State of SF Coffee

Well.... step one is now complete. The first of three such cuppings has concluded and results have been tallied. There were some surprises, and some lessons learned.

First... a little set up.

Goal - evaluate the state of high end quality coffee in San Francisco.
Process - three different cupping sessions each with a different selection approach (today was the first of the three).
Protocol - blind cupping with cuppers selected who are independent of any of the roasters and who each represent a different perspective, background and palate.

This first of the three cuppings was of coffees selected as follows:
 - an employee of the vendor was asked for recommendations for two coffees to buy. The only constraint was that no blends would be selected and that this was not for espresso. They were not told this would be for cupping or for analysis of any sort. Coffees were paid for and there was no reveal of my role in any of this.

The cuppers were selected to be representative of:
 1 - professional coffee cuppers / roasters
 2 - serious home (semi-pro) coffee roasters
 3 - serious food and wine professional (passionate about coffee)

I cupped as well (mostly for the fun of it).

The hardest part of the process was selecting which roasters to buy from. In the end I made an executive decision and chose what I thought were likely to be the top five roasters in the area (as calculated by average opinions of passionate coffee buyers and professionals). As a result, I left out two roasters who probably deserved to be on the list - which I feel bad about. But I think this is a good representative sampling none the less, and I do feel it's a good "average opinion" list.

The roasters were:

Four Barrel Coffee - San Francisco based roaster and coffee bar. The "newest" of the roasters on this list, Four Barrel has a lot of buzz amongst coffee professionals.

Ritual Coffee Roasters - San Francisco based roaster with three coffee bars. Ritual has a strong presence in San Francisco and has expanded into the Napa region as well.

Ecco Caffe - Santa Rosa based roaster, wholesale only. The smallest of the roasters on this list, Ecco is known for its espresso and its organic coffees.

Equator Estate Coffees - San Rafael based roaster, wholesale only. A well-known coffee brand, Equator won Roast Magazine's 'Roaster of the Year' award for 2010 and is served at The French Laundry.

Blue Bottle Coffee Company - Oakland based roaster with four cafes. One of the hottest coffee brands in the US right now, Blue Bottle is loved by SF foodies and is expanding nationally.

The coffees sourced were as follows:

Four Barrel:
 - Costa Rica Cafetin 1900
 - El Salvador Kilimanjaro

(It was no shock to me that the coffees selected were both from central america given Four Barrel's focus and their style of roasting.)

 - Guatemala Xeucalvitz
 - Honduras La Pinona

(Again, these selections were not a shock given the style of coffee that Ritual focuses on.)

 - Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op
 - Kenya Gichathaini

(While Ecco is well-known for their espresso, I'd ruled espresso out. And the new crop Brazils have not arrived for US roasters yet, so this selection made sense to me.)

 - Nicaragua Aldea Global
 - Costa Rica Montes de Oro

(I was a little surprised that both coffees were from central america given Equator's offering list, but both coffees seemed well chosen none the less.)

Blue Bottle:
 - Mexico Chiapas
 - Mexico Nayarita

(I was quite surprised by this selection. Suggesting two coffees from Mexico seems a little odd to me. The Nayarita was quite enthusiastically praised and the Chiapas was suggested as a way to compare the Nayarita to a more traditional coffee from Mexico.)

The cupping went very well.
It was informative and fun.
The mix of backgrounds and perspectives created a really interesting dialogue - and in the end there were only 2 coffees that provoked any dispute. And in some ways this dispute was the single most valuable take away from the day.

What we learned can be summed up by three statements.

The very best coffees from San Francisco are very good indeed.

The top four coffees were nearly unanimous, and when scores were averaged the gap between these four and the remaining coffees was quite large. In addition, there was almost no gap between the 2nd, 3rd and 4th coffees (they were effectively a three way tie).

Beyond this, however, these top four coffees were all of exceptional quality. We felt these four coffees could hold their own on nearly any cupping table in the US.

Coffee people like sour coffees - consumers with educated palates do not.

The most controversial coffee was one which was alternately described as "sparkly, tart, with lovely bright acidity" and "sour, painful, harsh and thin."

Our wine and food professional commented of this coffee, "this is the kind of coffee that you coffee people love - but the rest of us hate."

I think this is something that coffee professionals need to be concerned about. I've heard this sort of critique before and it's usually written off as coming from an uneducated consumer palate. In this case, the consumer in question had a palate FAR more educated than any of the coffee palates - so I think we have to pay attention.

