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Back and Forth: A coffee expert on Blue Bottle, the coffee experience

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OCTOBER 23, 2016

For many, the idea of paying more than two dollars for a cup of coffee is absurd, a symbol of bourgeoisie, or the colloquial “bougie,” in its greatest sense. When Blue Bottle Coffee opened its doors this past week in a new location on University Avenue in Berkeley, I echoed this sentiment. As a person who desperately drinks coffee purely for the caffeine, I felt ill-equipped to judge this new Downtown Berkeley niche store, the 28th of the line to be opened internationally spanning from New York to Tokyo, alone. So, I invited Clayton Hale, founder of the Know Your Beans: The History, Politics and Culture of Coffee DeCal, as well as self-proclaimed “coffee geek,”  to sit down with me on the three-legged industrial stools, with “Hey Jude” playing in the background, to discuss what Blue Bottle is and actually does. I started with the basics.

DC: When you taste coffee, what can you use as an objective criteria for what is “good coffee” and what is not?

CH: I think coffee in itself is a bit subjective, not everybody likes black coffee and I don’t think everybody should like black coffee. But from a technical standpoint, you have a couple main criteria for judging coffee — body, which is like the viscosity that you feel in your mouth. Flavor, which is the more subjective part of it. Acidity, which is not a negative component, and aroma. Again, I think it’s something subjective in the sense that if you like it, you should drink it, and if you don’t, then don’t. But tasting Blue Bottle tastes very different from Peet’s.

DC: What makes artisanal coffee different from the more established commercial coffee?

CH: I think it ties into the idea of the pour over. The pour over for what we’re drinking is much more robust than what Starbucks does.

DC: Wait, can you explain the pour over?

CH: OK, so like at Starbucks, they’re making the coffee in batches and pouring it when you order it, but here (at Blue Bottle), they’re making the coffee in front of you and the barista has more control over the coffee and more control over the temperature. Temperature really controls the brewing process, so this allows for much more control on the barista side of things, and they weigh out the coffee before they pour it in, so there’s this very systematic side of things that in turn produces this more-than-decent cup of coffee. Something most people wouldn’t do is this pour over, unless you’re super geeky about coffee, but this factors in highly to the $4.50 price tag. I think customers are paying for the experience at these third wave coffee shops.

DC: Can you define third wave? What are the waves?

CH: This is something we talk about in my DeCal. First wave would be like the major consumer coffee. Like Arbuckle or Folgers. Then we get the second wave with the rise of Peet’s in Berkeley — so a very Berkeley thing — and with the rise of Starbucks. Third wave is more birthed out of this second wave of coffee, treating coffee as something that goes stale, treating coffee as a fruit. In a lot of these coffee shops, they have a humanitarian aspect that is tied to them. So third wave is more just thinking coffee is more of an experience and less of a grab-and-go experience, the way Starbucks is. Places like Free Speech Movement Café, Caffe Strada, and Yali’s, I feel like, are more of a way for students to getting their caffeine rush for the day. But here it’s something more than that.

(We pause to take a sip, and Clayton says to me: “As you can notice a bit the taste of the coffee changes as it cools down, with different flavors at different temperatures.” He puts down his coffee.)

CH: This is a very light roast, a lot of the third wave coffees in the Bay Area roast light, as opposed to Starbucks or Peet’s, who almost burn their coffee when they roast it, getting which gets less complexity out of the coffee. But here and in Artís coffee, they tend to roast a lot lighter.

DC: To you what makes a good coffee shop?

CH: The duality between the experience of the shop and the coffee itself. And then the essence of what Blue Bottle and other third wave coffee shops have, which is this idea that coffee is almost like a fruit — that it is something that goes stale. Blue Bottle sells coffee within 48 hours of roasting, for example.

DC: What do you think the difference is between coffee here in the Bay Area and coffee elsewhere outside of this bubble?

CH: For our class, we talk about how coffee is this way for people to gather and discuss ideas. Like in London, coffee shops were all organized and representative of a different mode of thought or subsect of London culture — one for guilds, one for cobblers, one for priests. And this is also seen throughout the Middle East, with coffee shops providing an alternative to alcohol. Stepping over to the United States — places like the Green Dragon — were one of the first places of the American Revolution. Again, coffee shops have always represented this discussion of ideas, and that’s what third wave coffee shops have been trying to recapture. As you can see here in Blue Bottle, people here are conversing and engaging more than you would see people doing so in a normal Starbucks — with tables and a set-up more to promote discussion — versus at Starbucks you go and grab your venti frappuccino and leave to take your kids to soccer practice. Here they’re selling more of an experience.

(We pause to take a sip, and Clayton says to me: “As you can notice a bit the taste of the coffee changes as it cools down, with different flavors at different temperatures.” He puts down his coffee.)

DC: So, what is the best coffee that you’ve ever had?

CH: I’m from Sacramento, so I have to give a shout out to Temple Coffee Roasters, which produces a nice cup. But I generally like Blue Bottle for the Bay Area. I’m really glad they opened up close to campus; I would have to travel to San Francisco to get my Blue Bottle fix before this.

DC: What is your ideal cup of coffee though?

CH: My ideal cup of coffee. … I like a fruity coffee per se, something with a moderate acidity — acidity is usually given like a negative connotation, but if you ask a barista here at Blue Bottle they’ll describe it with the words “bright” and “sparkling.” It’s like when you drink 7 Up or something, it gives you that tingling sensation in your mouth. Acidity is a good characteristic of coffee, something that I think third wave is trying to rebrand.

DC: How do you think coffee ties into Berkeley culture? What do you think the relationship between Berkeley and coffee is?

CH: I think Berkeley has always had its history in coffee because we have the original Peet’s down in Gourmet Ghetto, which started the big chains through the United States and Peet’s gave birth to Starbucks. So there is a deep cultural sense of coffee being a part of Berkeley, while  also having a student aspect here. Students want that cheap $2 cup of coffee. For more of a Bay Area thing, you see San Francisco changing a lot — more of these coffee shops are opening up where you’re spending like $5 on a cup of coffee. So I think this represents a furthering of Berkeley coffee culture in the sense that third wave is finally making it to the students and breaking that Berkeley bubble, while we’ve really only had mediocre coffee here before at best.

DC: What do you think students at Berkeley can do to up their coffee game? What do you recommend to the beginning Berkeley coffee connoisseur?

CH: Well they can always take my class, Know Your Beans: The History, Politics and Culture of Coffee. We have coffee field trips and do coffee tastings in class. So if anyone wants to learn more about coffee, then I would definitely recommend them my course. Blue Bottle in Oakland has coffee tasting as well. One should not be afraid to try black coffee and try something new.


Uday Suresh is a writer for the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]

OCTOBER 25, 2016