The opening of Blue Bottle’s new café is the shot (or perhaps drip) heard ‘round the internet this week. “At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee” breaths the New York Times. Laughing Squid announces, “Blue Bottle Cafe Opens, Features 20,000 Siphon Bar Coffee Machine,” SFist.com proclaims “$20,000 Coffee at Blue Bottle Café,” and the folks on Chowhound are debating (and complaining) about $11 cups of coffee. Even local CBS news affiliates are picking up the story. It seems that just about every other blog or bulletin board related to coffee has something to say, and all this press is clearly working. As I left the café yesterday morning, I worked my way past a long line, snaking out the door, and was stopped repeatedly by people (probably) new to Blue Bottle, and (most likely) new to San Francisco. They all wanted to know the answer to the $20,000 question, “Is the coffee worth it?”
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that I answered, “yes,” because I think their perspective is way too narrow. Sitting there sipping my $11 coffee, I realized that there’s a whole lot more going on with this café than the just the glowing siphon bar. The Blue Bottle Café is a bold new step in café culture. It’s as complex and nuanced as the coffees that Blue Bottle roasts.
Of course, I’m nevertheless going to start with the siphon bar since that’s the 8th wonder that everyone wants to know about. While good and very cool looking, reports of its grandiosity are greatly over exaggerated. First of all, many of the cafes that operate clover machines – the next most expensive, $11,000 machine – typically have two. So total costs here for Blue Bottle are not out of this world. Then there’s the price of a cup. Prices range from around $8 to $11 a siphon (not cup), depending on the price of the coffee selected. The siphon technically holds 5 “cups” which comes out to about 15-20 ounces of (potent) coffee, more than enough for two people sipping coffee. It even comes with two pieces of homemade candy. The price per cup of just the coffee then is probably closer to $3 to $5, roughly comparable to what you’d pay for a cup of clover-brewed coffee elsewhere and pretty reasonable considering that one barista is dedicated to operating the contraption.
How does it taste? I personally went with the top of the line $11 Cup of Excellence Nicaraguan coffee from the Vasquez Cooperative, which is supposed to be served with English toffee. Sadly, they were out; I got pistachio nougats instead (!). While I was excited to try this particular coffee, it may not have been the wisest of choices since I haven’t tried the Vasquez Cooperative brewed in other ways. I certainly would like to try something else I have more experience with before leveling judgment, but I will say the coffee I had was delicate despite its strength; it had only minimal acidity and not a lot of complexity, but it was a beautiful single note which almost called out for some milk. It was somewhat reminiscent of moka pot coffee in terms of strength, which really did make it more of a sipping coffee.
Sadly overlooked in all the halogen-powered hype is the Siphon bar’s bigger, cooler, even more mad-scientist looking cousin, the cold-filtered coffee chemistry set (See the photos on Flickr or this footage). It takes somewhere between 6-8 hours to brew the coffee Blue Bottle now serves as a $3.25 Kyoto style cold coffee. It’s currently brewed with their Yirgicheffe, but this is likely to change.
There’s also the Sunday morning French Press brunch, which didn’t start quite on time, and seemed slightly disorganized, but offered an impressive and delicious, if not slightly small dishes such as a open faced speck sandwich with melted gruyere and Dijon mustard and poached eggs on brioche toast. With the food, they offer a limited selection of their coffees via French press. Plus, and I don’t have the full scoop, but with some of the French pressed coffees, they were serving them with frothed milk. Of course, everything is brought to your seat by a waitress.
And that’s not all. There are two espresso machines. The first is a fairly impressive looking La Marzocco which they use for most of their espresso, but the café also sports a shiny copper, refurbished La San Marco machine on which they pull a selection of single origin espressos. Be warned though, they don’t yet serve these on Sundays (!). In fact, I couldn’t get a clear answer about when they do serve them, but I think it’s just during the week. Hopefully, this will change as the grand opening chaos quiets to a dull roar.
But more important than any of these bells and whistles (after all, siphon and cold drip coffee aren’t new and aren’t necessarily that expensive to set up at home), is the concept and vision behind this cafe. It is not a typical American café and it is most certainly not a place to study. The staff wear black button down shirts and the chefs wear white. It’s vaguely European and Japanese; it’s small and quaint, yet sleek and sexy. It also uniquely bay area; it’s a space for socializing and worshiping food, or in this case, coffee. The café is clever in that it displays enough coffee bling to attract a crowd, but is also a place where folks can come to experience good coffee, whether it’s a $2 drip cup or an $11 siphon. Also worth noting is the fact that Blue Bottle Café is an environment in which “other” people might feel comfortable approaching specialty coffee, especially people who fall outside the 20 something, hipster demographic that has both glommed onto specialty coffee and populates the neighborhoods where it is so readily found in so many other cities.
Blue Bottle Café will certainly have its detractors. People will complain about the price or how the café is precious and pretentious. I see their point, but nothing here really is that expensive when you consider the environment that has been created to enjoy coffee, something too few people have learned to do. Blue Bottle Café is a space for elevating coffee to its rightful status as a beverage to savor and enjoy and it provides an environment in which it’s worthy of being savored. This may not be your daily stop for coffee, but Blue Bottle Café is definitely worth the trip.
A co-worker of mine and I headed over to BB’s Cafe yesterday for different take on a “liquid lunch.” (OK, we actually got burritos too.) I had been dying to try out the single origin espressos but hadn’t yet made it when they were being offered. Apparently the SO espressos and siphon bar are now only available after 10 AM and not at all on Sundays. We ordered a Brazilian Poco Fundo macchiato and the Ethoipian Sidamo on the siphon.
The macchiato was creamy and sweet, but not particularly distinct. The barista said this was his first day with this particular bean and was finding it challenging to pull anything other than a very short shot. I can see how this would be a good base to an espresso blend, especially for milk-based drinks, but it was a little too simple to enjoy on its own.
The Ethiopian in the siphon was beautiful. Like the other siphon coffees I’ve had, the coffee was strong, yet very clean. The flavors were delicate but somewhat elusive. What was truly distinct though was the arc of the flavor. Immediately after pouring, my coffee was almost a little abrasive, but after a couple of minutes it started to blossom. The acidity softened and brightened and was nicely balanced against the deeper, dare I say, coffee, of the drink. A bit further in, I was struck by burnt caramel and a strong tobacco aftertaste. I realize that some of this occurs with any coffee, but it really is magical with a siphon. Oh, and the salted caramels served with it were delicious.