Coffee Heaven

Thursday, July 9, 2015

For coffee lovers, Rockridge has become brew central. Along a one-block stretch of College Avenue between Claremont and Alcatraz we have four gourmet coffee bars: Peet's Coffee & Tea; Philz Coffee; Cole Coffee; Starbucks in the new Safeway. For a long-time coffee drinker like me, this is simply caffeine heaven. In addition, there are Highwire Coffee in Market Hall and Bica near BART. I decided it was time to sample each of these establishments. Just like with fine wine, fine coffee requires tasting comparisons.

Coffee cupping or coffee tasting is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. Although considered a professional practice, it can be done informally by anyone. A standard coffee cupping procedure involves deeply sniffing the coffee, then loudly slurping the brew so it spreads to the back of the tongue. As with wine, the taster attempts to measure aspects of the coffee's taste, sweetness, acidity and flavor. I also was looking for style of preparation.

Let's work our way down College Avenue to see what I found. First stop: Peet's Coffee and Tea. I have a long history with Peet's. When I arrived in the Bay Area in 1979, I found the first Peet's store on the corner of Vine and Walnut in North Berkeley. Established by Alfred Peet, the company created a revolution in the coffee industry with coffee unlike any other coffee Americans had ever tasted in the U.S. The coffee was made in small batches using high quality beans, creating a brew that was rich and complex. Peet's is not for everyone. The coffee is a very dark roast and high in caffeine.

Next on my tasting list is Cole Coffee. I've been getting my coffee hit and beans at Cole Coffee for nearly 20 years. Cole has two adjacent venues. The original shop (facing 63rd Street) offers a daily changing selection of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee and whole beans ground to your liking. Next door, facing College, individual drip coffee servings are prepared. In the morning poached eggs and toast are offered. The small shop has comfy couches for seating as you enjoy your brew. Regulars and dog lovers often occupy outdoor tables and chairs to read the paper and enjoy the passing parade along College Avenue.

A recent addition on the block is Philz coffee in the retail corner building in front of the new Safeway. The original Philz started in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood at 24th and Folsom. Whenever I'm in that neighborhood, I head to Philz. The Mission venue has an old-school San Francisco feel - funky and hip. The College Avenue store is more upscale. Philz prepares individual drip servings of a variety of brews. Depending on the crowd size, it can take up to five minutes or more to get your cup prepared. Note as well that Philz does not make espresso drinks - no cappuccino or latte. The new plaza outside Safeway, though, is a nice addition to the neighborhood.

Last on the list in this block is Starbucks. What was once a small Seattle-based company is now an international industry. There are over 21,000 Starbucks worldwide. Several years ago, I was traveling to South-East Asia and had a layover in Bangkok. It was early in the morning and I was looking forward to a hit of Thai food. Everything was closed except for the Starbucks. I flew halfway around the world for a cup of Starbucks coffee! The Starbucks brand makes a good cup of coffee and is always very predictable. Homogenization has its place.

My other go-to caffeine fix is Highwire in Market Hall. They make one of the best cappuccinos in the Bay Area. Highwire's tea selection is also outstanding. Their baristas are an added bonus. It is a true delight to be served by these young hipsters. The cappuccinos are skillfully prepared with a lovely flower petal design. For me, the ratio of coffee to steamed milk is perfect.

Finally, close to BART, we have Bica. Bica serves a selection of coffee from Bay Area roasters including Four Barrel, among the best roasters in the area. Bica is the Portuguese version of the Italian espresso. While traveling in Portugal, it is customary to have a bica first thing in the morning. What a way to start the day: the caffeine lasts and lasts. Bica is a small cozy neighborhood hangout that serves a good morning caffeine jolt.

When it comes to coffee, everyone has a preference. In the words of radical Marxist Emma Goldman: "I can't start a revolution without a cup of Chase and Sanborn Coffee."

Coffee Dry Rub BBQ Recipe
6 Tbs ground coffee
2 Tbs Kosher salt
2 Tbs smoked paprika
2 Tbs brown sugar
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp ground coriander
Combine all ingredients. Rub on your favorite meat or poultry and let stand for an hour before cooking.

Barry Kaufman is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. Barry is available for cooking classes and tours of East Bay ethnic markets. His email is