Making L.A. a Better Coffee City, One Cup at a Time
By Matthew Kang
L.A.’s coffee scene didn’t just explode because a big-time roaster like Intelligentsia planted its feet here in August 2007. After nearly four years, it seems that companies like Four Barrel, Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Victrola, and Ritual – all out-of-town roasters, have crept their way into the market through various cafes and retailers. It’s no surprise that those who feel like they’re ‘in the know’ might feel this way because they’re even familiar with these brands. Other coffee aficionados could claim their interest in local L.A. roasters such as Jones in Pasadena, La Mill (which is not “el ay” Mill), Cafecito Organico, City Bean, and maybe even Klatch, Portola, and Kean in farther areas of Southern California. In general, the first stock of roasters have wider national recognition and more importantly play a part in a rather cohesive “coffee industry.” The first group of roasters (the national, or more regional set) often competes in barista competitions and sometimes shuffles personnel around (like Ryan Willbur’s salient move from Intelligentsia to Stumptown). You might recognize some of these roasters at Coffee Common at this year’s TED conference in Long Beach. You won’t see La Mill or Klatch or Jones at Coffee Common because the roasters that are involved with it are really at the forefront of what’s going on in the coffee industry.
Perhaps more important that the whole “who’s in or who’s out,” coffee lovers in L.A. seem to have more abundant choices in which coffees they can taste, especially with the opening of notable “multi-roaster” cafes like CoffeeBar downtown. Cafes like this highlight a range of roasters and bring brand recognition to lesser known, yet still respected roasters such as Verve from Santa Cruz and Coava (pronounced Coh-Vah) from Portland.
I found it almost comical that Chicago was 15th in a Travel + Leisure survey for America’s Best Coffee Cities, with L.A. ranking a pitiful 20th. Of course, it’s funny because whoever wrote this piece clearly had some bad criteria for what makes a good coffee city. In light of the recent L.A. Weekly Squid Ink piece that showed 10 Places to Get a Damn Good Cup of Coffee around the city (despite a rather grievous misprint involving La Mill coffee), I do believe that overall interest in specialty coffee is growing in L.A. Full disclosure, I sell Intelligentsia coffee at my store, Scoops Westside, but only as a retailer – I have no official affiliation with the company except that I’m friends with a few people that work for the company. I still enjoy coffee from a number of other good roasters around the country (more on that later).
What I see on the street level is an increasing demand for “good” coffee. and by that, basically anything that’s not Starbucks or Coffee Bean or perhaps Peet’s. when I see customers come in and instantly recognize that we serve “Intelligentsia” coffee, that rings a bell in their mind. It doesn’t matter that we brew a single-cup pourover with precise weight measurements (I’m not completely sold on timed brews yet), or that we generally only use coffee that’s been roasted within a week, or even that the coffees are direct trade/single origin. Most of the time, people are content with knowing that their coffee is “one of the good roasters.” Almost every time I ask someone what other coffee they’ve enjoyed, the most common answer I receive is “Blue Bottle.” I must say that Blue Bottle’s inclusion in San Francisco’s Ferry Building has really been a feather in the cap in terms of recognition.
What I see is still a highly fragmented clientele that isn’t quite sure what to look for in a coffee experience. Since we do live in Tinseltown and are constantly plagued by “scenes,” coffee shops and bars tend to focus on ambiance and feel, as I might describe. It’s comical to see the extreme backlash against Intelligentsia’s three retail locations dispersed throughout the city, where people simply hate the supposed pretension or snobbery that the company tends to give off. I might agree with my friend Nick Griffith (who is my salesperson at Intelligentsia), who said in a recent tweet that it’s mainly the customers who act snobby, hipstery, or especially pretentious – not the baristas or staff.
So L.A. is pretty much seen as an Intelligentsia town, and most sentiment wavers between emphatic support or disdainful dismissal of their efforts. Most of the local roasters probably lost a lot of footing with this recent growth, and perhaps the first and second tier roasters that are more highly regarded nationally gained with the trails that Intelligentsia blazed.
What I see is a marked difference in how people order coffee and what people value – you see fewer lattes, more macchiatos and cortados (or Gibraltars), more willingness to pay upwards of $4-5 for a pourover cup of brewed coffee. They’re small steps though – for the most part customers still want milk and sugar with their coffee. This tells me that old habits just die hard and that people just don’t realize why they’re paying so much for a better made cup of coffee.
Much of this lies with education. As with any specialized industry, such as wine, beer, or food, people have to know a little bit more than what’s on the surface to really value what they’re consuming. In addition, those that do educate and teach need to know what they’re talking about so that they’re directing people the right way. And finally, there needs to be some sort of agreement about standards and approach before we make any significant progress. It probably seems like an insurmountable battle. Even in the wine industry there are countless teachers and approaches and philosophies that are divisive and controversial. Why would we expect the coffee industry to act any differently?
