With 35 locations across California, New York and Tokyo, and with nine more hitting the East Coast this year, some coffee fanatics might wonder if Oakland, CA-based Blue Bottle isn’t becoming Starbucks for the hipster generation. As we learned on a recent visit to their new cafe and roasting facility in Bushwick, Brooklyn, scaling up doesn’t mean Blue Bottle’s standards have gone mainstream. In fact, they’re more nuanced than ever.
“When Blue Bottle was starting to expand, everyone was like, ‘Oh, you’re selling out,’ because we were taking in investment. But [founder James Freeman’s] response to that is, ‘We want you to be able to taste the investment before you see the investment,’” explains 2010 World Barista champion and Blue Bottle’s Director of Training, Michael Phillips. “And this facility is the biggest testament to that fact. The quality of the equipment that we put into the roasting, the quality control, the training lab—all of that is designed to make sure that the cups that we’re getting out there in our cafes are beyond parallel.”
The Bushwick location gives the Blue Bottle team further opportunity to perfect their craft. “The way that we make coffee right now probably won’t be the way that we do it in two years because we’re always looking at how we want to improve,” says Phillips. The latest case and point: they’ve swapped the steadfast roasting machines they built their name on for those from relative newcomer Loring Smart Roast. “Loring is an example of what happens when you have an industry taken over by crazy nerds,” Phillips says. “The process of roasting coffee is not something that’s out of reach for anyone. You put beans on a pan and stick them in your oven and sooner or later they turn brown; it’s the simple process of applying heat. But, being able to do that in an incredibly controlled fashion, that’s what separates OK or mediocre coffee from amazing, repeatable, consistent coffee. And this machine helps us do that.”
Like everything at Blue Bottle, the Loring was put through extensive testing. For several years they compared its capabilities with their other machines in Oakland, cupping side by side. In addition to its impressive roasting power, the high-tech Loring gives Blue Bottle another advantage: uniformity. When the roaster develops a profile on the Loring in Brooklyn, he can share it with his colleagues in LA or Tokyo using Cropster, a cloud-based software platform that connects to the machine and tracks results.
What goes into the Loring is another factor. “How we source our coffee is one of the things that I think distinctly separates us from a lot of roasters out there,” says Phillips. “We have a green buyer that travels to all the origins that we purchase from and works directly with the producers in an incredibly close hands-on fashion. Having that transparency on where the coffee comes from and who’s involved with it, that relationship is very important to us.”
Intimately knowing where the beans come from isn’t simply about proving sustainability, it’s also beneficial in creating highly palatable coffee. “Single origin is a term that’s gained a lot of popularity in the last couple of years, but it’s still somewhat misunderstood. It basically refers to the traceability of a coffee to a specific geographic region. We get down to where it’s not just a coffee from Brazil, but it’s a coffee from Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, and it’s not even that it’s from FAF, but it’s one that’s comprised of just one varietal and maybe from one section of the farm,” Phillips says. “That level of traceability allows us to identify the highest quality lots and keep those separated from other lots so that we can make sure we’re getting very unique, distinct flavor profiles.”
Blue Bottle certainly hasn’t skipped the last step in the process—tasting. They spent five years developing their pour-over coffee dripper to ensure consumers get the utmost from their beans. They also worked with Hario to co-create a new cold brew system. From sourcing to brewing, Blue Bottle has worked tirelessly to ensure the coffee you drink is exactly how it should be in a perfect world. That’s one thing you can count on.
Second image by Kayle Lim, all others courtesy of Blue Bottle