on Valencia Street is the epicenter of San Francisco hipster life. On any given day, you'll find a line loaded with more ironic tattoos, ironic T-shirts, ironic mustaches, and ironic irony here than at your average festival show. Sometimes this is, quite frankly, a turnoff for me. I'm not that cool, and one of the reasons I choose to live in San Francisco is that it's traditionally been the proving ground for new culture, and these cats strike me as followers. And yet I keep coming back, again and again, for one simple reason: Ritual does some of the best roasting you can find anywhere in America.
Ritual does some of the best roasting anywhere in the world.
And it's far from the only option in town. Many of the world's greatest coffee roasters are right here in our backyard: Blue Bottle, Ritual, Sightglass, and Four Barrel, San Jose's Barefoot , Santa Rosa's Ecco , Verve from Santa Cruz, and Equator from San Rafael are all giants. Elsewhere, any of these roasters on its own would be a regional powerhouse. Taken together, they give San Franciscans the rare opportunity to drink and compare some of the world's finest coffees with more regularity than citizens of virtually any other city. The coffee selection at Bi-Rite alone is typically better than what you will find on the entire island of Manhattan.
I'm a coffee freak. I have just about every kind of brew system at home you can think of – save for a traditional automatic drip because the only thing that's good for is ruining otherwise good beans. But how can you not love coffee? It's delicious and hot and makes you feel good. It helps you work and perform and quite literally makes you smarter. Sure, I may be a borderline alcoholic, but I'd swear off alcohol forever before I'd surrender my beloved coffee.
Here's the other thing I love about coffee: It's ultimately one of the most democratic beverages in the world. You may have heard about the cat-shit coffee, made from beans crapped out by an Indonesian civet, that sells for upwards of a hundred bucks a cup. But that's a novelty. It has no more to do with real coffee than Superman does with aviation.
It's worth noting that Ritual will not only serve you coffee, the staff will also give you an education in what you're drinking. And they do it every Friday at 1 p.m. when the café hosts cuppings – or coffee tastings – that are both free and open to the public.
The cuppings are often led by Steve Ford, Ritual's head roaster. Like Ritual itself, Ford is something of a legend. In 2003, while a barista at the Blue Bottle kiosk on Linden, he created an espresso drink called the Gibraltar , a mix of espresso and frothed milk, served slightly cool in its eponymous Gibraltar glass. Ford has largely disowned the drink (he refused to even talk about it with me) and yet it has developed a cult following around the world. You can order one in Los Angeles, New York, London – you name it – even though it almost never appears on menus. You have to know about it. It's most likely one of the keys to the Gibraltar's appeal.
I'd never been to a cupping before. And despite my long-standing passion for all things caffeinated, and coffee in particular, I was a little sheepish about going. I know what I like. But when you hear coffee people talk, they often sound like wine snobs. You'll hear about grace notes of boysenberry and vanilla finishes. Um. I don't have that kind of vocabulary. I just like stuff that tastes good.
On the day I arrive, Ford wasn't there. But Ritual owner Eileen Hassi was, and before the cuppings began, I sat down to talk to her about the coffees on offer that day. We would be tasting five different coffees, including a decaf, which it had never previously cupped. Ryan Brown, Ritual's buyer, was also present. I felt a little bit like I was hanging out with coffee royalty. And yet, despite my pre-cupping jitters, it was decidedly low-key and unpretentious. I think all the tattoos and ironic mustaches actually helped.
Cupping is a multi-step process designed to help you experience every aspect of a bean: from its fragrance, to its aroma (they're different) to, naturally, the way it tastes when mixed with piping hot water. The coffees were arrayed in jars on a table toward the back of the café. In front of each labeled jar were several cups filled with freshly ground beans. The cups were lined up in increasing complexity, so that you'd start with the simple stuff, and work your way up.
The day I was there, we were tasting a Colombian decaf that had the caffeine removed via a new nontoxic natural ethyl acetate method. Quite honestly, I didn't pay enough attention in chemistry class to get this, nor do I typically care to drink decaf coffee. I want to get high. There was a Colombian coffee called La Orquidea made from a catura varietal, a Guatemalan Hunapú from a collective north of Antiqua, a Hacienda Carmona, also from Guatemala, an Ethiopian Gedo, and a Touraco from Sulawesi in Indonesia. The last was Ritual's first Sulawesi ever, and its first Indonesian coffee in more than a year.
I mention the origin of all these coffees because it's one of the main focuses of boutique coffee. Coffee is an agricultural product, just like avocados or kale or Sarah Palin's brain. At cuppings, you learn about the kind of beans you're drinking, where and how they are grown, and what that means for the flavors. Not only will this help you learn what (and why) you like in something, it leads to a greater appreciation of the stuff you're sucking down.
We began by simply smelling each coffee, one at a time to get a sense of the fragrance. Right off the bat I'm intoxicated by the Gedo. The next step is to add hot water to each. Again, we go around and smell each one. This is to get a sense of the aroma. When hot water mixes with the coffee, volatile elements start off-gassing and coffee takes on a different character. Step three is kind of a big deal. It's called breaking the crust. You use a spoon to break up the bloom – or the bubbly mass of grinds and CO2 atop the cup – as you put your schnoz just over the coffee.
Suddenly, accents became overtones, and particular smells start to stand out. Despite my skepticism, I was definitely picking up on particular odors. They weren't just earthy, or fruity. I was getting citrus and vanilla, and, by God, was that a grace note of boysenberry? Maybe, after all, it's just knowing how to describe things. After scooping the coffee off the top, it was finally time for the last step in the process: the tasting. This is done with a spoon. You dip it in each sample (typically three cups per bean varietal) and then asperate it across your tongue. The Ritual crowd was very good at this, taking quick, efficient slurps. I was slightly worse. My wife actually choked.
While this might have been intimidating in another setting, Ritual makes it seem okay. It felt like a safe place, like tripping for the first time in your best friend's basement. "The point is just to smell and taste the coffees," Eileen reassured us. "It's not about whether or not you're slurping it right!"
And, really, that's the bottom line for experiencing coffee on any level. It isn't about doing it right, or being trendy, or having the latest equipment and best beans. (Oh, but I do!) It's about exploring and finding what you like. It's about connecting with the rain and the soil and the sun that worked together to produce those beans that flavor your drink. It's about appreciating the craft of the farmer and the roaster and the barista whose labor make possible your tasty delight. It's about getting high and enjoying the moment. It's about conversation with friends and family, and sometimes even strangers, over a stimulating cup of rich, dark heaven.