The Bay Area has always been a hot bed for coffee roasting, stretching about as far back as coffee in America does. They’re big on brown beans in the Bay, and this region has created some of the country’s most recognizable roaster names: Peet’s, Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, Sightglass, Ritual, Mr. Espresso, Equator Coffees in the East Bay, and on and on. The area’s strong roasting culture has caught national attention, with Counter Culture Coffee’s planned Bay Area expansion set for later this year.
Local 123, a West Berkeley cafe mainstay founded by Frieda Hoffman, are now stepping into the fray with a new eponymous roasting project. Ms. Hoffman has teamed with Able Brewing‘s Keith Gehrke; the two are friends and longtime business associates. Local 123 used Flying Goat Coffee when Mr. Gehrke was a roaster there, and moved to Coava when Gehrke transitioned to that Portland company in the late aughts. Mr. Gehrke then went on to start Able Brewing, makers of the Kone metal coffee filter, which is now also based out of the East Bay garage. Local 123 brews Chemexes using the Able Kone to order. The partnership runs deep.
There’s history here in the Bay, but also a spirit that helps drive newness, progress, and innovation. The region is nowhere near saturated, and for new roasters like Local 123, breaking ground is a cause for celebration.
Frieda Hoffman started Local 123 in Berkeley five years ago, and expansion and experimentation has always been part of the plan. On any given day, the main café bustles with a mix of grad students, telecommuters, and neighborhood locals. The bustle got to be so much that Hoffman opened a co-working space above the café – noticing the obvious demand for wifi and power outlets, she now rents desks for less than the cost of a month’s worth of lunches. The most recent expansion is an Airstream coffee cart at Flowerland nursery in Albany, and Hoffman says that eventually becoming a roaster “has always been part of the plan.”
“We’re going for a milk focused espresso,” Keith Gehrke told me, in the roasting garage, off the highway in distant Pacheco, CA. Local 123 is one of my favorite café spaces in the Bay Area, and their roasting garage is similarly tasteful. There’s cool little details everywhere, but maybe my favorite piece of equipment in the roasting hideout is this original Street Fighter II arcade game. And a dart board. It seems rare to see a production space that puts so much care into design, even in a space that’s “not quite finished yet,” according to Mr. Gehrke.
On March 1st, 2014, the team at Local 123 switched over to their house brand from Four Barrel. That milk-focused espresso, called “Union Blend”, is a blend of coffees from Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, and Ethiopia. I got a chance to taste the espresso as Trevor Szeweczyk, coffee manager at Local 123, dialed in some test-blends of the new Local 123 espresso on the micro training lab complete with adorable single group La Marzocco Linea.
We also tasted some roast profiles of a number of new Local 123 coffees. The green coffee comes from Atlas Coffee Importers in Seattle, a company that Mr. Gehrke also has a long history with. They’re roasting on a Proaster five-kilo drum roaster, paired with a two-barrel sample roaster. And as if this garage lacked for gear, notice their slick jet black Curtis water boiler and matching Mahlkohnig EK43, both pictured above.
You’ll be hearing more in the coming months on Sprudge about other projects emanating from Mr. Gehrke’s secretive lair in humble Pacheco, California. In the meantime, Local 123’s new roasting project is now live at the brand’s flagship cafe, located at 2049 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, and at their Flowerland coffee cart in Albany.
Leif Haven (@LeifHaven) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Oakland. Read more Leif Haven on Sprudge.