Why Oakland Coffee Matters

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The coffee scene in modern San Francisco is vibrant and fascinating, and Sprudge has covered it well over the years. But across the Bay Bridge, plucky little Oakland – my home – is turning into a specialty coffee destination of its own. Far more than simply a San Francisco commuter community, Oakland is a city with deep roots, a proud identity, and a new influx of residents driven there by San Francisco’s outrageous rents and tenuous urban planning.

Folks far smarter than we have dubbed Oakland as “San Francisco’s Brooklyn,” and the comparison remains at least semi-apt. Oakland is simultaneously the darling of the New York Times and the nation’s robbery capital. The city has gauche, nouveau riche condo tech money pouring by the BART-load, and yet it has so far maintained its vibrant activist and DIY community. From Oakland Public Library’s Tool Lending Library, to the Maker Faire, to the Center for Creative Reuse, to Popuphood’s experiments in retail, to the Temescal Alley shops, there’s tons of unique and enterprising stuff going on.

The coffee scene here is equally scrappy, distinctive, exciting, and growing. I’m not saying the San Francisco bubble has burst, but in a world where the New Yorker can gleefully publish a think piece about how San Francisco is effete and elitist – written by a San Francisco resident who starts each day by driving her vintage Mercedes to her private writing studio – well, it’s enough to make you hop off the BART on MacArthur and never look back.

Here’s four examples of coffee folks building a name for themselves, while calling Oakland home. This list could have been much longer, and is in now way definitive – it’s a snapshot of the scene in Oakland, with a few exciting new comers, and two of the city’s specialty coffee architects. I’m proud to be based in Oakland, and so are these folks.

Highwire Coffee Roasters

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Emeryville is not technically Oakland, but like much of the rest of the East Bay,  it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a building is artisanal loft apartments or light industry or simply abandoned. Back in 2011 a couple of guys named Robert Myers, Rich Avella, and Eric Hashimoto purchased a Probat UG-22 and a roasting space in Emeryville from Peaberry’s, an old East Bay standby that they described to me as reminiscent of “Peet’s, in in 1995.” Peaberry’s also sold them a storefront in Rockridge, a neighborhood in north Oakland. There were early days where Rockridge locals taunted them from the street. But as they gradually rebranded to Highwire, they managed to win the neighborhood over.

I asked Myers and Danny Goot, another collaborator at Highwire, why they wanted to do business Oakland. Both cited a supportive community – and the fact that they themselves had made Oakland home. Myers, who also helped open Modern Coffee in downtown Oakland, recalled the feeling of support and solidarity after the Ocar Grant riots in 2009. “People would just call to see if we were OK. It was pretty incredible.”

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Before moving the Highwire, Danny Goot had roasted beans at his home in West Oakland, and delivered them via bicycle. His DIY subscription/delivery system became so popular that he knew he couldn’t keep up and he’d have to either go legit and start his own roaster or join up with someone else. Popularity begat the need for legitimacy.

Both agreed that Oakland and the East Bay is more about a DIY ethos – not big startup costs, ostentatious design, or on-trend buzzword heavy lifestyle branding. “I emptied my life savings into this. We might grow at some point, but that will come out of our pockets,” said Myers. Highwire is bootstrapping in the most fittingly Oakland way imaginable, one BART ride at a time, as their Emeryville facility serves as a toll roaster for several San Francisco roasting companies, including Andrew Barnett’s much-lauded new Linea Caffe.

Timeless Coffee Roasters

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R.J. Lempleiter is the co-owner of Timeless Coffee and Bakery, in the Piedmont neighborhood of Oakland. He’s a former Peet’s guy – the brand still looms large here in the East Bay – but he’s also spent time roasting and sourcing at Sightglass. Timeless roasts on a Probat purchased via my generation’s emblematic small business practice: Kickstarter. Lempleiter and Co. raised $26,000 with a Kickstarter campaign to fund their roasting operation, which eventually has replaced the company’s prior service of coffees from Sightglass. The two companies are still very close, often roasting the same green coffee purchased from Coffee Shrub.

The question of where to open up shop was never really a question for Lempleiter. “The East Bay is home to me,” he said. “I live four blocks away from the shop.” While he hopes to expand and open Timeless shops at some point, he’s got no intention of going into San Francisco. “If anything I’d head east.”

“This has been a big year for Oakland.” Lempleiter added. “It’s about to pop.” Lempleiter talks like this to everyone, easily shifting from fantasy football to the Bay Area punk scene to coffee geekery over the course of the afternoon I spent drinking coffee and listening in. He agreed with me that coffee is a little bit like music. “You want to be able to see great music wherever you go, and you want to drink great coffee. It’s not about competition.”

