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My $10 Cuppa -- (Un)biased review of Blue Bottle Cafe

Xiao Yang Mar 13, 2008 09:05 PM

I've voiced my opinion of Blue Bottle's roasts before, but out of a sense of fairness (and an inveterate curiosity) I decided to check out the new cafe and the $20,000 made-in-Japan Buck Rogers coffee brewer to see what it could do. I found the decor a bit on the grim and industrial side, with Ikea Meets Home Depot table/workbench seating, fitting for a space dominated by something that looks like it was drawn up by fellow Cal alumnus Rube Goldberg.

I told the counter man that I wanted to try coffee made by the contraption, and he pointed to a posted paper menu listing three roasts. I chose the Mexican Chiapas because he said it would be the fullest roast. It was also the most expensive, at $9 ($9.77 including tax). I was given a number on a little stand and took a seat at the bar where I could watch the contraptions, there being two. Closest to me was the eerie tower where two globular glass reservoirs fed four burettes that were titrating cold coffee into cylindrical beakers. This was for making iced coffee, it was explained to me, and it took 10 hours to fill one beaker.

I looked at the machine that was being used to make my coffee, and suddenly realized that it was just my late Aunt Dorothy's old vacuum coffee maker from the 50's, multiplied by five. A flask of water was heated from beneath and the water was mysteriously sucked up into an upper chamber full of coffee grounds and then just as mysteriously returned to the lower chamber as coffee. I'd SEEN that act before!

http://baharris.org/coffee/Brewing.htm

When my coffee was ready and brought to me I was joined, after a few sips, by a coffee geek with salt and pepper hair (apparently one of the owners) who asked how I liked it. I explained that as a veteran of 40 years of North Beach-friendly roasts I usually found BB coffee under-roasted to my taste, and he agreed that that would be the case. I noticed that my hi-tech brew, which tasted thin and watery at the beginning, was getting more flavorful as I got nearer to the bottom of the cup. That, explained Salt-and-Pepper, was a natural consequence of the coffee cooling. Sure enough, as it neared room temperature, it also neared my threshold for truly flavorful coffee. (I've been trying to reduce my coffee consumption in favor of tea lately, however, so it might just be a case of my tastes getting wimpy.)

Before I left, S &P returned with a complimentary espresso pull from an Ethiopian Gololcha, which he said I might like because it was very rustic. I found it full and flavorful indeed, though with startling sweet overtones. Now THAT was a Blue Bottle Coffe I could live with -- if only I could get someone to grind it for me.

Overall, BB Cafe is worth a visit to see what all the oohing and ahhing is about. It's a friendly place, warm despite the decor, and you can you can always buy a $2 brew and sneak a peak in the direction of the great sucking sound. Is it worth close to 10 bucks to sample the $20,000 coffee maker's product? I suppose it depends on how rich, foolish, or curious you are.

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Blue Bottle Cafe
66 Mint St, San Francisco, CA 94103

 
  1. hhc Mar 13, 2008 10:40 PM

    Thanks Xiao Yang for the report & pic. I can't wait to go one day.

    What were the other 2 roasts made by the contraption?

    1 Reply
    1. re: hhc
      Xiao Yang Mar 14, 2008 08:59 AM

      I believe the roasts vary by day. I think one of the other two was the Egyptian Gololcha I later got to sample as an espresso; if I had known how flavorful that one was I would have picked it in the first place.

    2. pilinut Mar 13, 2008 11:35 PM

      Thanks for that posting! I can't imagine a cup of coffee worth $10, but I'm really glad to find out that it's not some kind of character flaw that I actually enjoy my coffee most when it has cooled to room temperature.

      2 Replies
      1. re: pilinut
        rworange Mar 14, 2008 09:16 AM

        Yes, great report. I read that it wasn't a cup for $10, but a pot ... true? Do they still give a cookie with it?

