My Top 11 Coffee Roasters in the SF Bay Area

I was interviewed last month as a coffee expert for an article listing the best coffee roasters in the San Francisco Bay Area. That article just went live.

The Definitive Top 11 Bay Area Coffee Roasters, According to Experts

This is how you do a TOP LIST article. You involve multiple judges and disclose their backgrounds. Then you use a weighted point system and add everything together. Most top coffee lists are the opinions of lazy or uneducated journalists that know little about coffee. Thrillist gets it right.

My Top 11

Anyway the article just discloses my top 3. Since I have a blog, I thought I’d share my top 11 and some thoughts on the roasters as well my analysis of the list itself.

  1. Chromatic Coffee – Santa Clara
  2. Devout Coffee – Fremont
  3. Front Cafe – Potrero Hill
  4. Ritual Coffee – Mission
  5. Counter Culture – Emeryville
  6. Verve – Santa Cruz (coming to Castro)
  7. Blue Bottle – Oakland
  8. Contraband – Nob Hill
  9. Andytown – Outer Sunset
  10. Four Barrel – Mission
  11. Peter James Coffee – San Leandro

Chromatic was #1 on my list and #1 for the entire list. Glad to see them get the credit they deserve. If they were located in the Mission District, everyone in specialty coffee would know about them.

I was the only one that gave points to Devout Coffee in the East Bay. It is hard to get there, but it is worth it. I invite my other judges to visit them. You will be hearing more from Devout.

Looks like my points for Counter Culture were not added. Maybe because they are based out of North Carolina? Darn. I would have added Linea to the list had I known Counter Culture was not eligible.

I also see Temple got some votes. I would have added them as well, but didn’t consider Sacramento to be part of the Bay Area.

All my picks were based on espresso, except for Peter James. It was one of the best darker roasted coffees I’ve ever had. I’m still not a fan of dark roasts, but it really impressed me.

3 That Disappointed

I did not care for Sightglass Coffee, which I refer to as Sourglass. Every espresso I had from them was under developed and sour. Wrecking Ball was another disappointment. Not only was their espresso bland, but so was their pour over. And almost every shot I had from Equator was just nasty. Ashy notes and no flavor.

New To Me

If I ever return to SF, I now have a few more places to try. Turning Point, Boot, Scarlet City, Sextant and Oudimentary. And I thought I covered it all in one year. 🙂

san francisco


Coffee Levels Coming Down

Last week I posted on my current issues with coffee in the post Hello Darkness My Old Friend.

…my relationship with coffee right now is troubled.

Coffee is now making me feel both good and awful at the same time.

Not only has this affected my energy level, but my food reward experiment.

I’ll drink coffee for the flavor and pick up and then crash not later in the day, but sometimes as soon as 30-60 minutes later. At this point my energy level is low and I can’t drink more coffee, so I reach to food for the pickup. Coffee can be both suppress and stimulate appetite. In the short run, it suppresses, but in the longer time frame, I believe it increases my appetite.

Well I have good news. This week has gone much better. I bought a high quality decaf coffee which I now drink upon waking. This tricks my head for about an hour, which is exactly what I want it to do. By delaying the first cup of caffeinated coffee an hour I don’t get the spike and crash effect. Also, when I do go for my first caffeinated coffee, I only get a half a mug.

As the day progresses, I’ll pair coffee more with food, which seems to help. I’d say my coffee levels are down about 30-40%, but I’m not bouncing from wired to tired all day long. I’m also doing those morning and late afternoon short walks right about the time I would have been crashing. Although the reduction in quantity consumed is helping, I’d equally credit adjusting the timing for the benefit.

Some people scoff at decaf coffee, but decaf has changed a lot in the last four years. Most people including many people in the coffee industry are unaware of the quality improvements made by Swiss Water in the decaffeination process. The short version is some decaf coffees are so good now that they are fooling coffee professionals. The long version of what is happening with decaf is worthy of an article, which I plan to write and post over on INeedCoffee.


Fighting the coffee devil this week. Photo by me taken at El Diablo Coffee in Seattle. 


Hello Darkness My Old Friend

I should be in Seattle this weekend attending the SCAA, which is the biggest coffee event of the year. It is like Comic-Con for coffee. Last year I attended three days and had a ridiculous amount of espresso. Some of the best roasters from around the country and beyond were pulling shots. I got to drink some of the most amazing espressos I’ve ever had and the price was a borrowed badge, which actually had a woman’s name on it. 🙂

But I am not in Seattle. I couldn’t attend this year. Maybe it is a good thing that I am not there. As much as I love coffee and my friends in the industry, my relationship with coffee right now is troubled.

