San Diego Coffee Scene
This Northwest barista and blogger was in San Diego last week. I scoped out the coffee scene for you, St. Louis.
First of all, the weather was incredible. After three months of storm warnings and too many inches of snow, getting to wear shorts and lie by the beach was a treat for me and my girlfriend. We broke up the time by sampling coffee by different roasters, finding a fun coffee scene not much bigger than the one in our city.
Disclaimer: My goal was not to rate the coffee shops. I did it all wrong: I got different drinks at each place, and I left out a couple of roasters that were too hard to get to. Instead, my goal was to scope out what other cities are doing with their shops and coffee.
Caffe Calabria was the first place I went. The store is located in North Park, but they source to many shops around town. Caffe Calabria has been around for about fifteen years, and their presence is ingrained in the San Diego coffee culture. I read a couple of top ten lists before choosing the shops I went to, and Caffe Calabria always makes the list. Often, a few shops that it supplies make the list too, including Elixir Espresso Bar in the Gaslamp District, and Krakatoa in South Park. The store is beautiful, with high ceilings, large plants, and murals on the wall. There’s a glass wall across from the espresso bar, which separates the roastery from the store. They weren’t roasting when I was there, but I love the idea of being able to watch the roasting through the glass.
We ordered a mocha, a latte, and a piece of Cinnamon Walnut Rugalach, and found the baristas to be skilled and friendly. Also on offer were a number of small delicious looking sandwiches, pizzas, and other pastries. The mocha had a full chocolate flavor without being too sweet, and the rugalach was incredible. I found the espresso in the latte well balanced–sharp enough to be interesting with smooth flavors supporting the top notes. Overall, Caffe Calabria deserves its place as a well established shop in the community. They serve up a solid, carefully crafted product in a lovely atmosphere.
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Bird Rock is all the way out in Bird Rock, between La Jolla and Pacific Beach, but it was well worth the trip. Opened in 2006, the small store roasts on site, and holds concerts and art exhibits. The small company has a big impact on the San Diego coffee scene. They work directly with farmers to import their beans, 50% of which are organic. In 2012, they won the Micro Roaster of the Year award from Roast Magazine. It is well deserved, as owner Chuck Patton constantly seeks to improve his coffee, and the coffee community of San Diego.
We got a latte and a cup of drip coffee, choosing the Kenya, a medium roast. While I waited for my latte, I chatted with the barista behind the counter, who gave me some insight into the local coffee scene and managed to pour some great looking drinks without losing track of the conversation. Both the espresso and the Kenya were incredibly smooth, the smoothest while still flavorful coffee I’ve ever had. They had zero harsh notes, yet retained flavor. Perhaps I would have liked slightly more complexity, but mostly I was impressed. The vibe was relaxed even in the midst of what seemed like a morning rush. I am currently scheming about ordering some beans to ship out and give to my Northwest and Chronicle coworkers. Bird Rock was not only my favorite drink in San Diego, but also the most community oriented (and we’re all about community!). I love their dedication to the details of the craft.
Joes on the Nose Coffee Truck
On a Saturday morning walk through the Little Italy Farmer’s Market, I happened upon a food truck serving coffee! At first glance, I expected Joes on the Nose to be underwhelming, but as I scanned the truck I found more and more of those tell-tale details that let me know yes, this place knows what they’re doing. The final straw was the big cup of cold brewed iced coffee I bought, which was perfect for the hot morning. I was duly impressed. Though I subsequently did a lot of online research, I’m still unsure about where they source their beans. I did find out that its all organic. If you ever happen by a Joes on the Nose truck on the San Diego streets, get a drink.
Better Buzz Coffee Roasters
Better Buzz is a local roaster with four coffee stands and one (new) sit down establishment dedicated to nerding out about coffee. It’s called The Lab, and is of course the one that I went to. It’s located on Mission Boulevard, a quick walk from Mission Beach. I loved the atmosphere as I walked in. The space was a gorgeous combination of wood paneling, coffee making glassware and naturally lit seating. I also loved the way their menu was arranged: the top section was labeled “the Purist” and included drinks such as an espresso shot, a latte, cappuccino, macchiato and pourovers, while the bottom section was labeled “Handcrafted” and included their specialty drinks such as a mint mojito latte, honey latte, and something called The Best Drink Ever.
We got a chocolate chip cookie (delicious), a mango strawberry smoothie (delicious) and a small espresso drink of indeterminate type. This was my fault. When I ordered, I asked if they could make a cortado (2 oz espresso, 2 oz steamed milk) and the barista looked confused but ultimately agreed to try. What I got was I think supposed to be a macchiato, but it was a little off and slightly burnt tasting. I drank it anyway, and next time I would order either The Best Drink Ever, their single origin espresso, or try the Kyoto drip (made through a giant machine that takes hours to drip the coffee! It must be good).
Other things that I liked about Better Buzz: their staff while I was there were all women (specialty coffee shops tend more towards the male, while more mainstream ones tend towards the female. I’ll blog about this troubling trend someday), and they source their coffee from women-run or woman-owned coffee farms! Overall, they had a great atmosphere and quality food items, I love the way that they manage to cater to many different aspects of the coffee world, and I’m pretty sure the quality of my drink was a fluke.
Coffee & Tea Collective
The Coffee & Tea Collective is located in a tall white building in a strip in Normal Heights, with just an ampersand (&) marking the store. This made it difficult to find. The Coffee & Tea Collective is a small roaster that views coffee as a craft, to be treated as such. Browsing through their blog, I noticed that they support other local crafts, collaborating with a letterpress studio and a designer who makes handmade bags. The white walls, open space, and decent art made for a calming, if intimidating, atmosphere. My only question: are you guys actually a collective?
Here at Coffee & Tea, I solved the mystery of the confused barista at Better Buzz. It appears that, while in St. Louis a macchiato is a dollop of milk foam with shots poured over it, in San Diego a macchiato is 1 oz espresso to 1 oz steamed milk. So when I asked for the same thing by a different name, the barista didn’t quite know what to do. The Coffee & Tea bearded barista answered my questions though was not interested in chatting any further. The espresso was sharp and acidic, but ultimately enjoyable. I wanted to try their cold brew, which they sell in growlers and 12 oz beer bottles. I found The Coffee & Tea Collective to be skilled, meticulous, and well-designed, and perhaps if I had caught them on a different day they would have been more friendly.
Roasters I missed: Virtuoso, Dark Horse, and Zumbar.
Restaurants you HAVE TO GO TO if you ever go to San Diego: Tiger! Tiger! (Conveniently located a block from Coffee & Tea! The best bar ever!) and DaoFu (Huge portions! Free dessert! Incredible food!)