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Daniel Green hands me a cup of coffee.
The beans are from a small farm in Ethiopia, he tells me, and they were just roasted in a mini roaster in the back of his downtown office the day before.
I don’t dare ask for a dollop of milk even though I want it. I don’t want Green to judge me, and milk or cream is thought to dull coffee’s full flavor.
But the truth is, other than buying locally roasted bags of beans from indie shops, owning a cheap burr grinder and really digging what comes out of my drip coffeemaker at home, I don’t actually know that much about the beverage that helps me get out of bed every day. Nor do I know anything about the subculture that’s sprung up around it.
Green, though, works for InterContinental Coffee Trading, a coffee importer that supplies green beans to both small local roasters and bigger international chains – green beans are the unroasted seeds of coffee plants that, once cooked and ground up, become what people recognize as coffee.
I asked him how San Diego compares with other coffee meccas like Portland or Seattle.
“It’s a growing business in San Diego for sure,” he said. “We’re definitely one of the fastest-growing coffee cities right now.”
Indeed, a good cup of coffee isn’t too hard to find in San Diego. In the last few years alone, there’s been a craft coffee explosion, especially in neighborhoods like North Park and East Village. The city’s even gaining footing in the international coffee scene: Two of the city’s oldest local roasters, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters and Café Virtuoso, recently landed on a prominent list of the 30 best coffees of 2015.
There are ongoing latte art competitions that showcase the skills of local baristas run by the San Diego Coffee Network, which works to boost the overall profile of the city’s craft coffee scene. And there’s also an annual Caffeine Crawl that takes people on a tour of the county’s coffee hotspots.
And yet, San Diego’s coffee is still much less recognized, celebrated and embraced than its craft beer counterpart – particularly by people at the city, county and the tourism board. That’s according to a handful of folks I talked to who are steeped in the local craft coffee scene. I met with five coffee geeks who said they think that as the industry continues to grow, the perceptions of it could start to change.
Joining me for the roundtable discussion was Sandra Scheller, one of the owners of the East Village café Bean Bar, and host of the podcast “Coffee & Cake;” Joshua Bonner, an owner and head roaster at Foxy Coffee Co. and a barista at Hawthorn Coffee in North Park; Don Porcella of Porcella Coffee Roasters, his micro-roasting home business based in Lemon Grove; Amy Krone, who roasts coffee for the brewery Modern Times and Daniel Holcomb, owner of Coffee & Tea Collective.
The group explained how craft coffee is different than the stuff that comes ground in a can, they told me where San Diego’s scene is in terms of its growth and maturity and how it got here and they also talked about permitting issues that’ve popped up. The group left the conversation talking about the need for more education, both for potential craft coffee consumers and city and county officials whom they hope will eventually learn to appreciate them as much as they do craft beer.
This Q-and-A has been edited for length and clarity.
We should probably take a minute to define craft coffee. What exactly makes a cup of craft coffee different than a cup of what my dad drinks, which is Folgers?
Bonner: I feel like the easiest way to simplify it is that we care and that we’re putting time and effort into what we’re doing because we actually care about what we’re doing.
Holcomb: It’s quality control. Taking the time to go back and analyze what you’ve done in the roasting side and the brewing side, take good notes and do it better the next time.
Krone: I think a more scientific explanation would be a coffee that scores, I think like 85 or above on the SCAA [Specialty Coffee Association of America] grading scale.
Obviously, we’re missing a lot of people from this discussion. It could include a lot of folks from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters to Café Virtuoso to Caffe Calabria, but who wants to fill me in on the history of craft coffee in San Diego? Who were some of the first successful roasters and who helped set the stage for today’s burgeoning coffee culture in San Diego?
Holcomb: I actually go back to 2009, which was kind of a transitioning year for me. It was the first time I visited Intelligentsia in Venice Beach and I started asking the question, Where can I find a similar experience in San Diego? I’m sure I’m going to leave out people doing great things but I would say my favorite roaster at that time was Bird Rock. The things they were doing over there are just amazing.
Krone: I think to go back a little bit further and kind of nod to more of a second wave coffee you could definitely mention Cafe Moto or Caffe Calabria. I think those are the roasters that really got people into coffee in San Diego and started to kind of just allow people to enjoy coffee in a way that perhaps they hadn’t in the past, which I think led the way for Bird Rock and Coffee & Tea Collective to set foot in San Diego as well.
What stage is San Diego in in terms of the craft coffee scene? Is it still growing? Has it reached its peak? Am I wrong to think that craft coffee in San Diego is having a moment?
Scheller: I think San Diego is in its baby stages, or toddler stages. … But I think there’s so much room for growth. … Every time someone comes, the scene just gets bigger and better and I think it’s one of those situations where, similar to craft beer, it’s almost the more the merrier. It’s kind of all of us against the big corporate guys.
Bonner: I think that San Diego is definitely still in its infancy with craft coffee but it’s not necessarily the professionals that are lagging. I think it’s coffee education to the consumer that is very much in its infancy.
Krone: This might be a bit of a tangent, but you mentioned craft beer and craft coffee. I think it’s really interesting that craft coffee is kind of in its infancy and hopefully craft coffee can learn a lesson from craft beer in San Diego, specifically with fighting the good fight and helping each other out.
Bonner: Yeah, with San Diego being relatively in its infancy here in San Diego, I think that as roasters and as cafes we have the opportunity to make the craft coffee scene here really, really, really cool, by doing efforts like a collaborative blend or sharing information. … The more the merrier, and the more we push each other the better the scene is going to be here both in community and in actual product.
Maybe we should step back for a minute and look nationally or even internationally – the craft coffee movement in general, when did it begin and was it a backlash to Starbucks?
