Blue Bottle Cafe, January 26, 2008

I've been a fan and a customer of Blue Bottle Coffee for a few years now, and I had heard something about them opening a proper café. The SF Chronicle had a short blurb about the café on the day it opened, but the NY Times had a long, detailed article about it with an eye-catching headline ("At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee"). The café is within eyesight of the Chronicle building, so the Chron got pretty badly scooped by folks from halfway across the country. Anyway, a friend in Boston sent me a link to the Times article, expressing his jealousy at not being able to try the coffee, so I decided I had to go.

I went to the café on January 26th, a few days after the opening day. I got there at 7:45 AM, hoping to have a chance to try the siphon-bar coffee before the inevitable crowds showed up, and found out that they only run the siphon bar from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. I was disappointed, but only for as long as it took to get an espresso ordered and pulled. It was a new blend of espresso put together by the barista who was pulling shots of it that morning. I forget the name of the blend (as far as I know it's the "house blend" that they're serving there), but it was fantastic. Bright as a grapefruit, thick as pudding. The perfect thing to get the morning going.

I hadn't been planning to stay until 10:00 for the siphon bar to open, but I ended up talking with someone who was visiting from D.C. and had read the Times article. He knows from good coffee, as did most of the other customers, judging from the snippets of other conversations I heard.

The much lauded siphon bar is on the right, and another beautiful machine is on the left.

The "other machine" looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel.

It turns out that it's used for preparing "Kyoto-style" iced coffee. I didn't get to see it in action, but the general idea is that room-temperature water drips slowly through coffee grounds over the course of eight hours, kind of like a toddy pot.

Here you can see the stack of coffee grounds and filters toward the bottom of the machine. The coffee gets collected in the glass jars at the very bottom, but here it's apparently been poured off and stored somewhere.

Another view of the siphon bar, and a stack of eggs for the breakfast menu.

A beautiful old La San Marco espresso machine, only used for pulling single-origin espresso shots.

A better look at the La San Marco.

Since the siphon bar is good at bringing out nuances of coffee flavor, they don't use it with just any old beans. This helps to justify the $10-$12 that a pot of siphon coffee costs.

I had a fruit compote while waiting for the siphon coffee to start.

The café was hopping at 10:00 when the siphon bar started going.

The siphon pot comes in two parts. The bulb on the bottom is filled with water, which is heated to boiling by a halogen bulb; the siphon on top holds the coffee grounds. When the siphon is seated into the neck of the bulb, the rubber gasket keeps the steam from venting into the open air, and the resulting pressure forces the water up into the neck of the siphon.

When the water starts wetting the grounds, the barista (siphonista?) has to stir the mixture gently, to make sure all the grounds are wet.

All of the water has been forced into the siphon, and the freshly roasted coffee has bloomed beautifully.

Another stir, to let out some of the CO2. After this is done, the pot is removed from the heat source and cooled with a towel. The loss of steam pressure causes a "vacuum" (really just a return to normal atmospheric pressure), which sucks the coffee through a filter at the bottom of the siphon and back into the globe at the bottom. This is why siphon pots are also known as vacuum pots.

Pleased with his work.

A better look at the finished pot. Apparently you can buy these Hario TCA-5 pots standalone, with a little alcohol burner to heat the water.

You got all that?

The result: a piping-hot cup of coffee. And it is hot! The brewing process keeps the water just below boiling for the duration of the brew, the empty pot is kept hot by the halogen bulb while the brewing takes place, and the neck of the pot is small enough that not much steam can vent from it. So the cup that gets poured needed to cool for longer than I expected before I could enjoy it.

As it turns out, the siphon pot makes a fair amount of coffee, too. It would be the perfect amount to share with one other person, but I somehow managed to finish it myself.

So how was the coffee?

I enjoyed the siphon coffee both times that I've been there. The first time I had some Ethiopian Idido Misty Valley, which I've had from a few places before, but never from Blue Bottle. The second time I tried the Nicaraguan COE Cooperativa Vasquez, which I have had from Blue Bottle before (using my pour-over drip filter at home), but it'd been a while. So I can't do the A/B comparison that would appeal to the nerd in me.

The siphon did a great job of cleanly bringing out the flavors of the coffee. The owner James Freeman pointed out that it seemed to make coffee that changed flavor a lot as it cooled, and I noticed that too.

In comparison to the other whizzy coffee gadget of the day, the Clover, I think I'm more of a Clover fan. The Clover cups that I've had have been a lot bolder, and I don't think it's just from using more grounds. I've seen one reference that suggests that some Japanese have gotten very serious about siphon-pot coffee, including having a barista competition dedicated to it (!). This is wild generalization, but it seems to share with Japanese cuisine an appreciation for subtlety and simplicity that isn't as valued by the American palate. (I feel the same way about La Maison du Chocolat's truffles -- more "suggestions of flavors" than actual strong flavors.) And I'll admit, I like big flavors.

I'll definitely go back. I'll probably try more siphon coffee, and it would be great to try a side-by-side tasting of siphon vs. pour-over drip. I haven't tried their single-origin espresso shots yet, but I have no doubt that they're fantastic. And, of course, the siphon bar makes for great theatre.

Send comments to <blakej (at)>.