The top Bay Area roasters still produce some bad coffee.

While the top coffees would stand on their own on any cupping table, the bottom coffees in our opinion were not of speciality coffee grade.

This is where SF coffee needs to improve the most. As compared to coffee in, for example, Portland - our good is good, but our bad is unacceptable. We need to raise the bar for what minimum quality is - and not sell or serve coffee that doesn't meet this minimal grade. Obviously, if the coffee is not of speciality coffee grade then it should not be used.

From this first cupping... the results were as follows.

The top rated coffee was the Ecco Caffe Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op. This was an absolutely lovely coffee with gorgeous grapefruit zest and a lovely hoppy flavour that reminded us of a pine-less Russian River Pliny the Elder. Wonderfully elegant and sophisticated, we all felt that this coffee was a true stand-out.

Following this were three coffees in a virtual dead heat. These were:
 - Four Barrel Costa Rica Cafetin 1900 (wonderful sweet acidity, pluot and cherry notes)
 - Ecco Caffe Kenya Gichathaini (juicy jolly rancher sweet fruit leading to robust, savory and fleshy barnyard and broth)
 - Ritual Guatemala Xeucelvitz (super crisp lime acidity, mellowing over time to a rounded and full sweet blackberry)

These top four coffees were all considered to be exceptional.

After the top four, there came the controversial, "sour" coffee. This coffee was rated quite highly by two cuppers and very poorly by a third. In this case, we can conclude that the results have more to do with the style of coffee than the coffee itself.
 - Ritual Honduras La Pinona (super bright with apricot and green apple and white grape skin in some ways hiding a bottom of cane syrup)

Below this coffee there was a reasonable gap before another group of three coffees. These three were less closely clustered than the top four and ranged in our opinion from good to servicable to acceptable in quality. They were:
 - Four Barrel El Salvador Kilimanjaro (tons of midrange with dried fruit, spice and stonefruit and lovely aromatics but diminished acidity)
 - Equator Nicaragua Aldea Global (some nice crisp tangerine acidity and hints of milk chocolate and spice but a little flat and slightly toasty tasting)
 - Equator Costa Rica Montes de Oro micro-lot (smoky and flat with some decent sweet caramel but also noticeable ash and little to no acidity)

At the very bottom were the two coffees that in our opinion failed to make the speciality coffee grade. We were unanimous with our opinion on these. They were:
 - Blue Bottle Chiapas (dirty with strong cardboard and mushroom notes; noticeable ash and hints of fish)
 - Blue Bottle Nayarita (severe defect. heavy ferment. very dirty. rotting berries and diapers)

In looking at these coffees, I think that one thing we learned is that a significant part of the results have to do with the selection. I was a bit surprised by the selection from Blue Bottle - especially as there was a Yirgacheffe on the list. And the surprising selection obviously hurt them. I'm looking forward to the next two cupping sessions (where selection will be handled differently) as I'm expecting that Blue Bottle's coffees perform far better than this.

I was also shocked by the Equator Costa Rica. This is a micro-lot coffee that I would have expected to have had far more character and to be honest would have thought would finish ahead of the other Equator coffee. I think this shows just how much variance there is in coffee, and how much of your experience is going to be luck (was the roaster "in the groove" that day, are the beans at or near the end of their lifetime, etc).

But overall - I'm quite proud of these coffees and I think San Francisco has a lot to be proud of.

Thanks to my guest cuppers - you all are the best.


3030vision said...

Very interesting evaluation of high-profile SF roasters. It's easy to nitpick methods. That said, the most random factor seems to be the employee bean referral. I've never been amazed by a Mexican coffee so in my mind BB was at a disadvantage to start with. That said, there's no excuse for a dirty cup.

Taking the random employee factor out, I'd really like to see a comparison of coffees from the same region or style. That seems to be closer to comparing apples to apples. I'd also point out 80% of the coffees are Central American (not generally my preference either) so the Ecco would almost certainly suit my palate best as well.

chris said...

The employee suggestion situation without a doubt hurt Blue Bottle in this case - and as noted I'm expected that in the next round of cupping Blue Bottle will perform far better.

As for preference - three of the four people cupping coffees had a self-confessed preference for Latin American coffees (with two of the four feeling that the best coffees in the world right now are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama). So I don't think that the results speak to a bias towards African coffees or against Centrals. In fact, two out of the top four coffees were Central American coffees.

Personally, I try to not be biased towards against any specific region (with the possible exception of Sumatra where I've yet to find a coffee that is better than simply acceptable).

