire did it's work, caffeine rousing me from my comatose state and returning my fingers to their dance on the keyboard. The minutes ticked by one at a time until dawn. I finished my paper with fifteen minutes to spare, showered, and headed to class. Sleep would have to wait. At least until second period.

That was my rude introduction to coffee and I hoped it would be a passing, one time encounter. But, to my dismay, and despite my solemn oath never to touch the stuff again, we were reunited periodically thanks to additional papers and all-nighters.

These times I used the brewer.

Eventually, I kept that old drip brewer off it's shelf and took to frowning down a cup of Folgers every morning before school. I never enjoyed it. I thought coffee was an evil to endure in order to upkeep both my social life and my grades. This was the first wave.

And then I discovered Starbucks.

I thought it was the best thing since Twinkies and Candy Corn. That lovely mermaid sang me her song and I listened, sinking without a fight as she pulled me into the whirlpool of size and syrup. Tall got taller and then went venti. Latte went vanilla and then crème brulee. And the blenders shouted for my attention. And there was whipped cream on every drink. And coffee became less about coffee and more about what was added to coffee.

For eight years I sailed these green seas above the dancing shadow of my fishy friend. Anchor up, sails full, my crew worked diligently under the flag of flesh and scale, and I stood proudly at the bow. This was the second wave.

And then I discovered Stumptown.

I was meeting a friend in Portland. It was a typical Oregon day – the sun had wrapped a grey blanket around itself and an over-emotional sky shed a million tears to mourn it's absence. I walked out of the parking garage, down Stark Street, found a window with “Stumptown Coffee Roasters” etched on the window, and opened the door. Blink.

This was not what I expected.

First to greet me was the aroma of coffee – coffee that smelled not like smoke and char, but like caramel and jasmine. And as my eyes adjusted to the lower lighting, I was surprised by what I saw. Things were simple and clean – and everything revolved around coffee. Front and center were shelves filled with 12 oz bags of coffee labeled not with the latest blend, but with names of individual farms. Well-dressed baristas worked with surprising skill – one intently watching espresso pulled into a demitasse, another hand-crafting fresh batches of French Press, the last engaged in an animated conversation with a customer about some coffee farmer named Arturo. The line was long, but no one seemed to mind. I followed suit and patiently waited, staring at a curious array of brew methods that reminded me of chemistry sets.

My turn. I stepped up to the low, immaculate, uncluttered bar and was greeted by my tattoo-clad barista. I glanced up at the menu. Blink. Short. Simple. I quickly gave up looking for a Frappuccino and I stuttered to my barista, “I, I'll take a small latte.” She smiled and I followed her to the espresso machine. A beautiful sculpture of metal and glass. “First time in?” Nod. She pulled a ceramic cup – smaller than I had expected and graceful – from the machine and began to craft my drink. Her hands moved with dexterity and intentionality, her eyes sharp and attentive. She talked to me about the intricacies of working with espresso as she pulled the two prettiest shots I had ever seen. She talked to me about the difficulty of creating microfoam as she steamed up shiny, finely textured milk. And then she poured. Blink. I did not know such designs were possible to create.

Gingerly, I took hold of this work of art, mumbled a thank you to my barista, shuffled away from the bar, sat down at a table, raised the drink to my lips, and sipped. Blink.


Coffee would never be the same. This was the third wave.

This is how I came to love coffee. I tell you my story because it is your story. Or, at least, many of us are on similar journeys. We started with instant coffee or 20 oz white mochas, and are slowly discovering something different. My story also follows the three waves of coffee in this country. First wave: Folgers and the coffee introduced to the Boomers by their parents. Second wave: Starbucks and the birth of specialty coffee. Third wave: Stumptown and single origin, direct trade, meticulously grown, perfectly processed, artisan roasted, hand crafted, incredibly nerdy coffee. I've had so much fun following these waves of coffee, moving from hater, to social drinker, to lover, and finally to barista. There is so much more to my story. I will tell you more soon.

This is how it began.

Meeting my friend at Stumptown