When you think of Bay Area coffee, you’re probably picturing Sightglass’s spacious cafes, or a taxedermied head looming over the beans at Four Barrel. But while the national eye is on San Francisco and Oakland, specialty coffee in South Bay’s San Jose-Santa Clara corridor is building momentum, independent of the surrounding boutique roastery/cafes of the West Bay, or Blue Bottle, or Verve. A unique community is sprouting in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”, part and parcel with the acceleration of specialty coffee into seemingly every cranny and nook of the United States.
The most obvious difference between the North and South Bay is the density…or lack thereof. You’re going to have to get in a car if you’re planning a coffee crawl—and the lack of foot traffic isn’t the only handicap to opening a thriving cafe. Historical residential sprawl of the post-war industrial boom stifled the artistic communities that gestate best in close quarters. In many urban centers, it’s been those communities that bolstered the exponential growth of the specialty coffee industry. And while public transportation and a biking infrastructure are working to tighten up San Jose, it’s taken a shift in consumer attention to position specialty coffee for success in the region.
The increase in demand for quality consumables has been a boon to producers and conscientious cafe owners. “It’s a very exciting time,” Hiver van Geenhoven of Chromatic Coffee told Sprudge. “Places providing excellent service and quality goods are popping up all over the place.” Residents of the South Bay are paying more attention to what they eat and drink.
But it’s not just quality expected in the cafe walls—serious home brewing is catching on, which requires serious beans. Jonathan Dolin of Barefoot Coffee Roasters pointed out that the influx of local industry inventors and tinkerers meant a prime audience ready sink their teeth into third wave coffee. “Obviously there are a lot of tech people [in the region] and sourcing, roasting, and brewing specialty coffee is very scientific. So there is a tremendous interest in and appreciation for what we do.”
To that end, here is a sampling of some of the players in the burgeoning specialty coffee scene in the San Jose area.
Barefoot Coffee Roasters has been in the South Bay since 2003, with a list of plaudits that include a glowing Food & Wine Magazine write-up from 2006 and consecutive Metro Sillicon Valley Best Of nods for the last 7 years. Their growth in local wholesale accounts and online sales meant a recent move to a new larger roastery/headquarters not far from the airport. With new business operations up and running, they’re currently building out a retail “rollup bar” to replace the last one at their previous home in suburban San Jose. While that’s being completed, the Barefoot team will be slinging hot coffee and new bottles of cold brew from their busy “mobile bar”—a small truck set up for full bar service that floats around the Bay Area.
Chromatic’s team of young DIY’ers set up shop in downtown San Jose more recently, in 2012. After spending some time in San Francisco, co-founder Hiver van Geenhoven saw that there was more room for growth in San Jose— cheaper rents, more available space, and a youthfully enthusiastic appreciation for specialty coffee. And their hands-on approach from roasting to labeling has all the trappings of Silicon Valley’s successful young startups.
The cafes of the South Bay tend to be a bit more spacious than the ones up the 101, and since the closing of Barefoot’s aforementioned roll-up bar, tend not to be in residential areas.
Some shops still carry a hint of 2nd wave-ness, inextricably tied to baked goods or bubble tea menu options. They’ll sometimes sit along commercial stretches of 4-lane+ roads in shopping centers.
But don’t sell these shops short just because they don’t have Edisanal bulbs or turntables hooked up to tube amps. These shops have room for a long line of loyal customers and plenty of tables for patrons to camp out. Cafes like Bellano and Chromatic’s outlet—both in Santa Clara—are supplying 3rd wave specialty coffee to a populace that’s growing in its knowledge of good coffee, and meeting the expectations of the local students and tech employees who fuel up in these shops. Bitter + Sweet in Cupertino (owned by an American Barista and Coffee School grad) takes it a step further, importing San Francisco favorites like Sightglass coffee and Humphry Slocombe ice cream down into the valley.
One of the newest cafes to open in the area was B2, one of a few specialty shops close to downtown San Jose. Bellano’s second shop sits off to the side of a cavernous open space in the San Pedro Square Market (among some really interesting lunch options for the steady stream of local nine-to-fivers), offering espresso, cold brew, and pour-over options with beans from Verve and Sightglass.
From Sonoma to San Diego, California’s coffee scene is growing ever closer to creating an archipelago of delicious coffee up and down the state. Don’t overlook the South Bay: these cafes are serving fine cups to the bright minds that abound in this part of California, and creating a coffee scene uniquely their own.