San Francisco is known for being on the up-and-up: they have hills going “up” everywhere, their property costs have risen astronomically, and perhaps less known is their fantastic source of our favorite upper: coffee.
We visited San Francisco recently to check out the sites and to really see if their coffee was everything people said it was. So, today, we’re taking the top 2 places we tried, pitting them head to head, and seeing who comes out on top.
First up, we’ve got Blue Bottle. Until recently, unless you were from the general Bay Area, chances are you hadn’t heard of Blue Bottle. They’ve got a good thing going on though, and as of the time of this writing they now also have 11 cafes in the Bay Area, 8 in the New York City area, 8 in LA county, and 6 in Japan. And, thankfully, it seems they have many more on the way, so if you hadn’t been able to try them in person, you may get to soon, thanks to the $90+ million they’ve taken in venture capital, according to their Wikipedia page.
Not only has Blue Bottle been ranked one of the top “micro-roasters” in the whole US, they’ve got coffee that’s won awards, designs that have won awards, and just in general seemed to be a popping place.
Although I specifically sought them out once, we did stumble upon a second location of theirs, just as equally cool and busy. In fact, both locations we stopped at had a secondary line and place where they filled up coffee-only orders, and both locations had long lines at both of their service areas. So, because we ended up running into them a second time, we did get to try more of their coffees: the Bella Donovan, their Giant Steps, and their house espresso 17ft Ceiling Espresso.
Given all of the hype, I will say I was a little let down. I suppose it’s like going to Mecca expecting a religious breakthrough and instead having a good time, but, you know, you were there expecting heaven.
But, with that out of the way and being said, their coffee was delicious. I always take my coffee black to get all of the flavors, and it clearly had more substance than your average Starbucks or Ma & Pop local shop. Their Bella Donovan had a certain crispness and mild fruitiness and enjoyability to it. Their Giant Steps got a bit more earthy and dark flavors. Their Espresso? I took it too hot and quickly to fully enjoy, to be honest; but I wasn’t disappointed by any means.
Overall though, I think it’s the vibe that does it for me with Blue Bottle. It’s a cool place that I feel like I want to spend time in, it’s reasonably priced, and Blue Bottle is definitively better than your average coffee shop and definitely worth a trek across town if one isn’t near you.
Next up we’ve got Golden Bear Trading Company, which I’m going to shorten to just Golden Bear for the remainder of this craft coffee competition. Golden Bear is one of the most highly ranked coffee places on Yelp, with multiple people saying that it is the best cup of coffee they’ve ever had.
In terms of coffee, I was immediately mesmerized. The owner Sam was manning the cafe, as it seems he does often according to the reviews. He’s got an intense collection, and when I started asking him questions about what coffees and flavors each brew came with, I was excited that he had $20-$40 cups available. That’s not something you come across very often, and I almost bought those right away just for the experience.
But, there was something kind of off-putting about the place. Not only was there only 1 other person inside during prime coffee drinking hours, but Sam was on the phone only half paying attention, and was actually quite cocky. Rather than explain the coffees in-depth like I was looking for, he was on the phone half of the time giving me just quick
blurbs “this is the best coffee, that is why.” He did invite me behind the counter to take a closer look, and did offer free food pairings without
being asked, but he was quite aggressive about asking me to put great Yelp reviews (literally at least 3 times pushing pretty hard for them), essentially shushing me and just saying the coffee was great, and when I took pictures he said he needed to be in it too because of how good looking he was ,and literally kept talking about how good looking he was and afterwards asked to see the picture (shown on the left) where he zoomed in on his face and handed it back to me with his face taking up the whole screen saying how great it was. I’m usually a funny guy, so you may say that he was being funny, but that wasn’t the vibe I got at all. I got the vibe of a guy who knows he has great coffee and has the ego to match.
However, then I tasted the coffee, and…
Oh… my… god…
I ended up going with his Turkish Red Sea blend, and it was probably the best $4 cup of coffee that I have ever had in my life. It wasn’t the $20-40 cup I was on the verge of getting because I was a little turned off by his demeanor, while also wanting to write something up that would be more in an average price range. But, man, he ground it up right in front of me, brewed it with his pour-over setup he had, and even had a snack that helped bring out the flavors even more.
The flavors, I have trouble even describing- it was a level of vibrancy and blends that totally caught me off guard. It was like a fruity dark wine got mixed in with a hot chocolate on Christmas morning. I don’t know what else to say. Just thinking about that cup right now makes my brain bring up the flavors again.
Okay, so, the San Francisco trip was a success. There are plenty of other coffee hotspots to check out (Philz Coffee’s first location is there, and a slew of other micro-roasters are popping up everywhere with storefronts), but these 2 were simply my favorite and biggest recommendations.
So, who is the winner between Blue Bottle and Golden Bear? Well, that depends on what you’re doing and what you’re willing to deal with. If you want a coffee-stop/cafe/great vibe with an exceptional cup of coffee, then Blue Bottle overall wins hands down. However, if you just want the best cup of coffee you will ever have, and could care less about ambiance (and, actually, I considered it more of a negative ambiance, Sam aside, half of Golden Bear struck me more as a liquor store), then Golden Bear wins. I’d recommend both just for the experience if you’re ever in SF, just be aware of what you’re really after coffee-wise.