Raising the Barista

The Mission's Ritual Coffee Roasters takes its java very seriously

In this latest installment of Bonnie Answers Life's Big Questions, we bypass the usual burning issues (Why do they call it a toothbrush instead of a teethbrush? Who was standing at the door in the season finale of Veronica Mars? Does anyone actually read my column?), and get directly to the essential matter at hand: Is coffee food?

Those of you on the fence, take this little quiz:

1. If you were stranded on a desert island and could have either a Krispy Kreme doughnut or a perfectly crafted latte, which would you pick?

2. Which makes your stomach rumble with excitement and anticipation: the sight of a blender whipping up a smoothie or the sound of the steamer frothing up milk for your double cappuccino?

3. If you were in line at Costco and realized you had just enough money left for either the two-pound bag of French roast or the six-pack of Progresso soup, which would you put back?

4. What's more devastating: your favorite chef moving to Las Vegas or your favorite barista moving to Seattle?

Those who've seriously considered this conundrum have no doubt already noted the striking similarities between so-called traditional victuals and the dark elixir. Much like food, coffee gives you energy, leaves you satisfied, keeps you regular, and (with dairy additives) contains many of the nutritional ingredients required for sustaining human life. Plus, made well, you can almost chew it.

Nowhere is this theorem more convincingly espressed than at Ritual Coffee Roasters (1026 Valencia, 641-1024), which I stumbled into on one of my frequent prowls in search of cafes with free WiFi and tables without time limits (similar to Doctors Without Borders; slightly less humanitarian). Armed with the motto, "The Coffee Revolution Is Here," and a logo that takes its cue from the U.S.S.R.'s hammer and sickle, these guys are so certain that good java is all you need, their scones are even half size -- relegated to the "well, if you musthave something else" category.

Ritual gets its coffee beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, where roasting is considered a higher calling much like the priesthood. The beans are hand-roasted over gas flames on vintage cast-iron Probat drums and shipped to San Francisco in small batches the same day.

It's supercaffeinated (the house espresso blend, "Hair Bender," may make you see God -- at warp speed), but that's merely a happy side effect to the flavor, culled from five varieties of coffee beans and three different growing regions. And when combined with artisan brewing techniques, perfect proportions, and exquisite presentation (steamed milk is carefully layered over the top of each espresso drink into a delicate Christmas-tree insignia they call a rosetta), a good macchiato is like the coffee equivalent of a three-course meal.

For the appetizer, there's a wave of nutty, dark-toasty aroma that wafts directly up to your olfactory bulbs. The main course, a tongue-coating stream of coffee that alternates between earthy sweetness and acidity, is followed at the back end by dessert -- a thick, creamy dollop of milk steamed so that it is neither too airy, nor overheated and scorched.

Judging by the rapturous SRO crowds Googling dreamily on their G4 PowerBooks, I am not the only one who believes you can live off of this stuff -- at least long enough to solve the toothbrush/teethbrush controversy.

 
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