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It seems like there are new businesses, and new coffee shops, everywhere here in Oakland, and they’re all busy. Every place is full of people. It’s obvious that there is a demand for restaurants, cafes, and bars in the city. And there’s dizzying diversity in service styles amongst this new crop of Oakland coffee bars; each one is its own little province. At Timeless, it’s a neighborhood cafe, perfectly chill, with personable service and a sneakily vegan menu. They are achieving some kind of intended purpose for this place, as an extension of their own personalities, which is exactly what a coffee bar should be.

As Mr. Lempleiter told me, describing his coffee bar, the Oakland coffee scene, perhaps even the city itself: “There’s room for everyone.”

Sweet Maria’s

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While not a coffee shop per se, Sweet Maria’s is a green importer and coffee roaster based in West Oakland. Along with a few other excellent importers, the folks at Sweet Maria’s have helped to pioneer the microroasting boom underway in North America and around the world, by giving ever-smaller roasters and curious buyers access to top quality green coffee in small quantities. Their website – SweetMarias.com – is a font of information on origin destinations around the world.

West Oakland is sandwiched between the SF Bay Bridge and the newly trendy Uptown / KONO neighborhoods, which means it’s a part of a city in flux. “When we moved in, there was a ton of prostitution in our immediate area,” Sweet Maria’s Tom Owens told me. “Also, someone set fire to a car out front and it scared the bejeezus out of us when it exploded. That hasn’t happened again. It’s been quite sedate for a while.”

Sweet Maria’s is based in West Oakland for several reasons, including proximity to the Port of Oakland, and the area’s dry, relatively stable climate, which provides an almost optimal green storage environment.  But they also sincerely love the neighborhood. “We can go out for great Asian food at lunch, and most of the Taco trucks are pretty solid as well,” Mr. Owens told me. “And we are not picking up condoms out front every day, so that’s nice.” Nice, indeed.

Blue Bottle Coffee

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With multiple locations in San Francisco, New York City, and soon Los Angeles, the growing world of Blue Bottle Coffee still calls humble Oakland home. The company began life roasting out in Emeryville, and today are headquartered in Oakland’s historic Jack London Square.

I had a chance to speak with Byard Duncan, a kind of jack of all trades marketing guy for Blue Bottle, who answered my prodding about his company’s relationship with the city. He told me, “Oakland has been very good to us. We’ve found an amazing community of regulars here — people who are just as curious about coffee as those in San Francisco. We’re hoping that the new location, which is our largest one to date, will serve as a locus of community interaction. A place where folks from three different Oakland neighborhoods can come, meet each other, and develop bonds.”

A new Blue Bottle location, eh? That’s this, as first reported by Grub Street back in April, and located in Oakland’s Temescal / Auto Row neighborhood on 42nd and Broadway. Auto Row is exactly what it sounds like, and the cafe will be housed in the Morse building, a long disused auto showroom originally built in 1905. This neighborhood, like all of Oakland, is rapidly changing. Mr. Duncan allowed my pestering to continue:

“We have some (perhaps rosy) hopes that the kids at Oakland Tech — a high school across the street [from the new shop] — will take interest too. Can you imagine an “Oakland Tech Cupping Club?” We can dream.

When opening new locations, we’re always thinking about how to pay tribute to the area’s history and surroundings. The Morse building, though it was abandoned for years, is a beautiful place with a ton of history as part of Oakland’s “Auto Row.” We’re continuing the workshop motif by moving our tech department there; we’ll be opening up the department a bit to include service of home machines, as well. We’re hiring an entirely new staff (somewhere between 10-15 folks) and paying them all a living wage. None of those jobs were there when Morse was an empty building.”

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All that talk about jobs, and a ton of history, and formerly abandoned buildings quite naturally should be leading you, dear reader, to consider the “G” word, and the role it plays in every last one of these Oakland narratives. Mr. Duncan’s quote above addressed gentrification quite directly – the new Blue Bottle will bring new jobs to the area, and make use of a building that had been disused for years. I think that’s the theme running through each of these Oakland businesses I’ve profiled. Oakland is a city where finding new uses and new opportunities seems both necessary and natural.

Some people might see Oakland as full of empty storefronts, abandoned warehouses, and urban blight. It seems more productive to see the city as full of potential: a place where the Morse building, an old auto showroom, can become a new flagship store for Blue Bottle, and maybe someday host the Oakland Tech Cupping Club. It’s hard to imagine a better fate for the disused auto showroom. With plenty of cheap(er) commercial space, a nearly perfect climate for storing green coffee, and easy proximity to coffee importers, it’s no wonder there are innovative coffee people here in Oakland.

We’re not all commuters. Some of us love it here, and these cafes and coffee businesses are proof.

Leif Haven (@LeifHaven) is a writer living in Oakland. His work most often appears in SF Weekly and HTMLGIANT. Read more Leif Haven on Sprudge here. 


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