Tiny local roasters are making the SF Peninsula’s coffee scene a little more interesting and a lot more fun.
Like a lot of other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Vikram Shirvastava and Rekha Shivapa’s founder story began at their shared day job — he in hardware, she in software — centered on a common passion that took flight in a garage and culminated in a product the pair was proud to bring to market.
Moksha Coffee, the roasting company they started two decades ago, is a business to be sure: they supply popular Palo Alto spots like Ada’s Cafe and Zombie Runner. But it still doesn’t pay the bills, won’t land VC funding or become the next Blue Bottle and keeps both of them absolutely happy.
Shivapa, who grew up in Mysore, India, watching her family members roast homegrown coffee over an open fire, enjoys the process of sourcing shade-grown beans from artisanal producers in her native country. Shirvastava finds the roasting process itself utterly satisfying — the tweaking of numerous variables to match the moisture content of a particular bean, say, or the humidity in their facility on a particular day.
How satisfying? He wrote his own software to control one of his smaller roasters. Together the pair roasts 2,000 pounds of beans a week in a bare-bones industrial office space off Old Middlefield Way in Mountain View.
And they’re not alone. Hidden in plain sight up and down the Peninsula are a handful of commercial coffee roasting operations, most of them tiny, many of them run by coffee shop owners who took an interest in where their beans come from and why coffee tastes the way it does. Some have been at it for decades, others just a few months. They’re riding the so-called Third Wave of coffee popularized by West Coast roasters such as Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, Verve and Stumptown, which, broadly speaking, stipulates that coffee should be grown sustainably, purchased responsibly and roasted less. If you grew up drinking East Coast coffee-cart crude, Third Wave is the joe that has tang like fruit, and may take some getting used to.
‘I’d be incredibly bored if I just had Stumptown beans’
“Part of Third Wave ideology is that you don’t do blends, you want the beans to stand on their own,” says Rainer Johnk of Emerald Hills Cafe & Roastery near Redwood City. Like the other Peninsula roasters we spoke to, Johnk finds the art not so much in how he roasts but in what he roasts. He buys through coffee brokers that have access to smaller producers that are co-ops or farmer-owned and that grow without chopping down forests to plant (shade-grown is a sort of misnomer, he says, and really means having coffee grow alongside a native mix of plants instead of on a plantation). That adds to the price, and it means he may get wildly different harvests from one season to the next.
“Beans are fruit. It keeps you on your toes. It’s sort of like winemaking: every year your grape will be different.”
A painting contractor of 30 years who lives around the corner from the cafe, Johnk took over the management from his stepson and with it a small, decades-old Diedrich roaster installed by the cafe’s original owner. A friend showed him the basics and he joined with partner Annalise Zimmerman (who has since left) to revamp the establishment’s coffee program to focus on sustainably grown beans and roasts with character.
His Diedrich was the German maker’s last model before roasters were computerized, which is part of the appeal.
“It’s a fantastic piece of equipment,” says Johnk. “They run forever if you take care of them. On the more modern models you can pretty much hook them up to a computer and turn them on to automatic. These older ones, they still operate by touch and feel.”
That means adjusting the temperature and airflow up to ten times per 20-minute roast to reach a light or medium roast that has plenty of sugar and exotic flavors, but neither the tartness of the super-light roasts that are now in fashion nor the bitter, burnt flavor of dark roasts that earlier generations came to associate with European-style coffee.
“It sounds tedious, but to me tedious would be selling somebody else’s stuff,” says Johnk, who’s supplying Box and other companies as well as Roberts Market. “I think I’d be incredibly bored if I just had Stumptown beans. I’m excited when I have a sales call with somebody about our beans: I can tell you where they’re from and what we’re doing with it.”
Exotic beans, exotic flavors
Jimmy Huang’s path to coffee roasting follows a similar line. Huang and his brother-in-law founded Bliss Cafe in Redwood City four years ago and found success serving Four Barrel beans. He started on a home roaster a year ago and after a few months bought pretty much the smallest “production” roaster he could find, rented a spartan office space on San Antonio Road in Palo Alto and named it Red Giant Coffee Roasters. He admits he’s a rookie, still learning how to get the flavor he wants and how to buy the right beans on a small scale.
“There’s what your customers want and what you want,” Huang says, “and then wanting to do something different.”
What Huang wants is a light roast that’s juicy and sweet and requires some attention span to appreciate. What his Bliss customers are used to is a little darker and, he acknowledges, more comforting when dashing in and out on the way to work. Like all of the roasters we interviewed, Huang is obsessed with pulling his beans out of the fire just before “second crack,” the second of two pops that beans make as they heat up and expand.
