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America’s Best Coffee

Kate Powers A latte from San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee Co.

Photo: Kate Powers

Every day, Americans drink about 400 million cups of coffee, and I am nothing but grateful for my generous share. I got my first intoxicating taste as a 10-year-old in the markets of Istanbul, and the lure of coffee can still pull me out of bed in the morning. Coffee does more than anchor my day; it roots me as I travel. My twitchy need for flavor over sameness propels me past those coffee-shop clones into cafés serving java from local roasters. The beans may come from Africa-Arabia, Latin America, or any of the other growing regions around the globe. But the distinctive way those beans are roasted is what marks the coffee in certain cities for me, from Blue Bottle's fudgy brews in San Francisco to the velvety blends of Philadelphia's La Colombe.

Long before Americans knew how to pronounce words like venti and breve, we lined up to buy coffee from our hometown roasters. It wasn't until the postwar years, when supermarket convenience triumphed over freshness, that coffee became just another mass-produced item, like detergent. The sliced-bread blandness and that little plastic scoop stuck in the grounds didn't just replace real flavor; big-brand uniformity obliterated the relationship between regionality and roasting style . Stripped from its community roots, coffee began to taste the same no matter where you went. While newly minted suburbanites considered it modern to perk their morning cups with coffee from vacuum-sealed cans, nonconformists rebelled against the split-level monotony by taking refuge in urbane coffee­houses from North Beach to Greenwich Village. Like the Parisian existentialists of the twenties, the Beat Generation huddled in their cafés and showed "squares" how different life could be if you wore black, recited poetry, and drank coffee you couldn't see through.

Half a century later, in this day of corporate coffee chains, I've embarked on a quest into uncharted caffeine country: the realm of American craft roasters who are focusing on bean sourcing and signature style, all while revitalizing independent café life. In doing so, they are putting the buzz back into their neighborhoods—not to mention every single one of my mornings.

Blue Bottle Coffee Co., San Francisco

Down an alleyway and under the raised-track garage door of an architect's wood shop stands the Blue Bottle kiosk, more coffee rave than café: I feel lucky to have found it and wonder if it will be there when I go back. Despite its cobbled-together look and spontaneous vibe, this 10-foot-by-10-foot stand, made from salvaged city materials, didn't appear overnight. Roaster James Freeman spent many days walking his dog around the Hayes Valley before he decided the place was right: "This is not a hazelnut latté neighborhood; it felt like they were our people." The coffee he serves is equally authentic—both certifiably and traditionally organic. Freeman's Three Africans blend, a fairly dark roast, bears the subtle imprint of dried blueberries and cardamom. The earthy Yemen Sana'ani is one of the few single- estate origin coffees that makes an excellent shot of espresso: complex, thick, and almost buttery. In Blue Bottle's "world headquarters"—a 182-square-foot Oakland workroom —Freeman roasts about 40,000 pounds of coffee beans a year using an infrared seven -pound-batch machine, which he describes as "heartbreakingly" small. But he tells me he's looking to buy a battered old 12-kilo machine if he can figure out how to run it without smoking out the neighbors. A fan of personalized equipment, Freeman uses a customized stainless-steel drip bar to make the coffee at the kiosk. Grinding beans to order and using this drip-by-drip method, instead of holding brewed coffee in a "hot pot," isn't just slow, it's excruciating. When you haven't had your coffee yet, four minutes can feel like forever. But you get what you wait for: a deeply aromatic and heavy-bodied coffee. Every Saturday, Freeman transports his second kiosk—a propane-fired, stainless-steel single-axle trailer—over the Bay Bridge and parks it under a folding awning at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. He heats water on a Coleman stove and between about 7:20 A.M. to 2 P.M. serves espresso drinks, drip, or New Orleans iced coffee to roughly 750 people. "Oh, it's intense," he says. "I close my eyes on Saturday nights and see milk swirling in a pitcher."
315 Linden St.; 415/252-7535; www.bluebottlecoffee.net.

Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters, Chicago

At first glance, it's hard to reconcile the size of Intelligentsia's factory, crew, and 1.5 million–pound annual production with the term micro-roaster. But what qualifies cofounders Doug Zell and his wife, Emily Mange, and their director of coffee, Geoff Watts, as micro isn't the quantity they produce. Rather, it's how engaged the partners are in sourcing, stopping just short of growing the coffee beans themselves. "We are involved with farmers from the very beginning, working to build the coffee we want and using long-term contracts at prices that reward and encourage quality," Zell says. Although the idea of fair trade gets bandied about in today's $8.5 billion specialty-coffee industry, it's a complicated socioeconomic contract that doesn't always correlate to quality and, as practiced, is often little more than a marketing slogan stamped on a bag. To take it beyond a catchphrase, Watts spends more than half the year traveling the mountainous equatorial regions between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn with one goal: establishing relationships that provide small farmers with economic security in exchange for the best they can grow. The result is a portfolio of 30 coffees: both single-estate origins and blends, featuring Intelligentsia's World Exclusives, seven coffees that the partners consider to be the future of the bean. These coffees—from the smooth, ripe, fruity Colombian Tres Santos to La Tortuga sourced in Honduras, with its notes of cocoa, almond, and tamarind—are the result of direct collaboration with growers' cooperatives. This connectedness has always been a part of Intelligentsia's culture. After the 12-kilo roaster was moved out of the original Lakeview café, the team didn't fill the space with the kind of tables for two that typically end up seating one, resulting in the separate togetherness found in many chain coffee shops. Instead, they brought in oversized barn planks to create communal seating for 10, a welcoming gesture that resonated with locals looking for a way to come together not only at the same time, but also at the same table.
3123 N. Broadway Ave.; 773/348-8058; www.intelligentsiacoffee.com.


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