San Francisco, and the Bay Area at large, have long been dominated by big roasting names like Peet’s, Philz, and more recently Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, Sightglass, or Ritual. But as large as those names loom, there are outliers. Those cafes who've made, and continue to make the decision to not cozy up under the protective wing of one larger roaster, and decide to stock a whole bunch of coffees. What makes baristas and café owners decide to take this more difficult road, without the equipment, maintenance, and training support of a bigger company, in a region so rich with local roasting talent? I decided to talk to visit some of the Bay Area's best multi-roaster cafes to find out.
Kristen Nelson, the owner of Modern Coffee, fell in love with Oakland's downtown early. The first Modern Coffee opened in the Oakland Tribune building some five years ago, and the company then expanded to a second location on 19th Street, about six blocks away. That’s the kind of demand there is in Oakland—Modern could probably open another café another six blocks away and business would be just as booming.
I popped in on Nelson at her new location, where she was excited to tell me all about the coffees and teas that Modern Coffee uses. A long time veteran of Peet’s, when Kristen transitioned into café ownership she knew what she had to do: play around. Plus, she had a broad network of connections in the industry, because Peet’s was something of a proving ground for coffee folk in those heady Second Wave days, and by using products from all over she could maintain some of those relationships.
Modern Coffee routinely brews De La Paz, Verve, Stumptown, Temple, and Chromatic. They usually cycle through different espressos, brewed coffees, and iced coffees, with brewing methods tailored to showcase the best properties of each coffee. That is, most of the time, each coffee will only be available one way. Kristen is also excited about their partnership with Smith Tea out of Portland, and Teance.
“I wanted to create a space that would continue to challenge me…I wanted to celebrate and showcase the variety of coffee available,” said Nelson, who also confessed she simply wanted to have some fun.
JoEllen Depakakibo recently joined the fray with Pinhole Coffee in Bernal Heights at 231 Cortland Avenue. She told me that the landlord had been so eager to have a cafe in the building, she'd done a build-out even before Depakakibo arrived. Luckily, Depakakibo swooped in and grabbed it. Knowing full well that the café would be host to a veritable army of strollers—the neighborhood’s nickname is, of course, Maternal Heights—Depakakibo designed the space accordingly. It’s wide open, with plenty of room to bring about a double-wide.
Depakakibo is a longtime veteran of Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle. When I spoke to her she was pretty insistent that coffee is all about friends for her. She wanted Pinhole to be “a playground” and not the kind of playground with bullies.
“I’m not really into competition… I just want to be friends,” she told me. She takes a different tack on the multi-roaster thing. All the espresso at Pinhole comes from Verve. The quick cup on a cute little Fetco brewer is always Blue Bottle’s Bella Donovan. Finally, there’s Linea Caffe brewed on notNeutral brewers set in a Monarch Methods pourover bar.
“I wanted it to be simple,” said Depakakibo. It’s a far different take on the multi-roaster thing than maybe the most recognizable model of Barista's three espressos, and a slew of other options.
Every little bit of the cafe seems to be about collaboration for Depakakibo. The wall is an installation from artist and friend Leah Rosenberg. The La Marzocco Linea is older than many newly minted baristas—and it was the first espresso machine at the Ferry Building Farmers Market Blue Bottle. Even the pastries are from multiple bakers, including Marla Bakery, Little Bee Baking, Nana Joe’s Granola, among others. Everthying from the acacia stump seating and coffee table, to the cupware, comes from a friend of JoEllen Depakakibo. This is a multi-roaster shop born of community—something that certainly feels a little different than most show-piece cafes.
I sat down with owner Jacob Bodden to talk about the café, its conception, its history, its success, and its future. Jake came from the wireless industry, but one of his real loves is coffee. He decided to start a café, inspired by Portuguese spots where Bica means demitasse, which is how you order an espresso. Before Bodden fired up the shop, he wanted more background in retail—so he took a job with Jamba Juice to learn about what makes a store successful. Bica, which has been open for about 4 years, is the culmination of all that juicy research.
Bodden conceives of Bica as a purveyor of a curated selection of fine coffees. “My favorite place to buy wine is not BevMo, but Kermit Lynch. I can go in, say I want at Rhone at a particular price point, and I know it’s going to be great,” he says. “That’s what we want to be for coffee.”
Bica uses a La Marzocco Linea MP, a trio of Mazzer grinders, a bevy of Hario V60 brewers, and plans to add beer and wine and light fare at some point. When I asked Bodden whether or not there’d be another Bica he just said, “I want to get this one exactly right first. Then we can think about expanding.” There’s always a brew bar with about six coffees available and two espressos: a blend and a single origin.
I asked Cameron White, the cafe's general manager, how they manage all those coffees. “We cup every week,” said White, “Every barista learns about origin, and terroir. You just have to be humble, passionate, and intelligent.”
Stanza Coffee Bar
Christopher Griffin, owner of Stanza Coffee Bar, is blunt about his mission: “our goal is to bring in things you can’t get anywhere else in the city.” He aims to serve the best coffee anywhere. What that means for Griffin, and his staff, is that they have somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 wholesale relationships, and do tastings almost constantly. They don’t cup—they brew coffee how they intend to serve it, in a relatively unorthodox method. Griffin insists that the baristas should taste the coffees how the customer will taste them, and constantly adjust the brew parameters as necessary.
In a strange twist there are actually two Stanzas in San Francisco. They are essentially unrelated in concept or management—the other café, which has actually been open longer, is a Counter Culture account only. The Stanza where you might get a chance to taste things like Onyx out of Arkansas, or Huckleberry out of Denver, or Doma out of Idaho, is at 3126 16th Street, about a block west of Mission Street. The dark café used to be some kind of hookah bar, and the décor stuck. There’s also a rear patio area made of some round vinyl booths that must have been ripped out of the basement of a bowling alley lounge sometime in the early nineties—it’s practically the definition of shabby chic.
On any given day you’ll see the unexpected on the shelves. But, like Bica, Griffin & Co., argue that the café takes on a curatorial role. Griffin told me that their regulars regularly trust in the judgment of the barista-experts to provide a recommendation based on their past preferences or their current mood or disposition—much like the Netflix or video store clerk of coffee.
“I don’t want to live in a town where there are four roasters and that’s just what we drink,” said Griffin. “Then we don’t know what’s going on elsewhere.”
A multi-roaster café may not always be simple, easy to manage, financially tenable, or accessible. But that doesn’t stop these café owners from taking the harder road and chasing their love of the wide world of coffee flavor possibilities. When you walk into a café with more than one brand of beans on the shelves, my recommendation is to trust the person behind the counter that’s tried all the coffees. My second recommendation is to go back often, with an open mind. You might try something good, or crazy, or crazy good, that you just won’t find anywhere else.