Interview: Ecco Caffe founder Andrew Barnett

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Coffee San Francisco

Andrew Barnett has been a mainstay in the Northern California coffee community since 1977. Yes, he took a 14-year hiatus, from 1981 to 1994, but returned to the scene in a major way in 1994. He operated Centro Espresso in Santa Rosa until 1999, and founded Ecco Caffe the following year, which allowed Barnett to roast his own beans for the first time. He sold Ecco to Intelligentsia Coffee in 2009. Ecco’s first café is still under construction on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, and he’s moving on from Intelligentsia. There’s no telling what the future holds for Barnett, but we have a feeling it could be caffeinated. We met at Four Barrel on April 1, and Barnett shared several insights that hinted at why he’s been so successful.

Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?

It was serendipity. I grew up in Chicago and moved to Marin County. I worked at the Casa Madrona Hotel for two years. I wanted to develop my chops, becoming a better chef. At that time, City College of San Francisco was considered one of the better places to go at the time if you wanted to work in one of the nicer restaurants. That day I enrolled, I tasted the food at the cafeteria, which was run by the students, and it was really dismal. It was frozen salmon, instant potatoes and frozen vegetables. It was a mess. It was a disaster, and I decided I needed to do something else. I declared myself an art major, but I needed to get work.

There was a little coffee shop in the neighborhood in San Francisco called the Higher Grounds. It served food. They had an espresso machine, and I applied. They said, “You can work here, but do you know how to use an espresso machine?” I said, “No, but I can learn how.” We had a two-group Gaggia machine and a grinder. We were getting espresso coffee from Graffeo, which is still in business. This is 1977, and our filtered coffee was from Capricorn, and that’s still in business. I thought at the time that I knew something. We had a lever machine, the two-group Gaggia and I thought I was kind of good and could make better tasting espresso. If I were to drink that coffee now, I’m kind of scared to think how bad it would taste. Our benchmark then was Trieste, which is still in business in North Beach.

What was your very first day like at Higher Grounds?

It was scary cause I didn’t know to work this machine, and no one taught us how to use a grinder. We had to do other things besides make coffee. We had to make sandwiches and soups and salads and fill up the coffee machine. It was a new system. It was all new to me, but I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. There were six tables in there. I wound up staying for four years, until I finished art school. I ended up going from City College to San Francisco State and majored in Printmaking. When I got out of school, I stopped being a Higher Grounds barista in 1981. It was sold. I got another job restoring vintage carousel animals for San Francisco in Golden Gate Park. I moved up to Sonoma County and I would do work for private collectors as well as for the city. I was out of coffee from 1981 to 1994.

In 1993, I discovered Espresso Vivace. I went up to Coffee Fest in Seattle. It was like a Gold Rush mentality. There was a Seattle espresso – I wouldn’t call it Renaissance – but there was this mindset that all you had to do was go up there and buy some equipment, find a coffee roaster, set up anywhere and you could sell 300 coffees a day and make $100,000 a year. It was fascinating. There was a lot of excitement. There was a lot of vibrancy, and I met David Schomer, who was the owner of Espresso Vivace, and for me that was hands down the best coffee experience I had in my life at that point. It was very interesting. He has his own very distinct espresso preparation methodology. He was doing a workshop, talking about equipment and Espresso Vivace. They had a camera and a screen up showing baristas doing latte art, which I’d never seen before, so that was intriguing. I was taken by the texture of the milk, and that the coffee was sweeter than any I’d ever experienced. I realized espresso coffee doesn’t have to be this bitter experience where you need sugar or milk, but I liked their macchiatos and cappuccinos. Those were very a-ha experiences. He was roasting lighter. I walked in and decided at that time, when I opened my first coffee shop, that I would use David’s coffee and his espresso preparation methodology. I was a client of David’s from 1994 until 2000.

That’s when you started roasting yourself?

Correct. When I started roasting, I was living in Santa Rosa and had a little coffee bar called Centro Espresso. When Ecco opened up. I really felt that Americans and North Americans especially – we wanted to do a wholesale business as well as having coffee for this coffee bar – so I thought by calling it Espresso, it would limit the range of the business. And there was already in San Francisco a Caffé Centro. Instead of calling it Centro Caffe, Ecco was something I liked the sound of it. Ecco in Italian means “there is,” and a lot of people thought Ecco meant ecological. It was really just the type of coffee that was very approachable for North Americans. It was something they wouldn’t struggle with too much. The coffees at that time were very light roasted compared to what was available…We were really invested in lighter roasts.

