Coffee is a way of life for us here at Big and Small Travel. Many a night, we lie awake, excited for the morning when we can savor a wonderful cup of joe. But it’s not just simply the thought of the steam warming the face or the bold, earthy liquid flowing through the digestive tract, warming the heart and awakening the mind. And it’s not about the caffeine… not always, at least. It’s the whole cafe experience that goes with this morning ritual, from ordering it (even from the crankiest and snobbiest of baristas) to taking that first comforting sip.
Here, we attempt to give you a practical and thorough guide to San Francisco’s most famous coffee brands, spots, and trends. The city’s coffee scene has quickly grown in just under the last decade, especially since the launch of local favorites like Blue Bottle and Ritual back in 2005.
Below, Big covers 10 local coffees. He evaluates each brand by flavor, body, and acidity. As the scene continues to blossom, this is by no means a comprehensive guide, but a trusty snapshot into the great variety of coffee options available in the City by the Bay. Battle Mountain are based around the Russian Hill, Twitterloin, TenderNob neighborhoods, so first up is our nearby pick: Equator Coffee. —Small
Equator Coffee | Overall Rating: 9.2
Acidity: 5.5 Flavor: 9.5 Aftertaste: 8.5
Equator Coffee was started by Brooke McDonnell and Helen Russell in a Marin County garage in 1995, well ahead of the third-wave coffee revolution that would hit San Francisco in the 2000s. Their first cafe didn’t open until 2013 in Mill City (pictured), and they opened their San Francisco location, situated in the Warfield Building on 986 Market Street (near the infamously dubbed Twitterloin).
More importantly, their coffee is exceptional, created with a whole lot of care for the beans themselves and where they are sourced from. We tried a cup of the Colombian single-origin as well as their house blend; both were smooth, rich, and velvety. Self-described as a “concierge” roaster, Equator focuses on wholesale coffee sales, but their cafes offer a unique experience with helpful and knowledgeable baristas.
There’s a variety of coffee sold at Equator, many with beans from Colombia, as well as places like Rwanda, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The owners are dedicated to providing good working conditions to every farm they work with as well. Overall, Equator has a fantastic mission with exceptional coffee. We think it’s a great pick, especially for those that prefer darker roast coffees.
Contraband Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.2
Acidity: 8 Flavor: 8 Aftertaste: 6
Contraband is on the forefront of coffee in the Bay Area, serving beans from Latin America to New Guinea to Yemen — not typically your standard fare. Contraband makes coffee a science, even employing a precision coffee brewing contraption called the Blossom, designed by a former Apple designer/NASA engineer, which specifically calibrates for a “more nuanced” cup of coffee that offers less astringency and bitterness, and more sweetness — be prepared to pay a pretty penny for this selection, though.
Overall, Contraband serves quality coffee that is acidic and generally strong. To our taste buds, though, the beans seems “over-roasted” because of the complex and wild nature of their selection. I give Contraband a 7.2, an above-average score that also takes into consideration price and presentation.
Ritual Coffee | Overall Rating: 8
Acidity: 8.9 Flavor: 8 Aftertaste: 7.7
Another popular Bay Area brand, Ritual defines coffee as a “delicious, sweet, and complex fruit.” Ritual’s coffee has bite and is generally on the more bitter and acidic side of the coffee spectrum. Ritual uses fair trade beans from Latin America and Africa, where they work intimately with their coffee bean producers. Ritual prides itself on craftsmanship by utilizing a Hario V60 pour-over station to exquisite effect.
I’m generally a classic dark roast guy, but I appreciate the way Ritual specializes in light roasted single origin coffee beans and also features “seasonal” espresso beans. The Ritual espresso or macchiato has an expressive and covertly nutty quality that perks you up with the right amount of acidity, flavor, and body. Ritual were one of the pioneers of the artisan coffee movement in SF, and their passion and social consciousness has contributed much to their success.
Sightglass Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.5
Acidity: 8.9 Flavor: 8.3 Aftertaste: 6.9
Sightglass has carved its own space in a more desolate part of SOMA. If you like Blue Bottle (mentioned below), you’ll probably love Sightglass. The cafe’s grand industrial space is wonderful and ideal for working. I usually opt for the Colombian coffee called Finca Las Florestales that they describe as having “sweet flavors of grape juice, mango, and guava … complemented by a syrupy body and pluot-like acidity.” This acidity is what gives the coffee its brightness and, more significantly, its liveliness. Sightglass also offers beans from Latin America and Africa. The acidity and berry notes are the major components to Sightglass’ specialty light roast, so as a fan of darker roasts I typically prefer a bolder brew.
Four Barrel | Overall Rating: 8.7
Acidity: 7.0 Flavor: 9.7 Aftertaste: 8.1
Four Barrel’s home in the Mission is complete with roasters, vintage machines, and even turntables. Coffee and records go well together — and Four Barrel’s vintage ambiance goes well with their old-fashioned roasting methods. The cafe offers no Wi-Fi, which means tables are thankfully free of Macs. This is definitely a place to enjoy a great cup of coffee over a good conversation. A Four Barrel cup of coffee is clean, sweet, and complex, with just the right amount of acidity. Four Barrel has a diverse selection of beans that span the globe; I’m partial to the Latin American varieties. They pride themselves on having an “artisan” approach. As it says on their site, “We hold our roasters’ dedication to the constantly changing variable of coffee in high regard.” This means they’re coffee is always smooth, bold, and goes down easy.
