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Reports From the Road
San Francisco Cafe Crawl: Spring 2008
Author: Liz Clayton
Posted: April 30, 2008
Article rating: 9.5
feedback: (26) comments | read | write

When the winds of discount airfare and sensory craving blow from east to west, who am I to deny them? I took a petit jaunt to sunny (and windy, and surprisingly cold) Northern California last week just to, you know. Check up on how everyone there is doing. It seemed like a month that already involved three coffee trips really needed a holiday stuck in the middle of it. How was exactly then that I ended up drinking at (the same!) three coffee shops a day every day on vacation?

Let's take a little stroll, shall we?

Ritual Coffee Roasters

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An informal weekly cupping at Ritual.

It's a combination of the coffee and the people here (1026 Valencia at 21st) for sure: Drew Cattlin, if he's awake; WRBC champion Baca, if he's not downstairs training for the USBC or plotting some kind of maniacal world takeover that involves probably ridiculous language I need to look up; Gabe Boscana somehow still flitting between the roaster and the bar and, what, Guatemala? The rumors are right: these kids are nothing but trouble, I mean charisma. No, wait. Trouble.

It's well beyond my area of expertise and on-the-sceneness to even be able to comment on Mission mainstay Ritual: but what continues to be one of the busiest shops in the country continues to be welcoming in its bustlingness, solid and consistent and pleasing in so many ways. I drifted in one morning meaning to say hello, disappear home and take a nap — and accidentally fell into a really rewarding and casually comfortable Friday morning cupping of Rit-roasted coffees. That Fazenda do Serrado natural Bourbon? Holy goddamn. Better make room in the suitcase. (Wait, no. Better buy a new suitcase on the street!)

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Ritual Coffee Roasters, always easy to find on Valencia Street.
Drew Cattlin, barista, narcoleptic and so much more.
Ritual's newest house-roasted espresso blend, Sweet Tooth.

The house espresso blend changed over to new "Sweet Tooth" my last day there: Fazenda Sao Joao Brazilian meets Kigali Rwanda. It hadn't found its feet yet when I tasted it, but Valencia Street is ready for this new burst of sweetness for sure. Especially in light of new and possibly too-close-for-comfort neighbor...

Fourbarrel Coffee

In a move both contentious and ambitious, ex-Ritual partner Jeremy Tooker's new shop is set to open blocks up the street from the red flag where Tooker cut his teeth. Backed with Stumptown beans and brawn, Fourbarrel (375 Valencia at 15th) will be stylish, spacious and, uh — extremely masculine. While I was in the Bay Area, Tooker's shipment of decorative taxedermied boar's heads arrived. Okay... I mean, it does go with the poured concrete and brushed steel aesthetic. You're right.

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Treasure map to the temporary Fourbarrel cart behind 375 Valencia Street.
Fourbarrel Coffee's custom cart dispenses stealth drinks while the rest of the coffee shop is constructed.

Though the main cafe space continues to be in process of buildout as of this writing, Fourbarrel has been serving sumptuous Hairbender out the back door of their joint: an alley behind Valencia Street, marked by treasure-map style plywood on the storefront and around the corner. The custom-built cart serving the back alley entrance is almost as stunning as the shots — and well suited to the bizarre, totally SF sunfaded vibe of a real mixed bag of characters sitting around on the curbs of an alley at 11am drinking really fancy espresso... in some ways it will be a letdown when this cafe actually opens, rather than continuing to be the sneaky pseudo-secret it is now.

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Cups lined up on the Mistral at Fourbarrel Coffee.
Jeremy Tooker steaming in the back alley.
Fourbarrel macchiato returns Hairbender to Valencia Street.

Inside, though: huge. Huge! Custom everything, including hand-crank height adjustable (and swivelling!) espresso machine tables. Handsome wood tables, individual desks, a cupping bar, a retail bean counter, the list goes on... and don't forget the coffee roaster and taxedermied boar's heads. Opening soon.

Blue Bottle

I hit up three incarnations of Blue Bottle Coffee (and sometimes more than one in a day), all of which have their own unique personalities. But enough about the busy Ferry Building kiosk and the line wrapping into Linden Street on a windy Sunday afternoon... you know and I know the money shot was at the siphon bar at the new Blue Bottle Cafe (Mint Street at Jessie Street).

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Blue Bottle Coffee's new Mint Plaza cafe.
Japanese halogen siphon bar at Blue Bottle Cafe.

Popularized by the New York Times as both the new standard-bearer of extreme-coffee-fancy-fetish-technology (and let's not forget the critical need for well-trained "muscle memory" to operate it), Blue Bottle Cafe's four-pot halogen siphon bar imported from Japan is indeed a comely sight. In fact, on one of my visits there, there was a gaggle of Japanese tourists photographing it...

Though neither pot of Ethiopian coffee I had prepared on the siphon bar wowed me (I didn't find either pot particularly clean or nuanced — maybe this was not what I should have expected, maybe it was the pot, I don't know. But until these become less labor and cost-intensive, it'll take a long time for the layperson to evaluate this technique. There are some folk claiming to have a line on significantly cheaper halogen siphon bar setups, so perhaps we'll see more in the wake of Blue Bottle's pioneering ways.

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Coffee blooming in the siphon bar.
Careful agitation of the grounds in the siphon brewer.
Kyoto cold coffee brewing system adjacent to the siphon bar.

But for now, the cafe in "revitalized" Mint Plaza is a showpiece: Kyoto cold coffee, single-origin espresso via lever machine (like the siphon bar, only during limited hours when the staff has the time to give them proper attention), upscale food, and a black-button-up dress code. The aesthetic here: from the rotating menu of single origin coffees (note the miniature SG-120, a single origin mini-latte) to the exquisite care taken with presenting absolutely everything (complementary — and complimentary — toffee chocolates served with my siphon pot of Sidamo, gracefully deployed Miette cookies, heck — even the washroom key is tied to a portafilter) reminds that Blue Bottle Cafe does nothing by half-measures. A worthy visit and a welcome respite downtown.

Though SF has numerous other shops pioneering all over town — many of them serving Ritual- and Blue Bottle-roasted coffees — I was technically on um. Vacation. So for those who would detract my inability to provide a comprehensive survey...kindly remember, I am only one woman. And if you're nice, maybe we'll talk about my drive up to Ecco Caffe next time. But only if you're nice.

Article rating: 9.5
Author: Liz Clayton
Posted: April 30, 2008
feedback: (26) comments | read | write
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