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What's your flavor? A coffee tour of the Bay Area


This past summer, Peet's Coffee, founded in Berkeley back in 1966, was purchased by a German Company for $1 billion. Over the last half-century, on its way to becoming a billion dollar company, Peet's helped launch the Bay Area craft coffee movement, spawning places like Four Barrel, Blue Bottle, Philz, and other independent coffee shops. Today, there's a wealth of coffee shops to be found, each with its own distinctive flavor and fans.

These coffee shops take all different forms, ranging from hole in the wall basements with ripped couches and board games, to renovated warehouses with exposed wood beams, long steel tables, decorated with various electronics.

Blue Bottle headquarters, located near Oakland's Jack London Square, occupies a beautiful old brick building.

Blue Bottle is undeniably hip – and definitely one of the swankiest of the coffee shops that can be found in the Bay Area. Their coffee shops are minimalist altars to the exacting process of brewing.

"When we opened our little kiosk in Hayes Valley, it was all the things that weren’t coffee were kind of stripped away,” says Blue Bottle owner, James Freeman. “It turned out to be great because it let us focus on that one question – what does the coffee taste like?"

Freeman actually started out as a professional clarinet player, but his decision to open Blue Bottle in 2002 has turned out to be a pretty successful Plan B. He now has shops on both coasts, and sells his beans wholesale all over the country.

In October 2012, he sold the company to three venture capitalists for nearly $20 million. These investors are the new money, high tech types like the founders of Digg, About.com, and Instagram – not people you'd ordinarily associate with coffee.

If you live in San Francisco, there's one name that's inextricably linked with coffee; Phil Jaber, owner of Philz Coffee. Jaber calls himself the "Father in Chief of Coffee Operation" – and has a very different philosophy of coffee than Freeman. Where Blue Bottle is minimal, Philz is anything but; the shop is overflowing with stuff.

"I want to build culture, community. I want to make this space like your grandma’s house," says Jaber.

The space he's talking about is the original Philz location on 24th Street. It does feel a little bit like grandma's house, if your grandma was a crazy hippie.

Like Freeman, Jaber is also focused on expanding. There are currently 11 Philz locations around the Bay Area, and more coming. He made it very clear that while he wants to grow, it will be under his direction, and his alone. While the original location really reflects Jaber's character, none of the other branches have quite the same effect. They feel a little more like a chain. Perhaps there's no avoiding it when a shop expands.

Oakland’s Actual Café, on the other hand, is entirely unique. It manages to be both cozy and spacious; it's got bike racks mounted on the wall, handwritten menus, and local art. Owner Sal Bednarz thinks coffee shops should reflect their community.

"I think the social aspect of the community cafe is something we’ve lost touch with, especially here,” says Bednarz, “so we are trying to fill that niche of something that brings to the community together."

Bednarz is so focused on community that he did the coffee shop unthinkable: he instituted a laptop free weekend rule.

Actual Cafe is also different from places like Philz or Blue Bottle in that the cafe doesn't brew it's own coffee. They use coffee from McLaughlin Roasters, a family owned business in Emeryville. While Sal is devoted to bringing good coffee to his customers, he's particularly focused on making people feel welcome, and making coffee feel accessible, not elitist.

It seems that this might be the major division in coffee drinkers. There are some dedicated to getting an exact taste out of the cup, and who see it as an art form, and who really care about the subtleties and nuances of taste. Then, there are people for whom coffee should taste good, but are equally as concerned about the feeling, like when you eat chicken noodle soup when you're sick, or get popcorn at a movie theater. It's about comfort.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, you are one of many coffee lovers in the Bay Area. San Francisco has been ranked by The Daily Beast as the fifth most caffeinated city in America. It has 20 coffee shops for every 100,000 residents, and those residents pay an average of thirty dollars a month to get their caffeine fix. According to The Huffington Post, that's a little over twice the national spending average.

If you love coffee, the Bay Area is a good place to be. Better even, if you love to sell coffee. 

Ninna Gaensler-Debs is a reporter and editor for Crosscurrents. Since 2012, Ninna has worn a variety of hats at KALW - she was both a producer and event planner for Localore project Hear Here. Ninna also programmed and organized the Sights and Sounds live events - two in Bayview, and most recently, one in East Oakland.