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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Blue Bottle Coffee: Searching for the Tears of God

Posted on November 7, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Several years ago, I stumbled across a post -- it might been on Gizmodo -- about the world's most expensive coffee maker. I was fascinated by it and went out hunting down videos and information on just how this magical fusion of precision, splittling-the-atom level machinerey and old-world artisan craftsmanship of that blind guy from Kung-Fu worked. It was called a Siphon Bar. As you can imagine with a coffee maker that costs upwards of $20,000, there are gonna be a ton of these bad girls floating around. And, surprising absolutely no one, South Carolina is finding itself Siphon Bar-less. So I happened to mention something-something coffee on the Interwebs the other day, and I asked former Bay Area gal, Sarah Fleishman, if she had ever experienced the Siphon Bar magic of Blue Bottle Cafe when she went to school at Cal.

Well, this conversation caught the attention of Richard Fregosa, a coffee aficionado who happens to reside quite near Blue Bottle. During our 3-way chat, Sarah discovered that there was a Siphon Bar near where she worked in southern California. And then it was inevitable: We would have a dual Bar taste-off and Guest Blog showdown.The winners, of course, would be everyone!

In his preparation for the Siphon taste-off, Rich went to Blue Bottle for a trial run. He sent me his initial notes on the experience and they made for such a great story, I decided to post them on their own. I actually despise the term "LOL" because it is often SO disingenuous. The person typing it so rarely, truly laughs out loud, that it has caused the phrase to become diluted and meaningless. Well, I will admit that when reading Rich's post I literally did LOL. Multiple times. I would have never thought that reading about someone else drinking coffee could be so entertaining, but Rich has managed to deliver an experience that is surely the next best thing to being there. I hesitate to tell you where you can read more from Rich because I fear that you'll think he's funnier than I am and then you'll never come back. But, at the risk of losing you forever, I'll say you can follow Rich on Twitter at @rfregosa and you can read his blog , Sharing the Tribal Knowledge.

Now, I give you, Rich's visit to Blue Bottle Coffee and his search for the Tears of God...

So, much like anything in my life that winds up getting me quickly in over my head, about a week ago I wound up inadvertently “tweet-dropping” in on a Twitter conversation between John Sciacca (@SciaccaTweets) and Sarah Fleishman, the Social Media Coordinator for Access Networks (@sarahfle) about coffee of all things.

But not your run of the mill half soy half nonfat pumpkin spiced crappoccino, but Blue Bottle Coffee which is regarded by many as some of the best coffee in San Francisco, the Bay Area and far, far beyond. This is in large part due to their maniacal attention to every single step of the process, from the grinding of the beans to the “old world” espresso techniques all the way leading up to the ultra high tech coffee distillation process known simply as “Siphon Bar.” (More on this later. Lots more...)



Now nothing gets my interest piqued like high tech, caffeine, and any references to man-made methamphetamines in the same sentence, and this Siphon Bar sounded like it was right up my alley. Sort of like the depraved, hybrid lovechild that would result if Breaking Bad and Good Eats met one another in a bar with nothing but a shared bottle of Tequila and bad decision making skills between them...

So, of course, as what usually happens with me, things escalate to the point that it became a moral imperative to seek out this luxuriant liquid goodness. Not only for a good story, but now there was competitive fuel added to the fire… The “I double dog dare you” of a mano-a-mano guest blog pitting two combatants against one another in a coffee raged throwdown of biblical proportions. (JS: I didn't realize that I had unleashed the coffee Apocalypse by suggesting a Siphon Filter taste-off... OK. Who am I kidding? Of course I did! Excellent!)

Mmmmmm, good to the last drop! Why go to Blue Bottle in the first place?

Before I get into my pilgrimage to these hallowed grounds -- (Grounds! Get it! I crack myself up...) -- it’s best that I give a quick overview about what exactly makes Blue Bottle Coffee so special in the first place that it exudes an almost Black Hole level of gravitational pull; bringing fervent devotees back again and again to suckle from the teat of freshly brewed mountain goodness.

•    It’s ridiculously fresh

Seriously, the max amount of time they allow their coffees to go from roasting to in your cup is 48 hours. That’s it. The only guy who gets his coffee faster might be the fellow who plucks the beans, holds them with a stick over a roaring fire and then pops them in his mouth to siphon the oily roasted nectar out directly.

