Book Review: The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee

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Cover photo courtesy of Ten Speed Press

My experiences at Blue Bottle Coffee have been shaky, but I’m still impressed with The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, a combination biography, how-to, and cookbook from company founder James Freeman, wife and head baker Caitlin Freeman, and writer Tara Duggan.

James Freeman begins with a compelling Blue Bottle Coffee origin story, followed by an overview of the coffee production process. The book tracks beans from Grow to Roast and Drink, with easy to understand breakdowns of issues like wet processed vs. dry processed beans, “why you need a gram scale,” and ideal coffee storage methods. Freeman is convincing with his opinions, though he occasionally could do a better job of explaining the scientific principles of certain consumer aspects, like why buying pre-ground beans is a bad idea.

“The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee” also contains short but effective biographies that spotlight coffee people like Hawaiian producer Lorie Obra, who I visited on the Big Island, and Salvadoran producer Aida Batlle, who gained notoriety in The New Yorker.

Freeman also provides convincing commentary on issues like the benefits of blending vs. single origin beans. Rudimentary but effective diagrams of things like coffee beans and coffee roasters should also help readers absorb all the info.

James Freeman is clearly a thoughtful coffee professional, and distills a big part of his company’s mission into 55 words on Page 54, saying, “As a coffee roaster, your life is divided in roughly 17-minute segments – enough time to load the green coffee, roast it, dump it, cool it, and send it on its way. That means you have about twenty-five chances in an average day, 125 chances in a week, and 6,500 chances. year to make something beautiful.”

Pod coffee shouldn’t be as prevalent in a city like San Francisco, where specialty coffee’s so readily available, but James Freeman still reserves “a special place in hell” for pod producers. He makes big points by saying the method’s “bad because it’s impossible to use pod brewers to produce a delicious beverage, and wrong because it teases people into buying into an industrially produced product masquerading as handcrafted-and that involves almost 70 percent waste.” He follows with convincing supporting evidence.

James Freeman isn’t a big proponent of buying an espresso machine for home, primarily because a quality coffeehouse alternative is so pricey. Still, if you decide to go that route, when choosing a machine, a good indicator is weight since “Weight implies metal rather than plastic parts.”

Caitlin Freeman takes the lead in a section of the book titled Eat, telling the origin story from her perspective. She starts as the co-founder of Miette, selling pastries at the Berkeley Farmers Market, and meets James. She provides back-stories about (and shares recipes for) Brown Sugar and Winter Spice Granola, Homemade Yogurt, Stout Coffee Cake with Pecan-Caraway Streusel (courtesy of State Bird Provisions co-owner Nicole Krasinski). She also reveals her “bag of tricks” – Le Sanctuaire for spices and St. George Spirits for alcohol – which both fuel recipes. She also shares recipes from chefs who incorporate Blue Bottle coffee into their recipes, including Daniel Patterson’s Coffee-Roasted Carrots with Chicory Granola (Decaf Noir), Chris Cosentino’s Braised Boar Shoulder with Gigante Beans and Baby Vegetables (Giant Steps) and Nopa’s Blue Bottle Martini (Hayes Valley espresso).

With “The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee,” whether you enjoy Blue Bottle coffee, or their coffeehouse experience, doesn’t matter. Coffee neophytes will find value in all the primers, and people who don’t even drink coffee can still appreciate the personal histories and recipes.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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