For Blue Bottle Boss James Freeman, It's Siphon Coffee With A Smile
Some call him prophet. Others a caffeinated crank.
In person, while splitting a perfectly golden Liège waffle that had minutes before been nothing but a bowl of batter, Blue Bottle President and CEO James Freeman doesn’t act like the guy behind the $20,000 cup of coffee. This is not to say he’s not willing to talk about his prized Japanese siphon rig installed at his Mint Plaza location in San Francisco. Or talk about the difference between pulp natural and dry processed roasting. Or talk about the proper way to achieve the mythic bloom while operating a Chemex.
Of course he could talk my ear off until the fifth cortado buzz burns off. This man knows his shit about coffee, after all. But instead, Freeman wants to stress the importance of service in the 10 cafes he operates around the country. “It’s not like the coffee SATs,” he says while seated at the barista counter of his latest New York City location in the southern tip of NYC's Chelsea. “And people should be nice.” I find out more about from one of America’s most-progressive, and well-funded, coffee minds around. And damn were those good waffles.
I was walking over here and my friend texted me to say your coffee is like crack. Did you expect to be at crack dealer status this soon in New York?
That’s very flattering that we’re getting that kind of response. I studied in New York a long time ago and had sort of a romantic evening in Brooklyn in 2008 and that planted the fantasy of opening up here. Things kind of worked out – we opened our roastery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and that was fun.
You’ve been called a prophet by some as well…
[Laughs] No, fortunately I am a very tangible person and think about what the coffee is tasting like and what the shops feel like and how nice and skilled the baristas are. Those are the things I think about – what the menus look like, if the barstools fit – a lot of things are equally important to me. I don’t think about, “Rise, my people!”
Do you feel pressure to not overthink what you are doing? Some people on the “outside” of the coffee world may think that there is too much going on with their basic cup of coffee in some of these shops.
You could say that we are really overthinking a lot of things with this place and this menu, but the reason it works is because of people like Grace [pointing at the lovely barista preparing our cups]. She’s not like, “Let me give you a lecture on pulp’s natural properties while you sit there and eat your waffles.” She’s going to try and connect with you where you are and where she thinks you want to be. If you want to know about the cascara tea, she’s going to know everything there is to know about the cascara tea. She’s also going to be checking in with all her skills and intuition about what she thinks will bring you the best possible experience – letting you enjoy it or bringing some more information to it.
There’s a bit of a perception that there is elitism at these coffee bars. But you say Danny Meyer is a role model of yours. Talk about egalitarian.
Oh my goodness, yeah. Hospitality is such a big part. We talk about it almost every day in meetings.
But on the other hand, it seems like the knowledge of the average coffee drinker has increased like 1000% in the last year or two. I mean, I just bought a fucking Chemex. And I am not alone.
It’s not even knowledge. It’s not like the coffee SATs. I feel that peoples’ willingness to try something new has increased.
Speaking of Chemex, let’s talk a little bit about why you are so pro pour-over.
I always have been. The pendulum for a long time was, sort of, everybody serves coffee in an urn. Then, there was the conversation about the Clover. That was an important point for the coffee industry because it started getting people talking about certain coffees individually. What happened was that people started having the desire to make coffee individually — and looking at other means of making coffee individually. Meanwhile, we had been laboring away making coffee individually since we opened.
Back to the pour-over technique that you employ in all of your bars. What does that do to the coffee?
It makes it a skill, first of all. It’s not just putting coffee in a basket and pressing a button. A skill implies that some people can be better at it than others, so it’s a way of appreciating professionals, which is important. These are really skilled professionals in our bars that are good at it, and it’s fun to watch somebody who is really good at what they do, whether it’s a chef dicing little carrots or mixology…
How long did it take you to write your just-released book, a document of your life’s work?
A long time. We had this deadline that when we signed the contract, it seemed like it was far away, but then it ended up being not that far away. We did hit the deadline, though. It’s very much an homage to the coffee bars in Japan that have a coffee menu, a toast menu, a hot dog menu.
Wait, a hot dog menu?
Yeah, totally. We don’t have hot dogs. The infrastructure and the health department oversight would be a little tricky if we served hot dogs, too. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s in homage to our coffee bar favorites in Tokyo.
So Tokyo coffee culture is probably your favorite in the world?
I am so inspired by that. I love the city and it’s exciting to be there.
How long have you been traveling to Japan?
The first time I went I was with a musical group at age 19. I hadn’t been to very many cities and it kind of knocked me out.
How much of the book is about how coffee is grown and roasted?
There are plenty of places that you can get “coffee origins of the world” and that kind of stuff. I just wanted to highlight a few different origins to illustrate that there are different origins. I wanted people to know what dry processed means and what pulp natural means if they see it on a coffee bag. I wanted it to be more of a really good magazine article than a textbook. And personal, as well.
OK, can you tell me what pulp natural is?
Everybody does it slightly differently. With pulp natural, basically you are taking the fruit off the coffee but there is still the sticky mucilage that spreads and you get a sweeter coffee without being as fruit-forward as dry processed or natural processed. You also get a little more texture and bite.
Let’s talk about the recent news about your $20 million funding. Does that sum of money change your life dramatically or not so much?
What people ran [in the media] and what is are two different things [laughs]. It’s great to have that opportunity — we’ve had one investor since 2008 and we transitioned to a new investment group in October. It’s really exciting because we’ve got a way of affording to do some cool things. What those cool things are, I’m not really sure yet. We’ve got this bottled coffee that is going to be hard and expensive to produce. Do you know our New Orleans–style coffee? We’ve figured out a way to pasteurize that without heat, so it has a shelf life and is really delicious. We’ve been trying to pass line tests where it regularly gets higher marks than our shops.
What about opening new locations?
I think that there will be some more locations, but I haven’t even started looking yet.
But it’s perfecting this bottle product that is really on your mind…
Yeah, because it’s delicious! Stumptown’s is really good, but everything else basically ranges from terrible to horrible.
I mean, we all grew up with that Starbucks bottled stuff. Let’s talk about them for a second. When I say that word, Starbucks, what do you feel?
Everybody in specialty coffee should feel indebted gratitude when they hear that word, because Starbucks has paved the way for everybody else to follow in these little niches in which they have basically created the category.
Have you hired folks from Starbucks?
Yeah, we’ve had baristas off and on who started at Starbucks.
It’s not like a “throw the resume out” kind of thing?
Oh, no, no, no.
Do you have Wi-Fi here?
No. That’s not going to happen. We don’t have big spaces everywhere. I like the congeniality of people talking to each other. You can offer Wi-Fi or not offer Wi-Fi and I think we’re getting close to a point where it doesn’t matter if a café has it or not because people will just have their signal somehow. Technology is going to advance such that it doesn’t matter if you have Wi-Fi or not, but instead if you have two-tops and if the design and culture of your café is that people will spread out. I have tried to design it in such a way that it will bring people together and they will interact with each other and the baristas, which means they’ll have a lot of pushy chairs and two-tops and stuff like that – a lot of shared, communal spaces.
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