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Caffeine Couture

Can Coffee Get any Haut-er?

Katherine Sacks

Up at bat, ladies and gentlemen, is coffee and it’s having a comeback, hitting a homer for the third time around. Once only consumed for medicinal purposes, coffee became a popular drink throughout the 19th century as improvements in technology increased quality and decreased price, putting brands like Folgers on every table in America. The early 1960s through mid-90s saw a boom in fast-paced, commercialized properties that got customers in and out in a matter of seconds, making a certain green and white logo the ubiquitous symbol for the coffee revolution.

But today’s savvy coffee aficionados are patient patrons who are more than willing to wait over a minute for their ground-on-the-spot, individually brewed cup of Joe. This new era of the black stuff, often called third-wave coffee, has initiated a whole slew of small-batch roasters and artisan coffee shops offering fair-trade, wood-roasted and single-varietal beans from every country possible.

And no matter the locale, whether it be a new temple to all things coffee or a farm-to-table affair, today customers no longer succumb to paying top dollar, or any dollar, for waterlogged coffee made with over-roasted beans. Restaurants are quickly following the java house suit, matching their locally-sourced menus, distinctive wine lists and micro-brewed beers with coffee beans that can stand up to the best labels out there. From supplying a rich cup of coffee to end the meal to crafting inspired menu items using these artisan beans, restaurateurs and chefs are finding that coffee offers more than just a caffeine boost.

All about quality

What better place for this coffee appreciation to blossom than San Francisco? After all, it was in nearby Napa Valley where the world was introduced to American wines; so it is only natural that curious beverage connoisseurs would find an interest in the intricacies of coffee.

Overhearing clever customers discuss varietals and terroir, as one would in a winery, is almost to be expected at coffee hotspots nowadays; particularly if you’re waiting in line for a caffeine fix at popular Bay Area locales such as Blue Bottle Coffee, Ritual or Four Barrel Coffee. These small-batch roasters, along with a handful of other companies across the U.S. (including Portland based-Stumptown and Chicago-based Intelligentsia), are no longer limited to cafes and small kiosks, thanks to their ever-increasing expansion into the restaurant market, offering up their couture brews in the place of lower-quality brands.

This gives restaurateurs the opportunity to provide a cup on par with their cuisine, says Josh Magnani, who recently opened his own Contraband Coffee, which includes a Bay Area roaster and café. “There is this savvy group of customers who want the best,” he says. “It seems kind of silly to pay $140 for wine, $70 for a dinner and then have a cup of Folgers.”

But with that high quality comes a price: the equipment used – espresso machines or the increasingly trendy single-brew pots – and staff training, can be time and cost intensive. “You can have the best coffee in the world,” says Magnani, “but you can ruin it if you don’t make it right.”

Finding the right bean

The key to getting the most out of a coffee program is finding the right sip, and the right fit. Along with a focus on organic and artisanal-roasted beans, these new producers are uniquely dedicated to their craft.

When choosing which bean to brew, restaurateurs should be aware not only of taste, but also reliability of flavor, and training or consistency programs. Many companies, says Magnani, spend time training restaurant staff, invite them to participate in roastings, and occasionally may even check in to make sure the coffee is being brewed properly.

Although Chef Gordon Drysdale has sampled many coffees, he proudly serves San Francisco-based Roast Coffee Company for just that reason. Roaster Alex Roberts worked to develop a personal relationship with the staff at Pizza Antica at all of their locations in Lafayette, Mill Valley, San Jose and Santa Monica. “Alex gives our team in-depth tutorials on a wide variety of subjects pertaining to coffee,” says Drysdale, who recently began focusing on artisanal products throughout his menu. “With their help, the beans we serve are always younger than seven days.”

These fresh beans are used to roast the nutty, medium-bodied coffee enjoyed by Pizza Antica’s guests, but the chefs also feature Roast’s coffee as an ingredient for dishes on the restaurants’ menu. In his traditional affogato dessert, a hot espresso shot is poured over creamy gelato, marrying the perfect combination of sweet and bitter tastes; another dessert features a dark roast mocha drizzle poured over hazelnut semifreddo, which has become a customer favorite.

