One of my great delights in life is that first cup of coffee in the morning. The one that clears away the fuzziness of sleep and kick starts your brain for the challenges of the day. It’s joyous, it’s essential and before my trip to San Francisco, it’s usually been of the freeze dried variety. Yes, I know – the coffee connoisseurs who are reading this are probably spitting out their mouthful of single origin Columbian shouting “Heathen!” but hear me out. My day job as a teacher doesn’t give me the luxury of having time to craft that perfect cup of coffee; in fact, speed and caffeine content nearly always takes precedence over quality and taste. What’s that? “Life’s too short to drink bad coffee” you cry. Well, break time is too short to faff around with a bloody filter coffee. And that’s how I thought for a long time – until I went on holiday to San Francisco with my mate Diane, an established quality coffee fan already.
Due to her thirst for great coffee, Diane had already researched some of the best spots to go to for a quality cup. On our first full day, after successfully shaking off a spot of jet lag, we ventured out to find Sightglass in the SoMA district. One of the rules I’ve learnt about trendy shops and restaurants is that they will invariably have a minimalistic shop front (in the case of the uber-cool bakery Tartine, no name out front at all) and that will continue on into the premises, usually with lots of wood and metal, making it look more like a lumber yard than a place you’d go for a drink. And guess what? I wasn’t proved wrong. The interior of Sightglass was exactly what I’d suspected, but I did have to admit that it looked impressive, if not trying to be slightly too cool for school. Within the shop, the barista (who looked like they’d stepped out of an Urban Outfitter’s catalogue) busily prepare their orders in the open plan coffee bar, whilst heavily tattooed types don aprons and work using the beautiful roaster that dominates the eye when you walk in the store. After buying our drinks (I’d plumped with a latte – I felt in safe territory there), we walked upstairs to sit on the mezzanine level, so we could spy on the open coffee bar and also glance into the glass-fronted company headquarters, which are also located within this flagship store.
The clientele was varied – ranging from typical hipster city types, to older business people and joggers who probably needed that shot of energy to carry on. Not that we’d done any jogging that morning, but anyone who’s ever been to San Francisco will know that those vertiginous hills really take it out of you. So, here I was, ready to take my first sip of SF’s finest when I made my rookie mistake – I added sugar. Diane isn’t necessarily a violent person but if looks could kill, I’d be pushing up daisies. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that adding sugar is a big no-no, that it wouldn’t need any and I should try it before I add. Scowling inwardly, I took her advice and, lo and behold, she was right. Maybe I’m too used to the over processed bitter beans of Costa and Starbucks, but since drinking very good quality coffee, I can taste a natural sweetness that doesn’t need any additional help. I’d made my latte too sweet and I vowed (rather begrudgingly) to avoid sugar in coffee for the rest of the trip. After about twenty minutes of gazing down at the barista, who seemed to have got tapping milk jugs and creating fern shapes in frothed milk down to a fine art, we moved along, leaving customers ready to jump in our places, attesting to the popularity of the place.
Similar to the popularity of Sightglass, we had heard great things about a shop/micro-roaster called Ritual Coffee in The Mission, so we went for a visit, and after a few wrong turns and relying on my dodgy Google Maps on my phone, we found it. Unfortunately for us, the shop was undergoing refurbishment, so only the front part of the store was visible. The staff were very friendly though and parking ourselves in a lovely window seat, I decided to break free of my latte chains and go for something slightly more adventurous. I opted for an espresso and it was delicious; rich, complex but remarkably easy to drink. What seems to give coffee shops the edge seems to be the way the beans are ground. Diane had drawn my attention to the EK-43 grinder in coffee all of the shops, and told me that if the beans are ground vertically, instead of the traditional horizontal grinding plates, the end product is supposedly more defined and has greater clarity. In Leeds, I’m aware that Mrs Athas has one of these machines (expensive kit but you can really taste the results) but it seems de rigueur in the San Francisco coffee circles.
It was also in this shop that I learnt a whole new vocabulary surrounding the brewing and filtering of coffee. On the shelves were an array of strange apparatus – Chemex, which looked like props from Breaking Bad, V60s, AeroPress, Moka pots and other espresso kettles. Apart from my cafetiere (which I like to say in a thick French accent), I’d only seen the espresso kettle and never in my life heard of a V60 – it sounds like a cream you’d get to clear a case of thrush. I also learnt that they did a cold brew and decided that, in our next coffee shop, that’s what I’d go for.
