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Modern Coffee Looks to the Future

Name: Modern Coffee
Location: 411 13th Street, Oakland, CA

Roasters: Multiple roasters, including Ecco Caffe, Four Barrel, and Verve

Rating: 4

This post is sorely overdue. I say this because I frequent Modern Coffee and have frequently recommended it to friends. I say this because the coffee is good. I say this because Modern’s rotating, truly multi-roaster menu is rare – almost non-existent – in the industry. But most importantly, I say this because despite these things and despite the fact that Modern has been open for almost 6 months, I’ve so far failed to write a review.

One justification I make for my procrastination is that I wanted to give Modern a little time to settle into a routine.  Owners Robert and Kristen, two Peet’s veterans, opened the doors without the usual cafe planing and build-out extravaganza we’re used to reading about these days. As I understand it, they picked up the keys on a Wednesday, slapped on coat of paint over the weekend and were serving coffee by the following Monday morning. Regulars of Crema, the Illy wholesale client which used to occupy this space and which moved to the old Primo’s kiosk off the 12th Street BART station, had to do a double-take when they stepped inside for their Monday morning coffee.

Since opening, and even since taking these photos, Modern Coffee has continued to evolve and develop. Robert and Kristen have added shelves, tables, decorations and a chalkboard wall menu. They’ve acquired their line of demitasses, custom mugs and t-shirts with the Modern logo. They’ve added grinders, begun selling brewing equipment and beans and finally settled into something of a semi-regular rotating menu of different coffees and roasters.

To get down to brass tacks, though, the real reason that I’ve failed to post on Modern Coffee is that I had to find the right tone for a cafe about which I’ve lost objectivity. You see, I frequent Modern with some abandon and have gotten to know Robert and Kristin along the way. Not to say that this was hard. They are probably some of the most down to earth and completely approachable people I’ve met when it comes to the-wave-of-coffee-that-must-not-be-named. Hopefully, though, the fact that I buy all my own coffee and spend so much time there out to count for something. At the very least, I figure I’m qualified to provide you with some insight into this fairly unique operation.

What sets Modern apart? It expands on the idea of the multi-roaster cafe as it has typically been practiced in the Bay Area.  Places like Cafe 504, Mojo Bicycle Cafe and Haus offer an espresso by one roaster and filter coffee by another. Modern ratchets this experience up one notch, serving both espresso and filter coffee from multiple roasters on a rotating schedule.  The usual suspects include Verve, Four Barrel and Ecco Caffe, but you’re likely to find at least a few quality coffees in the shop from other roasters such as Ritual, Barefoot, De La Paz and This Joy+Ride. Sometimes bags of these coffees are for sale and other times they rotate into the brewing cycle.

On any given day, Modern offers you a choice of two espresso blends (in addition to Four Barrel’s decaf), with shots pulled on their La Marzocco GB/5. The exact line-up rotates weekly, but typically includes any two of Verve’s Street Level and Sermon blends, Four Barrel’s espresso, or Ecco Caffe’s regular or reserve espressos. The menu, at least so far, doesn’t include any single origin espressos.

For filter coffee, you have two choices. You can chose what is usually a single origin coffee or sometimes a blend that is brewed in a Fetco brewer and stored in a thermal carafe. This coffee rotates regularly throughout the day. You can also have Robert or Kristen brew-to-order your choice of whatever bean they have in the store via an Abid Clever Coffee Dripper.

I won’t get too specific in my reviews of individual coffees since the variety and range is so huge and since I’ve consumed too many cups to pick just one. Overall, though, my experience is that both espresso and filter coffee quality is very high. The shots I had last fall of Verve’s Street Level espresso, for instance, were easily better than those I had in Verve’s own cafe, and the cup of Ecco’s Colombia auction lot coffee I had brewed for me on the Abid was absolutely stellar (both clearly a 4). But even the Four Barrel espresso, which I tend to like less and any of the Fetco brewed coffees, which I tend to like less in other cafes, are consistently good here. I find it difficult to pin myself down, but I’d be hard-pressed to rank any coffee I’ve had from Modern as falling below a 3 with most coffees ranging between a 3+ and solid 4.

