Subrosa literally means under the rose. However, the term also denotes secrecy, as the the owners of Subrosa Coffee have indicated in a footnote on their web page and by their understated presence on this strip of 40th Street in Oakland, about half way between Broadway and Telegraph. The only sign is a small business card taped to the front window. Plus, the exterior architecture makes it easy to assume that Subrosa is actually part of the bicycle shop next door. I’m not one to question the marketing wisdom of keeping a cafe location secret: there’s ample evidence that the speakeasy coffee kiosk – pretentious or no – has been highly successful in the back alleys of San Francisco. The important lesson that I take away from my experience at Subrosa is that you can’t judge a cafe by its cover.
This tiny cafe is full of intricate design details that contrast with the merely mediocre street vibe. The creamy white walls and honey-colored wood panels (are they reclaimed?) that cover the bar and ceiling are warm and soothing while the two-toned marble bar is an inviting place to sip your coffee. If you head back outside, and around through the gate, there is a little (secret) garden in which you can also enjoy your drink. It wasn’t open on the day I visited, but the photos I’ve seen make it look enticing. The jar-filled shelves, tiny wall nooks and antique radio (seen here) contribute to a curious, not quite congruent historical look back at the space, while intriguing touches, like the deer antler chandelier…well? I can’t help but wonder if this is an homage to Subrosa’s roaster. Have you seen the deer on Four Barrel’s bathroom floor?
The coffee service at Subrosa is simple with the important element of choice. They pull shots of Four Barrel’s Espresso Blend (a.k.a. the Friendo Blendo) on their La Marzocco Linea and serve a rotating selection of Four Barrel single origin coffees brewed via French Press. That’s nice, but if you want to try something else or are simply tired of french press, Subrosa will also brew your choice of Four Barrel coffee via Abid’s Clever Coffee Dripper.
My espresso was creamy and full-bodied with lush red fruit and red wine notes. The crema was dark and the not-too-short shot had a nicely balanced acidity. It’s been too long since I’ve had the chance to calibrate my taste buds at Four Barrel proper, but it was by far the best shot of the Friendo Blendo I’ve had in a long while. I still find this blend not quite where I’d like it to be when it comes to my personal tastes, but I don’t think that has anything to do with this shop’s espresso quality.
For drip coffee, I opted for the french pressed Ethiopia Mordecofe over my choice on the Abid. Given my good luck with this coffee when french pressed at home, I wanted to see what I would think of it in the shop. What I got was a full-bodied coffee with subtle, yet complicated aromas, similar to what I discovered at home: floral, tea-like, with mild fruit and mild acidity. This is a very nice coffee, seemingly well brewed.
In a lot of ways, Subrosa reminds me of some of New York City’s designer coffee closets. It’s a tight space with standing room only. It’s nice to look at. It offers good quality coffee from a top tiered (in this case local) roaster. And it offers variety with multiple brew methods. It’s a top-quality shop that may be just shy of coffee pilgrimage, but is surely worthy of a regional area detour.
But Subrosa is not in New York. And more importantly, it’s not alone. Until recently, the East Bay has been sorely lacking shops like Subrosa – wholesale clients of top quality roasters doing coffee close to or on par with the roaster’s own cafes – especially given the prevalence of those roasters and similar cafes in San Francisco. As a recent East Bay Express article notes (and which I’ve been blogging and Twittering about – 1,2 – for some time), times are finally changing. Subrosa is part of a wave of arrivals like Remedy, Local 123, Cafe 504 and Modern Coffee that are joining earlier pioneers like Awaken and 33 Revolutions to finally bring East Bay coffee up to speed.