Food & Drink

‘Third-wave’ coffee crests in Sacramento

Sacramento has a growing reputation for its restaurants and boutique farms. The regional wine industry is flourishing and winning acclaim. And craft beer is big and getting bigger.

But in the past five years, thanks to a small band of quality-obsessed entrepreneurs and meticulously trained employees, the local coffee scene has emerged as a largely unsung star that just might be at the forefront when it comes to garnering respect and attracting attention well beyond our city limits.

Craft coffee, or “third-wave” coffee as it is known to aficionados and industry insiders, has reshaped the local landscape, redefined what good coffee is supposed to taste like and, along the way, bolstered the area’s reputation on a national and international level.

Just ask the experts at Coffee Review, the industry-leading online arbiter of roasted coffee excellence. Its experts spend their days “cupping,” or tasting, coffees submitted for evaluation from the leading coffeehouses in the United States and internationally.

“It’s obvious that Sacramento has some of the best coffee in the world coming through it,” said Jason Sarley, a sensory analyst for Coffee Review, which is based in Berkeley and calls itself “the world’s leading coffee buying guide.”

Sarley and colleague Kenneth Davids, who is the author of three books on coffee and is the co-founder of the Coffee Review, point to four major players locally that drive Sacramento’s ever-expanding reputation: Temple, Old Soul, Insight and Chocolate Fish. They also list Naked Coffee and two nano-roasters, Theory and Mast, as high-level players locally.

Leading the way is Temple, which has three shops in Sacramento. In 2010, Temple startled the industry when one of its coffees sourced from Guatemala scored a 97 out of 100 by Coffee Review, the highest rating of the year. It has been registering 90-plus scores ever since.

“They have a phenomenal track record with us,” Davids said. “They consistently come through with well sourced and tactfully roasted coffee.”

If your favorite shop isn’t on the short list, that doesn’t mean it isn’t serving a decent product. Prior to this new wave of serious coffee, there was good coffee served by Java City, Coffee Works, Boulevard Coffee and others. Heavy hitters Peet’s and Starbucks, both of which tend to favor darker roasts, are credited with bringing more awareness and a lifestyle element to coffee. Those specialty shops are generally considered coffee’s “second wave.”

The new coffee spots, by most accounts, have dramatically elevated the standards to a level of excellence that could rival the shops in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and New York. For now, much of it is limited to the midtown and downtown grid, with the suburbs dominated by Starbucks.

Sarley, who has made the rounds at Sacramento’s coffeehouses, said that in addition to Temple, Old Soul is on the rise as a topflight roaster. Last November, one of its Ethiopian coffees scored 93 points with Coffee Review.

Several traits distinguish the leading coffee shops in town, mostly centered around an obsessive quest for quality.

They all source high-caliber and pricy green coffee from premier producers. They make frequent visits to where coffee is grown in Central and South America and elsewhere to develop relationships with farmers and make deals for super-premium beans.

Back at their Sacramento shops, they key in on freshness, roast in small batches and, more than anything, they cup and taste practically every day in order to assess flavor profiles, fine-tune roasting parameters and, for lack of a better way of putting it, totally geek out about all things coffee.

“If you’re on the grid, you’re no more than a minute-and-a-half away from really good coffee,” said Ryan Harden, the roaster for Old Soul, which has four locations. “These businesses are thriving and it’s exciting.”

On a recent weekday morning in the roasting room at Insight Coffee on Eighth Street, co-owner Lucky Rodrigues had lined up a series of cups to test – and possibly humble – some of his top baristas.

Insight is a coffee business on the rise. Starting with its flagship location, which launched in 2011, Insight recently took over the former Broadacre coffee shop on 10th Street downtown (the original Temple location), and just opened a shop at the Pavilions shopping center. It will open a fourth shop when construction is finished on midtown’s 16 Powerhouse mixed-use complex.

