Blue Bottle Wants to Brew You a Better, Faster Cup of Coffee
The chain of cafes famous for carefully crafted pour-over is venturing into batch brewing with its Moment’s Notice blend.
The “third wave” of coffee is far from over. But like any startup or craft product, after growing and evolving for a few years, it’s simply ready to scale up. While the tenets of third wave coffee are still intact — paying attention to bean sourcing and roasting, and the final brewing and expression of those beans — the culture that organically grew inside third wave coffee shops built itself on treating the enjoyment of a cup of coffee as an event doesn’t quite meet the needs of many coffee-loving commuters. But as any business must do to attract new customers, coffee purveyors usually opt to meet people where they are, which, in America, is usually on their way somewhere else. That’s partly why Blue Bottle Coffee, the coffee roaster and (growing) cafe chain founded by James Freeman in 2002 in Oakland, is expanding its offerings to include a batch-brewed, ready-to-pour coffee to customers on-demand while still meeting the company’s strict quality standards. The appropriately titled meeting of beans and machines took a decade to come into fruition, but it’s finally ready at a “Moment’s Notice.”
To say that Blue Bottle has just set up a drip coffee maker in its shops is a bit of an understatement. I walked through the process with the Blue Bottle Coffee’s associate product manager for beverages and equipment Matt Longwell (a title he shortens to “beverage innovation”) and director of coffee culture Michael Phillips who explained that as much as there’s an ongoing need for quicker coffee options on the Blue Bottle menu, the timing was also right technologically. “Batch brew has a sad and tragic history,” Phillips said. “People weren’t using great coffee, they weren’t roasting that coffee well, they weren’t paying attention to recipes, and they weren’t being diligent in the cleaning process. Coffee was not only traded as a commodity on the market but it was treated as a commodity by the people producing it for consumption. So the tool itself has definitely advanced to a point were we feel we can utilize it in the same way we do pour-over to be very diligent and precise.”
But first, the beans. “The first step was figuring out what do we want this coffee to express, because we developed a completely new blend for this,” Longwell said. “And how do we translate our knowledge of delicious coffee and what we know about making exceptional pour-overs into a different system.” The final product, after testing hundreds of variations, is a 50-50 blend of Columbian and Ugandan beans, the former providing brighter butterscotch and candied lemon rind notes and the latter providing a richer, deeper baseline. The musical comparison is apt, given the inspiration behind the name for “Moment’s Notice”: A John Coltrane song of the same name.
Then came the actual brewing.
The process starts with an auto-dispensing scale that can carefully, accurately, and consistently weigh out the right about of beans for the batch size. Then it’s into a burr grinder, which provides the optimal grounds for the brewing machine. “The combination of these two is something we’ve been waiting for for a while,” Phillips told me. “When you think about the ability to operate with speed and efficiency in a cafe, getting an accurate dose is 100 percent the first step in having great quality from the extraction side, and there are no professional grinders that also have a time-dosing function or a weight-dosing function, so we were basically waiting for this innovation to allow us to build this into our bar flow at a more successful pace.”
The next step is dropping the grounds into the basket of a Curtis G4 coffee brewer that, to be honest, looks like the stainless steel coffeemaker you’d see in a diner… with the exception of one feature: a touch screen that allows for a fully customizable brewing process. Longwell explains, “I was in this lab for probably two or three weeks straight just adjusting the program to make sure that we were expressing the coffee exactly the way that we wanted to, and it really came down to this programmability where you can tell the machine exactly how many seconds you want it to dispense water for and how many seconds it pauses, and then you can create a totally new pulse after that. So you’re moving those separate pulses, adding a few seconds here, removing a few seconds there, tasting through, to make it perfect.” The result is an ability to mimic the multi-step pour-over process, from the initial “bloom” pour to the final extraction. It’s currently programmed for two batch sizes — one larger than the other to accommodate busier and slower hours and reduce wasted coffee — but even those took separate tweaking as the process doesn’t simply scale up mathematically. The machine’s memory is also large enough to accommodate multiple recipes and sizes, so more blends could make their way into the batch format in the future.
That’s not to say Blue Bottle has completely automated a job once (and currently) held by baristas. To the contrary, the batch brewing system’s coffee must still be tasted and tested. “Even if you can program a machine to make coffee the same way over and over again day after day, you can’t fix coffee,” Longwell said. “You can’t guarantee coffee is going to be the same today and it was yesterday or a week ago. Every day we dial into the coffee. The baristas will brew something using the same technique, they’ll taste it and make any adjustments they need.”
“People can still use these horribly wrong,” Phillips admitted. “Our ability to have it meet our standards means having a rigorous protocol for how long we hold onto batches for, how we clean the carafes in between, and the level of dialing in and using refraction and tasting, and dialing in the qualities of that coffee. That’s not happening at your diner. Blue Bottle doesn’t have some magic tool, even in pour-over, it all depends on how you use that tool and what are the coffees you’re using that tool with that can help make a cup become more transcendent.”
Blue Bottle Coffee’s Moment’s Notice blend will be available at the brand’s Hudson Yards café in New York beginning May 1 and roll out to the Rockefeller and World Trade Center locations, as well as Sansome in San Francisco, The Exchange in Boston, Beverly Grove in Los Angeles, and Tokyo Station in Japan throughout the month of May.