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Not Your Father’s Breakroom Coffee

Name: The Breakroom Cafe
Location: 300 13th Street, Oakland, CA (Downtown)
Roaster: De La Paz Coffee

Rating: 3

I haven’t confirmed it, but I think the owners of The Breakroom christened their cafe, tongues firmly in cheek. First of all, this cafe is not down the hall from your office; in fact, it’s fairly off the beaten path for downtown Oakland, a few blocks off Broadway and a five-minute walk from most office buildings. Second, unless you work for PETA or Vegan Action, this Breakroom probably has a lot less meaty stuff sitting in its fridge. The Breakroom is strictly vegetarian with lots of vegan options. Finally, and most importantly, this Breakroom has good coffee! If your office break room has better coffee that what you can find here, then you better send me an application.

The Breakroom uses De La Paz Coffee, a relatively new, smallish, and up and coming micro-roaster located in San Francisco’s mission district. They supply coffee to a couple of cafes in the city and the greater Bay Area, but mostly sell their beans through grocery outlets and via bicycle delivery in San Francisco. The Breakroom is their only East Bay outpost. When I first found De La Paz Coffee on the internet and discovered that The Breakroom was close to my office, I suggested to one of my coffee-loving co-workers that we go on a little coffee seeking adventure. I discovered that I was apparently falling down on the (coffee-seeking) job since she had already been there on, at least, a couple of occasions.

The Breakroom is a tiny cafe with a just a handful of tables that feels full without being crowded. It does nothing special in terms of interior decoration other than a smattering of activist-oriented posters, but the two walls of windows minimizes the need for anything aesthetically revolutionary while simultaneously lessoning any claustrophobic tendencies such a tiny space might produce. The Breakroom hosts djs during select weekday afternoons and offers a full array of vegetarian and vegan options. My colleague assures me that that the vegan deserts are yummy, which I thought I’d report for those of you interested in that sort of thing since I, myself, am unlikely to be trying them anytime soon.

The Breakroom pulls shots of De La Paz’s 14th Street Espresso on a 2-group Futurmat, and will serve you in either ceramic or paper. I’ve had some amazing shots of espresso, bursting with bright fruit flavors – lemon, cherry, orange, strawberry (OK, I realize this sounds like a Starburst) – enveloped in marvelous, rich, creamy, chocolate flavor. I have also had espresso that simply fills the bill and at least one shot that bordered on not so good. The consistency of the espresso is unreliable and you definitely have to order when you aren’t feeling risk averse (“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?”). I’ve had baristas pull shots with tremendous care and attention and others rush through the job as though they were competing on an episode of Supermarket Sweep.

The Breakroom’s espresso, at least when pulled well, does go nicely in milk and the baristas do a decent enough job with the foam. If there is any risk inherent in ordering espresso, it’s at least partially offset by the price. Those shots are a bargain at $1.25 for a single and $1.50 for a double.

The brewed coffee (less of a bargain, but still quite reasonable) starts at $1.50 for a 12 oz cup. The Breakroom typically has two different, regular coffees on hand, stored in airpots, or a decaf brewed as a pour over drip in their gorgeous, sculpted wire drip stand which holds two ceramic cones. I sadly have yet to be served coffee made the pour over drip way.

The coffee selection includes both the darker Mission Blend and something lighter like a Mexican Chiapas or an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. I’ve had all three, but didn’t find myself personally fond of either the Chiapas (too sharp) or the Yirgacheffe (lacking the more delicate qualities I tend to like in a Yirg), even if they were decent examples of their origin. Despite liking lighter roasts, I find myself drawn to the Mission blend which is a rich, full-bodied cup, tasting of chocolate, with just a hint of spice, like cinnamon, clove and pepper. It’s really a satisfying dark cup of coffee reminiscent of Blue Bottle’s Giant Steps, a great gateway coffee for people moving away from Starbucks or Peet’s.

The Breakroom is clearly one of the two best cups of coffee in downtown Oakland – the other one is Awaken Cafe, which I wrote about last week. Awaken has a better location and aces the skill aspect of the coffee equation, yet their coffee has its limitations. As I mentioned in that other review, I find the Taylor Maid espresso that Awaken uses good on its own, but a bit timid in milk. And Awaken’s brewed coffee, while good, and more likely to be freshly made, is simply not as inherently compelling as The Breakroom’s De La Paz coffee, which may have sat in the pot for a bit longer and not have been made as well to begin with. Quality and consistency matter quite a bit, and until The Breakroom licks these aspects of its production, it’s never fully going to embrace the potential of the coffee it serves. In the mean time, though, you can’t go wrong with either cafe, and that seems like a pretty fine mess to have gotten into.

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