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To the Brim: How Much Fancy Coffee Can San Francisco Tolerate? 

Wednesday, Mar 5 2014
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Hardly a week passes without another gorgeously minimalist and conspicuously sustainable coffee place opening somewhere in San Francisco, serving single-origin drip to long queues of giddy Instagrammers. Sightglass Coffee's second location, on 20th Street, may not be nearly as palatial as the elegant barn-flagship on Seventh, but the striking diagonal planks in its ceiling and tiled entryway indicate that serious capital was sunk into the project.

San Francisco's third-wave roasteries exhibit a similar fetishization of taste and scale that will probably time-stamp them for future cultural historians, unifying them like Moorish movie palaces from the 1920s. The banal has been exalted. Where once the idea of paying five bucks and waiting six full minutes for coffee — as Rèveille Coffee times it, anyway — was inconceivable. Now simply drinking a cup of joe to get motivated in the morning becomes an ever-more-intense pursuit of perfection, executed in a grand setting. This obsessiveness is one of the most easily parodied aspects of foodie culture, yet its unique combination of luxury and necessity spurs coffee on.

At least three subspecies of coffee culture coexist: the grab-and-go morning-routine joints; the tech-friendly, chain-y places which don't mind you hogging their Wi-Fi and which people sometimes convert into makeshift conference rooms; and those sun-dappled temples to tasting notes and reclaimed wood that are frequently their own roastery and which, often as not, don't even have Internet. These are rough divisions, not strict categories, as something like Rèveille's 3-year-old coffee truck, permanently stationed in a parking lot, falls somewhere in between.

The Mission is, as ever, ground zero. Attempting to name every place that serves coffee there would be like reading out genealogies in the Book of Numbers. It's endless. Needless to say, the big guns are all present: Four Barrel, Ritual, Blue Bottle (inside Heath Ceramics), Coffee Bar (which uses Mr. Espresso) and now Sightglass, too. People sit in them, hours on end. Start-ups get funded in them. Mission Hipster Says probably got fired from one of them. Meanwhile, on a dead end street hard by the 101 embankment in Portola, sits the second Four Barrel — or third, if you count the Mill. It's kind of a bizarre spot for the metal-and-exposed-beams school of carbon neutrality, and it feels as though San Bruno Avenue leapfrogged several tiers of gentrification to snatch it, but it's nice.

The coffee landscape is even more dramatic in the Castro. It's already home to Castro Coffee, Morning Due, Dante's Table (which serves Sightglass), a Philz, a Starbucks, and a Peet's, and others, plus full-service restaurant-bars like Café Flore and café-bakeries like Sweet Inspirations. But in the last few months, the Castro has also acquired Eureka! (which serves Blue Bottle), the second brick-and-mortar Rèveille, and the third Espressamente Illy. (There's a place called The Café there, but it is decidedly not a café.) Though the overall amount of commercial space in the Castro is but a fraction of the Mission's, there always seems to be at least a few empty storefronts, so maybe someone will shoehorn a Dunkin Donuts in there when it arrives in Northern California in 2017. Or maybe Blue Bottle proper will go in, if only as a checklist item to be crossed off en route to world domination.

San Francisco is a coffee town; Oakland, too. And let's not forget that it was always that way: Venerable Folgers was based at 101 Howard for ages.

However accessible, third-wave coffee can't quite shake its whiff of elitism, in spite of taking great pains to be democratic. Menus can helpfully, almost manically, list every last tasting note beneath a given bean's provenance, and express a sensitivity to fair trade that's now a given, but the fussiness can still feel cultish and insular.

Coffee isn't the only utilitarian beverage being renewed by a quest for excellence. It's also happening to that other "brew": beer. Oddly, though, while the obsession with technique and the championing of obscure nanobreweries rages on, crappy, working-stiff-type beers like PBR, Hamm's, or Olympia have simultaneously roared back. That has not been the case at all with coffee. Folgers and its unappetizing-sounding "crystals" have been composting in the dustbin of history for some time now. (Incidentally, it was picked to be a foil in the Bold Italic's blind coffee-tasting last summer, and took fifth. Ritual won handily, and Starbucks finished in sixth and last place.)

Coffee culture, which not terribly long ago pretty much meant either diner sludge or arguments about Maoism vs. Trotskyism, continues to adapt. Weirdly, tragically, coffee's proliferation hasn't stanched San Francisco's bookstore hemorrhage, vanishing as they are at about two per year. People love reading with a cup of coffee, but — Borderlands excepted — the bookstore/café synergy never really caught on, not even after Ellen DeGeneres did just that back in the '90s on her sitcom Ellen, with the store Buy the Book. Similarly, whenever the LGBT community laments the closure of yet another gay bar, everyone is quick to assign culpability: Hook-up apps, rising rents, and same-sex marriage all get the blame. But might we not point the finger at cafés, at least a little, for stealing all the attention? Because San Francisco isn't changing coffee culture. Coffee culture is changing San Francisco.

And yet, I find myself hoping sooner or later we get a Stumptown.

About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Bio:
Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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