Courtesy Red Berry
Considering that 83% of American adults are coffee drinkers, it is surprising that its details are so frequently ignored. Most avid coffee drinkers don’t know where their morning latte came from, nor who made it or what they were paid for it.
As globalization connects the world, it cuts the cost of transportation and allows consumers to conveniently buy goods from half a world away. But that convenience is also incredibly alienating. Somewhere far away, there is a real person who made that backpack, who built that cellphone — or grew that coffee bean. And if the consumer never has to think about that person, it is easy to forget they exist.
Specialty coffee, also known as Third Wave Coffee, is intended to reverse the alienation brought on by globalization; the movement connects consumers as directly as possible with the coffee they drink and the people who made it. Whereas mass market coffees, like Starbucks or Peet’s, are fast and convenient, third wave coffee is a slow, thoughtful and delicious product intimately tied to its origin. Specialty coffee goes beyond merely “drinking coffee,” to enjoying the hard work of a farmer in Guatemala who cares about his product.
When it’s prepared correctly, coffee is similar to a fine wine or a delicately crafted entree — an everyday delicacy. Truly great coffee offers completely new and wonderful taste profiles every morning. Coffee shouldn’t be a chore; it should be an experience.
In order to emphasize origin flavor, specialty coffee favors roasting much lighter than most — the final temperature of the roast could be as low as 300 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than 350 or 400. Roasted this light, the coffee reveals subtle fruity, flowery or tea-like characteristics, lacking the burnt, smoky and chocolatey flavors caused by over-roasting.
The best shops often test multiple brewing methods for the same coffee to see which produces the best cup. Top brewers are very precise with the temperature of the water, the ratio of coffee to water and the length of extraction are all controlled within a tight range in order to consistently bring out the subtleties of each coffee.
Gourmet coffee isn’t just delicious; it also pays its producers a living wage, yet another reason for people to care about what they drink. Whereas mass market coffee cuts corners, underpays farmers and sacrifices human rights to deliver a product more cheaply and efficiently, third wave coffee does not.
In some ways, third wave coffee is a movement composed of farmers, roasters and consumers who choose to counteract corporatization, reject the anonymity of consumerism and engage in something real. Something meaningful.
It is a movement that everyone can and should be a part of, and joining it is both easy and delicious. In the following spread, The Talon explores the origin of gourmet coffee and introduces several Bay Area spots for readers to experience.
History of Coffee
The origins of coffee are shrouded in mystery, but the most popular version involves an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi, who lived roughly 1000 years ago. When he noticed that his goats were unusually excited, he went to find the cause of the problem and ended up identifying the coffee bush. He tried the berries, and the rest is history – so to speak.
The coffee plant is Ethiopian in origin, but it wasn’t until it found its way to the Arab world that coffee as we know of day – a dark-colored liquid brewed from ground seeds – was born. Instead of simply eating the berries of the plant, or making tea from the leaves and husks as some still do in Ethiopia, Arab countries ground and roasted the seeds to make the familiar drink we now recognize.
After grinding and roasting were discovered, it didn’t take long before the novel beverage took the world by storm. By the mid-1600s, coffee was all the rage in France and Britain, where city coffeehouses became meeting centers to do business, engage in debates or simply enjoy oneself. In Britain in 1675, king Charles II even attempted to ban all coffeehouses, fearing that they were organizing centers to topple his control over the government.
One of the first places in Europe coffee found its way to was the trading hub of the time, Venice. There, the story goes, local clergy demanded a ban on the drink, because of its association with the muslim world. Pope Clement VIII demanded to taste the drink and became hooked.
But even as coffee spread to Europe, production of the drink was limited to a few countries – Ottoman and Arabian suppliers kept tight control over the plants to avoid competition. For decades, no other country could get even a seedling of the plant to cultivate their own production. The Dutch finally succeeded, covering the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra in the plant.
The Dutch, in turn, guarded their coffee plants jealously to prevent anyone from competing. But they let up their guard in 1714, giving one of the plants to King Louis XIV of France as a gift. A decade later, a french officer named Gabriel de Clieu transplanted a seedling to Martinique in the Caribbean – the first coffee to be grown in the western hemisphere. His seedling would singlehandedly cover a continent in the bush as its descendants spread across central and Southern America as well as the Carribean.
When settlers came to found the United States, they brought the British taste for coffee with them. Especially after the Boston Tea Party, coffee became the beverage of choice.
The next significant development came in the early 1900s, when a wave of Italian immigrants entered the United States. With them, they brought a strange drink called “espresso.” Initially unpopular, espresso and its variations caught on and became highly influential on American coffee culture.
Red Berry Coffee Bar
Until very recently, finding great coffee meant going out of the area — to Red Rock in Mountain View, further up the bay, or even San Francisco. But ever since the opening of Red Berry Coffee Bar a year and a half ago, Los Altos has a top-flight coffee offering of its own, within walking distance from the school.
Red Berry’s history actually starts in San Jose, where the store was headquartered until 2010. That was when it outgrew its smaller store and moved to Los Altos, where it has twice the space it did previously. Its move was delayed for several years by constructions and renovations, but the shop re-opened its doors in March, 2014.