•    It may be filled with hipsters, but the focus is the coffee and nothing but

The baristas are way serious about their coffee making and yet the people behind the counter I met were not only very experienced but were also extremely pleasant and cared about making my order “just right." This is an important detail as the lines can be loonnggggg…. There are no McLatte’s being doled-out here in 30 seconds flat.

•    For boutique coffee, it’s extremely reasonable

When I first considered going, my original fears were that I would walk in and face a menu that was blatantly devoid of any prices and was an “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” kind of place. I was happily proven wrong on this one. If you look at the menu, you’ll notice they actually cost less than Starbucks or even the other local Coffee Masters, Peet’s (who by the way still make a great cup of java and have just now moved down to #2 on my list). One thing to notice is the lack of sizes; you aren’t going to get a 30 oz Big Gulp version here; the water/milk to coffee ratio is meticulously meted out, no exceptions. (JS: "I want a large." "A LARGE?!?" "Yes. A large." "No coffee for you! End of line. Come back one week! NEXT!")


Beyond CoffeeDome

Now I’m an unabashed coffee-head (and devout foodie, wino, and cigar monger amongst other things) and I admit that my love for java might not be the best thing for me, but in the grand scheme of vices to have, I’m OK with this one. So maybe it was proximity, or maybe it was the totally plausible excuse of, "But honey, I HAD to try the uber-awesome coffee for professional reasons!” explanation I had prepared for my wife, but either way, I immediately took off for Blue Bottle Café. I have to also point out, I’ve got the worst impulse control gene ever, so this just added to my sense of adventure.

Armed with the philosophy that the best defense is a good offense, I decided to launch the first wave in the tastings battle and establish my territory and check in using FourSquare.



The original location is in Hayes Valley in SF, but I was making a beeline for the Mint St. Location (go figure it’s right behind the old U.S. Mint) where the legendary Siphon Bar is located. (We will get to that, I swear. Just a little more patience.) (JS: Actually a lot more patience...Siphon Bar is going to be a separate post. But it'll be awesome, I promise!)

As shown earlier in the coffee menu, you’ll notice there aren’t a lot of choices, mainly, you can have coffee, you can have coffee or you can have coffee... (JS: Or apple juice. Seriously? You came here for an apple juice? Even your infant child should be forced to drink a cup'a Joe at a place like Blue Bottle!)

The differences really are all about style points: regular, iced, espresso, espresso/milk hybrid, or siphon bar. They do serve food too, but that’s like going to a bar because they have the best mixed nuts dish; completely irrelevant, but I guess some people would do it.

Now the primary motivation was to come slurp down some siphon-ey bar goodness but, it appears that the preparers of this mystical brew are specially trained and you can only have the fruits of their roasted bean wares at specific times of the day. Unfortunately, in my case I arrived 2 hours too late.

So I did the next best thing, I ordered the trifecta of coffee bean goodness. This trip would consist of the “personal” drip coffee, a “regular” Latte, and the “Kyoto style” iced coffee. I told myself that in my quest for faux journalistic integrity, If I had to risk a caffeine addled existence for the next few hours, damn the torpedoes and sign me up. I placed my order and took a seat while they prepped my liquid bounty.

Because this was intended to be a shared experience it was also my opportunity to engage in my own version of the New Zealand War Dance known as the Haka to unnerve my competitor before she could even get started.

Whaaaaaattt? You’ve never seen the Maori Haka War Dance? Why let’s correct that immediately! Granted I don’t have actual War Dancin’ available, but this is a pretty good rendition of how I was getting my guest blogging game face on:

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In my version, my opening salvo consisted of firing off this trio photo before I hunkered down to get my coffee on…


Now in my mind what I was seeing is this:

Coffee Tasting Battle – FIGHT!

The following is a combination of my first impressions and then my tasting notes as I worked my way through each of the beverages:

•    Hipsters paradise - awkwardly gender vague guys in ridiculously tight jeans, frat boys, tech heads and least I forget we are right off of 6th and market mind you, the occasional homeless person who pokes their head through the cafe window to ask for some change.