Blue Bottle | Overall Rating: 7.9
Acidity: 8.7 Flavor: 7.3 Aftertaste: 7.6
Blue Bottle has become an institution in the Bay Area. The company originated in Oakland, Calif., where its founder was sick of ubiquitous “grande eggnog lattes and double skim pumpkin-pie macchiatos.” The name is inspired by Central Europe’s first coffee house (The Blue Bottle) — an awesome story; read here. It’s important to note that Blue Bottle serves beans that’ve been roasted within the last 48 hours.
The coffee is strong and vibrant and the body is nice and full, with a clean yet acidic finish. As referenced above, their signature light roast has potent berry notes that may turn off fans of darker roasts. Still, Blue Bottle continues to grow, even expanding to New York. Overall, their coffee is worth the typically cheaper price tag, especially for those craving more acidic and fruity tones.
Highwire Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.2
Acidity: 5.8 Flavor: 8.7 Aftertaste: 8.1
Highwire Coffee is based in Oakland, however it is available at Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission area of San Francisco. Highwire Roasters proclaims to “love the guts in a cup of fully developed coffee” and “the subtleties that speak to its place of origin.” The core espresso blend I had was full of body, smooth, and perhaps the least acidic coffee I’ve ever had in the Bay Area.
Highwire offers darker roasts that are more akin to a typical cup of coffee found in many European countries. However, their philosophy is that light, medium, and dark roasts are all delicious in their own special way. Still, their blends are typically more balanced and less acidic than those favored among the “third wave coffee” scene, led by Blue Bottle and others. Highwire is also available in Oakland at Nido and Hive, the Place to Bee.
Philz Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.1
Acidity: 6.5 Flavor: 6.7 Aftertaste: 5.7
Philz has also become quite an institution in the San Francisco Bay Area. They pride themselves on their artisanal and high quality coffees, and the unique experience of ordering the coffee itself. While you typically pay first for coffee at most cafes, Philz has reversed the process. At Philz, the experience is friendlier and funkier than many of its contemporaries. The coffee is made to order, and the menu can be quite intimidating for newbies, especially with wacky names like Jacobs Wonderbar. You can request a roast, flavor, and sweetness that is exactly to your liking. But a major drawback here is that they don’t offer espresso — a purist coffee lover’s delight.
Still, Philz has mastered the art of the fresh pour-over coffee. They feature several different blends, from light to medium to dark roasted, and even offer multiple decaf options, along with flavors like mint mojito. What makes Philz unique is that you can carefully craft and tweak your coffee until you’re 100% satisfied — which often just seems to be more of a headache after the already overwhelming ordering process.
Bicycle Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.8
Acidity: 7 Flavor: 8.9 Aftertaste: 8
Bicycle Coffee, based in Oakland, is readily available throughout the Bay Area, especially at funkier alternatives like Revolution Cafe in the Mission and Another Cafe near Nob Hill. Bicycle Coffee, whose beans come mainly from Central America, is dependably smooth. To a newbie, it may seem moderately strong since some medium roasts can be bitter. However, the beans vary seasonally and every cup of coffee depends on your barista, too. The round, oak notes and caramel hints dominate in a typical cup of Bicycle coffee, a reliable morning pick-me-up.
Chromatic Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.0
Acidity: 8.9 Flavor: 8.3 Aftertaste: 6.9
First, we stumbled across Iron & Steam Espresso Bar and were dazzled by the 60-year-old Gaggia lever machine. Unfortunately, Iron & Steam Espresso bar is closed, but Chromatic Coffee, based in San Jose, is readily available in the SF Bay area. Chromatic coffee sticks to the back of your throat and penetrates your digestive system in a powerful way. The taste and flavor are very strong with bold hints of cacao bean — it’s almost as if you’re drinking rich, raw hot chocolate.
In essence, the tiger mottling effect comes from the crema, the thin and dark golden-brown layer atop the espresso shot. This crema contains emulsified oils, created from the machine’s high pressure, which disperses gases within the liquid. Much of the shot’s aromatic and nuanced flavors is pronounced in the crema. Overall, I was impressed with Chromatic Coffee and their devotion to unique singe-serve coffees from ethically sourced beans. It may be worth a visit to Santa Clara to check out their home base.
It’s Coffee Time!
With those 10 options, I feel lucky to live in such a vibrant and happening town for coffee, especially since this scene has only come about in the last decade. And I’m happy to see a recent return to more dark roast coffees in the area. It’s important to note that the darker the brew, the higher the coffee is in beneficial phytonutrients, which not only help in the caramelization process but also increase antioxidant activity.
In the end, all we desire is a fine, reliable cup of coffee to start our day. Fortunately, San Francisco offers a plethora of choices. Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which I will review international brands, featuring powerhouses like Nespresso and Illy.