Coffee is now making me feel both good and awful at the same time.

Rwanda v60

A photo posted by Michael Allen Smith (@criticalmas101) on

But Coffee is Healthy!

If I had to pick the single most annoying thing on the internet it has to be coffee drinkers who blindly share links to stories with headlines saying how wonderful coffee is. Please stop it. In 2012, I wrote 5 Coffee News Stories That I Never Want to Read About Again. Number one on that list was Coffee Health Cheerleading Stories. In that post I said:

We all have unique responses to coffee and caffeine. Those responses vary wildly from person to person. Those responses change over time. We are all unique. Sharing links to some study that a majority of individuals in some group achieved a minor health benefit from consuming coffee is meaningless to a group ALREADY consuming coffee.

Please don’t send me any stories that glamorize the health benefits of coffee. I won’t read them, because they do nothing to improve my health. Remember, we are already drinking coffee. The only people who might benefit from these stories are people who love and can tolerate coffee, but have stopped drinking it for fear it was damaging their health. That isn’t us though.

Despite this article, people keep sending me links. Usually the links are from mainstream news and I usually get the same link sent to me multiple times. Please Stop It.

The mistake people are making is taking an average positive response and then applying to everyone. We aren’t machines. Our responses vary and they may vary in ways that are hard to quantify. I spent 2.5 years of my life tracking my daily coffee intake trying to find the perfect number of coffees I could drink for optimal health. In the end the only thing I learned was a late afternoon coffee between 2 PM and 4 PM actually improved my sleep.

What I have learned is that I can feel energized and great on both a low amount and a high amount of coffee. And I can feel run down and lethargic on high or low levels of coffee. I can’t say with any confidence that X number of coffees is right for me. It might be right for me that week or that day, but beyond that I don’t know.


Although there have been times that I consumed more coffee, I haven’t felt this addicted and rundown to coffee in a very long time.

One of the problems that I have trouble explaining to people who aren’t really into coffee is that the flavors coming out of coffees in the last few years are not just a little bit better, but A LOT BETTER. Coffee and especially espresso is now going through almost a Moore’s Law increase in quality.

  • The quality at the farm improves.
  • This changes how the roaster roasts the coffee bringing out new flavors.
  • Then the espresso machine manufacturers start adding features to further highlight those flavors.
  • At the cafe, the baristas are better trained to prepare that new coffee.

The result is espresso and some brewed coffees from the top roasters and cafes is exponentially better than it was 5 or 10 years ago. Yesterday a new La Marzocco espresso machine was announced. If you don’t understand this article and what it means, let me just say that for an espresso aficionado like myself, this will turn cocaine into crack.

One of the topics I have been posting about this year is food reward.

…at equal calories some foods provide greater flavor reward and these tend to be the foods we over consume. When this is done on a regular basis, we find ourselves in caloric surplus and we gain weight.

Coffee doesn’t have calories, but it is now providing a greater flavor reward stimulus than ever before. There have been times when I’ve cut back or even taken a break from coffee, but the flavor stimulus which I loved at that time is now more intense.

Food Reward and Coffee Addiction

A month ago I presented my plan to lose weight in a way that tested food reward theory. I haven’t made much progress, even though I am following most of the seven ideas very well. I haven’t been as good with #4, which is “Reduce snacking on non-exercise days” and #7, which is “Focus on making the most improvements on the pre-dinner meals.” I think the reason is energy regulation and possibly the high flavor reward I am experiencing with coffee.

I’ll drink coffee for the flavor and pick up and then crash not later in the day, but sometimes as soon as 30-60 minutes later. At this point my energy level is low and I can’t drink more coffee, so I reach to food for the pickup. Coffee can be both suppress and stimulate appetite. In the short run, it suppresses, but in the longer time frame, I believe it increases my appetite.

useless without coffee

From Inanimate Objects on INeedCoffee by Todd Zapoli

Taming the Coffee Beast

A week ago I decided I would delay my first cup of coffee an hour. The plan was to wake up and go outside for a walk before I started to brew coffee. I have failed to execute my plan even once. Despite the fact I am getting 8 solid hours of sleep, I go straight for the coffee as soon as I wake up. It picks me up and then slams me down.

I need to tame the beast. Only the beast has never been stronger and more tasty.

So I have a situation here where I am trying to reduce my food reward at the same time I am getting a very high flavor reward with coffee. And I am using food to help stabilize energy. I’m in a bad place. Hello darkness my old friend.


