Artisanal Coffee and Chocolate: My Silent Partners

I am convinced that the San Francisco Bay Area is home to some of the best coffee roasters in the world. The Bay Area has Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, Thanksgiving, Barefoot, Verve, Sight Glass, Bicycle, Ritual, Roast, and the Johnny-Come-Lately of the group and my personal favorite, Wrecking Ball. After watching Amy Ferraris’ fun documentary, The Perfect Cappuccino, I was tempted to do my own little taste test among my favorite roasters in the area. So treating myself to a single cappuccino per day, all in the name of the art and science of coffee, I walked into Ritual, Four Barrel, Blue Bottle, and Sight Glass and asked succinctly for a “cappuccino.” I did not elaborate beyond that, leaving it entirely up to the barista as to how they wished to best represent their version of the drink. I do not add sugar or anything else to the cappuccino, allowing it to speak for itself, and I gently mix the white creamy froth into the black espresso with a couple of stirs of the spoon just before beginning to meditatively drink it. At the time, Wrecking Ball had not yet opened a storefront in the Bay Area, and not knowing of a venue that served their coffee, I made some of their Ethiopian via my own French Press. Then, for good measure, I walked into a local Whole Foods and ordered their own small (12 oz) version of the same, a cappuccino made with Allegro coffee. Here’s what I found:

On day one, I had Ritual at their Valencia Street location in the Mission District of San Francisco, CA. I had tasted it only once before, about a year ago, and not paying very much attention to coffee at the time, I was underwhelmed. This time, however, I paid attention, and I learned. Ritual’s cappuccino was sublime. It was expertly prepared, such that the foamy milk was thick, creamy, and slightly sweet, leaving a lingering and angelic joy in my mouth hours after the experience. The espresso was warming, and I recall the slightest notes of almond and caramel. It is the kind of coffee that I would drink late at night if I were planning on a starlit evening of escapades. In short, it makes me wax poetic just thinking about it. Yes, I liked it … so very much!

On day two, of course, I treated myself to a cup of Ritual’s main competitor, Four Barrel, located right up the street on Valencia in the Mission. Four Barrel’s cappuccino was decidedly stronger, a bit more bitter. The cream was not as sweet, and the coffee was smokier, more leathery, with hints of a dark aromatic cigar before it’s lit. I believe they were using their Colombian roast in my espresso. It was excellent — everything you expect a great cappuccino to be, yet not as refined and gentle as Ritual’s.

On day three, I ordered a cup of Sight Glass at a new chic cafe, Craftsman and Wolves, on Valencia Street that serves their coffee. The cafe serves an assortment of deli sandwiches and pastries all in an upscale, industrial, hipster-chic ambiance, and their barista did an excellent job of preparing my drink. It reminded me of Verve Coffee, an excellent roaster in Santa Cruz, CA, and one of my favorites in the Bay Area. It is a complex cup, smoky, leathery, with a mildly sweet aftertaste and hints of roasted chestnuts in the bouquet. The cream was not particularly sweet, likely because of the strength of the espresso. I found it to be slightly less bold in comparison to Four Barrel but certainly a stronger brew than Ritual.

On day four, I asked for a cappuccino at Blue Bottle, and I found it to be very similar to Sight Glass, yet more nuanced than both that roaster and Four Barrel. It lacked the delicacy of Ritual’s brew, yet it was more filling to the senses. It occupied my mind more while drinking it, but less so afterwards than Ritual’s. Yet both Blue Bottle’s and Ritual’s left me with the sense that a well-made cappuccino with expertly roasted beans, such as these, is truly more than a ‘perfect cappuccino’. Rather, it just may be one of the most perfect single things in my day. It is clean with defined borders, it’s artistically abstract, and it lacks pretense — though so much may be ascribed to it by connoisseurs. Best of all, it is unblemished, and I am thankful for it.

While it should be clear that Ritual and Blue Bottle, perhaps in that order, are my favorites for their cappuccinos among roasters with a storefront in the Bay Area, I must add that my own home-brewed French Press of Wrecking Ball’s Ethiopian beat them all hands-down, what with its delicate citrusy and perfumed nuances of taste and bouquet. This is all due to what seem to me to be superior and possibly organically grown beans and master roasting techniques that place an emphasis on allowing Mother Nature to clearly express to us her gentle song through the humble coffee bean. I can’t wait to taste a cup of their cappuccino, wherever it may be found!

As a final note on this fun coffee tasting, I tried a cup of Allegro cappuccino, the home brand of Whole Foods Market. Without going into too much detail, I didn’t like it very much. The espresso seemed like the beans were over-roasted, burning the oils rather than emphasizing the bean’s characteristics, and the foamed milk seemed too distinct from the black brew, sitting atop it in a huge 12 ounce mound (their “small” cup), rather than embellishing upon the espresso to bring out its creamy sweetness and warmth.

Now, people who know me well know that I love chocolate, likely even more than coffee. Yet I’ll keep this brief, as I am worn out by all the coffee-tawk at this point. Have you been to Dandelion in the Mission? Why not?!

December 2013 Post-Script: The coffee world in the San Francisco Bay Area welcomes the addition of Bicycle Coffee’s new roastery venue in Jack London Square, Oakland, CA!

Other favorites: Portland area roasters: Four Points, Happyrock Coffee, Coava Coffee, and Heart Coffee.