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Mission Coffee Face-off, Part 1: Ritual Coffee Roasters

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Name: Ritual Cafe
Location: 1026 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA
Roaster: Ritual Coffee Roasters

Rating: 4

A friend of mine told me recently at lunch how he was slowly falling in love with Philz Coffee in the Mission. Of course, at his mention of the Mission district what came to mind for me was a wonderful first cup of coffee from Ritual Roasters. We debated the merits of each café, but quickly moved on. I had tried Philz a couple of years before and hadn’t been too impressed, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I had been too quick to judge. The clincher came about two weeks later when I met this guy on a plane (déjà vu) who started discussing the joy of…you guessed it, Philz coffee. The first thing I did when I got home was call up my friend. It seemed Philz deserved a second chance.

The plan this time, though, was to make it a head to head challenge: Philz vs. Ritual: a new love against a bad first date. I wasn’t sure it was a fair contest, or that I could stretch this analogy any further. We departed that Saturday morning. The caravan consisted of my friend, his wife, me and the three kids. (I guess we aren’t so young and cool anymore). Our first stop was Ritual.

Ritual opened their doors in the Spring of 2005, when I still lived in the Mission and, ironically, just as I was finishing graduate school. I can only imagine how my life might have turned out differently if I had spent the last few months of thesis writing over Ritual coffee instead of some of the other dirty-furniture filled, not so tasty mission establishments where I was forced to occupy my time.

When they first opened, Ritual served Stumptown coffee so they didn’t quite live up to the “roaster” part of their name. Of course, if you’re not roasting your own, you can’t go much more right than to serve Stumptown. I don’t know if it’s true, but I understand staff were taken through rigorous training sessions in Stumptown’s secret underground facility. Wherever it comes from, the Ritual crew has skill; the several person team moves about in an efficient and orchestrated manner behind the long counter.

Ritual appears to be doing well. They’ve added a roaster and a second location and they still have lines out the door for much of the day. They’ve added two clover machines and even have a great selection of pastries and coffee-accompanying-treats (I’ve read they want to focus on food that accompanies the coffee and not make meals the focus). Of course, I almost forgot to add that the interior (at least of the Mission space) is modern, clean and very appealing, if not for the fact that it’s always so darn crowded.

We ordered a macchiato, a cup of clover-made Rwandan Muramba and the current drip coffee, which was one of the Ethiopian Yergacheffe’s – either the Haicof or the Top Kochere – I unfortunately lost track somewhere in the self-imposed day-care like environment that surrounded us. All three coffees were excellent, but after tasting them I realize I didn’t put together the best flight. The two brewed coffees were a little too similar to one another to get a full sense of Ritual’s range.

Nevertheless, each was quite good and I think our group generally agreed on the coffees even if I may attribute some adjectives they wouldn’t otherwise use. The macchiato was velvety and rich with a bit of natural sweetness while both the drip coffees were lightly roasted yet extremely flavorful. I have to say, though, I think the brewed Yergacheffe outdid the Clover-brewed Rwandan. Despite the Rwandan having a slightly cleaner taste, its flavor seemed one-dimensional compared to the extra burst of citrus (perhaps lemon?) that came through with the Yergacheffe.

Of course Ritual isn’t pleasing to everyone. I have read several complaints on various sites about the prevalence of black-framed glasses, coffee snobbery and a not-particularly comfortable space. The first is certainly true. Ritual does attract the uber-hip like white on rice, but while some people in the store may be pretentious, I’ve never found the staff guilty of anything other than enthusiasm about coffee. I have my suspicions about comfortable spaces, but do read on.

Ritual also tends to err towards lightly roasted coffee. Their dark roasts, including their espresso, are probably closer to a medium-to-dark or even medium roast at most other places. This is clearly a distinguishing feature of their coffee since even other specialty roasters in the area, such as Blue Bottle, roast darker. However, it makes their coffee somewhat of an acquired taste since most people are used to something darker. I think this was why my friends weren’t immediately blown away by ritual. They both like dark roasts.

Finally, Ritual offers only a moderate number (currently 13) and variety of beans, just two blends (their regular and decaf espressos) and two major single origin regions (Central America and Africa). But, what they do offer is extremely high quality (there are currently 3 cup of excellence coffees on that list), and their list never feels stagnant. They typically offer 3-4 different beans on the clover, a drip coffee that rotates throughout the day, and their espresso blend morphs throughout the year. There is a Heraclitian feel to Ritual; it’s hard to ever have the same coffee twice.

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