I found myself standing outside a nondescript, commercially zoned building in an otherwise residential part of the mission. I was in the right place, yet there was nothing other than the address to indicate that inside I would find the roasting works for up and coming roaster, De La Paz Coffee. I gave head roaster and owner, Jason Bendford, a call. A few seconds later he opened the door and ushered me inside.
We entered the workshop, all the way in the back, and I couldn’t help but think part secret lair and part secret lab. The San Francisco Roaster stands against one wall while 5 gallon buckets filled with freshly roasted beans form an island in the middle of the room. Several tables and shelves hold coffee brewing equipment, roasting supplies, and De La Paz’s attractively designed coffee bags, and simultaneously serve as a workspace for bag labeling and paperwork.
I immediately felt out of place. Usually I am the one who is an unknown element, often sitting incognito in the back of a cafe. I get to taste, jot notes and think about what I’ll write, even if I also occasionally do this while entertaining my two-year-old or carrying on a conversation with my wife. This time, however, it was the building that was secret and my identity that was well known. Jason, after all, had invited me here a while back after I had reviewed De La Paz’s only east bay client, The Breakroom.
My usual reviewing approach was completely wrong for this occasion. I should have been taking a tour with a careful eye for details. I could have conducted an actual interview. It would have been nice to have engaged in a more serious journalistic endeavor. Instead, I found myself sitting on De La Paz’s concrete floor, trying to sip coffee, take notes and have a meaningful conversation with the owner while my two-year-old climbed over me like a jungle gym and threatened to commence blending Jason’s bags of green beans. Shoulda. Coulda. Woulda. Here’s what I actually discovered.
Jason earned his Masters in International Environmental Policy with a focus on small coffee growers at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. It was there, and during his undergraduate experience, while helping the food service programs select new coffees, that he came to the all too painful realization that socially responsible monikers don’t necessarily translate into coffee quality. In 2006, he sought to remedy that problem by opening De La Paz, which uses 100% organic and fair trade coffees. Jason’s wife, Maria de la Paz (that’s just her first name by the way and is who the business is named after) is involved in the PR and marketing.
Although their coffee is far from monolithic, I can’t help but compare De La Paz’s coffee to Blue Bottle’s. Both roast many of the same beans, and while De La Paz tends to roast a bit lighter than Blue Bottle, the two roasters are still quite close to one another when you consider coffee as a whole. Both roasters lean towards the darker end of the spectrum for third-wave roasters while coming in at something akin to a medium-level roast overall. While De La Paz’s choice of roasts is not as trendy as ultra-lights like Ritual and Barefoot, my sense is that its a roast that is more pleasing to more people, more of the time.
Of the four coffees, I tried that day (all were about 2 days past the roast date), my least favorite was the De La Decaf. It was somewhat unremarkable, but no more so than either Blue Bottle’s (which is not as good) or Ritual’s (which is slightly better). I’ve only ever found one Bay Area decaf that actually inspires me to drink it.
Better was the Peru Norte. It captured some of that clean, sharp, intense quality I found in Blue Bottle’s version a few months back. It wasn’t quite as good as that coffee, but it’s better than Blue Bottle’s Peru Apram. This Peru still had that nearly single note of extra dark, bittersweet chocolate (in the 80% cocoa range) with just a hint of mountain pine hiding in the back of the cup.
On the very nice end of the spectrum was De La Paz’s Ethiopian Misty Valley Yergecheffee. De La Paz hit this dry processed coffee on the mark. It’s a versatile coffee and produces a sweet and luscious, well-rounded medium to full bodied cup that is bursting with blueberries, pineapple and some perfumy floral notes. Blue Bottle’s version struck me as harsh and tanniny, but this one captures the beautiful fruity qualities of a good merlot.
Although the Misty Valley is a fine coffee, it wasn’t my favorite. That honor went to De La’s Nicaragua Segovia which I brewed all week at home. This medium to light bodied coffee was a pleasure to wake up to although a little deceiving. It comes across as simple but reveals just how understated it is, little by little. This sweet, well-balanced cup has notes of meyer lemon, semi-sweet chocolate, raspberries and bergamot.
While De La Paz produces some very nice coffees, I think the real story is their highly local/sustainable/community-minded approach to business. They embody their San Francisco location with their “Mission blend.” They support community-based groups like Vello-Bella, an international, grass-roots women’s cycling team with their own custom blend. Besides being 100% organic and fair trade, De La Paz delivers their coffee by bicycle. And De La Paz has done all this is a humble manner, buidling up their business with little or no fanfare, generating little more than the occasional blog entry and just one major press piece. I think the think is striking is that they are not alone. When I see these young, similarly socially responsible or activist-minded roasters (1,2,3), I think it may be a glimpse of coffee’s next generation. Maybe not its next wave, but certainly version 3.1.