At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, don’t even bother getting in line at the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. cart unless you have twenty minutes to spare. Throngs of coffee junkies are willing to wait that long and longer for espresso drinks and iced coffee from the Oakland-based roastery. Anticipation was high this January when Blue Bottle owner James Freeman opened his first café at Mint Plaza, South of Market in San Francisco. As expected, a recent visit generated plenty of talking points. Unfortunately, not all of them were positive.
The Blue Bottle space is especially sleek, with high ceilings, plenty of natural light, and a high-topped communal wood table in the center of the room. The café must be performing well. James Freeman is already planning a second Blue Bottle cafe for the Ferry Building, expected to launch in early 2009.
Any time the company’s siphon pot set-up gets mentioned, it’s quickly followed by the fact that it cost Freeman over $20,000 to install. This is a puzzling figure, since five siphon pots and accompanying burners typically retail for about $100 apiece. Still, it was probably worth the expense, since it’s generated so much publicity, and has no doubt attracted a flood of curiosity seekers who come to see the most expensive coffee brewing system in America.
According to Brian, who brewed our pot and runs the cafe, a French physicist invented the siphon pot process in 1841. It spread to Japan by the late 1800s, and began proliferating at Kyoto siphon pot cafes by the 1910s.
Brian ground our coffee beans to order, then poured the grounds in the upper chamber of the vacuum pot. The burner heated the water, creating a vacuum that pulled water into the upper chamber to join the coffee grounds. The water rose nearly to rim-height, and Brian stirred the coffee. After Brian turned off the burner, the coffee cooled, and gravity-assisted, returned to the bottom of the pot through a fine cloth filter.
Brian prided Blue Bottle on using only the freshest beans. He said they don’t serve coffee that’s more than two days out of the roaster. After that point, it’s used for the New Orleans style iced coffee. Impressive if it were true. One problem: my father spotted a bag of beans between the iced coffee still and siphon pots that read “June 22.” Hmm.
Blue Bottle offered three coffees via vac pot: Mesa de los Santos from Colombia, San Marcos from Guatemala, and the one we chose, Adelaida from El Salvador ($12). A vacuum pot is designed for two people. $6 a cup was worth it for a new coffee experience, and it even came with chocolate-dipped toffee lined with crushed peanuts. The coffee tasted pretty smooth, but there were serious consequences. As the afternoon progressed, my step-mother and I both developed crippling headaches. Since we were the only two people who drank the coffee, there’s little doubt Adelaida was to blame.
I returned to Los Angeles and had my second vacuum pot experience shortly thereafter. It was surprising how different the experiences were, and it reflected poorly on Blue Bottle. The L.A. barista who prepared my “vac pot” provided possible explanations for why the version we had at Blue Bottle was so devastating. He said Blue Bottle is known within the industry for buying older beans, some of which still have defects. That may or may not be true. When it came to the actual brewing process, you’re not supposed to add the coffee grounds until after the water rises to the top of the pot. Otherwise they’ll burn on the filter, which is probably what happened at Blue Bottle. Brian at Blue Bottle also wasn’t using a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the water, so the already burnt coffee may have boiled and burned some more. Any or all of those factors could have contributed to our headaches. Whatever the explanation, the L.A. vac pot coffee was even smoother, and didn’t result in a throbbing headache.
Blue Bottle delivered a fascinating coffee experience, but considering how the siphon pot made me feel, I wouldn’t return.