I first heard of the idea of a distinction between morning coffee and afternoon coffee a few years ago, when a barista at a Seattle coffee shop was describing the shop's array of beans on offer. The cafe's Central American and Indonesian beans, he told me, were straightforward and bold, perfect for just a regular cup of morning brew, while the fruitier, lighter Ethiopians and Kenyans were something to savor in the afternoon. At the time, I smiled and all but patted his hand (geeks are so adorable when they're not telling you how ignorant you are). Then, not long ago I heard someone in San Francisco make a similar comparison. And this week, during a trip to Ma*Velous
, San Francisco's newest geeked-out coffee bar, the distinction began to make sense.
Phillip Ma's cafe and wine bar, which opened last week, offers more brewing options than Blue Bottle, Ritual, or Four Barrel. Number one is the standard-issue French press, of course, plus two kinds of pourover (a Melitta-like cone-filter contraption called the V-60
, and the Chemex
, which uses the same conical shape but slows down the brewing time, bringing out different qualities). Ma has a custom-built espresso machine that allows the barista to control all kinds of pressure and temperature factors, which the pros say helps bring out the individuality of micro-lot coffees. The fifth method uses one of those delicate, lab-equipment-looking Kyoto slow drippers
to cold-brew coffee, and the sixth method is the siphon system. (If you didn't memorize all the press when Blue Bottle Mint Plaza installed a siphon bar, you can read about it on Wikipedia
Not only does the cafe offer six brewing methods, it brings in beans from different regions of the world and different roasters ― right now, Ecco, Intelligentsia,
and Norway's Tim Wendelboe. Ergo,
Ma'Velous represents the far edge of coffee connoisseurship, operating on the same
level as Bourbon and Branch and Bar Agricole. For the coffee geek, getting exposure to such technical specificity is akin to
touring Fermilab. For the drinker who just wants a cup of something strong on the way to work, it represents pretension beyond compare.
Someone in between, like you or me, O SFoodie reader, is asking a different question: Is the experience enjoyable? I'd have to answer yes.
I considered doing a vertical tasting of a particular coffee bean or one brewing method but realized I didn't have the expense budget. Also, tasting all those coffees would cause my stomach
lining to rip off and float away. So on my first trip, I simply ordered a couple of cups of coffee, brewer's choice. I got two Latin American coffees from Ecco, both made on the V-60 (one of the fastest methods). The brewing was precise enough to show up distinct differences ― more bourbon and spice notes in one, woodsier flavors in the other. Potent but smooth, with none of that squinchy bitterness, the coffees were well worth the $3. I'd pick up a cup again any Monday morning.
Ma says he may be the only cafe in the country to sell the Norwegian roaster's beans, and he refuses to brew them using one of the quick methods. "They're more delicate, and so I want to make it more of an experience," he told me at the time. So I returned with a friend for a siphon pot of the Kenyan, which resembled anything at Samovar or Imperial Tea Garden. So did the price: $10.
So did the coffee, for that matter. As the photo shows, it looks more like tea than coffee, translucent and reddish-brown. It resembles the hazelnut mocha coffee my parents and their friends served in the 1980s, before a series of European exchange students convinced them to triple the dosage.
The weaker brew kept the lightly roasted coffee's acidity down to manageable levels ― made in a press pot, it might have been unpleasant ― and let the aromatic qualities emerge. Ma described tropical flavors, but instead I tasted tropical spices, plums, and as the coffee cooled, cooked carrots. The bitterness at the end was more like that of a strong Keemun rather than a cup of Blue Bottle. Was it my favorite coffee in the world, this doubly imported, precisely brewed drink? No, but it was certainly interesting, and a lovely way to pass an afternoon with a friend.
Ma*Velous: 1408 Market (at Fell), 626-8884.