Dear Eater SF,
Can you do a round-up of the best espresso in the city? How is the taste? The crema? Is it served proper — with a teaspoon and sparkling water? Does the shop offer decaf and alfresco dining, etc.?
Dear Desperately Decaffeinated,
We have a resource for those in need of top-brass coffee in San Francisco. But this one is for the real coffee nerds. My at-home coffee game is pretty weak — think a “grinder” from Krups and an electric scale with long-dead batteries — so I, too, rely on the city’s coffee shops geared toward science fans, the jocks with CoffeeTools downloaded on their phones who’ve never stepped behind the bar.
Fortunately, San Francisco is home to a host of insanely badass espresso wizards. This is the region where James Freeman birthed Blue Bottle in Oakland and Wrecking Ball’s Trish Rothgeb ushered coffee into its third wave. Rewind 100 years, and you’d find Folgers, Maxwell House, and MJB were the companies on everyone’s lips, each a San Francisco institution that cemented their place in American history thanks to instant coffee crystals and vacuum-sealing innovations. In short: There is no United States coffee culture without the Bay Area’s pioneers.
But back to the espresso.
I have a few recommendations for you based on the key descriptors you’ve called out. To account for taste, I’m considering where the coffees are coming from and trying to consider what flavors and notes are expressed in the espresso on a consistent basis.
First up: Wrecking Ball is a longtime favorite for a reason. The company’s Pillow Fight espresso is a blend of Brazilian and Ethiopian coffees, both terroirs tending toward light and acidic writ large. In this combination, the Cow Hollow shop’s espresso — served “proper” as you’ve described, with sparkling water and teaspoon — provides a nutty and accessible taste. Decaf here is Colombian, though alfresco dining options are minimal. The shot itself is well-bodied, which makes sense since one of specialty coffee’s matron saints is in charge.
Saint Frank is an important inclusion, too. After cutting his teeth at Ritual Coffee Roasters, owner and operator Kevin Bohlin took the Bay’s coffee world by storm by taking third-wave coffee to its logical endpoint: Starkly minimal walls. Award-winning baristas preparing espresso “proper.” Coffee sourced from Bolivia, which tends to provide a tea-like, delicate, and floral flavor. There’s minimal alfresco dining and another fine Colombian decaf on the menu. Crema is on point.
The Coffee Movement might be the best of the best. Coming from the Four Barrel and Saint Frank schools, owners Bryan Overstreet and Reef Bessette opened a tiny temple to dynamic coffee on Nob Hill. Unlike the former two shops, Coffee Movement is a multi-roaster outfit, meaning they sell other businesses’ beans. “Proper” espresso is totally an option, though the shop is well-loved for its flights, which see coffee prepared in three ways for $7. Decaf is also available, and alfresco dining options here might be the most robust of the three.