Why the cupping with the baristas? It looks and sounds a lot like the way top restaurants have servers taste their way through wines. Rodrigues says it’s important for employees to not only identify each of the six coffee styles Insight sells, but be able to talk about the different characteristics in a way customers can comprehend. That means no jargon or off-putting esoteric language. While third-wave coffee once had a reputation for snobbery (see The Nosh Pit), that has changed in recent years as shop owners realized that in order to grow their businesses they had to educate – not belittle – consumers.

“The more intensely you know your coffees from start to finish, the more apt you are to be able to talk to somebody about the nuances and the differences between the coffees and help them find the coffee they are looking for,” said Rodrigues.

Insight co-owner Chris Ryan, who started roasting coffee at home as a hobby, sees customer education as a key component of growing the business. That includes talking about how coffee is grown, the political and economic issues related to coffee, as well as specifics that relate to the sometimes markedly different flavors found in the cup. That level of detail might have been lost on coffee lovers of a decade ago. But the coffee consumer these days is often astute and deeply interested in minutiae.

While craft coffee gets most of the press these days, it still has a tiny share of the overall coffee market. Most consumers continue to drink dark-roasted coffee found at Starbucks and Peet’s and sold as beans by the pound at grocery stores. While darker roasts tend to mask the more nuanced flavors of the beans and have an overriding toasty or even burnt flavor profile, the lighter roasts at craft-coffee houses might express berry, floral or citrus notes along with cocoa, caramel and more. Many consumers might find the taste odd or even jarring at first.

“The better we do at educating, the more it becomes more than just a cup of coffee,” said Ryan.

The experience can be different at a craft-coffee house than what you’d find at a Starbucks or other chain. While employee training has improved in recent years, there tends to be room for more individuality when it comes to service. Prices are marginally higher – $1.75 for a small size at Starbucks compared with $2 to $2.50 at a craft shop. While no one at a craft house has to play along with the Starbucks nomenclature – a “tall” coffee for small and a “grande” for medium – most servers are there to help.

“You don’t want to alienate anybody. There is absolutely no room for snobbery,” said Edie Baker, co-owner of Chocolate Fish. “We push that with our employees all the time and we weed that out in job interviews.”

Still, those who taste coffee for a living are sometimes baffled about the enduring appeal of dark roast. Few if any craft-coffee houses roast beyond medium, or golden brown, insisting it all but obliterates the subtle flavors of the beans.

“I don’t know why anyone would drink dark roast coffee,” said Harden, the Old Soul roaster. “Dark roast is a way to cover up cheap coffee. It’s what has been sold to the American consumer as the way you should drink coffee.”

New customers who ask for dark roast coffee are often steered toward varietals that may have some of those nutty or earthy qualities they prefer, Harden explained.

If Sacramento’s new era in coffee can be traced to a single shop, it would be Naked Lounge, which opened at the corner of 15th and Q streets in early 2002. From its front door, you could look diagonally across Fremont Park and see Starbucks at 16th and P. At that time, few independent coffee spots had the courage to challenge the chain behemoth.

But Naked Lounge found an ardent fan base and launched numerous coffee careers. Co-founder Jason Griest left Naked to co-found Old Soul in 2006. Sean Kohmescher, a barista at Naked Lounge, went on to open Temple in 2005. For a time, those two were roommates with Christopher Pendarvis, who continues as owner of Naked Lounge (and later, Tupelo in East Sacramento). Rodrigues, now the co-owner of Insight, also worked at Naked in the early days.

The new sense of purpose and intensity were palpable in the years after Naked Lounge opened.

“The quality of the coffee, the craft and the sophistication of the business models have increased a thousandfold,” said Griest. “There were very motivated and disciplined entrepreneurs. Sean Kohmescher wasn’t afraid to put it all out there and work 100-hour weeks.”

The owners of the top shops say there is plenty of room for growth. They believe the coffee culture here will continue to get better and, when it comes to Sacramento’s reputation in food and beverage circles, continue to lead the way.

Says Chocolate Fish’s Baker, “I can honestly say that we have some of the best coffee in the world here in Sacramento.”