Creating: Coffee Beyond the Same Old Grind

By JULIA FLYNN SILER

[image] Annie Tritt for The Wall Street JournalJames Freeman in Blue Bottle’s ‘cupping room’ in Oakland, Calif. Employees taste (or ‘cup’) coffees throughout the day with a spoon.

James Freeman‘s first memory of coffee comes from when he was 4 or 5, growing up in rural Humboldt County, Calif. His parents let him open a container of MJB Coffee. He remembers the whoosh as the air rushed from the vacuum-sealed can and the rich fragrance of the preground beans.

Four decades later, Mr. Freeman, 46, is founder and roaster in chief of Blue Bottle Coffee. Headquartered in Oakland, Calif., Blue Bottle has cafes in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, New York’s Rockefeller Center and, soon, on the High Line in New York, as well as seven other locations. It may be best known for the long lines of customers who wait for its individually brewed cups of coffee.

Waiting is part of the Blue Bottle experience: Mr. Freeman believes coffee gets stale within minutes of brewing, so every cup that Blue Bottle serves is individually brewed. His cafes and kiosks offer no sizes and no special flavors: they generally use beans roasted no more than 10 days earlier. Well-known chefs such as Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony and Coi’s Daniel Patterson serve Blue Bottle at their restaurants. Overall, the company expects sales of about $20 million this year.

Waiting in line is part of the experience at Blue Bottle Coffee Company. Founder James Freeman believes coffee gets stale within minutes, so every cup is individually brewed. WSJ’s Julia Flynn Siler profiles Blue Bottle’s story.

Mr. Freeman’s childhood encounters with coffee influenced his philosophy. In the recent book he co-wrote, “The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee,” he recalls the gurgling of the coffee maker that his parents would program the night before, letting the water and ground coffee sit in the machine overnight. “As I got older,” he writes (completely in earnest), “I realized that it was the sound of coffee dying.”

In his first career, as a musician, coffee helped fuel his long-distance travel. For eight years, he played the clarinet with regional symphonies throughout Northern California, often driving hundreds of miles for a gig. At the tail end of the dot-com boom, he joined a music-based Internet startup and lost his job when the business was sold.

He then decided to turn a hobby into a business. As a musician, he had roasted coffee at home in his oven, experimenting with different beans and techniques. He even pitched his idea of a dog-powered, wood-fired backyard coffee roaster to the coffee broker who sold him his beans. The broker gently dissuaded him from that idea. Still, he continued on his quest to make delicious coffee, renting a potting shed in Oakland for $600 a month and driving to Idaho to visit the manufacturer of an industrial roaster. That began an intense period of experimentation.

Annie Tritt for The Wall Street JournalCoffee is tasted in the cupping room of the Blue Bottle Roastery in Oakland, Calif.

Eventually Mr. Freeman began hauling small batches of his roasted beans to a local farmer’s market. An early break came after he traded a pound of beans a week for a year with a graphic designer in exchange for a folksy logo of a blue bottle for his fledgling company. With the new logo, his coffee bags caught the eye of one of the owners of the cake shop Miette, who decided to serve his coffee at her stand (and, ultimately, married Mr. Freeman).

He’s involved in every aspect of the business—from discovering a new supplier of biodynamic Brazilian beans on a trip last fall to Espiritu Santo to the roasting to the choice of paint colors for the company’s newest cafe (his current favorite is a grayish white called Benjamin Moore Dove Wing 960). Working with his hands was especially gratifying after his years of performing with orchestras and his brief stint in the digital music world. “Here it is so much more tactile,” he explains.

When he is in Oakland, Mr. Freeman meets with his staff each day in the company’s production facility for their “cupping” ritual—a blind tasting of all the coffee roasted the previous day, as well as coffee made from beans they are considering buying. The creative part is to have an ideal in mind for what the coffee should taste like and then working toward it.

With dozens of bowls of coffee beans lined up, followed by coffee made from those beans, the tasters use spoons and spitting cups. The process often leaves tasters with faint smudges of brown coffee at the tips of their noses. Sometimes colleagues have to advise him: “James, macchiato nose!”

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Annie Tritt for The Wall Street JournalMr. Freeman uses roasting equipment from the ’50s and ’60s.

Mr. Freeman has been influenced by his many trips to Japan, which has a long tradition of hand-brewing coffee with scrupulous care. He makes pilgrimages to a cafe near Shibuya Station in Tokyo called Chatei Hatou, which brews individual cups of coffee for $15 apiece. Mr. Freeman describes them as “life-changing perfection.”

He has carefully studied Japanese manual coffee-making techniques and has switched to more Japanese equipment over the past five years. Moving more deeply into the culture, he has begun studying the Japanese language, toting his flashcards around and meeting with a tutor about twice a month.

Mr. Freeman’s love of Japan has spilled over to his designs for new kiosks and cafes, where he insists on spare lines and an unfinished or imperfect look. It was in Japan that he learned to appreciate the beauty of “a shelf with nothing on it.” The minimalist approach goes back to his first kiosk, which was located in what was then a rough alley in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley when it opened in January 2005. The shop had no seats, and cups came in only one size.

“What was interesting about it,” he says, “was what wasn’t there.”

A version of this article appeared March 30, 2013, on page C11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Coffee Beyond the Same Old Grind.