My Guide to San Francisco Espresso (2015)

I know I said I can’t stand doing coffee shop reviews, but I dislike leaving a project unfinished even more.

On July 1st, I began a quest to explore as much of the San Francisco Bay Area coffee scene as possible. Even though I don’t want to litter the internet with yet another “best of” list, I have been to over 60 different coffee shops through the Bay Area and people are asking me which ones are my favorites and how this region compares to Seattle or Portland. This post is for them.

Whenever I post about coffee shops, I want to state my biases up front.

  • I almost always drink espresso at cafes. I drink brewed coffee at home.
  • I prefer lighter roasts, but not so light they are sour. More on that later.
  • I detest dark roasted espresso, as it tastes ashy.
  • I think espresso should be served with a water back, preferably carbonated.
  • Good service might not make a bad espresso taste good, but bad service can make a good espresso taste worse.
  • I like coffee shops that offer more than one espresso option. Could be a blend and a single origin. Could be from multiple roasters. Bonus points if the offerings rotate.
  • I like transparency in both coffee offerings and pricing.

It this post I will highlight a few of my favorites based upon region.

san francisco

San Francisco

  1. Mazarine Coffee – This downtown place just opened at the end of 2014. They serve an espresso blend from Klatsch and a single origin from Ritual.
  2. Front Cafe – In the Potrero Hill area. Class act coffee shop with just outdoor seating, so make sure the weather is nice when you visit.
  3. Coffee Cultures – Small coffee shop downtown with very little seating which is just open weekdays. They serve two espressos from Counter Culture. Their sign is very hard to read, so you might miss it if you aren’t paying attention.
  4. Stanza Coffee Haight – There are two Stanza Coffee locations. Go to the one in the Haight not the one in the Mission. Better espresso and better service. Stanza rotates, but right now is using coffee from Counter Culture.
  5. Pinhole Coffee – In the Bernal Heights area. Easy parking. They use 3 different roasters: Verve, Blue Bottle and Linea. Excellent customer service.
  6. Hearth Coffee – A new coffee place in the Castro District. Their espresso is a blend of Sumatra and Ethiopian which is amazing. Both earthy and sweet with a syrupy mouth-feel.
  7. Ritual Coffee Valencia – For the first few months, I really did not like Ritual. Every shot was thin and sour. Then they opened the expanded cafe on Valencia and changed their seasonal blend. Whatever they did, it is now working. Their Honduras from Nelson Ramirez was the best brewed coffee I had in 2014.

Two other honorable mentions for those that prefer a little more weight to their espresso without getting any ashy defects are Linea Caffe and Contraband Coffee.

My pick for the most beautiful coffee shop goes to Sightglass Coffee’s SOMA location on 7th Street. Their espresso is underdeveloped and sour, so get brewed coffee if you visit. Four Barrel is popular with coffee aficionados, but I’ve discovered their wholesale accounts pull better shots than they do and do it with less attitude.

South Bay / Peninsula

  1. Chromatic Coffee – Hands down Chromatic Coffee is the best coffee roaster and pulls the best shots of espresso of anyone in the entire SF Bay Area. They have two espressos and are always innovating. They figured out how to get light sweet shots without sourness by manipulating the mineral content of the water. A week ago they just debuted a blend with 16% premium robusta called Holy Mountain that is awesome. Wish Chromatic wasn’t buried in a strip mall in Santa Clara.
  2. Red Berry Coffee – 3 espressos from 3 different roasters at this Los Altos cafe. When I was there they had PTs, Stumptown and Temple. I also spied bags of Blue Bottle, Chromatic and Intelligentsia. If you crave variety, this is a must visit.
  3. Bliss Coffee – In downtown Redwood City. They serve both Four Barrel and a rotating second roaster, which has been Verve and Temple.

That is it. The South Bay is in a time warp. The people here still like that 1990s dark roast crap. It is gradually changing, but a decade behind SF and Oakland.


East Bay

  1. Devout Coffee – My second favorite place in the SF Bay Area is in Fremont. Really good espresso, just hard for me to get there. When I was last there they had a small cafe, but with plans to expand in size.

This is the part of the Bay Area I know the least about. There may be some other gems, but my research didn’t find them.