        1. re: rworange
          Xiao Yang Mar 14, 2008 09:27 AM

          More like a half-pot (see the third picture in my followup post). Enough for about three smallish cups, so I guess you could share it. No cookie, but two pieces of (handmade?) caramel candy, which I gave away, not being a caramel person.

          BTW, if you mine the vacuum pot link I provided, you'll find the basic technology goes back to 1830!

          http://baharris.org/coffee/History.htm

      2. Atomica Mar 14, 2008 08:02 AM

        Post-of-the-week for me.

        1. Xiao Yang Mar 14, 2008 08:32 AM

          Adding a few more pics, including the the formidable-looking iced coffee maker. Since it takes 10 hours to fill a beaker that appeared to be 2-3 liters, I didn't even dare ask the cost of an iced coffee. Also shown are the halogen heating process and the "final suck" which yields the coffee.

           
           
           
           
          8 Replies
          1. re: Xiao Yang
            c
            Calvinist Mar 14, 2008 11:45 AM

            Someone HAS to shoot video of this process and post on YouTube!

            1. re: Calvinist
              Husky Mar 14, 2008 12:30 PM

              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5ZFiy...

              1. re: Husky
                o
                oysterspearls Mar 14, 2008 12:55 PM

                I live in New York and want to jump on a plane right now and go.

                1. re: oysterspearls
                  Xiao Yang Mar 14, 2008 01:04 PM

                  Cafe Grumpy in Chelsea has a $12,000 Clover machine. I got to try it last year. No premium pricing, either. I think they used a more generic roast, but it seemed to be a true dark roast, IIRC.

                  1. re: Xiao Yang
                    o
                    oysterspearls Mar 14, 2008 01:37 PM

                    Thank you for the info! You know what a hassle those frequent flier miles are anyway. LOL

                    1. re: oysterspearls
                      s
                      sugartoof Mar 14, 2008 02:40 PM

                      I love Blue Bottle, as a concept, but there are lots of comparable tasting coffees all over (the Manhattan board has great suggestions, take a peak) even without all the fancy processing. It's cool that they seem to be improving their product as they expand though. The Hayes Valley location always struck me as pretty confusing, and it's always funny watching all the creative professionals taking mid day breaks, waiting 10 minutes for their slow drip shot they suck down in less then a minutes time. Looks addictive.

                2. re: Husky
                  Carb Lover Mar 14, 2008 06:31 PM

                  I think I'm in love...

                  Thanks for linking that highly engaging video, and thanks to the OP for the post and photos! Blue Bottle is now on my SF list.

              2. re: Xiao Yang
                twocents Mar 15, 2008 11:18 PM

                Thanks for the interesting post.

                The iced coffee sounds like it's being done by a cold-extraction method, which typically yields concentrated coffee that is substantially diluted before service, so the final service volume will be quite a bit bigger. The final coffee can be served hot or cold depending on the dilution temperature.

              3. s
                SteveG Mar 14, 2008 12:07 PM

                Thanks for the report. I'm really liking the Gololcha right now, and I have to admit I've never really cared for their various central American and Mexican beans--though many people seem to love them. I am also enjoying a Brazilian bean right now, and I generally love any of their stuff from Africa or India.

                I'd love a weekly sticky topic where people talked about what beans were available at blue bottle that particular week, and what they thought. It's always an adventure, which probably turns off people who want a very regular and consistent set of flavors in their home coffee week in and week out.

                2 Replies
                1. re: SteveG
                  c
                  chemchef Mar 14, 2008 12:28 PM

                  I love that idea... make it happen SteveG!

                  1. re: chemchef
                    rworange Mar 14, 2008 03:18 PM

                    What would be better is if someone started a continuing thread like "Blue Bottle this week" and people could add to it each week.

                    With a sticky, the problem is that even when only one sticky is on the board about asking new readers to check that first ... they often dont ... leading to the repetative vague queries. The more stickies on top, the less likely new people to the board are going to read the one that helps them the most.

