Until quite recently, if I had been asked what would have to be in a cup of coffee to warrant a $12 price tag, I'd have answered, "About 10 bucks."
And yet earlier this month, there I was at the new Blue Bottle Cafe on Mint, plunking down the aforementioned dozen dollars for a steaming cup of Cooperativa Vasquez. With its trio of perpetually dripping, ornate glass-filtration devices apparently filched from Sherlock Holmes' pad and torrents of vacuum-brewed coffee pulsating through spherical glass nodules, Blue Bottle resembles nothing so much as a nouveau-Victorian meth lab.
The city's caffeinated classes have reacted to Blue Bottle with the glee of Mac geeks being handed 40 iPods and a mule. Greg Sherwin, the java maven behind www.coffeeratings.com, declared the Blue Bottle Cafe's espresso the best in San Francisco, awarding it 8.5 stars out of 10. Also catching eyes — and ink — is the high price proprietor James Freeman paid for his Japanese "siphon bar"; the headline in The New York Times read, "At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee."
"People start bakeries all the time and buy 60-quart Hobart mixers that are 45 grand," a chagrined Freeman says. "Industrial equipment is expensive." He adds that a $10 or $12 vacuum pot of coffee serves two, so you're really paying only $5 or $6 a cup.
Well, fair enough. And, no, there are no free refills.
By now, you're probably wondering whether any coffee is good enough to warrant this kind of price. Web coffee fiend Sherwin — who, unsurprisingly, speaks incredibly fast — raved about the $10 cup of coffee he had at Blue Bottle. But, he adds, "It's probably not something I'd pay for more than once a month. It's not an everyday cup of coffee." (Blue Bottle does sell such coffees for $2 a cup and up.)
Tim O'Connor, a board member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, noted that anyone with taste buds can tell the difference between gas-station coffee and Peet's. He felt that a sophisticated coffee drinker could discern between Peet's and Blue Bottle, but the difference will likely be less dramatic.
That's pretty much how things went for me. I earned quizzical stares by lugging cups of Starbucks and Peet's into Blue Bottle for a blind taste test — and one of my drinking companions ended up actually preferring Peet's. Another leaned toward Blue Bottle's nuanced, multilayered flavor, as did I. It was a clear decision, but no knockout.
Still, watching a barista vacuum-brew a cup of coffee via a process he must use the words "halogen" and "vortex" to explain is not something you see every day. It also warrants mentioning that, while our server said something about "treating coffee like a culinary experience and not a drug," I left the cafe with enough energy to open up a PG&E substation.