Like many successful businesses, Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee started small. Owner James Freeman, a classically trained clarinetist, began by roasting coffee beans on a baking sheet in his own oven. His first coffee stand behind Doña Tomas in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland was “the smallest food certified facility in Alameda County at the time,” says Freeman.
But now, eight years later, Blue Bottle is big time.
Freeman’s organic, shade grown and freshly roasted beans can be found in restaurants like Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and in cafes across the Bay Area. His baristas also pull espressos in the shadows of the SFMOMA sculpture garden and the three-foot tall Japanese drip coffee devices at Blue Bottle’s newly opened Brooklyn location. Few local coffee purveyors inspire the same fervor. Shoppers at the Oakland Temescal farmers’ market are known to wait up to half an hour for cups of espresso and drip coffee made one at a time at the company’s small, propane-powered cart.
Freeman’s passion for coffee began with a sip of his parents’ instant brew at age 7. “I thought it smelled so good,” says Freeman, but “it was just vile on so many levels. That tension made coffee more compelling for me than if I would have had that first taste and it was delicious.” As an adult, Freeman began roasting beans to his own specifications in his kitchen. To avoid the low-grade coffee on airplane flights, he would go so far as to bring aboard a manual grinder and French press. Now at Blue Bottle, he demands that his custom blends and single origin beans zip from roaster to customer within 48 hours to ensure freshness and flavor.
That same fanaticism is reflected in the number of specialty coffee houses opening around Oakland. This summer, three coffee shops opened within a three-block stretch of College Avenue near Rockridge BART. Two other Oakland cafes, Remedy, in Temescal, and Awaken in the downtown area, recently financed their construction with microloans from passionate customers, thirsty for quality coffee in their neighborhoods.
“More people are opening cafes that are really caring about what coffee they use and how well they are preparing it, says Freeman. “I think that speaks to the bottomless demand and interest for well-made and well-roasted coffees.” Miam.miam, a newly opened retail store and cafe, offers Blue Bottle coffee to complement its gelato and frozen yogurt.
Mention Blue Bottle to local coffee drinkers and you’ll hear raves about its Hayes Valley Espresso (a blend of beans from Uganda, Guatemala, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Mexico; $17.75 per bag), or complaints about the stuck-up attitude of artisan roasters. But Freeman sees specialty coffee as a logical step in a region renowned for gourmet food. “If you go in expecting snobbery you’re probably going to find it,” says Freeman. “But there’s a lot of ways to experience very familiar tastes at all of these coffee bars.”
Recently, Freeman welcomed Oakland North into his roasting facility near Jack London Square, where all the Blue Bottle coffee consumed in the Bay Area is processed. He led a tour of his antique roasters and other retro machinery and allowed us to sample an array of Blue Bottle single origin brews at a coffee tasting, or “cupping.” Last Sunday, we braved the line at the Temescal farmers market to investigate why Blue Bottle fanatics wait so long for their morning coffee.
The Oakland Temescal farmers’ market is open Sundays from 9am to 1pm at the Oakland DMV, 5300 Claremont Avenue. Blue Bottle Coffee hosts free public coffee cuppings every Tuesday at 2pm at its roasting facility, 300 Webster Street in Oakland.