                2. c
                  Claudette Mar 14, 2008 01:43 PM

                  Thanks for the well-written, fun post! Can't wait for technology to be able to attach smells to your photos.

                  1. K K Mar 14, 2008 08:46 PM

                    XY thanks for the detailed report!

                    I remember when I was in Taipei a month ago, in the basement of Mitsukoshi were these cool little gift, snack, drink shops (aka Japanese deparchika). One of the more interesting ones was a chain called Otaru Siphon Coffee, and the concept is the same as what BB is doing but of course my iced mocha made with that cost me less than $2. And probably much less expensive equipment.

                    It tasted exactly like Japanese style iced coffee, a bit weak, but pretty decent.

                    Apparently these J-style siphon coffee bars are all over Japan. Otaru happens to be a town in Hokkaido.

                    And I thought $4 to $5 for a cappuccino with "gourmet blend" at Palo Alto's Caffe Del Doge (a branch of the one in Venice) was pricey...

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: K K
                      Xiao Yang Mar 14, 2008 09:05 PM

                      Vacuum pots, a.k.a, siphon pots, are apparently popular in Japan. I don't read Japanese, but here are several models:

                      http://www.rakuten.co.jp/coffeenoie/4...

                      Maybe there will be a revival of the vacuum pot in the US.

                    2. s
                      santoku45 Mar 14, 2008 10:17 PM

                      I thought Ritual Roasters in the Mission had a Clover machine. That might make a local brew-off possible.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: santoku45
                        Windy Mar 15, 2008 09:35 AM

                        Ritual has two Clovers, but unless you use the same beans, you're not comparing the Clover to the siphon.

                        Personally I recommend spending $30 and getting an aeropress (reviewed on this site by lots of people and designed in Palo Alto by the people who make the aerobie aerodynamic frisbee) and using lower than boiling water.

                        KK, Blue Bottle's cappuccino is $2.75-3. It's only the pot from the siphon that runs $9-11.

                        We tried the roast from Brazil this week, and it was more than enough for two for an hour of conversation. I didn't like it as much as the Ethiopian Yergacheffe I'd had before though, and definitely not as much as BB's regular cappuccino--not sure which roast they use for that.

                        1. re: Windy
                          m
                          ManSeekingCoffee Mar 15, 2008 09:45 PM

                          I had just a few points in response to what's above...

                          Xiao, it sounds like you may have been visited by James Freeman himself. I think that really goes to show his interest in sharing coffee that he pulled you a single origin shot to compare. If there's some kind of list going about the coffees, I think knowing which single origin shots their pulling would also be worth knowing since I know this list rotates.

                          But posters are right, the siphon isn't some amazing new technology or particularly that special - although the halogen heating system is. And it's not comparable to a Clover. It's really just a very different brewing method. If you want to understand more about what the Clover can do, there's a great article on Slate.com. Just search for the word clover.

                          Finally, Cafe Grumpy is an intriguing place because they don't roast their own or have a contract with a particular roast. They cup and select a menu of coffees from top roasters each month and then only use the clover to brew them.

                          And for what its worth, I have an entries on both BB's cafe and Cafe Grumpy on my blog (just see my profile for the address). So rather than repeat everything I've said there, I'll just let you check it out on your own.

                          1. re: ManSeekingCoffee
                            Xiao Yang Mar 15, 2008 10:48 PM

                            Yes, it was Freeman himself - I verified that from the photos in the original NY Times report on the siphon bar. At the time of my visit I was clueless, however, and just wanted to tell it the way it happened. I was impressed by the fact that he understood where I was coming from when I told him that as a long-term veteran of North Beach's finest I found BB Coffee under-roasted, yet he appeared to earnestly want to make me like BB coffee, hence the free pull. Maybe he just wants to convert EVERYBODY.

                            I'll be in NY again in late April, I think, and may pay a return visit to Cafe Grumpy. I wasn't really aware of what machine my coffee came from, as I was busy talking to my daughter who took me there, but from what I've read the Clover must have been in use at that time (July 2007).

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