Call me paranoid, but at times I think Blue Bottle has master minded a conspiracy. Just when I finally managed to visit the Oakland roasting facility coffee bar, James Freeman went and opened a new roasting facility and coffee bar in New York City. The history here is that Blue Bottle opened up the Oakland roasting facility just as I wrote about their SFMOMA cafe, and they opened up that cafe just when I finally managed to get to the permanent kiosk at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. I can only imagine where Blue Bottle might end up when I finally visit their New York space. Maybe they’ll follow Duane Sorrenson to Amsterdam.
All that said, though, I wasn’t exactly excited about visiting this Blue Bottle location and probably classified it as something more obligatory than dream vacation. My lack of enthusiasm for Blue Bottle is mostly due to my diminishing interest in their coffee, which I’ve found less and less compelling as I come to appreciate increasingly higher quality coffees. Take for instance, my good, but underwhelming experience with their coffee at Caffe Luxxe. Or to put this critique in a more comparative light, consider a recent, blind tasting of San Francisco coffees in which Blue Bottle didn’t fare particularly well. The culprit, as I’m coming to understand it through reading and and conversations with coffee folks is lower quality green coffee.
Another reason for my lack of enthusiasm was that the coffee bar here, other than being housed inside the warehouse that is the Blue Bottle roasting facility, didn’t have some particularly unique aspect to it such as being housed within the SFMOMA sculpture garden or the massive array of unique coffee brewing options provided at Blue Bottle’s Cafe. That’s not to say it isn’t nice. The space is finished in that kind of minimalist, modern aesthetic that James Freeman (or someone on his staff) excels at: fresh cut flowers; glass walls looking into the roasting facility; aesthetically pleasing fonts and black, orb speakers hanging from extremely high ceilings. Plus, it’s the only permanent Blue Bottle space in the East Bay.
But perhaps my lack of enthusiasm was exactly the reason I felt compelled to visit. I’ve not been convinced that my past ratings of Blue Bottles cafes reflect my current views about their coffee. Visiting this latest spot would allow me to fully reflect my adjusting tastes for the record. Or, who knew, I could find myself pleasantly surprised.
Arriving on a Sunday, I found the line just long enough to allow me to make up my mind before needing to order, which was good since I had to choose between two single origin coffees brewed according to Blue Bottle’s pour over standard. I opted for the dry-processed Ethiopia Sidamo figuring that I’ve had pretty good luck with some of Blue Bottle’s naturals in the past. Their slightly darker roast tends to curb the fruit notes just right. Also, there was the fact that Colombia could have struck me as simply boring and the Giant Steps blend (the other option) is a bit too dark and something I’ve consumed too much of in the past.
This Sidamo, however, didn’t turn out to be such a good choice. It had that distinctive fruity quality of a natural, with blueberry and strawberry notes, but it also had some less favorable qualities. The coffee was slightly bitter and baggy and the fruit seemed tired, perhaps closer to thawed, frozen rather than fresh. It was distinctive coffee, well roasted and therefore better than the norm, but only barely so (3-).
Espresso is pulled on a three group La Marzocco Linea, that simple, dependable workhorse of the industry. What I was somewhat unclear on was what they were pulling. Usually Blue Bottle uses one of their standard blends such as the Roman, the Temescal, and the 17 Ft. Ceiling. The menu here merely listed the recipe: 50% Brazil Fazenda Colina Cerrado and 50% Tribal Aromas Papua New Guinea. I’m not quite clear on the quality of this green coffee, but what I do know for sure, is that this combination makes for a buttery, creamy, delicious espresso. The sweet orange acidity was kept nicely in check with some darker molasses notes. It was a fairly traditional espresso profile, although sweeter than the usual Blue Bottle shot, that was very nicely executed. (4)
I’d sum up my visit to the Oakland Roasting Facility Coffee Bar with the old adage: you win some, you loose some. But while this visit helps confirm my suspicions about Blue Bottle’s place in the coffee hierarchy, it also goes to show that Blue Bottle hasn’t lost anything (a drop in ratings simply reflects my wiser point of view). It can still produce some excellent coffee. What’s changed over the years is the increased availability of other, better coffees and better, lighter roasting. Blue Bottle still fills an important niche, but instead of delivering the best coffee, it now serves as a gateway to them.