Field Trip to Blue Bottle Oakland

After three weeks of traveling, no sooner had I dropped my duffle bag on the floor that I found myself on the road again, unexpectedly heading back up to the Bay area for another round of photoshoots. Four weeks prior, when I was up there for the Good Foods Blind Tasting event, Jen Apodaca, the West Coast production manager of Blue Bottle Coffee and coffee roaster extraordinaire extended an invitation to stop by their Oakland offices the next time I was in town.

A company like Blue Bottle is clearly doing something right if they're able to raise $70 million in VC funding. Obviously, it's impossible to know in a single trip what that is but I was curious to at least catch a glimpse of the process. Take a peek behind the curtains.

The day I visited, Jen and her team of buyers and tasters were in the cupping room putting some coffee beans through their paces. Blue Bottle was in the middle of auditioning a new supplier of beans to incorporate into one of their blends. This coffee testing, called cupping, was but one of many steps in evaluating the beans. Jen explained all the work that lead up to this moment. Let's just say the decision in purchasing beans is not made lightly at Blue Bottle!

This was my first time seeing the process of a coffee bean being tested and it was pretty cool! On the two long tables were rows and rows of identical cups of coffee in groups of five and stacks of empty cups.

At first I thought they were testing several different beans. Nope. Turns out all the cups were the same coffee. They were testing just one bean!

At intervals, one of the testers would pour a new brew of the coffee.

Then the team would smell the coffee, their noses just inches from the cup.

After allowing the coffee to rest for a bit, they cleared out the grinds from the surface.

Next, they would nose the coffee again and each testers would quickly slurp a spoonful from each cup, spit the coffee into a cup, and dip their spoon into a cup of water before moving to the next cup.

The speed, the precise movements, and the repetition of the spoon moving from the cup of coffee to the mouth to the rinsing cup and next was almost hypnotic. Scoop, slurp, spit, rinse. Scoop, slurp, spit, rinse.

Almost hypnotic because the noise made from the slurping was pretty startling; loud and violent. Definitely not okay in polite company under normal circumstances. I asked Jen why they slurped the coffee that way. She explained it was so that the coffee would instantly cover all of the insides of the mouth so that you are tasting the flavor fully. I could see in my mind the liquid atomizing as it is slurped, covering the mouth in a mist of coffee.

After each round of tasting, each member would jot down their thoughts on a score sheet divided into many columns and rows and filled with numbers. Again, a bean is not selected flippantly by these people. 

While the rest of the team continued their tasting, Jen took me back to the production room where the beans are stored, roasted and bagged. She showed me the different bags from different countries, pointing out that each country has a distinctive design on their bags to quickly identify the origin of the coffee beans; a single stripe of a certain color, for example. She also explained the many different ways the beans are processed washed and fermented, each step affecting the taste of the coffee before it's even roasted and brewed.

Two green coffee beans from the same plantation, prepared differently...

It's mind boggling to think of all the different permutations of the variables that can affect the flavor of a coffee bean. 

Next in the show and tell was the giant beast in the middle of the room. The Probat drum roaster is a behemoth of a machine, with the large cogs, heavy cast iron doors, iron levers and details that attest to its mid century birth during the age of machine.

There is an "x" in espresso, but only if you're French...

German machine with instructions in French, working in the US...

Its control looks like it came straight from a NASA control room circa the Gemini missions of the 60s, with the rows of large translucent plastic buttons of different colors, plastic signs with functions etched in utilitarian sans serif font and industrial digital display showing various times and temperatures. 

I love the last button on the lower right. "Acknowledge"!

The Probat isn't the only roaster in the room, though. They also have a Loring. A modern iteration of the drum roaster.

Whereas the Probat has the logos and design elements cast into its thick iron parts, the Loring has them cut out of the Stainless steel sheet metal exterior.

I love the beautiful rosewood handle of the tryer on the Loring. The tryer is a cylindrical scoop that allows the the roaster to scoop out a small amount of beans during the roasting process to sample.

The Loring, befitting its modern construction, features computer-controlled touchscreen and allows you to use it remotely using computers or ipads. As expected, it's more energy efficient than the Probat. If I remember what Jen said correctly, the energy savings from running the Loring would go a long way in paying for itself versus running the Probat but the Blue Bottle team were still getting the feel for the machine as they wanted to override the many automated processes.

More efficient or not, the Luddite in me can't help but prefer the looks of the old cast iron beast of the Probat with the oversized cogs and levers. They remind me of the old Stanley iron planes and machines from the last century built to last and endure.

Probat Five barrel sample roaster used to test small batches of coffee...

One thing I did not photograph was the training room for the baristas. Each barista hired by Blue Bottle receives 27 hours of training! I can't remember any of my previous jobs devoting anywhere near that kind of time to training. It was usually "figure it out as you go" method with varying amount of assistance and supervision. This kind of training helps to explain the quality of the Blue Bottle service.

freshly bagged coffee ready to be shipped out to the members of the subscription service

After the informal tour she and I talked the business of coffee and the food world in general. With all the exciting things happening and exponential growth of interest in good food from the general public, we had many issues to talk about and consider.

I want to thank Jen Apodaca and the team at Blue Bottle, Charlie Habegger and Stephen Vick, Green Coffee Buyers and Judith Mandel, Quality Control Specialist, for taking the time to explain their world to this coffee noob.

(L-R) Stephen Vick, Judith Mandel, Jen Apodaca, Charlie Habegger...