A few weeks ago, while shopping at the Berkeley Farmers' Market, I was overcome with an unusual urge to buy coffee from a coffee vendor's cart as I walked past. Normally, I'm a fairly committed (though not especially serious) tea drinker; I simply prefer the lighter caffeine content, and I never tire of the flavor of tea, which sometimes happens with strong coffee. On that day, I ordered a cappuccino, which was very flavorful (not too muted, even with a fair amount of milk), but without harshness. On my next visit the following week, I had black coffee, to better taste the flavors of his blend. Since then, I've had a number of espressos, cappuccinos, and black drip coffees from both his standard blends and some of the experiments he sometimes serves instead. All have been excellent, some of the best coffee I've ever tasted.
The man behind the cart, James Freeman, roasts, brews, and serves this exceptional coffee under the name of Blue Bottle Coffee, which he operates in Oakland with his wife. Formerly a professional classical musician, Freeman wears thick-rimmed black glasses that bear a strong resemblance to those worn by architect Daniel Libeskind that inspired an entire article in the New York Times. His dark-toned wardrobe (on cooler mornings, he adds a black stocking cap) and all-stainless-steel cart adds a distinct air of hipness to a farmer's market that still features folk musicians nearly every week.
Freeman, though, is humorous, affable and talkative, willing to freely share his opinions about coffee in general. He decries most as being divided between "the horrible and the miserable," often including disparaging remarks about other producers (he describes the product of one major--and usually well-regarded--roaster as "a blend of seven stale Brazilians") and restaurants and cafés, who he believes universally abuse coffee in a variety of manners. In addition to the commonly-heard diatribes against chains like Starbucks ("milkshakes"), Freeman openly criticizes the most-lauded gourmet establishments in the Bay Area for their negligence. I couldn't educe even one recommendation from him for a local place to get a decent cup of coffee.
Fortunately, nine months ago Freeman decided to do something about the situation and opened Blue Bottle, and now exhibits an almost messianic drive when it comes to educating and instructing customers on the enjoyment of coffee (on the day I visited the roastery, he commented with pride on how the amount of sugar consumed by customers at his cart has been declining week over week, without any overt influence from him). The company's web site includes exacting instructions for the preparation of the coffee by various means (except for espresso, where he simply throws up his hands and refers the reader to more in-depth and technical literature), and the descriptions of each of his different blends recommends methods of preparation (e.g., drip versus french press) best suited for each. While intended to be helpful (which it is), the website can leave one feeling intimidated; in person, though, Freeman himself is neither pedantic nor stern despite his uncompromising manner.
Tasting his coffee, the exactitude seems a small price for the results. Blue Bottle is fanatically committed to quality, using carefully-selected beans, roasting them in a precisely controlled manner, and taking unusual measures to ensure freshness.
The beans come from a specialty broker nearby, and though his primary focus is on quality, Freeman purchases beans that are organic, traditionally-cultivated, or fair-trade whenever he can find a suitable supply. None of his blends can currently be labeled organic, as none are entirely from organic beans, but blends are as much as 85% organic. Customers at his cart frequently inquire about the cultivation of the coffee, and his commitment to sustainable practices certainly helps his retail business (he says that wholesale coffee sales are much more sensitive to other criteria, like price and the perks--like free espresso machines--that larger roasters provide to their customers).
The varieties of beans used come from Africa, South America, and Asia, with Yemen, Brazil, and Sumatra all making strong showings. The blending process can take months, as evidenced by the detailed notebook he keeps of his roasting experiments. A particular Brazilian, Freeman recalled, took a couple of months of experiments just to produce a "drinkable" roast by his standards.
Blue Bottle is one of the few purveyors of coffee I've encountered that seems to believe in "the virtues of a moderate roast," to quote Ed Behr. This isn't to say there aren't others who do--my exposure to local coffee purveyors is limited; but in the Bay Area, as elsewhere, the market is predominated by Starbucks and Peet's, and though Peet's generally has a good reputation (Freeman respectfully dissents), the chain is also nearly single-handedly responsible for the now-widespread tendency (shared by Starbucks) to roast coffee to a rather extreme dark roast.
As this can be a nearly religious issue with coffee afficionados, I asked Freeman about his take on the subject. He isn't opposed to a "fudgy" roast, he says, but thinks it's too limiting to focus so narrowly on one style. Even so, his darkest roast, used for Sumatra beans, is only "435, 436 degrees", which puts it somewhere between a medium roast and a full city on the traditional scale--nowhere near the French or Viennese roasts, nearing 500 degrees, for which the term "dark" is usually reserved.
All the coffee is roasted in 6-pound batches, tiny by commercial standards. Freeman uses an American-made Diedrich roaster that uses infrared heat rather than the more common gas, which he says gives him more control and produces more evenly roasted beans. As a result, he says he can make adjustments during the roasting process to control, for example, "gamy" flavor characteristics that a batch of beans may have. Though the standards are always available for sale, experimental roasts often show up at the cart as beans are introduced.
Of all aspects of making coffee, Freeman is particularly fanatical about freshness, which he believes is paramount to getting full flavor, aroma, and complexity from each cup. The roasting, grinding, and brewing steps are performed "just-in-time," as close as logistically possible to actual consumption. Beans are never roasted more than 24 hours before being sold or brewed, which means that you can find Freeman at his tiny Oakland roastery at some unusual hours to prepare beans for the farmers' markets.
A large burr grinder sits next to the espresso machine on his cart, which is used to grind beans to order. Ground coffee loses volatile flavor compounds at an alarming rate. How long does it take, I asked, for there to be a noticable difference in the brewed coffee? "Outdoors, three or four minutes."
At his cart, even regular drip coffee is also brewed to order. Customers place an order, and then must wait for their cup to drip through. More than two or three simultaneous orders can strain his infrastructure and cause a backlog, a problem he's trying to fix. Freeman uses paper filters, which surprised me, as gold is usually recommended because it doesn't impart a papery taste. "Gold filters let the water run through too fast," so instead he prefers to use Chemex filters, which are thicker and he finds less papery-tasting than other brands.
Blue Bottle is currently a one-man operation, and the cart is practically the only way to experience the coffee today. Freeman is working to develop a wholesale business, but has found it difficult to find businesses that are willing to make the effort to brew the coffee the way he wants it done. As with most artisanal food producers, Blue Bottle invests a tremendous amount of effort into a product the value of which is not widely apparent--a precarious business position. Each week, though, the lines at the cart seem a little longer, and Blue Bottle's future appears secure. Recent press, including articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune, has helped generate interest. With luck, Freeman's enthusiasm will spread.
Blue Bottle Coffee Company
5002 B Telegraph Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609
This article originally appeared on Ex Culina (www.exculina.com). Reprint permissions hereby granted to Chow Hound