Well, for one thing, I think specialty coffee has a little bit of a younger history, and perhaps a more technological slant (making it easier to proliferate information) than the wine industry. Wine has a more regal, almost hierarchical structure of influence, where critics and experts wield more power than in the coffee industry (and perhaps rightfully so since the wine world is so vast). Specialty coffee is still in the midst of determining industry-wide standards, and perhaps we can see this dynamic best in the almost cataclysmic shift from the high-regarded Clover brewing system to the now substantially lo-tech pourover brews that are trumpeted across the industry. One day the coffee world will think in one direction and then the next year they’ll shift. That’s a bad thing – that’s part of the growing pains of innovation and progress.
What we do see is a little more of a maturation in coffee education. Coffee Common showed a lot of where the coffee world agrees: attention to sourcing (direct trade), high-quality product (Hario and Straus Creamery milk), and simple presentations (brewed coffee, espresso, macchiato, cappuccino). The minimalist approach was surprisingly well received by TED participants. I wouldn’t suppose that a similar reaction would take place with a random sample of 100 avid coffee drinkers. People are used to choice and customization, and four choices might not be enough.
What the minimalist approach does do is allow people to see nuance and detail. It highlights the work of the roaster and barista through simple brewing mechanisms. I think that’s why it’s so essential that when I brew coffee, it’s fully on display for customers to see. This way we can answer questions directly that they might have, and oh are there many questions. All of the answers help to cogently educate customers as to why their coffee is brewed this way and why (hopefully) it tastes better. In the end, customers have to see that there’s an apparent difference in flavor and taste, or else the effort isn’t worth it.
This proves difficult in a high-volume setting, where people wait in line and order coffee hastily in order to get their anticipated cup. On the other hand, what I’m starting to see is a crop of smaller cafes and setups where people have more opportunity to interact with baristas and learn why their coffee is being prepared in a particular manner. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Still, it’s easy to highlight this dichotomy in a simple case study.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been frequenting two cafes: Intelligentsia’s Silver Lake coffee bar and Cognoscenti Coffee in Atwater Village. At one location, you see a fully matured coffee bar that’s been open for 4 years. You’re almost certain to see a line, though it seems to move quicker than Intelligentsia’s Venice location (where people claim to wait for half an hour, which I think is either unreasonable or unlikely). At Cognoscenti, which is essentially the coffee section at Proof Bakery, you see one barista making most if not all the drinks. Cognoscenti serves Four Barrel coffee and espressos (a highly regarded San Francisco roaster). Yeekai Lim mans Cognoscenti’s coffee bar, and the slower pace allows him to interact a little bit more with customers. You can see the entire process at once, with various brewing equipment laid out behind the counter.
Things are a little more spread out at Intelligentsia Silver Lake, with a team of baristas handling espresso and another person doing the pourover behind them (though the setup seems a bit awkward). The space just doesn’t lend itself to people hearing about why certain things are done, mostly because it’s very busy, and perhaps because baristas don’t see the immediate need to answer the questions that might be swirling in the heads of customers. While both setups do certainly have opportunities for interaction, they do seem very different.
So then, how exactly do we make L.A. a better coffee city? First, we need to show why specialty coffee is better. Taste is perceived, but perception is learned. And we learn through context and experience. What needs to happen is an overall change in culture from a constant battle between a coffee bar’s “scene” and the actual product that hits the counter. This seems counter-intuitive since volume (and sales) gets created through a cafe’s aesthetic appeal and gestalt. With more cafes that serve specialty coffee, even if it’s earnestly misguided, we see the demand for a better product. It’s encouraging to see places like Bru in Los Feliz (which serves Ritual) and CoffeeBar, even though they might not “get it” as well as some coffee professionals would like. It’d be nice to see their efforts recognized and helmed by professionals who know the craft, and are able to educate.
Intelligentsia still holds the banner for specialty coffee, but it’s mostly because their staff really cares about serving a good product. Just like how Stumptown recently announced their entry into Chicago (a town dominated by Intelligentsia), it would be good to see another top roasters stake its claim here. The financial and personnel investment is perhaps too daunting and risky, but it would help the overall market.
It’s a bit like the ice cream industry. Everyone who likes artisanal ice cream knows that San Francisco is a hotbed of compelling ice creameries. Bi-Rite, Humphry Slocombe, Ici. L.A. lacks that level of creativity (and perhaps competition). I don’t purport to say that Scoops is the greatest ice cream in the entire world – it probably isn’t. But Scoops has its approach and its niche, and it intends to stay that way.
Even though it might hurt in the short term, the entire city would be better off if a number of compelling ice cream shops opens (no more fro-yo please). Consumer education and knowledge for interesting ice cream would actually help everyone. The same goes for coffee – if we start to see why direct trade, locally roasted, expertly brewed coffee is better, not only for the farmers who grow it, but for everyone else involved, then the whole market grows.
Until then, it’s our job as consumers to not settle for less, and be willing to pay a little bit more for what’s better.