Oakland / Berkeley

  1. Blue Bottle WC Morse – There are Blue Bottle locations in SF, but my favorite location is in Oakland’s WC Morse Building. This is a large cafe with big windows and even has an espresso machine repair shop on location. Blue Bottle serves two espressos here, both a single origin and the 17ft Ceiling blend which has a premium robusta component. Since Espresso Vivace dropped robusta from it’s Dolce blend in 2009, it has been hard to find it specialty espresso. 17ft is a great classic espresso blend.
  2. Modern Coffee 2 (Leamington Building) – There are 2 locations for Modern Coffee. Go to this one. This multi-roaster cafe served Chromatic, Verve and De la Paz when I visited.
  3. Alchemy Collective Cafe – Located in Berkeley and serving two espressos, one from Verve and one they roast. Friendly staff.

Just Outside the SF Bay Area

  1. Verve Coffee (Santa Cruz) – They have 3 locations. If you can only go to one, head Downtown, although I do really like the East Side location as well. Verve is one of the best roasters in the country.
  2. Flying Goat Coffee (Santa Rosa) – Had a great espresso here when on my trip up north.

SF vs Seattle and Portland

In my opinion, San Francisco is behind Seattle and Portland in coffee. There are two main reasons.

#1 Underdeveloped Espresso

Many of the lighter roasted espressos are underdeveloped. They taste thin and sour. In Seattle both Kuma and Slate roast light, but they never taste sour. One could probably write 1,000 words on this topic. I’m not going to, but in general lighter espressos require higher temperatures, more volume out and perhaps less mineral content in the water.

#2 Customer Service

I don’t know when things turned around exactly in Seattle, but around 5+ years ago you saw a change in how coffee shops treated their customers. That condescending attitude gradually got replaced with quality customer service. It spread across the city. I noticed the same excellent service every time I visit Portland as well. Specialty coffee made a strong effort in Seattle to be more welcoming to customers. As the organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, I noticed this. I’ve attended over 500 meetups, most of which I was the host working directly with the coffee shop.

That message has not arrived in San Francisco. The attitude that the customer is a nuisance to the barista is rampant in the city. I’ve been told that is a SF thing. Well it may be, but I don’t care for it. When the owner of a coffee shop takes to Twitter to insult a paying customer for showing too much interest in coffee during opening weekend, I get upset. That really happened. A few times when I asked what the espresso offering I was asked why I needed to know.

Not every place has bad service, but enough to notice that SF is less kind than Seattle or Portland.

Last Words

If you are planning to visit the SF Bay Area and drink some espresso, I hope you find this guide useful. The San Francisco Bay Area is a great coffee city and getting better.


My Favorite Seattle Coffee Places (2014)

This weekend Seattle is hosting the SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America). This is the big coffee event for the industry. People from all over the world will be visiting Seattle. In addition to the big expo, I expect our visitors will be checking out the local coffee scene.

Below is my current list of Seattle coffee shop favorites broken down by neighborhood.

Biases: I only drink espresso and I loathe dark roasts.

Disclosures: None. I’ve never worked for anyone in the coffee industry. I am the organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, which is a group of 700+ coffee fans that have been exploring the Seattle coffee scene since 2006. I’ve also ran the coffee hobbyist website INeedCoffee since 1999.

Downtown / Belltown / Pioneer Square

  • Seattle Coffee Works
  • Trabant Coffee
  • Street Bean Espresso (closed on Sunday)
  • Motore Coffee (closed on weekends)

Capitol Hill / Central District

  • Black Coffee Co-op
  • Broadcast Coffee
  • Tougo Coffee
  • Victrola Coffee


  • Milstead & Co
  • Vif Wine & Coffee
  • Caffe Ladro


  • Toast
  • Ballard Coffee Works
  • Slate Coffee Roasters

Greenwood / Phinney Ridge

  • Neptune Coffee
  • Herkimer Coffee


  • Trabant Coffee

Eastside (Kirkland, Bellevue, Redmond)

  • Urban Coffee Lounge
  • Zoka Coffee

On the way to the airport (South)

  • Caffe Delia (White Center)
  • Burien Press (Burien)

This list is not complete. There are many more great spots.

Caffe Delia

If you haven’t been to Seattle in a few years, the biggest changes have been:

  1. Many more coffee shops are offering more than 1 espresso option. Sometimes from multiple roasters.
  2. Caffe Ladro is much better.
  3. Caffe Vita is much worse.
  4. Espresso Vivace changed their Dolce espresso blend in 2009. They removed the premium robusta component and now it is a shadow of its former self. If you have fond memories of Vivace, stay away.
  5. When it comes to social media, Seattle coffee shops and professionals favor Twitter.

Welcome to Seattle!