James Freeman is, by his own admission, a coffee lunatic. I recently visited him in the converted potting shed that houses his nearly four-month-old microroastery, Blue Bottle Coffee Co., and sampled cup after cup of his exquisite organic coffee blends and espresso.
Later, driving home, I was a quivering, twitching, overcaffeinated jangle of nerves. How does the normally exuberant Freeman run his business without having to be scraped off the ceiling?
``I don't drink a lot of coffee,'' he admits. ``Maybe just a cappuccino in the morning, and an afternoon espresso. You need to spit when you do coffee tastings, just like wine.
``My whole thing is that I want people to drink less coffee, and enjoy it more.''
Together with his wife, Colleen Donovan, Freeman started Blue Bottle because he was ``weary of eggnog lattes and pumpkin-pie macchiatos.'' He began by roasting beans in his oven at home. His aim was to open a microroastery that would highlight the freshness and flavor complexities of premium, organic, shade-grown coffees.
In fact, he will sell no coffee that is more than 48 hours out of the roaster, in order to provide the freshest coffee possible.
``I learned about coffee from traveling,'' he says. ``The Italians have perfected the art of espresso. Here, restaurants will pay the highest possible attention to detail to their ingredients and dishes, but at the end of a wonderful meal, you get this awful espresso or coffee.''
Freeman points to a variety of reasons for our country's propensity for bad coffee. ``Coffee that's been sitting around in a carafe just tastes nasty. The oils in coffee beans are water soluble, so they go rancid very quickly.
``With espresso, it's usually overextracted, which means that too much water is pumped through a given amount of espresso - that makes for a very bitter, harsh product. And the trend of using flavored syrups is to kill the taste of bad coffee.''
Perhaps a good analogy would be to compare a premium, imported, aged rum to a cheap brand. One is meant to be sipped and savored for its complex array of flavors, while the other is best disguised as a blended drink, preferably enjoyed on a tropical beach for maximum distraction.
There are two kinds of coffee beans, explains Freeman. ``Arabica beans are generally of a high quality, and are most are grown low to the ground, so some type of companion foliage is needed to provide a shade cover, although newer hybrids can tolerate full sun. The plants have a low yield, which makes the beans more expensive. Robusta beans have a high yield, and need direct sun, but they're of a lower quality. They're used for your standard gas station or coffee shop coffee.''
Freeman uses only organic, or pesticide-free, shade-grown coffee that is sustainably farmed. ``I'm a big proponent of organics,'' he says. ``I don't want pesticides in my coffee.''
Freeman gets his beans from Sumatra, Ethiopia, Yemen, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico. His current favorite blend is Bella Donovan, a blend of Ethiopian Harrar and organic Sumatran beans. He also loves Yemen blends, which he finds ``intoxicating.''
Blue Bottle is a sustainable business. The coffee bags are lined with cellophane, a wood-pulp derivative that renders them both recyclable and biodegradable. Also, ``I make sure every bag of beans I get has it organic certification,'' says Freeman.
Freeman blends his beans in stainless tubs, rather than plastic, partly because the material is recyclable and also because ``the oils that rise to the surface on some roasts are so fragile I want to give the consumer the cleanest possible flavor. ''
At this point, Freeman is looking toward dealing with local restaurants, but there's one caveat. ``I'd want to be able to conduct staff trainings and tastings, be a partner in preparation. There's no point in having great beans if they're not properly prepared,'' he says.
Freeman does plan to offer more customized blends for business owners and chefs. ``It's easy for me to do custom roasts, something that matches menus,'' he says. ``I think the customization and freshness of small batches are the reason I'm doing what I do. I'm small enough to deliver two times a week, so the coffee is never more than 48 hours old.''
Freeman is currently working on developing a custom blend for Miette, a French-style patisserie owned by Megan Ray, who sells her organic cakes and pastries at local farmers' markets. This past summer, Ray added an espresso cart to her business, but wasn't happy with her coffee purveyor. Two months ago, she began using Blue Bottle coffee and the feedback has been impressive.
``Ever since we started using his coffee, we've seen a palpable change in our business,'' she says. ``People will buy a cup, then come back for more because it's so good. They're amazed. You get such a depth of flavor from his coffee, without the bitterness.''
The coffee tastes so good, in part, because Freeman trained Ray how to properly handle it.
``I thought coffee was coffee,'' says Ray, ``but James is such a perfectionist. He helped us with our machine, trained us how to make espresso and steam milk, taught us about the process of making a good cup of coffee or espresso. He's like a mad scientist.''
Ray especially enjoys Blue Bottle coffee with her chocolate creme fraiche cake and brownies, which she livens up with a bit of Freeman's ground espresso. I particularly loved the Sumatran coffee, which had a full, fruity body with chocolatey undertones.
Freeman avoids a ``West Coast,'' or dark, Italian-style roast on his beans. ``Here in the Bay Area, the preference is for a really dark, Roman-style espresso, but it's usually acrid and bitter because it's overextracted,'' Freeman says.
``Bay Area residents are savvy about food, but not as educated about coffee. I think the time is ripe for people who are as informed and excited about goat cheese and bread to be that way about coffee.''
Blue Bottle Coffee Co., beans are available at the Berkeley and Old Oakland farmers' markets, and by mail order at www.bluebottlecoffee.net Miette cakes and pastries are available at the Berkeley, Ferry Plaza, and Jack London farmers' markets, and by mail order at www.miettecakes.com
MIETTE'S ESPRESSO BROWNIES
1 1/3 cups chopped bittersweet chocolate (preferably Scharffen Berger 62 percent)
1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon brewed espresso (preferably Blue Bottle Espresso. You can add 2 teaspoons of freshly ground espresso beans instead of brewed for a more intense espresso flavor)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cocoa powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a double boiler, melt together chocolate and butter. Cool. Place chocolate-butter mixture into a mixing bowl and beat slowly to fully incorporate. Add eggs, sugar, espresso and vanilla to mixing bowl and mix until glossy and smooth.
Mix dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and add to the chocolate mixture. Mix thoroughly. Spread into a lightly greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish and bake for 25 minutes, or until just set. Makes about 15 brownies.
E-mail Laurel Miller at email@example.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org