While a comparison of each roaster's version of a specific coffee would be an interesting way to evaluate the craft skills of roasting - a large part of being a coffee business is choosing, handling and managing your green. I'd rather evaluate, as a result, in a holistic manner.

James Hoffmann said...

Coffee people like sour coffees - consumers with educated palates do not.

I think this really is a big deal. I've pretty much stopped using the word acidity when writing labels, though still referencing it in more desirable terms (juicy, fresh etc)

I think we always need to ride the line between selling the coffees we love (as an industry) but also not getting so far ahead of the consumer's preferences that we leave them behind and alienate them. Worthy of much more discussion for sure.

Look forward to reading about the next tastings.

(On a side note - have you only just opened up comments recently or is that my memory playing tricks on me?)

chris said...

I agree that the descriptor "acidity" is problematic when communicating with consumers - but I feel like this problem extends beyond the description to the actual taste of the coffee. As you say - we cannot get so distanced from the consumer preferences that we alienate them - and this seems to be happening with many of the boutique roasteries.

Comments were opened up about 1 month ago.

James Hoffmann said...

The whole acidity thing is a constant back and forth for me. With our current roasting setup we've had to fight a bit harder to make some of our Kenyas sparkle - but sometimes it is easier to roast for the industry rather than the consumer. As long as character, uniqueness and quality are maintained I quite like a sweeter cup rather than an overly bright one.

Of course every individual business has to decide where to set its goals, by which they rate their progress and success - be it style of sourcing or style of roast/cup. Choosing between peers and consumers when trying to set that goal is not easy.

firebus said...

I've had other coffees at blue bottle that came highly recommended (I think it was a Brazilian coffee at a higher price point served in vac pot at the Mint alley outlet) and had a poopy taste. They might just think that funk is a desirable flavor note.

And I note this as someone who buys blue bottle beans exclusively and has been unsatisfied with rituals and four barrel for beans.

In part, I think it's that I know what I like and what to avoid at blue bottle, but there are other ways (freshness for example) that the counter experience can differ from the cupping experience...

chris said...

I'm confused by your last point. Are you saying that our cupping experience might have been problematic as the coffees were too fresh and that the counter experience is better as the coffees are older?

To be clear - the coffees cupped from Blue Bottle were all between 1 and 3 days out of the roaster (with only one of the coffees being 3 days old).

firebus said...

No, I was trying to suggest that some of my bad experiences (with Ritual especially) may have been due to my getting older beans, or making poor choices at the counter (roasts that didn't match my preference or brewing style)

I guess I'm trying to talk/ask about the difference between the quality of the beans/skill of roaster as measured in a cupping like this and the every day retail experience.

For example, Intelligentsia may be the best roaster in the US, but I've never been happy buying drip coffee made from their beans ay Specialty's.

There are a number of variables in between the roaster and the customer in most cases (although a large part of espresso obsession works to cut out those variables :)

Not everyone has access to excellent equipment or the inclination to develop good barista skills - and I think that one part of being a good roaster is working after the roast to make sure the beans are being delivered to the customer (as whole bean, drip, or espresso) in a way that preserves the good qualities of the original beans...

chris said...

A poorly prepared coffee is going to taste bad - even if the beans being used to make that coffee are fantastic. And a well prepared coffee made with bad beans is also going to taste bad.

This is one of the primary challenges of coffee. As a consumer - you have to find a coffee bar that prepares beautiful coffee - and which uses a roaster that sources and roasts beautiful coffees.
As a roaster, meanwhile, you need to find / educate / sell coffee bars that are as committed to quality as you are.
As a cafe, you need to find / select a roaster who can provide fantastic coffee and services to you at a price you can afford - and that your customers like the taste of

I suppose the next step in this series should probably be to do a State of SF Coffee Bars.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. These types of comments and spot evaluations are so important from a producer perspective. After all the hard work that goes into producing an exceptional bean with our name on it, it is important to know that who we sell it to is doing it justice in the roast and pour. Helps keep roasters on their toes and separate the Cafe hype from reality. It is a long chain from farm to cup to keep up and get right for the customer and it is a beautiful thing when it all works. Plus it sounds like it was fun. Tim O'Brien, Owner of Cafetin de San Martin 1900 used by Four Barrel

chris said...


Thank you for your kind words. As you know, many of us on the final preparation and consumption end of the chain do what we do to respect the work of those who are producing these beautiful coffees. Keep up the good work - we all appreciate it.