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Coffee Gone Sour

After years of blithely brewing up lightly roasted beans, one java enthusiast finally checks in with her taste buds.

Read more: three darker yet delicious blends.

My name is Sara, and I hate my fancy coffee. It’s taken me eight years to build up the courage to say that out loud in this coffee-smug town of ours. But I can fake it no more. My spendy-coffee habit, which begins early every morning with two small, press-potted cups and continues an hour later with a pick-me-up cappuccino, is a farce. The truth is, much of the coffee I’ve been drinking leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth, yet I drink on. I have become a coffee masochist.

I’m not saying that the Major Dickason’s that I imbibed a decade ago was perfect, but it constituted an enjoyable—not to mention affordable—habit. At that time, coffee was more a means to an end than a religious movement. Then came the Great Java Awakening of 2005— that paradigm–shifting year when Blue Bottle and Ritual Roasters first opened retail spots in San Francisco and pulled our attention away from the Martha & Bros. and Peet’s we had been happily drinking, maligning the beans as overroasted and the brew as elementary. This new, clearly superior, coffee movement was christened the Third Wave.

Since then, I’ve been a devoted drinker of the aforementioned Blue Bottle and Ritual, as well as their brethren Four Barrel and Sightglass. The bean masters behind these companies blazed onto the scene with the noblest of missions: to roast their coffee beans so lightly that one can detect in their flavor profile a place of single origin—the aura of the Pajal farm near Antigua, Guatemala, or the je ne sais quoi of the Yetatebe plantation in Guji, Ethiopia. If you can’t pick up these nuanced flavors yourself, the baristas, who are trained to have the nose of a drug-sniffing dog, will do it for you—identifying the perfume of the inside of a banana peel or the notes of a yellow raspberry. Like so many others, I was swept away by the romantic idea of it.

The coffee fetishism that we now take for granted all percolated from this time. Its acolytes are legion. They’re the ones you see inappropriately stroking their La Marzocco espresso machine or speaking of the Hario V60 like it’s a sports car, not a drip cone.

I’ve poked my share of fun at the Third Wavers’ propensity for LPs and tattoos strung across the delicate flesh of their Adam’s apples. And, like many, I’ve been annoyed by their self-seriousness. But from the other side of my mouth, I’ve been drinking the caffeinated Kool-Aid. Until recently, my kitchen counter featured a rather indiscriminate rotating selection of coffees du jour: One week it was a Graceland blend from De La Paz; the next week it was a bag of Verve beans hailing from the San Francisco de Heredia region of Costa Rica. Then I’d dip into something from Four Barrel, like a bag of Flor de Café from Guatemala, described as having “a tangerine fragrance that leads into saffron, jasmine, and elderberry flavors, punctuated by caramelized orange and cane sugar sweetness.” Some Third Wave coffee is so poetically described that there’s a temptation to bathe in it.

When my mother-in-law visited, I kindly supplied her with local versions of her preferred darker roasts, evincing the kind of charitable pity that you bestow upon the unenlightened.

But here’s the thing that I’ve come to realize: Many Third Wave roasters are fierce proponents of fruity, often floral profiles— flavors that I don’t actually enjoy. Aficionados speak highly of a balanced, “bright” acidity—but this balance can be hard to strike, making you pucker when it’s missed. “A lot of brighter coffees can be tough to drink,” admits Allen Yelent, wholesale director at Mission-based Ritual Roasters, the company that proudly claims the most lightly roasted coffees in the whole country. “But they’re really interesting.”

That term, “interesting,” gets bandied about frequently inside the Third Wave bubble. It’s used in the same way that a graduate student might characterize a painfully awkward Neil Labute play, or an Aquarius clerk might recommend a Deerhoof album, or a mixology geek might describe an Italian amaro made from artichokes. These are all experiences that are meant to feed your mind even as they leave you squirming.

Not wanting to be considered intellectually soft, I decided to give “interesting” coffee one final college try. I stopped by the Valencia Street Ritual for a shot of its seasonal Seersucker espresso—described as having notes of grapefruit, lime, cedar, and root beer, with a crème brûlée finish. But as I sipped it, I felt my face scrunching up into an undeniable wince.

Normally I would have chalked it up to my own misunderstanding, but this time I inquired within. I called Yelent to ask, “What was up with the cup of lemon?” He assured me that “a lot of people confuse acidity with sour.” Ah, so I was confused, not repelled.

In actuality, I was beginning to see things clearly: Maybe it was time to turn to the less interesting side. As it happened, I got my hands on a bag of coffee beans from a microscopic, off-the-radar Oakland roaster called Scarlet City. It was introduced to me by Christina Bondoc, owner of the newish Barkada Bakery in Oakland. “My business partner, who’s doing our coffee program, prefers the darker roasts,” Bondoc said, clearly as a disclaimer—because, like me, she knows it’s déclassé to prefer dark these days.

On the drive home, my skepticism was overwhelmed by the sweet aroma of the Scarlet City Warp Drive beans resting in a sealed bag on the passenger seat. I felt an urge to pop the beans in my mouth. The next morning, I used them to make my usual cups, and with one sip, I experienced relief, a hazy sense of joy, like I’d just kicked off my Louboutins.

I had to know more about what had just happened to me—to confirm this life-changing moment—so I hopped on 880 to check out Scarlet City, a tiny box of a roastery in West Oakland. It was launched in 2009 by Jen St. Hilaire, who has now teamed up with a business partner, Susanna Handow. St. Hilaire recently quit her day job at a UC Berkeley research facility—overseeing the care of zebra fish—in order to focus on her coffee. (Scarlet City will be opening a retail spot in Emeryville next year.)

St. Hilaire spent years working with David Schomer at Seattle’s Espresso Vivace, considered by some relative old-timers to be the mecca of northern Italian–style medium-roast espresso roasters and the predecessor of the current coffee movement. There, St. Hilaire learned to roast to the point just before the sugar oils come to the surface, but not so long that they hit oxygen and become bitter. “If the beans are roasted too lightly,” she says, “the sugars aren’t brought to fruition.” St. Hilaire’s goal is to source and roast coffee that’s as sweet as it smells.

“We used to call our roast medium, but it’s considered medium-dark now because the spectrum has shifted,” says St. Hilaire, who has found that cafés interested in serious coffee programs are searching out lightly roasted beans. But after eight years under the Third Wave’s regime, the tide may again be turning.

Long ago, St. Hilaire roasted for Ecco Caffee, a Santa Rosa–based company owned by Andrew Barnett until 2009, when he sold it to Intelligentsia, a nationally distributed brand based in Chicago. This September, Barnett himself opened the tiny Linea Caffe in the Mission—just a few blocks away from Four Barrel and Ritual Roasters. Like Scarlet City’s, Barnett’s beans reflect an Italian style of medium roast.

One morning, I joined a well-heeled group at Linea to order espresso drinks and eat Belgian waffles. Sipping an Americano that went down smoothly, I found my brow unfurled. Linea’s coffee isn’t cheap, but it’s immensely pleasurable. A photography crew from a glossy East Coast rag was there, giving me hope that people have a taste for the sweeter, medium roasts—that, indeed, I’m not alone. Maybe the Fourth Wave of coffee is brewing.

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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