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I just got back from San Francisco, where Blue Bottle Coffee Co. seems to be all everyone's talking about. How can this small Oakland-based coffee outfit manage to transfix a city where competition for all edible and drinkable matter is already fierce? In part by having just shipped in from Japan the Hummer-stretch-limo of drip-coffee machines, a $20,000 halogen-powered "siphon bar", for the brand-new Blue Bottle Cafe in downtown San Francisco's Mint Plaza.
Since I was closer to Blue Bottle's original outpost, a tiny Hayes Valley shop (more like a lemonade stand minus the lemonade), I pilgrimaged my way over to 315 Linden Street, where Blue Bottle does business from a counter behind a garage door. I probably would've missed it had it not been for the line of about 25 people waiting outside. Having a more than passing familiarity with Bay Area cafes, I took inventory: Hipstery staff with serious attitude? Yes. Ever-so-slightly smug, self-congratulatory patrons? Indeed. Coffee worth the hype? Well, actually, this stuff is. I tried the Hayes Valley Espresso, a dark, lingering, cocoa-y brew made using a fancy—albeit not $20,000—La Marzocco machine (the Linden Street stand doesn't have the siphon bar).
Blue Bottle's coffee-bean descriptions err toward the pathologically literate, but they're worth a read—or a trip to the Blue Bottle website if you won't be making it to the stand anytime soon. On a single-origin Ethiopian: "This organic Yirgacheffe is to hearty robust fudginess as Rickie Lee Jones is to impeccable diction." On a Chiapas coffee: "A John Ford western in a cup. More important than any implausible grasping for adjectives is that this is an excellent food coffee - a bacon and eggs coffee. Big bowls of chilaquiles, stacks of pancakes, buttered brioche: the Chiapas is a lovely companion to almost all conceivable breakfast foods." On a 100% Yemeni variety: "You might not like it. Lovers of clean, snappy Costa Ricans, or Colombians, might consider drinking a cup of Yemen uncomfortably similar to being picked up by the lapels, shaken, then tossed into a grimy Manhattan snow bank."
Coffee-infatuated though I am, I'm not convinced any cup is good enough to wait 20 minutes in line for every morning—plus the time it takes the staff to individually brew each cup. When they install a Shake Shack-style cam—maybe Danny Meyer can suggest the idea now that he's in SF sourcing Blue Bottle for Gramercy Tavern—I'll be back in a second.