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Nov 20, 2008 08:28 AM

Iron Coffee SF: Battle Gibraltar (Blue Bottle)

Some of you may recall that when we last visited the Bay Area in April, I discovered the Gibraltar, a coffee beverage rumoured to have been created by Blue Bottle. I recognize that BB and some of the other “fancy” coffee purveyors don’t get universal love but as this was my favourite cafecito ever, I wanted to revisit it this trip. On our first morning (Friday, Nov 7) we sauntered down the hill to Blue Bottle’s Mint Plaza outpost (Jessie and Mint, near Market and 5th) to sample their version of the Gibraltar and try out their breakfast. We arrived to discover a beautiful high ceilinged airy room full of coffee seekers with the music of Ibrahim Ferrer playing in the background – by far the most relaxed café atmosphere we have yet encountered here.

There were also a number of people noshing on the poached eggs on ACME bread offering, so we bellied up to the bar (literally) and dug in, whilst gazing in awe at the Rube Goldbergian contraption in front of us that makes Kyoto iced coffee at the rate of one cup every 48 hours or something equally wild. The eggs’n’toast hit the spot, simple and tasty for $7.50. The breakfast menu is short but sweet (brioche, waffles, oatmeal). SO had his usual latte ($3.50) and I of course sampled the Mint Plaza version of the Gibraltar, which is made with the aptly named 17 Foot Ceiling espresso. It was, I thought, a tad more bitter than the Linden Lane Gibraltar of memory but altogether very satisfying indeed. The fellow who took my order noted that the Gibraltar is on their “secret” menu, making me wonder if one could order it animal style :-).

The next day we targeted the Blue Bottle on the side of the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market even though we’d heard the lines at the front one were shorter, reasoning that the view of the Bay Bridge would make any wait easier to take. The reports of lineups were not exaggerated but the time passed pleasantly enough. Then, the moment of truth: how did the FPFM Gibraltar stack up against Mint Plaza? I thought this one was the harshest of the three (none are beverages for coffee wimps which makes me wonder why I like them so much as I am no caffeine fiend) but still very enjoyable. I forgot to ask about the espresso used here but according to the website it is Retrofit espresso. So far, the Hayes Valley brew is the winner but only based on memory so… obviously we had to go back and try that one afresh.

On Sunday we found ourselves inexorably drawn toward the Linden Lane kiosk. I really like the setup here, as it reminds me of Italian cafes where you stand at a narrow elbow height table and knock back your tiny cup of caffe correto (sadly Blue Bottle is a grappa-free zone). Anyway, we ordered our respective latte and Gibraltar and I sipped cautiously. Would it be as transporting as I recalled? Why yes, yes it was! So perhaps the answer is at least in part the use of the eponymous Hayes Valley espresso, and maybe I got lucky with the baristas here too, though all of them were both friendly and capable. At any rate, the Hayes Valley Blue Bottle kiosk wins the Gibraltar Smackdown this time.

Side note: check out the housemade potato chips at La Boulange. We got a bag from the Hayes Valley outpost and they are light, crunchy, beautifully seasoned and only $2.

If you’re into all that whacky coffee lingo or want to know more about the different types of coffee at Blue Bottle, check out the link, though I note they do not list the 17 Foot here. I think their description of the Hayes Valley espresso is pretty spot on – it’s those chocolatey notes that reel me in I think.

Some other good news for BB addicts – they’re opening a permanent outlet in the Ferry Plaza building (see photo).

And finally, if it is a warm day, try the New Orleans style iced coffee. We stopped by Mint Plaza again after our Fruitvale excursion and gave top marks to this smooth and creamy beverage. Bonus: they have the recipe on postcard if you want to try making it at home, and I think a kit also.

See also the following links for all our other food-centric ramblings this trip if you're interested:

Tadich Grill
Lime Tree
Canteen dinner
Farmers Markets
Bar Tartine
Canteen and Café de la presse breakfasts
Bodega Bistro
La Ciccia
BonBon Patisserie
Anchor Steam SFO

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  1. A few more pix:

    1. Speaking of the Kyoto Iced.... you had used the words bitter and harsh during your review and I'd say both apply very accurately to the Kyoto iced coffee. It's a black coffee for sure. Even after I tried to ruin it with milk and sugar, it retained it's bitter no matter how much I tried to cut it down.

      The Syphon coffee menu is on the side by the register and only made certain hours. I'm pretty sure the iced Kyoto is basically made of a blend from the extras (the way most places do their iced coffee). It will taste different depending on what they toss in.

      Question about the New Orleans iced coffee... I've had two experiences with chicory coffee, one very bitter from Cafe Du Monde, and one from French Market Coffee & Chicory which was layered, and lacked that bitter thing... I'm wondering which one the BB version takes after?

      4 Replies
      1. re: sugartoof

        New Orleans iced coffee... my vote ... French Market Coffee & Chicory which was layered, and lacked that bitter thing.

        It is my favorite Blue Bottle beverage.

        Kit ??? Did the owner of BB die? I once asked about him selling the NO coffee for home consumption and he had one of his meltdowns about that. Maybe all this expansion is changing the philosophy. Next thing they will be grinding beans for take home bags. .