Porcella: It’s funny for me because I talk to a lot of people who try my coffee, a lot of them come out of having drank Starbucks. So I actually thank Starbucks. … It’s actually a wonderful “in” to my coffee because of the way they roast their coffee – they burn it so it kind of brings it down to one note and there’s so much more in coffee if you know what you’re doing when you roast it.
So maybe Starbucks set the stage?
Krone: I think it would help to have a brief history. So, first wave coffee, consider a Folgers or Hills Bros. Coffee; you know, the stuff you get in a can. In retaliation to first wave coffee, we see second wave coffee, which is the Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee. They’re the ones who were like, “The stuff your dad drinks is not good, we want something a little bit better, something we can care about.” So they created still dark-roasted coffee but something that tasted better than those stale, cardboardy coffees in a can.
OK, so now, everyone at the table is third wave?
Krone: Sure, if you want to put a title to it. It’s kind of like a retaliation to second wave coffee where it’s like, we don’t want to have dark-roasted coffee, we want to taste varietal characteristics.
Bonner: And I think our scene is kind of taking it more to a scientific level. I think a lot of baristas like to pretend they’re pseudoscientists and there is a very definite science to roasting and brewing coffee.
In San Diego, obviously craft beer is the big buzz of the moment and it’s been embraced by the city and county officials, there are programs that support the industry and the tourism folks here have really latched on to it, embraced it and they push it. It’s interesting, I actually interviewed Councilman Chris Cate about it, and there is the fact that beer gets you drunk so there is a little bit of awkwardness in city officials embracing the craft beer scene. And coffee only makes people brighter and happier and perkier, right? So do you think as the scene grows from its infancy into teenage years maybe there will be more of an effort to get the city to show the craft coffee industry here the same sort of support it does craft beer?
Holcomb: In an ideal world, yes, but in the last couple of years we’ve actually seen an increase in government cracking down on roasters. It’s harder to become a roaster here in San Diego, even with this growth that we’re talking about. … I mean, we all follow the regulations and the rules, but they can sometimes be misused.
We have an interview with Chuck Patton from Bird Rock about some of the roadblocks he’s come across while building his business. And Amy, you mentioned something to me before we started the interview: Can you talk about the regulations in regards to air pollution that craft coffee folks have to adhere to?
Krone: Basically, if your roaster is able to produce more than 15 pounds an hour, you have to have what’s called an afterburner, which is a very expensive, basically jet engine that gets up to about 1,250 degrees. … In order to burn off the smoke and the aroma from coffee roasting, you have to have this machine, and it’s so expensive and they’re big and it’s just another piece of equipment that you have to have in your roastery with you, and it can definitely be a roadblock for people if you can’t afford it.
Is it generally thought of as unnecessary or at least unfair because you also mentioned before the interview that the fast food industry, for instance, doesn’t have to have the same sort of thing?
Krone: It is unfair, but I don’t think it’s unnecessary. There’s been some stricter regulations around coffee roasting because we are growing a little bit and for whatever reason coffee roasters have just been pegged and told, ‘You just need to have more air-quality control.’ Whereas, say a fast food restaurant that actually gives off more pollutants than a roaster who roasts a few hours a week doesn’t have to have any kind of afterburner-type equipment. So it is a little unfair, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have to have it.
Holcomb: And I think a lot of people in the near future, even if they do have an afterburner, they’re going to find it hard to get it approved in San Diego.
Why, why do you think that is?
Krone: I don’t think there’s a whole lot of education of why you need an afterburner in government so they’ll put restrictions on you for reasons that don’t really make sense logically.
Holcomb: Actually, when I was starting, and this was back in 2012, the county health department wanted me to put a hood that my coffee roaster vented into and that’s a disconnect of understanding what the afterburner actually does. I told them it’s a direct vent so it burns off into hot air and just goes straight out of the building, but they still said they wanted me to put a hood on top of it. It was a little bit of a hiccup, but we eventually squared away.
Krone: Yeah, they told me my afterburner was too strong so I could only roast for 22 hours a day, which doesn’t make any sense.
Scheller: I think generally, on the cafe side of things, when you try to open a cafe, because of a lack of knowledge of how coffee works versus how beer works in San Diego, getting the health department or the building department to approve your plans seems to take much longer than if you said, I’m opening a brewery. … I think it’s kind of holding the craft coffee community back.
Krone: I mean, opening a brewery isn’t easy, the difference is there are people to help you do that in beer and there aren’t people helping you with coffee.
For outsiders looking in, the craft coffee scene can seem a little intimidating and/or snobby. … How do you combat that or deal with it?
Bonner: You fight the industry, because our industry is really pretentious. From my perspective on things, I’ve been geeking out on coffee for the last eight years and it’s really only been the last year, year and a half where I’ve been geeking out on people and the customer experience. … And I think that’s where the industry is headed, I hope.
Krone: I totally agree with that. I think … if you educate the consumer in a way that is approachable, they’re going to come back to you and be interested in flavors and trying out different things and new things.
Holcomb: I’d like to push back with a question. San Diegans in general know more hop varietals than they will ever know coffee varietals. Do you think San Diegans might have better things to do than to learn about coffee? … I’m not just suggesting they do. I just wanted to put it out there.
Porcella: I don’t, actually, because I came out of the home brewing industry and that’s how I got into roasting coffee and I know a lot of people who come out of the home brew tradition, so I think that’s more of a gateway.
Krone: I agree, definitely. I’ve seen many a beer-to-coffee geek cross over since we started roasting. Getting people who are already into flavors to try knew flavors – that’s really all it takes.