If there’s a weakness to Modern, I suppose it’s in the organic development of the shop, something I find hard to fault as it mirrors this own blog’s development. Their slow build out approach means that stepping into the shop may lack some of the splendor of stepping into a much-hyped new branch of Intelligentsia, Stumptown, or Blue Bottle. Robert and Kristen’s Mom and Pop approach to business – getting to know their regular customers and caring about what their customers think – can also be deceiving. The result of this low-key approach is that Modern Coffee may be a force that’s easy to miss.

But don’t be mislead into thinking that this cafe isn’t employing a concept to be reckoned with. Although it does so in its own quiet way, Modern is paving the way for a new model of cafe similar to other higher profile spots out there such as Billy Wilson’s Barista and Jay Caragay’s Project Hampden out in Baltimore. These three cafe – there’s no others that I can think of – are not beholden to a particular roaster and can offer customers a chance to taste some of the best the industry has to offer. Bay Area residents, the next generation of coffee bar has arrived.

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6 comments to Modern Coffee Looks to the Future

  • Great review. I have always enjoyed the “Mom and pop” style of cafe over the big production shops, I think it has something to do with the former style being much more conductive to a friendly atmosphere. Of course with that you get snap judgments by the people that think of coffee as an expression of their own self-worth :D That could be viewed as a filter though!

    I really do feel like this approach for a shop is where things are heading. Barista sets a great tone for that up here in Portland and I’ve been noticing some other shops following Billy’s lead. One difficulty though that I think might be unique to the Portland area though (Correct me if I’m wrong) is that our local major roaster, Stumptown, enforces some type of exclusive supplier policy. Aside from Barista, I don’t think I’ve seen a shop carry both Stumptown and any other roaster. It’s always either Stumptown or a mix of roasters that aren’t Stumptown. If this actually is their policy I hope they recognize the importance of dropping it and allowing clients to pick up other offerings.

    • I don’t know the details involved in Stumptown’s contracts although what you’re saying wouldn’t surprise me. Many times the contracts with a roaster are exclusive, and understandably so. A roaster, after all, is a business and has an interest in protecting their business. My guess is that the argument in favor of Stumptown doing this is that it guarantees the revenue they need to be able to provide the service and support they do to cafes using their beans (and often their equipment). Cafes can get a lot out of this arrangement as well – lower prices, lots of access to contracts with different suppliers, etc.

      My guess is that the reason we’re finally seeing cafes like Barista and Modern is a combination of some of the newer, smaller roasters looking to get their product out there anyway they can, combined with cafe owners already enough in the know and well connected enough to other vendors to not need as many of the services that roasters have traditionally provided. This is only a theory mind you.

      That said, given Stumptown’s near monopoly in Portland, assuming they do have such a policy in the first place, I doubt they’ll start dropping it except with the most high-profile cafes like Barista. They’d be foolish to not want to get some of that coverage, especially in Portland. But it’s going to have to be a cafe-driven initiative rather than something put forth by the roasters. Then again, I’d love to be proven wrong.

  • I had visited Barista in Portland last year and absolutely loved the concept of showcasing the best of the best roasters.

    I’m so glad that Modern Coffee has followed their lead and brought that same concept to the East Bay. Kristen and Robert bring the roasters to us — their customers — which allows us to sample many varieties, roast styles, etc. each and every time we visit the shop. It’s such a great opportunity to get exposed to what local roasters have to offer, all under one roof.

    Their cappuccinos are some the of the best I’ve ever had, too.

    Great review.

  • There is also Red Berry Coffee Bar in downtown San Jose; it features Ecco, Ritual and Barefoot. Any 2 of the 3 are on-bar concurrently.

  • Looks like a nice place to chill out.

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