Quality was a key factor when Santa Monica’s M Street Kitchen picked Intelligentsia for its coffee machines, but Chef Erik Palmer also explains that it was a good fit for their market. “There are a lot of coffee shops in the area, so we didn’t feel like going with something like Peet’s or one of the other big name brands,” he says, explaining that in the aggressive coffee market, Intelligentsia offers the right mix of flavor, quality and brand-recognition. The robust, medium roast coffee is popular among M Street Kitchen’s local clientele, often repeat customers. “It has a flavor profile people like,” says Palmer, who has used the espresso roast in desserts like pot du crème and chocolate cake. “It’s part of the reason they keep coming back.”

Understanding the market

Of course even when a restaurant is content with their coffee service, it’s always important to stay in tune with the competition. And, in the quickly expanding world of artisan coffees, new roasters and brewers get into the game everyday. Chef Giselle Wellman happily serves Lavazza (a household name in Italy) in her West Hollywood restaurant Petrossian, but she makes sure to regularly taste local brews as well.

“There are a lot of interesting combinations and artisan coffees out there,” says Wellman, who recently did tastings with both LA-based Trinidad and San Francisco-based Weaver coffees. “I’m happy with the Lavazza, but I like to be very aware of other companies, to help make sure of the quality of my coffee and to know what’s out there.”

A fan of using java in her desserts, Wellman mimics the restaurant’s signature caviar by creating Lavazza espresso pearls, using a combination of calcium chloride and alginate. Packed inside a cleaned caviar dish, these pearls are served tableside alongside a vanilla panna cotta and cardamom shortbread. She has also used the Italian beans for a twist on the classic Vietnamese Iced Coffee, adding chocolate milk and a decadent chocolate brownie to the mix.

Making it work on the menu

Integrating these artisanal coffees onto the menu may be one of the most important steps in recognizing their value. With emphasis on a high-quality roast process – the beans are often hand-processed in small batches grown on single plantations – these coffees develop a distinct flavor much the same as high-end spices. San Francisco’s Locanda relies heavily on spice to distinguish its Roman-style cuisine, using everything from chilies to coriander. While the customers love sipping their Four Barrel coffee in the dining room, the busy chefs enjoy adding the beans to dishes. “A Roman oxtail preparation is typically made with cocoa,” says Executive Chef Anthony Strong, who admits, like many chefs, that coffee plays a necessary role in his daily routine. “It evolved it into this jet black oxtail stew, scented with cocoa and coffee. It’s ridiculous how good it is.” Strong has also folded fresh coffee grinds into pasta dough, used for a type of eggplant ravioli.

Similarly, it was the bold flavors of LA-based roaster LAMILL that inspired Chef Kris Morningstar, who serves a LAMILL coffee pudding with smoked caramel sauce and espresso granita at his Ray’s and Stark Bar in LA, “We had in our heads smoked caramel and then we had this great coffee,” said Morningstar, who worked with the team’s pastry chef, Josh Graves, to create the customer favorite. “The deep, robust coffee flavor really plays well off the caramel.”

And while a milkshake and burger go may go hand-in-hand, Josh Spiegelman, owner of San Fransisco’s Roam Artisan Burgers, was quick to use Blue Bottle Coffee to create a chilled drink that he says, “tastes completely like coffee.” Although this restaurant doesn’t include the hot drink on their menu of grass-fed burgers and Straus Family Creamery milkshakes, Spiegelman was taken with both the dedication and passion of Blue Bottle’s roasters. “We are committed to certain standards and practices, and it’s obvious they are too,” says Spiegelman, who purchases the beans whole, then grinds and cold brews them with agave to create a coffee concentrate for his milkshake.

Of course, when you keep good coffee in-house, one problem’s bound to come up: everyone wants some. “At least half of the coffee and espresso we buy is for the employees,” says Strong. “It’s a staff caffeination machine.” Here’s hoping their love translates into strong coffee sales and artisan coffee for all.

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