A history of Bay Area coffee culture

By Shanna Farrell | Illustrations by Margo Rivera-Weiss


The Pacific Northwest may be one of the most recognized hotbeds of specialty coffee, but the Bay Area gives it some stiff competition. Stemming from San Francisco’s 19th-century history as a port city and building upon foundations laid by mid-20th century innovators, the current cutting-edge coffee culture percolates through a proliferation of notable roasters.

Serving the Masses

Coffee has long been one of America’s biggest imports. In his coffee history titled Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast writes that colonists originally brought coffee beans to North America in the late 1600s, but coffee came to California in a big way (like everything did) with the gold rush. May of 1850 saw the arrival in San Francisco of James A. Folger, a 14-year-old Nantucket boy who went to work at William Bovee’s new Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills, a company that was introducing packaged, ground coffee to a population accustomed to buying whole beans. Folger’s job might have included cranking the hand-turned roaster. After a brief foray in the Gold Country, Folger rejoined Bovee, becoming a partner in the company by 1864 and majority shareowner by 1872, at which point he gave it his name.

A quarter century later, 340 million pounds of coffee per year were being imported to the United States, accounting for almost a third of globally exported coffee, much of which came through San Francisco. The Folgers factory survived the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire as James Folger II (the founder’s son) extinguished encroaching flames with water he pumped from the bay, allowing the company to stay in business.

From 1900 to the end of World War II, U.S. coffee consumption per person per day doubled. The Temperance Movement and Prohibition in the 1920s likely had a big effect on coffee consumption. The beverage became the stimulant of choice (at least publically) after saloons and restaurants were forced to stop serving alcohol, especially in San Francisco’s Devil’s Acre on Columbus Avenue. Around the same time, companies here started specializing in higher-quality coffees from Central and South America, long before the rest of the nation began waking up to the differences.


Mid-Century Innovators

Bay Area coffee culture was headed toward a major turn with the arrival of a certain Dutchman in 1955. Alfred Peet had come of age working for his father, a coffee roaster, and continued in that trade with importers in Amsterdam and London. It was while traveling the globe buying coffee and tea for those employers that he landed in San Francisco and found work with importer E.A. Johnson & Co. Questioning decisions in the local industry to import poor-quality beans from Brazil and Central America—and with certain pride in both his roasting abilities and high standards for beans—Peet opened Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Berkeley in 1966. His shop, his skills, and his knowledge paved the way for a new direction in the industry. (The founders of Starbucks Coffee were initially trained by Peet.)

Arriving in 1967 was another expat, Carlo Di Ruocco, who came to Oakland from Italy and moved to the East Bay permanently in 1974. Employed as an elevator technician, Di Ruocco noticed another type of equipment that needed repair: espresso machines. The few machines in use were old and ill-maintained. Raised on espresso, Di Ruocco believed that the strong little cup would become more popular here if the quality were reliable. So Di Ruocco began repairing and importing espresso machines and also roasting beans, which led to his founding of Mr. Espresso in 1981. Alice Waters noticed the difference and began serving Di Ruocco’s espresso at Chez Panisse.

Another important innovator at around this time was Paul Katzeff, a social worker turned roaster, who in 1972 set up Thanksgiving Coffee with his wife Joan in Fort Bragg. His mission would be that of messenger for social justice through coffee. Traveling to Nicaragua in 1985, Katzeff met the farmers producing the coffee beans his company was importing, and upon his return he coined the phrase, “Not Just a Cup, But a Just Cup.” This first-hand view of small-scale coffee growing inspired Katzeff to start working directly with farmers. He wanted to level the playing field economically by showing farmers the quality, and consequently the value, of their product. Working to create nine cupping labs in nine different “Appalachias” of Nicaragua, Katzeff helped farmers learn to taste their beans in a finished cup so they would better understand the high quality of their product, which in turn made it easier to ask for a fair price. Fair trade changed the coffee game and inspired people to think more about where their beans come from. Farm-based cupping labs are now common around the world.


Coffee in the New Millenium

Coffee’s “third wave” broke in the early 2000s, ushered in by roasters like Flying Goat, Equator, Blue Bottle, Philz, and Barefoot, followed shortly after by Ritual, Verve, Four Barrel, De La Paz, Scarlet City, and Sightglass. Third wave is described as a movement in which professionals and consumers choose high quality beans and consider the processes by which they are produced. Roasters are careful about who and where coffee comes from, and they form relationships with producers at origin. Baristas pay attention to technique and work to convey the story of the coffee. Consumers, who have access to more information with the rise of the digital age, are now more thoughtful about their choices.

The term was coined by Trish Rothgeb of Palo Alto–based Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, who penned it in an article for the Roaster’s Guild newsletter. While some now consider the discussion passé, and the term is sometimes difficult for roasters to define, the concept grabbed customers’ attention, and it signaled that something different was afoot. It was taking longer to get your drink as French presses and pour-over replaced automatic drip machines, and small shops distinguished themselves from Starbucks by offering cups in just one or two sizes. Bags of beans were now featuring origin information and tasting notes, roasts were no longer uniform, and more coffee was being sold as whole bean. Not only was the Bay Area seeing a proliferation of cafés and roasters, but these businesses were succeeding.


Is coffee now like food, like wine?