So on to Réveille Coffee Co. in North Beach, which we actually visited twice during our stay. Our first visit was in the morning, and seeing the freshly baked croissants was too much for our hungry stomachs, so I had a delicious, moist almond croissant whilst Diane went for the classic all-butter version. I also decided to have a cold brew, as I wanted to see how different it was to the idea of an iced coffee that I had already experienced and not really enjoyed in the UK. The difference was marked. Iced coffee is brewed hot and then chilled by pouring over or adding ice, whereas a cold brew is basically ground coffee which is steeped in room temperature or cold water for around 12 hours. It was hugely refreshing and bright, yet still gave that lovely coffee kick. The taste wasn’t strong but actually really smoothy and fruity – it was as if the temperature really brought out the flavour of the beans. The second time we came here we both had a latte and I, learning from my mistakes, left the sugar out and, after a week of this, didn’t miss it at all.
We also visited The Mill on Divisadero St twice as well; a great coffee shop that was bustling each time we went in. They had an impressive range of beans (Four Barrel) to choose from and the cold brew and espresso I tasted were lovely – I think any memories of freeze dried Nescafe were rapidly disappearing into the ether. They also sold some very delicious looking artisan Josey Baker bread (another thing I’ve learnt is that if you put the word ‘artisan’ in front of anything, you can increase the price by 20%) but Diane and I had already bought some wonderful fresh produce from the local farmer’s market and were waiting on a table at our chosen restaurant for brunch, so decided not to load up on carbs.
Our last real find was one of the many small coffee bars belonging to Blue Bottle Coffee, well known around San Francisco and seemingly served in most large coffee shops due to the multitude of ‘We serve Blue Bottle Coffee’ stickers adorning shop windows. However, we wanted to find one of the original shops so we could experience just what makes this brand so revered. This kiosk if found nestled a few streets just behind the Opera House (Hayes Valley), opened in a garage in 2005. The only way we knew it was the Blue Bottle Coffee shop was due to the long queue of people patiently waiting for their daily cup of coffee.
We also patiently queued up and looked at their simple but classic menu of drinks, with both of us deciding upon a latte. I also spied some shiny, nut brown pretzels and other ‘artisan’ bread buns and ordered one, although myself and the barista must have had some communication problems and, in the end, I had to point awkwardly at the display to the stereotypical twisted pretzel shape, to which she exclaimed rather sardonically “They are all pretzels but I see…you want that one”. I think I made another rookie mistake but hey ho, I wanted the kind of pretzel I’d seen on the films goddammit! Apart from novelty shaped bread problems, the coffee was silky, mellow and extremely tasty – much better than anything that could come from a jar. In fact, we went back a few days after and I, trying to avoid the pretzel lady, got some great advice from a friendly male barista who helped me pick out some freshly roasted beans to take home as a present for a friend. Out of all of the coffee shops I went to, Blue Bottle has to be my favourite. Maybe I’d got used to the culture and the taste, so Blue Bottle came to me when my taste buds were more refined. I think, however, it was more down to the very relaxed and non-pretentious set up of the shop. Yes, it was tiny, but it felt special and like a treat when you got your order. It tasted great and just gave an insight into the typically laid back San Franciscan attitude that we got to know and admire. It was simple, authentic and extremely reasonable in price and aside from my bread battle, that pretzel did taste great!
And now we come to the present day, as I sit in Leeds, staring at my half full jar of Douwe Egberts. I’m not gonna lie….I’ve had a cup or two in the morning, but I get it now. It tastes ok…nothing special. Just something to wake me up. Since coming back from holiday, I have been into La Bottega Milanese, Mrs Athas and Laynes Espresso and been confident enough to order cold brews, split shots, piccolos and espressos. And they’ve been great. And I haven’t added sugar at all (honest guvnor!). I’m also thinking about ordering a V-60…but just thinking mind you. Let’s not rush things…
All photos in this blog post were taken by Diane Amesbury.