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College Avenue loads up on coffee

on August 25, 2010

Jake Bodden is holding a warm, but not too warm, cup of single origin coffee. It’s lightly roasted—with citrus notes—and was brewed with a V60 dripper.

It might sound incomprehensible to some, but for Bodden, that’s a decent cup of coffee. After years of working for Jamba Juice and tech companies, Bodden opened his own café, Bica, last week in North Oakland.

Bica is the third new store to move in this summer and sell coffee on the roughly three blocks of College Avenue between Alcatraz Avenue and Rockridge BART. It’s a pedestrian-heavy stretch of sidewalk, but there are already at least eight other places to get to-go coffee here, including two that have been selling specialty coffees for years, Cole Coffee and Peaberry’s Coffee.

Bica Coffeehouse on College Avenue.

“The first couple of weeks I heard about it, I was like, really?” said Michael Murphy, who owns Cole Coffee with his wife Desiree.

Murphy bought the store from his employer, importer Royal Coffee, in 2005. “It is my competition,” he said about the new stores. “On the other hand, it’s better than having a store vacant for years.”

Despite the sudden jump in coffee density, the three newbies aren’t worried; they each believe they’re bringing something unique in the neighborhood.

“There’s no one else doing a multi-roaster concept,” Bodden said about why he decided to move into an already well-caffeinated quadrant of Rockridge, in line of sight from Peaberry’s Coffee. He will rotate the source of his beans regularly, and he believes his focus on a high-end, light-roast product, combined with service, will sustain the business.

“There wasn’t a really good specialty coffee in the area,” said Shawn Allison about why he chose Rockridge for the nearby Café Zoë, which he opened with his husband Kevin McLain in June. That, and they liked the well-lit corner available, across the street from another café, Spasso. (“Specialty coffee” can mean anything from Starbucks to rare beans priced at more than $100 per pound.)

“It’s really to bring our brand out there, not to showcase coffee,” said Sally Leemun Yee, assistant brand manager of Miam.miam, the third newcomer. She explained that the College Avenue business, the company’s first foray into what it calls a “concept store,” is primarily intended to promote and exhibit its style of home products, like designer glasses and teapots.

Yet it is also a café, however conceptual, and Miam.miam offers a competitive coffee product to complement its product design. It sells Blue Bottle Coffee, a specialty brand that’s rapidly developed an almost cult following in the Bay Area in recent years. The café also offers gelato and frozen yogurt made with Straus Family Creamery’s organic yogurt.

Is there space for three more coffee dispensaries? That probably depends on what customers want from a café and on what it means to be “really good” and “specialty coffee.”

Some coffee fanciers believe the beverage has reached a “third wave,” a new, pickier tier above specialty coffee places like Peet’s Coffee and Tea, which started in Berkeley in 1966 and was considered high-end during an era when dark roasts were favored. For those in the third wave, shade-grown, organic, and fair trade aren’t enough.

These top-end roasters are making a greater effort to interact with all points of a bean’s trajectory. They visit growers in Africa and Central and South America to see the growing coffee cherries, and they pop into the cafes that buy their beans, quizzing the baristas to ensure that the roasted product is brewed and poured properly.

Third wave roasters crave a lighter roast, and they’re taking coffee in the opposite direction of wine—where blends are becoming more acceptable—instead isolating flavor profiles by selling coffee that comes from one geographical place, sometimes as small as one farm or small collective of farms. These coffees are called “single origin.”

At Bica, Bodden is focused on providing an absolutely perfect cup of coffee from third wave beans. He’s meticulous, and on Tuesday morning he was fretting over the flavor and acidity.

“I made it with 96 grams and maybe it should be a hundred,” Bodden said, thinking about whether a brew used the perfect weight in beans. This batch was made with beans from Finca Nueva Granada, a farm in the Apaneca region of El Savlador. They’re sold by De La Paz, a roaster in San Francisco.

Bodden plans to serve a rotating series of gourmet beans from Ritual Roasters in San Francisco, Flying Goat in Healdsburg, Verve Coffee in Santa Cruz, and Barefoot in Santa Clara.

His customers can buy French press coffee from a thermos, or get individual drips using a V60, a glass coffee dripper that has curving ridges on the interior. That keeps the paper filter from sticking to the sides, an undesirable effect that wicks the hot water away from the beans.

At Café Zoë, Allison’s also selling high-end coffees from roaster Ecco Caffe in Sonoma County. This week, Ecco Caffe’s supplied the café with beans from Finca Malacara and El Tambor farms in El Salvador and Guatemala, respectively.

“They’ll pop in every once in a while to see if it’s being poured properly,” said employee Lindy Beam about Ecco. “They’re really cool, really down to earth.”

Café Zoë is named after Allison and McLain’s dog, and it’s spotless, if a bit austere, with high ceilings and lots of windows. It has books but no wireless.

“We don’t want it to be everybody drinking a glass of water, packed through with laptops,” Beam explained as she worked at the counter on Monday.

It’s a distinction that separates Zoë from the rest of the cafes. Owners in the neighborhood hope that there enough other differences to keep all of these individual places in business.

Almost directly across the street, Spasso was busier than Café Zoë that day, though third wave fans might complain it lacks the same caliber of coffee. Customers were reading books in the armchairs by the windows and working on laptops in the back. Far more casual, if also grubbier, Spasso also serves food and has for years. The owner, working at the counter that afternoon, declined to be interviewed.