        Blue Bottle Coffee Kiosk
        315 Linden St, San Francisco, CA 94102

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

        1. re: rworange

          rw -- from the BB website: New Orleans
          New Orleans-style iced coffee and chicory- There's been a certain amount of clamoring, yes clamoring, for a way to make our new orleans-style iced coffee at home. here we are: a kit! we'll set you up with a pound of the coffee we use for our refreshing new orleans-style iced coffee, an envelope of pre-measured roasted french chicory, and a copy of the recipe we use scaled for one pound of coffee. You will need to add milk,a little sugar, and ice. 10% of all sales will go to the New Orleans Edible Schoolyard project (find out more here -
          PRICE: $22.50

        2. re: sugartoof

          Can't speak to the Kyoto as we did not try it but damn that machine is cool.

          Re the chicory, I was hesitating about ordering it when three things convinced me: 1) the guy in line just ahead of us piped up that it was "the best thing at Blue Bottle" 2) I remembered rworange saying that was the drink of choice at BB 3) when it was my turn to order I mentioned my concern about past bitter chicory experiences and he quickly whipped me up a generous sample which was delicious even without sugar (which I did add to the full glass)

          1. re: grayelf

            Agreed, that machine is cool. They sell single burner home syphons you can buy too.

            The only nice thing about the Kyoto blend is it's a cheap way to try the Syphoned coffees. Now I've done it, I don't think I'd do it again.... and I'm regretting not trying the chicory.

            I should mention the ice in my drink was bad.

            No idea who sources the BB New Orleans Coffee or how it compares but the roaster I mentioned above has distribution in the Bay, and mail order too:

        3. I'm still confused as to what a Gibraltar is. in your earlier bump-up post you said it was something between an espresso and a macchiato, but the photo you cited as exemplary showed more milk than a traditional macchiato. Maybe it's something between a macchiato and a cortado. And I can't fathom how you found the Mint Plaza store the most relaxed café atmosphere you've encountered. To me it is cold and industrial, looking like an architect's home office more than anything else. May the music seduced you, but I would think a better match would be some Terry Riley music (maybe Music With Balls).

          8 Replies
          1. re: Xiao Yang

            XY, I have said before and I'll say again: I'm coffee clueless. I shouldn't toss these terms around like that, so I apologize for the confusion. Best I can work out is that a Gibraltar is a shot of espresso in a small glass tumbler with some milk in it to top up (may 5 or 6 oz total for the drink). All I know for sure is I like it very much, especially when made with the Hayes Valley espresso. If you ever do try one, I'd love to hear what you think.

            1. re: grayelf

              Here's a link describing it ...

              "A gibraltar is a super-short latte, or maybe a cross between a latte and a cappuccino. They serve them at both Blue Bottle and Ritual -- they're great if you like some milk with your espresso but not a ton."

              "the drink is named after the glass it's served in. You can find them at most any restaurant supply spot"

              1. re: rworange

                Thanks. I guess I missed that part of that thread. I haven't encountered that term in North Beach, but then I'm not much on putting milk in my coffee (though I will have a macchiato if my stomach tells me to).

                I wouldn't go for the "Gibraltar Glass" theory of the name; "Gibraltar Glass" comes in all shapes and sizes and purposes -- there are even "Gibraltar" ash trays.


                1. re: rworange

                  If we're going around with new coffee names, can I have a name for "an old school macchiato not what starbucks makes which is really a dry cappuccino"?

                  These days, I say "really, just a little foam" and they fill a cap cup to the rim. Then I spoon it out and berate them, and then maybe the second time I go there they remember me and do it the way I like.

                  But I'd rather get the drink I want and skip the berating.

                  Any hints?

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    Somewhere I read it should be about one teaspoon of milk. Ask for "about 1t" of milk. Or just go to North Beach (Caffe Trieste, where a macchiato is still what it was in 1956).

                    1. re: bbulkow

                      Literally, a macchiato is an espresso "stained" with steamed milk. That's how the Trieste served them when I used to hang out there many years ago, and, personally, I never liked the drink.

                      These days most of the serious cafes seem to use a bit more milk than is traditional. Probably a smaller proportion of milk to coffee than a cappuccino, but enough so the milk can soften the coffee. For me, this works nicely.

                      1. re: bbulkow

                        hello bbulkow, I know what you mean by old school and of course most places w. an espresso machine now are not that. I have to ask the barrista how they in that particular shop define macchiato. It should have nothing close to the amount of milk of a cappuccino, the foam not even covering the surface of the espresso, hence the word 'marked' or stained. (writing as an old school espresso drinker/barrista/ex-specialty coffee professional) In probably eighty to ninety per cent of the shops that serve them, espresso drinks have been adulterated to suit u.s. tastes,which is how milk and flavorings dominate the
                        orders in the coffee drink shops, and shops are expected to have all those options like non-fat, low-fat, soy.

                  2. re: Xiao Yang

                    More of a Philip Glass kinda joint, but yeah, maybe the morning crowd is more relaxed.

                  3. Gibraltars? Standardizing on Gibraltars for coffee standards is like standardizing on pinot grigio to choose your favorite Napa or Sonoma Valley winemaker. The beverage is arguably just a niche, local novelty named after the cheap restaurant-supply glass (glass! not even ceramic!) they are served in. (And yes, that is what they're named after.)