Where to Drink: San Francisco

Behind the Scenes at 3 Top Coffee Roasters in San Francisco

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[Green coffee waiting to be roasted at Four Barrel Coffee. Photos: Liz Clayton]

Peel back San Francisco's fog and you'll find a city boasting some of the loveliest coffee experiences in the US: charming walk-up kiosks, spacious, airy cafes, and an ever-growing number of quality shops roasting locally and serving locally.

Blue Bottle Coffee, one of the first artisanal roasters in the area, has already expanded beyond Oakland to New York City, while above and below the city, Ecco Caffè (Santa Rosa) and the brand-new tiny-batch Wrecking Ball Coffee (Palo Alto) are continuing to make names. But right in the San Francisco limits are three truly local coffee companies thriving, growing, and surpassing the momentary trends. We paid them a visit and asked a few questions about how they do what they do so well.

Ritual Coffee Roasters

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Now practically considered the old guard of SF-based roasters, this once coffeebar-only turned roastery-cafe and now coffeebar again (their roasting has moved offsite from the increasingly crowdy Valencia Street store) carved out a niche for San Francisco specialty coffee that made permanent waves. We especially love their Hunapu Guatemala and Karatina Kenya coffees. We spoke with Ben Kaminsky, Ritual's Director of Quality Control and Espresso to get the dirt on Ritual.

How many pounds of coffee a week is Ritual roasting these days?

About 4,000 lbs total—2,500 of which is for wholesale customers.

How do you buy green coffee?

We started roasting coffee at the end of 2006/beginning of 2007. In 2008, Ritual began sourcing directly in Central America. Our green buyer developed relationships in El Salvador and Guatemala, and we began buying Cup of Excellence coffees from Honduras.

You recently moved to a separate, larger roasting space with a much bigger capacity. How many people roast coffee right now?

Two people.

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How would you describe Ritual's roasting style?

Basically, we start with amazing green coffees. The sourcing and the quality of the green have always been paramount. Any roaster is going to tell you they're trying to roast "transparently", but...we have the pleasure of having extremely high quality greens, and that allows us to have a much lighter roasting degree than is common in the US. I would say we're pushing towards a Scandinavian roasting style or philosophy.

Ritual Coffee Roasters

1026 Valencia Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map) and three other locations.
415-641-1011; ritualroasters.com

Four Barrel Coffee

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If a little rope art and taxidermy are your idea of a nice coffee time, Four Barrel's reclaimed Hell's Angels playhouse is just the ticket. Though the company—like Ritual—began by pouring Stumptown coffees while establishing their roastery, Four Barrel now cranks out bag after bag of coffee to drinkers who can watch the coffees roasted from a handsome back bar. Give the Colombia San Agustin Buenos Aires and Colombia San Agustin La Cabana Reserve a try. We spoke with owner Jeremy Tooker about the shop's evolution.

How long have you been roasting?

We started roasting Christmas 2008.

How much coffee are you roasting these days?

It was our goal to be a roaster first, wholesale second. I treat it like an art project, but it ended up being profitable. Currently we're roasting 1,000 pounds a week just for the cafe, but about 7,500 pounds a week total. We'll outgrown our 15 kilo roaster and move to a 60 kilo one day.

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How would you describe your roasting style?

We are much less about a specific roast level, e.g. color, than how we get it there. I don't see it as a manual process—it's beyond technology. There's no standard equipment out there that can do what a human does to coffee. It's akin to cooking versus science. That said, we generally roast lighter, but it's all about the approach. Machines can't smell for maltiness and sweetness.

What kinds of coffees do you prefer to source?

Our goal is to start with limited amounts of certain origins. As far as our portfolio, I like them all for different reasons, but Kenyans, Ethiopians, Colombians, Guatemala in no particular order are among my favorites. We tend to steer away from Brazilian coffees, which tend to be more focused on production than quality.

Four Barrel Coffee

375 Valencia Street, San Francisco CA 94103 (map)
415-252-0800; fourbarrelcoffee.com

Sight Glass Coffee

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Still among the new kids on the block of fancypants Bay Area coffee, Sight Glass has been slowly building a little coffee empire all their own in the increasingly bougie SOMA neighborhood. Like both Ritual and Four Barrel, the shop got its sea legs using others' coffee—Verve, from Santa Cruz, in this case—while it slowly built out the adjacent roasting facility. After more than a year of operating a walk-up kiosk, Sight Glass is nearly ready to open their full-sized, seated coffee shop and roastery next to their "temporary" espresso cart. Their Finca Genesis Costa Rica is the one to try. Justin Morrison, who co-owns the shop with his brother Jerad, talked with us about what they're up to and where they're going next.

How much coffee are you roasting?

We're growing, so we're still very on the small end of the spectrum as far as poundage that we're roasting on a weekly basis I think on average we're roasting, I'd say, like 1,500 to 2,000 lbs a week. Immediately we're focusing on roasting for the Bay Area.

How are you sourcing green coffee?

With where we're at as far as the cafe buildout, time and money—right now, we're not at the point of sourcing directly [from coffee farms]. But we've had the opportunity just through some of the more boutique importers to start establishing direct relationships, so there have been a couple farms that we've been able to buy entire lots from in hopes that next harvest we're at that point where we're ready to go down and meet these producers and establish a relationship that way. We're hoping to start traveling to origin shortly after we open the cafe—that in itself will free up so much time for us to actually start planning source trips.

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Do you have a particular roasting style?

Yeah, ultimately our goal with every coffee that we have and roast is just to >roast it in such a way that it brings out the terroir of the coffee. So whatever that may be, we'll go through and profile it, and just try to accomplish the most that these individual coffees have to offer based on where they're grown, their varietals, to celebrate each individual coffee as its own thing.

The way that we approach coffee isn't like, this is from Costa Rica, we'll roast it like this and that's how it is. We'll take every individual coffee and profile it in such a way where "this coffee lends a much fruitier, sweetness and acidity, let's try to celebrate this". Our approach is to express the individuality of the coffees that we have.

Sight Glass Coffee

270 7th Street, San Francisco CA 94103 (map)
415-861-1313; sightglasscoffee.com

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