The absolute best part of last night's "Coffee Talk" at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco was when moderator Marcia Gagliardi of Tablehopper asked arguably the three top coffee roasters in the Bay Area (James Freeman of Blue Bottle, Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and Jeremy Tooker of Four Barrel) what they think of each other's coffee roasting style.
Even for three people who speak almost exclusively for themselves, and do it pretty well, it felt as if they were all stepping over old landmines, trying to distinguish themselves from one another while avoiding outright insult towards their confreres.
Freeman, for his part, mostly complimented Tooker's coffees with descriptors like clean, bright, and muscular. Tooker returned the favor throughout the group interview session in front of 250 people by several times referring to Freeman's style of varied roasts and business methods as sources of inspiration. Hassi said that Freeman's coffee is somewhere between the dark roasts of big box coffee roasters and her own light roasts at Ritual -- roasts that she says might be the lightest in the country.
The three roasters all come from varied backgrounds, yet their paths have converged through a common thread of a distinct and specific approach to their final products.
Hassi a former barista who discovered her love for espresso on a trip to the city from the East Coast; Tooker, a high school dropout who worked his way from a café to co-founding Ritual with Hassi in 2005 and then his own Four Barrel in 2008; and Freeman, a former clarinet player who had lost his inspiration and found it again in coffee.
Hassi, in an interview, summed up how those three might have ended up on the same stage despite the differences in their business and coffee styles.
"If you were to generalize about coffee people, we're very specific," she said, incidentally encompassing responses from Freeman and Tooker in her reply. The quiet confidence in all three roasters is plainly evident in their products, and it appears to be sourced from a trust in their own meticulous dispositions.
The topics covered by Gagliardi during the group interview that lasted slightly more than an hour ranged from sourcing choices, roasting style, organic certification for growers, and even coffee shop house rules like Tooker's ban on soy milk in his shop. And, despite the soft-spoken feel to the entire event, Freeman, in a simple question posed to the board, may have summed up why people care so much about coffee and why the halls of the Club were jammed with spectators, brewers and even a few Starbucks die-hards.
"Why shouldn't we be enthusiastic and educated about our pleasures?" His notion that coffee is a deeply personal experience for many enthusiasts around the world was corroborated by the others, including Hassi, who noted that when it comes to getting people their coffee in the morning, "You're dealing with people in a very fragile state."
What was apparent from the conversations overheard during the cupping, or tasting that took place before the discussion, is the coffee scene in the Bay Area is just starting to hit its peak percolation. And based on the responses form the roasters, expansion and diversification are always in the pipeline.