At A’Cuppa Tea down the street, the café philosophy is even more removed from Zoe’s. Owner Lee Vu is pro-wireless and apathetic about coffee quality. “We don’t have special coffee, but special tea,” Vu said, explaining that he stocks 60 kinds of tea, including some he imports himself from Vietnam. He unapologetically serves unremarkable coffee, Americas Best Coffee’s Dark Sumatra. “Tea boosts the system,” he said.

On Monday, with classical music playing quietly in the background, four people were seated in a row in enormous, plush purple armchairs, each working steadily on a computer. In the back, beyond the heavy, purple velvet curtains, a handful of others were also working on laptops. Vu invites customers to spend just $2—on tea, a bagel, or a Diet Coke—and stay an hour in what he calls “quiet, peaceful freedom.” There are no rules or time limits on how long to use the free wireless or how long to nurse the same beverage.

His customers seem to love it. “Nobody bothers you and you’re able to concentrate on things you might otherwise forget because someone asks you a question,” said Samuel Taylor about why he comes to A’Cuppa Tea. Otherwise he’d be in the office, a clothing design house in San Francisco, a place he calls noisy and fast-paced. Plus, he said, “not many cafes provide breakfast lunch and dinner.”

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a checkered hat, Vu was working alongside his wife Lynn, who’s at the café every day. They also cook American and Vietnamese food. There aren’t any employees; when they want to vacation, Vu calls his older sister to fill in, he said.

Of other coffee places in the area, particularly Cole Coffee, Vu said, “That’s all trendy over there, a hangout for East Bay Rats and the bikers.”

Cole is definitely popular, often with customers lining up outside the door. Owner Murphy buys beans from from McLaughlin Coffee Company, a roaster in Emeryville that’s been in the business since 1983. Murphy picks up new beans for Cole three times per week, trying to maintain a freshly-roasted stock for the 30 coffees he offers; coffee beans are best used as soon as possible after roasting.

It’s a store—or rather two stores in a row— with a diverse but devoted clientele: Fathers and mothers with small children in strollers or atop shoulders are a common sight, as are cyclists in bright spandex, hipsters, yuppies, and the East Bay Rats, a local motorcycle club.

In the front, customers can get espresso drinks and individually prepared drip coffees, selecting from a wide variety of beans, which are then separately ground up to make each serving of potent coffee. Cole also serves French press coffee, poached eggs and toast, and a handful of sandwiches and baked goods.

At the rear store, customers can purchase beans, including a few single origin but mostly dark roast coffee blends. But there’s only one coffee and one decaf sold each day, and it’s premade and served from thermoses. Murphy changes the beans slowly as customers change their tastes. “I push new stuff,” he said, adding that whenever he takes away a bean choice, someone always complains that it was his favorite.

“After work, I have a coffee, maybe get some bread at La Farine,” said Carlos Herrera, who was sitting outside Cole of Tuesday afternoon. “It’s the best coffee, not bitter, not over-roasted, it’s just right,” he said. “Even in wintertime I like to sit outside here rather than go somewhere else.”

Another longstanding member of the neighborhood is Peaberry’s Coffee, which has been roasting its own product and serving drinks here for 23 years. Peaberry’s roasts new beans for its café and for wholesale clients each Monday and Thursday. It’s located within the Rockridge Market Hall, so the café has a mutually beneficial relationship with Market Hall’s other retailers, netting customers who might have come intending to buy some cheese at the Pasta Shop or something from the bakery.

Brandy Linstrum, Peaberry’s vice president, said the small, local company is keeping an eye on the increasing density of coffee shops. “Everybody and their mother is out there starting up a roaster,” she noted, adding that the trend of a single origin coffee might overlook the skill involved with blending coffees, an art intended to “formulate a very smooth and rich versus thin and acidic coffee,” she said.

“My coffee, my newspaper, first thing,” said Robert Danison, a Peaberry’s regular who’s often sitting outside the café with a newspaper. “Here, I know everybody and I’m treated like a VIP,” he said.

Easily spotted in tie dye, tattoos, and a mustache, Danison just returned from a trip to Paris and Costa Rica. “Boy, I sure did miss good ol’ Market Hall mud there,” he said.

Danison said he occasionally pops by other cafes in the area for a social visit, like Hudson Bay Café further down College Avenue or Cole Coffee, but Peaberry’s is his favorite. Also relatively nearby are Bittersweet on College Avenue and Café Helloakland on Claremont Avenue.

Bica-owner Bodden isn’t deterred all this competition, including nearby Peaberry’s. “So far, so good,” he said working in his shop on Friday, his second day in the business.

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  1. Teresa Chin on August 25, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Yesterday, a coworker and I arranged to meet at “that new coffee shop down on College.” We each assumed we knew which one the other was talking about, and ended up at completely different places as a result. We hadn’t realized before then just how many new coffee shops were opening in that area!

  2. Terri Hunter-Davis on August 25, 2010 at 8:39 am

    There are a few more than three blocks between Alcatraz and the BART station — two alone between Alcatraz and Claremont.

  3. Lisa Tsering on August 25, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Good article, nicely researched. Can’t wait to check out Bica.

  4. Jim on August 25, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    For this desacrating, er discriminating, palate, blends are where it’s at. Phil, of Philz, complexes it up and rounds the tones. Peaberry’s is the good stuff too.

  5. zaydee on August 25, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    I’ve no palate for high end coffees. I buy Folgers.

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. Andy Berard on March 30, 2011 at 3:43 am

    Love the vibe of the Oaktown coffee scene. Much success as I am a coffee roaster in Colorado and love my Java !! Good Luck.

  8. […] And maybe we’re drinking too much of the stuff? Anrica Deb investigated whether 11 coffee shops on three blocks is testing the limit: College Avenue loads up on coffee […]

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