Although I now dwell in the world (espresso-based) coffee leading city of Melbourne, Australia, I came of coffee-drinking age in the North County section of coastal San Diego County in the early 2000s. At that time—specifically in the Encinitas area, where I spent most of my days—“coffee” meant Starbucks…or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf if you were a burgeoning hipster. Of course, there were smaller, independent coffee houses dotted around the place, but none of them boasted anything so special as to feel like specialty. Think kitschy mugs and Death Cab for Cutie playing too loudly in the background, filter coffees that sat on hot plates for hours waiting to be poured, big, bold, dark roasts, large-batch big names, and high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden signature drinks. Why, in a place that was so ahead of the curve in embracing organic produce and farmers' markets, did it take so long to get good coffee?
Specialty coffee isn’t brand new to San Diego; places like Bird Rock Coffee Roasters and Cafe Virtuoso have been churning out delicious beans and beverages for a little while now (as Sprudge has previously reported), but this elevated game, brought about by two key players, is a very recent addition to the North County scene. The good news is, North County dwellers and visitors don’t need to head south or east on out-of-the-way morning or afternoon coffee missions anymore. These places are highly accessible from the 5 freeway, and well worth a visit. Beyond Bird Rock, Virtuoso, and Iron Smith Coffee Roasters, there are two cafes we can credit for changing the North County landscape. Read on.
Lofty Coffee Company
Lofty Coffee Company has two full-service cafe locations, in Encinitas and Solana Beach. In the cafe, the menus—both food and coffee—are relatively small by North County standards. The focus is hearty, simple, healthy, and mostly organic beach-friendly grub. Toast with S.L.O.E. (“sustainable, local, organic, ethical”) eggs and vegetable sides (locally grown avocados are a must, of course) are a staple. Homemade pastries are available at all locations, and include mouth-watering hazelnut croissants, well-made versions of classic cookies, and an almost equally-sizeable list of gluten-free versions.
Across the street (“the street” being historic coastal Highway 101) from the Encinitas location is the Lofty roastery. Unlike the cafes, there is no Wi-Fi and no cafe menu. There is, however, visible green storage, a roasting room with floor to ceiling windows through which customers can peer, retail coffee, and a full coffee bar. The view from the roastery is quintessential Encinitas: beautiful Moonlight Beach is a stone’s throw away, and the elevated perch of the cafe/roasting location offers a view of more ocean than from anywhere else on the Encinitas stretch of Highway 101. People ride by on beach cruisers and surfers stroll by with their boards; you can almost hear the surf.
I talked to Lofty’s Eric Myers, and asked him specifically about Lofty's flat white, still new to the United States and especially new to North County San Diego. “We did have some challenges along the way with people’s expectations for various beverage sizes. Offering a flat white was a way for us to offer an espresso and milk beverage where people didn’t have a preconceived notion about the size.” He said that when people inquire about the beverage, they simply tell them that it’s a “nice balance of textured milk and espresso,” that is only served in one size: 6 ounces. “People were into it,” Myers said.
Even though it’s the end of summer, cold brew season never stops in sunny San Diego, and is brewed here Kyoto-style, and served on tap or nitro over ice.
Myers feels that the community is taking well to their brand of specialty coffee and cafe fare, and the lines out the door are a testament to that. “We source coffees that we feel are truly delicious, show the terroir of the region and are produced from seed to cup in a responsible and sustainable manner,” Myers says. The team’s careful attention to detail and passion for quality and sustainability are truly your gain, North County.
Swell Coffee Company
On my sixth consecutive visit, Swell Coffee Company’s Armando (Mondo) Rodriguez greeted me with an enthusiastic “Isn’t it beautiful today?!”
He’s typically based at Swell’s Mission Beach warehouse—also home to the original Swell Cafe location—but he’s spent the week of my visit in Swell's brand new Del Mar cafe, offering extra help in its early days. The Swell team, comprised of people passionate about coffee, San Diego, and sustainability, are excited about the expansion to North County, where the cafe resides in a beachy suburban bunch of high-end shops. The location has always been a cafe, but under Swell's new stewardship, the focus will be sharply on quality and sustainability, which Rodriguez says has required a shift in guest expectations. Building the culture of specialty coffee has already been a challenge, but customers are overwhelmingly pleased.
In addition to a focus on black coffee brewed using various methods (including trusty Chemex pour-overs), the kitchen is in the process of re-envisioning a small, healthy cafe menu of classics like breakfast burritos and brioche french toast.
Most interestingly, however, is the beverage that may well win over the hearts and minds of even the most reluctant of specialty coffee drinkers: the Hopped Toddy. Swell roaster Brian Gerhard came up with the game-changing idea several months ago, and he and Rodriguez have been in the development stages ever since—perfecting the recipe for the perfect refreshing, beer-infused cold brew.
“The blend includes a Mexican Zacamitla, a rich Ugandan, and a touch of a Burundi,” Rodriguez explained. It’s brewed in five pound batches at room temperature for sixteen hours. The team then kegs it, dry hops it, and carbonates it using 100% CO2. And what of the hops in craft beer loving San Diego? Rodriguez says they proudly use Hopunion hops in every batch. “We use a blend of Citra hops for its amazing lime, gooseberry, and passion fruit aromas; Cascade hops for its beautiful citrus and grapefruit; and finally Comet hops for its crazy pineapple and citrus sweetness.”
It’s a smart move, Swell. It’s beachy, it’s refreshing, and it’s mass-appeal without compromising on quality—another welcome example of accessible, sustainable, quality coffee culture washing up on these Pacific shores.