One of the things that appealed to me about roasting is I thought it was really important to get closer to the ingredients. My background was in cooking. It wasn’t just putting out your motto and saying you’re a great coffee roaster. Ecco started roasting in 2000, and there were some nicer coffees we were getting from Erna Knutsen in particular, some of her Ethiopian Yirgacheffes were really fabulous. Occasionally some very interesting offerings from Royal, but what I felt was a game changer for Ecco was discovering the Cup of Excellence program. In 2001, Erna Knutsen introduced me to a Brazilian Cup of Excellence coffee that she had purchased, Vargem Grande, and I sampled this coffee. It was sweeter than any Brazil coffee I’d ever tasted. It was wonderful, no matter what we did with it. We put it into our espresso, we made filtered coffee with it. It was exemplary and made me really want to know more about these coffees and the region through the Cup of Excellence program. 2002 was my first trip to origin.

Where was it?

It was to Brazil, to a number of regions. They worked with SCAA as one of their organized trips. Through that, I met a number of Brazilian producers, and started visiting some of their farms. Those developed into now 10-year friendships and really direct relationships. That was an early introduction to the Cup of Excellence program. Ecco was one of the early buyers. It started in 1999 with George Howell and Susie Spindler. They were the co-founders of the program. We had a heavy focus on espresso, but I think I really got interested in cupping.

Anybody else that you’d consider a mentor?

One of the people that was really a mentor to me and my personal development was Willem Boot, who is a consultant in Mill Valley. He showed me how to roast, but when I started roasting, I just wanted someone to show me some technique, like how to operate a machine and provide some methodology about roasting. I knew that Willem had consulted with David Schomer. Willem gave me some very, very crucial, game changing advice. He said, “If you want to roast, you’ve got to learn how to cup, to develop your palate. You can’t just take the word of green coffee importers. If they say something’s good, you need to experience it yourself.” Cool. I went out, bought a sample roaster and that really gave me another part of the puzzle.

For Cup of Excellence, my first jury was 2003. That year, I visited Brazil three times. That was my first jury. Cup of Excellence, I’ve been on 10 juries. Being around other people from around the world who are tasting these coffees and sharing this information enthusiastically, that was so great. Through the Cup of Excellence program, I started getting samples from all these different countries. That was interesting. This group of jurors, cuppers, all thought these coffees were 90-point coffees. So I could sample roast these coffees…That really helped my education. I cup whenever I can, and I would encourage someone to learn about coffee, just taste and keep an open mind. Taste from a lot of different regions.

We’re in the infancy. The whole program, and all these things that we’re doing, this is a baby. The idea of single-origin coffee, outside the idea of the Kenyan auctions, or some of the other regions, didn’t exist. These coffees that we’re buying now, they were getting blended, so the really distinguished lots were getting blended into mediocrity. This is all new. People weren’t buying directly from farmers. I feel fortunate that I was part of this breakthrough, a Cup of Excellence program that goes back to 1999. I started in 2001, so that was still in its infancy. Coffee people are really good at hypothesis and speculating why things happen, but not necessarily a data driven, scientific model. We are getting better through cupping, and our methodology.

In what ways has it helped your coffee education to be a barista championship judge?

In 2002. We started buying Cup of Excellence coffees in 2001, and 20002 I started paying attention to the WBC program in 2003, which was my first calibration with WBC judges. I was judging the USBC competition, and for me, the judging was an honor, but it was also a great education. You could taste coffees prepared by these great baristas. You could get an overview of the different regions of the countries by these different baristas and their exemplary espressos. It was a great education. At regional competitions, you would taste some espressos that wouldn’t be that desirable, along with others that were fantastic. I was judging actively from 2003 until 2009, and I always say that to me was the best education, because I was cupping the coffees, these elite coffees, and that was one aspect, the other being I got to taste espresso. I got to taste the coffee in different preparations, and that was really helpful, and the focus was on great espresso. It still is. I get excited. I dream about espresso, and I dream about cupping coffee too. Sometimes I dream about a great flavor, like chow mein, or my favorite piece of pie. I dream about it all. That was great. It was really helpful for me as a roaster to taste what other people were doing. How does Ecco fit into the overall experience, with these Cup of Excellence coffees, and where does our espresso fit in? I was fortunate. I was judging not only the WBC, but also picked to be a sensory judge at the finals, so when Klaus won the WBC in 2006 in Switzerland, I had the good fortune of judging him. That was like, “Okay, what’s his coffee like, and what are these other great coffee roasting companies doing?” It helped give me a framework. “Where do we fit in and what’s going on?” That was very helpful. The other thing that reconfirmed the vibrancy of great coffees and great coffee companies. I think of James Hoffmann, I think of Tim Wendelboe, and I think of Klaus. I think of these as people that are really changing the game. In these competitions, in some ways there’s a lot of value to who’s winning the WBC, because these are people that are masters, and it’s not just some goofy award. Their success is predicated on how they make coffee and communicate.

In terms of the San Francisco coffee culture, is it already great? If not, what else will it take to get there?

That’s very subjective, what great is. Do I think it’s great? I think there are some really fantastic coffee bars where you can experience something that wasn’t available four or five years ago. People are really doing exciting, vibrant things, but we’re still in the early stages.

How important do you think it is at this point to have a physical coffee bar at this point if you’re a coffee roaster?



Joshua Lurie

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

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