Inside those doors, Red Berry’s interior is stripped down, yet welcoming. The store is relatively small — but it combines high ceilings and open space with lots of natural light to make it feel much larger and more spacious than it is.
Tables are spread out instead of being adjacent, and interior clutter is kept to a minimum — the only wall decoration is a rotating art installation from Gallery 9, next door. The store also keeps the volume of its music under control — not every shop does. Red Berry is never as crowded as competitors like Red Rock tend to be, which means waiting to find a table is almost unheard of.
Of course, a great interior is no use if the coffee isn’t incredible. Thankfully, it is.
Red Berry carries a rotating cast of three different drip coffees and three different espressos, all from different roasters and grown in different regions. On any given day, Red Berry could carry an Ethiopian coffee roasted in San Francisco, a Guatemalan coffee roasted in Portland and a Panamanian coffee roasted in North Carolina. The next day, three other coffees will take their place.
Because Red Berry only ever brews three coffees at a time, its baristas can dial in all the factors that affect the coffee with incredible accuracy to produce a consistently great cup. Compared to many of the offerings in the South Bay, Red Berry achieves far more complex and nuanced flavor profiles, because it focuses on doing a few coffees right, instead of brewing 20 coffees poorly.
Sourcing coffee from everywhere also makes Red Berry more dynamic and flexible in its offerings — where most shops will only ever sell one roaster’s beans, Red Berry exposes its customers to offerings from across the United States and the world, and it only has to serve the coffees it likes.
Considering that their drip coffee is so outstanding, it is a bit of a disappointment that Red Berry’s espresso is good — not great. Red Berry shots still pack plenty of subtle flavors and texture, but they never quite achieve the balance and cohesiveness that a truly great shot from other shops can offer.
Perhaps the most important things about Red Berry is that it’s so accessible. When coffee this sublime is a 15 minute stroll off campus, there’s no excuse to wait.
Red Rock Coffee Company
Ever since its establishment in 2005, the Red Rock cafe has been voted Mountain View’s best independent coffee house twice. Red Rock hosts live music and poetry slams and is consistently applauded for its relaxed work environment for students, residents and computer geeks alike.
The menu is succinct and aesthetically pleasing, combining a single origin coffee bar with a traditional cafe. Red Rock provides ten complex options of drip coffee sourced from local roaster Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco, which diversifies its selection in comparison to shops like Red Berry or Starbucks.
The single origin coffee served at Red Rock cafe is sophisticated in nature and certainly not for the faint of palate, offering options such as the Alotpeque Reserve sourced from El Salvador and the Retana Maracaturra from Guatemala. The espresso is sweet and powerful, combining a distinct flavor of sugar with a more subtle berry undertone.
Because Red Rock strives to create a consumer-friendly environment, the coffee prices are kept relatively inexpensive. A medium cup of drip coffee costs approximately $3.10 and a shot of espresso costs $2.60. However, as with most cafes, the pastries and delicacies are considerably more costly.
Equipped with a second story, Wi-Fi and an ample amount of table space, Red Rock provides much more than just a sophisticated cup of coffee. The baristas are friendly and anything but overbearing, which only adds to the relaxed atmosphere. The music is tasteful and the furnishings, specifically upstairs, are spaced appropriately so that the the customer can feel in their own environment without sacrificing the warm atmosphere of a coffee shop.
Because of its advantageous location on the corner of Castro and Villa, Red Rock naturally draws a crowd. If you don’t mind standing in a line or enjoying your coffee elbow-to-elbow with the other guests, the reliable hustle and bustle should not prove to be a deterrent.
Just like the expansive amount of coffee it offers, the Red Rock cafe provides a wide selection of reasons to make its location your next go-to coffee stop.
It’s not an easy trip, but the truly devoted couldn’t do better than Sightglass Coffee, a major roaster in San Francisco. Founded in 2008 by brothers Jerad and Justin Morrison, Sightglass combines great coffee with creative aesthetics and a thoughtful service experience at its two locations. Even in San Francisco, arguably the capital of third wave coffee, Sightglass’s offerings stand out.
The first thing customers will notice entering Sightglass’s flagship store on 7th Street, is the attention to detail and organization of space. The converted warehouse is incredibly open and spacious. The coffee is brewed in the center, visible from anywhere in the store. The baristas brew the coffee with a degree of finesse that resembles an elaborate choreographed dance, and it’s easy to become mesmerized.
Sightglass brews both drip coffee and espresso with finesse, although its drip coffee is certainly the highlight of its offerings. While carrying a limited selections of coffee which change with the season, Sightglass also manages to represent an incredible variety of flavor profiles and tastes, from lighter central American offerings to intense earthy and fruity coffees from Ethiopia.
In addition to its flagship location, Sightglass also has a store on 20th street in the Mission District. Smaller than the warehouse, it cultivates a zen aesthetic with tasteful wood and music choices, while offering the same great coffee as the main store.
It may be understandably hard to justify travelling 40 miles for a coffee shop, but anyone who happens to be in the city would do well to try Sightglass. It’s a playground for what coffee is — and the possibilities of what it can be.