My-Dead-Mother's-Coffee-PotA whole new generation of Bay Area coffee professionals now stands on the shoulders of those who helped build the industry from the ground up. Pele Aveau, the barista training manager at Blue Bottle, thinks coffee has a place in the Bay Area’s distinctive food and wine culture. Wandering into the industry through food, he’s been in coffee for almost 15 years after starting as a barista at Flying Goat in Santa Rosa while attending culinary school. What began as a way to pay the bills grew into a deep love of the industry. “I learned the mechanics of pulling espresso and how to talk about it at Flying Goat,” he says.

After a few years there, Aveau moved to Oakland to work at Ritual, where, over a period of six years, he saw the menu gradually become more limited. Big batches of beans turned into smaller selections, and customers became more interested in learning about how the coffee was produced. Throughout his climb to the current role of trainer at Blue Bottle, Aveau saw fads come and go, but those trends pertaining to transparency persisted. He sees coffee tasting now being taken seriously, particularly in research fields at universities, with studies about the science of taste and sensory perception emerging. With three other members of the Blue Bottle team, he recently attended a UC Davis sensory summit.

And like cocktails?

A fascination with mixology is what got Nabeel Silmi, owner of Grand Coffee in San Francisco, interested in coffee. Working as a barback at Rose Pistola in North Beach, Silmi had the job of making coffee at the end of each night’s three seatings. He perfected his efficiency, but to learn technique he went off to
observe other baristas, much like bartenders do to hone their craft.

Frequenting Gaylord’s in Oakland and Café Trieste in North Beach, Silmi developed his palate and sense of smell. He went on to serve as barista, barback, and bartender at Foreign Cinema, where he learned a lot about food and wine. There he gained a language for talking about smell and taste.

Opening Grand Coffee in 2009, Silmi decided to use beans from Four Barrel because he liked their company ethos, roasting style, and do-it-yourself approach. He did the build-out on his café himself and worked all shifts for many months. He uses manual machinery—one of the few shops in the area that does—and recalibrates his equipment at least once daily, more if clouds pass over the shop, since temperature and humidity both affect the accuracy of calibration. Every morning he begins his day by smelling the shop, and he has committed its scent to memory. “Once,” he says, “I was given a bottle of mezcal as a gift. I left it at the shop and one of my baristas opened it before I got in. I knew immediately that the bottle had been opened and I immediately asked if someone had been drinking mezcal.”


Power of Community

Like most people who have risen to the rank of coffee taster, Amanda Juris began as a barista. Now a green coffee buyer at Santa Cruz–based Verve Coffee Roasters, Juris achieved the master taster rank while at Starbucks in Seattle. She handled arrivals there and had to approve or reject 30 to 60 containers of coffee every day, which meant tasting six cups from each container per day. Getting through that much product successfully required immense efficiency, so she learned to make decisions quickly. The experience gave her the confidence to enter the 2014 U.S. Cup Tasters Championship, which she won handily, earning Starbucks new respect among coffee professionals. “There were people there who had so much passion,” she recalls. Her involvement with the community has helped her learn and stay on top of her game, and it helped her forge connections that led her to Verve, where she started in the spring of 2015.

Community is also important to Jessica Caisse, owner of Eureka Coffee, a truck-based business servicing the East Bay. Caisse learned to roast at Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company in St. Helena, honed her skills at Extracto Coffee in Portland, and developed finesse when she moved to Oakland to work at the now-closed Remedy café. That was where she met Aveau, who was the shop manager and served as her mentor. Caisse then worked at Blue Bottle and the Duende Bodega, where she started thinking about starting her own truck-based coffee business. Needing investors, she ran a successful crowd-funding campaign, to which many of her coffee comrades contributed. “The community here has shared values, they’re open minded and excited about new things, they’re multi-faceted and gritty, and have a weird toughness,” says Caisse.


The community is what Aveau says drew him to the industry. Like Juris, he participated in two competitions, which bolstered a feeling of camaraderie. While he has now judged more competitions than he has competed in, he always encourages people to compete. “It makes you think about what you’re doing and how to talk about it,” he explains. For Juris, it has opened a global network, and she is now coaching baristas from Japan and across Europe. Caisse has also started competing, and she’s been workshopping new coffee drink ideas with Chris Lane, the bar manager at Oakland’s Ramen Shop.

But it isn’t just the camaraderie that motivates local coffee practitioners. It’s also the passions of customers, who bring their interests in food and wine to the coffee bar. With his retail focus at Blue Bottle since 2012, Aveau has been working to hone the customer experience. One of his goals is to demystify coffee. When training new baristas he emphasizes calmness, empathy, and the ability to be a knowledgeable resource for customers. Silmi, likewise, thrives on customer interaction. As part of the Mission Street community, he draws from his time as a bartender to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and are empowered to participate in conversations. Many people in the bar industry frequent his shop, blending the two tight-knit industries.

There is no doubt that the Bay Area will continue to be a leader in food and beverage culture, and coffee professionals like Silmi, Aveau, Juris, and Caisse will keep making this an exciting place to drink a cappuccino. But change is inevitable, and world coffee producers are looking at some looming challenges. One is increasing demand for coffee worldwide, and another is the warming climate, which is reducing yields in many traditional coffee-growing regions. Katzeff believes that the way to ensure that high quality coffee will remain available for the foreseeable future is to continue to cultivate strong relationships with farmers and provide them with fair pay for their products.

“I’m not worried about the product disappearing,” Katzeff says, “but the culture? Will there be another generation of farmers? I think about this a lot.” Hopefully, the work of visionaries like Katzeff will inspire conversation, elicit consumer interest, and spur industry action in order to keep our cups full of great coffee.