•    72 degrees and knitted forearm warmers? What the hell are you, a crochet ninja?

•    Siphon Pot / please ask = If you have to ask you can't afford it.

•    This is not a place for a pumpkin saffron spiced mocchachino, this is a shop for serious coffee drinkers.

•    They have some of the usual accoutrements out but you feel as if all eyes are upon you if you venture too close.

“Personal Drip” – Bella Donovan Roast

•    Preparation – individual ground serving of beans, slowly hand-poured into individual drip filters, using kettles with spouts, one cup at a time. Takes a bit of time to let the coffee brew this way but it appears that it’s worth the wait. It’s a lovely orchestration of movements, patience, and craftwork. The waiting is part of the enjoyment I’m starting to think.

•    First Taste - Damn! Malty, with some butterscotch and a balanced finish. Complex enough flavor without being to coffee-ey. This is how you’re supposed to drink coffee; no sugar, no cream, just this all by itself. I’m starting to feel some twinges of shame over my love of Vanilla creamer. Repent!

“Kyoto Style” Iced Coffee

•    Preparation – Water, a LOT of coffee grounds and slowly extracting this liquid drop by drop into the glass container below. This takes a full day to prepare, which is why they have several of these going at any given time. (The photo with the glass orbs is the setup for the Kyoto Style and New Orleans Style Iced Coffee Stations. I mistakenly thought this was the Siphon Bar.) (JS: Me too! Looks like an awesome, lunatic mad scientist's, end of world, tea brewing station!)

•    First Taste - very reminiscent of a strong black tea - spice profile was completely un-coffee like. A satisfying iced beverage. I probably would not have guessed it as iced coffee if I didn't know.

•    I'm not a tea drinker but if I drank it, this would be called "Gunpowder, dragon’s tail, death hammer" or something vaguely and mysteriously worldly and arcane that I would consider myself generally to be far too unworldly to drink it.

•    It made me want to grow a long white moustache & beard, while I sip tea imparting my knowledge of the five-finger heart palm death strike.

“Regular” Latte

•    Preparation – dude, it’s a Latte: milk, espresso, the end. But the espresso is made on this beautiful vintage device. It was like the Sophia Loren of espresso makers, sultry and beckoning you to partake. (Or if Sciacca was there, it would have recalled images of KEF Speakers “I implore you…. touch the Blade!")

•    First Look – This is the most gorgeous latte I’ve ever had made for me. Seriously, this is like the Jessica Alba of latte’s – the barista even told me, "If this isn’t perfect, I’m making it again.” Dude is hardcore about his foamy milk! It’s like that scene from Green Hornet (granted not many people saw the movie) where Kato makes the ultimate kick ass latte. This is that latte.

•    First Taste - Caramel, caramel, caramel. And did I mention caramel? The froth almost felt like it turned into a creme brûlée topping - perfect foil to the espresso underneath which was also surprisingly creamy. Every other latte that follows will be compared to this.

Round 1 - Conclusions

This was pretty eye opening, San Francisco is known for a lot of culinary high water marks, and this was coffee treated as Haute Cuisine without the stuffy atmosphere. In the same way that a great cut of meat needs only the most basic of seasonings, this coffee echoes that exact same sentiment - the only thing you should care about is the coffee and nothing but.

The real story (for me at least) was caffeine content. See I normally drink close to a pot of coffee a day - potentially 40-60 ounces of coffee. It is pretty much my beverage of choice from the time I rise until well into the afternoon. Here I had 3-ish cups (maybe 20 ounces) and the results?  Clenched jaw, buzzy buzzy eye movements and the definite first wave of coffee jitters. This is definitely high octane stuff, hell it’s practically coffee bean moonshine...

My winners in order were: 1) Latte, 2) Personal Drip, 3) Kyoto Style (it’s almost TOO overpowering, but that could be because I was completely over caffeinated in this first sitting)

For a first trip it was a hell of a rush and wasn’t nearly as bad on my wallet as I anticipated:

Coffee: $10.50

Tip: $3.00

Parking: $5.50

Grand Total for first visit: $19.00

Next up… Siphon Bar Battle: Two City Taste Challenge! Fight!

Categories: November 2011, Guest Blog, Coffee