“If you go to second crack you nail all the acidity, you caramelize the sugar.” Pulling the beans out just before means the sugars remain and the acidity isn’t there. Huang is still serving Four Barrel coffee to his regulars but has introduced his own espresso blend and serves some of his single-origin roasts at a pour-over bar inside Bliss.
Nick Chaput agrees with Huang about the roast, but disagrees with Johnk about the rules.
“You want to show off the character of the beans,” says the Dana Street Roasting Company proprietor, by way of explaining why he violates Third Wave dogma and does blends. Chaput can get away with such heresy: He’s been roasting in downtown Mountain View since 1997. On the Friday afternoon we stopped in he was training an employee on how to roast.
It got hot quickly. His San Franciscan 25-pound roaster, a steampunk daydream, stands in one corner of his cafe, about 12 inches from the nearest customer, who quickly scuttled to another table as the machine’s gas burners blasted hot air into a spinning barrel full of Rwanda while a just-finished batch circled a cooling table.
Chaput and his Dana Street crew roast old school: no computers, watch the thermometer, listen for the beans to crack and if you miss it by a few seconds, that’s part of the process. “You want to be super accurate every time, measure the moisture content, [do the] programming stuff? What fun is that?” he says. “If we take a roast a hair lighter or darker, that’s what makes it interesting.”
Custom-crafted roasts but stiff competition
Chaput records his roasting results (300 pounds a week) in a spiral-bound notebook and happily munches scalding hot beans right out of the roasting barrel like popcorn. The Rwanda’s lighter than its color would indicate, a longtime favorite, Sumatra, is chocolatey though currently unavailable and the yirgacheffe…blueberries! He gets giggly talking about the beans he buys from Costa Rican producer Hacienda La Minita — tediously hand sorted by hundreds of local (and, he notes, justifiably well-paid) women — to which he’s even sent his employees for a visit. Then he shrugs it off. “There’s so much stuff that, for lack of a better term, hipsters glom onto. It’s still coffee.”
Maybe. Vikram Shirvastava takes his coffee, if not himself, pretty seriously. Moksha (which means a state of bliss just short of nirvana, says Shivapa) roasts on a massive 50-pound Revelation machine according to Shirvastava’s precise specifications, taking into account the beans’ age (green coffee beans last a year or so), their moisture content and even ambient humidity. As we talk, a roast for Zombie Runner churns inside, the beans snapping like pencils breaking.
If Moksha’s roasting space is spare, the office the pair maintains down the hall is a mad scientist’s lab, crammed full of aging computers and roasters, plastic buckets, drip machines, grinders of varying vintage and an apparatus that looks like a tiny concrete mixer. Their operation began when Shivapa bought Shirvastava an espresso machine as a wedding present and took off after Shirvastava’s employer was sold and he was between tech gigs.
“He wanted a good cup of coffee,” says Shivapa. “I wanted to help small plantations and women [growers]. It was never the money.” Her original focus was on sourcing beans from sustainable growers in her home country, but they now buy from Latin America and other locations.
Having started before Blue Bottle and before sweeter, lighter coffee was in fashion, Moksha’s fortunes have waxed and waned. At one time they supplied Google and Nvidia and local mainstays like Esther’s German Bakery, Cuban restaurant Bodeguita del Medio and San Mateo’s Pausa. Now that their niche is big business (Blue Bottle sold a majority stake to Nestle for $425 million to Nestle), they face stiff competition, as do Chaput, Johnk and Huang. Big coffee buyers like Starbucks, Verve and Blue Bottle are hoovering up the best supplies, cementing long-term partnerships with producers or even buying coffee plantations. They can also offer cafes and corporate customers a lot of hand holding for staff, or even free equipment like grinders.
Still, the small roasters say they can find ways to compete. Shivapa says they focus on service, roasting custom-designed blends to order and delivering in just hours. Huang’s Red Giant is selling to Santa Clara’s innovative Voyager Coffee and to online subscription businesses while Chaput’s Dana Street sells beans to Whatsapp, Facebook and SRI.
Connoisseur Coffee, probably the oldest and largest Peninsula roasting operation, seems to be going strong and sells to a large number of local cafes and businesses. They have a small coffee bar in their Redwood City space and boast a loyal following (as of press time busy schedules had nixed an interview).
Kathleen Foley-Hughes, who founded Ada’s Cafe, says working with a local roaster like Moksha is about more than just getting good beans. Shirvastava has trained her staff on how to pull a proper shot, helped repair equipment in the middle of the night and taught Foley-Hughes where good coffee comes from and how it’s grown. And there’s the taste.
“Vikram’s coffee is just extraordinarily good,” she says. “There’s a lot of bad coffee.”