Sunday, July 19, 2009
Being a geek has served James Freeman well as one of the Bay Area’s premier coffee roasters. But it wasn’t so great in high school in the Humboldt County town of Fieldbrook. One day, a group of boys slammed the clarinet player against a row of lockers.
“Flute boy!” they yelled.
The fact that they got the instrument wrong almost bothered him more than the hazing.
“I almost said, ‘Well actually …’ ” recalled Freeman, laughing.
Freeman went on to become a professional clarinetist, but his musical career never took off the way his coffee business has. Known for his exacting roasting standards and his passion for high-quality, organic coffee beans, Freeman has just opened branches of his Blue Bottle Cafe at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Ferry Building, a year after opening his first cafe, in downtown San Francisco.
“He’s certainly the leader in roasting in the Bay Area,” said Dexter Carmichael, director of operations for CUESA, which manages the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market where Freeman got his break. Within a couple of months of starting up his coffee cart at the Saturday market in December 2003, the lines for his coffee, meticulously brewed one cup at a time, were often 20 people deep.
“It’s his attention to detail. It’s a really focused, really clean, really pure approach to coffee,” Carmichael said.
Expanding in Oakland
Freeman, 43, is about to move into a 9,000-square-foot warehouse in Oakland’s Jack London Square that will house the office, two vintage coffee roasters, a barista training room, commercial kitchen and coffee bar, with room to manage the company’s 50 employees and 50 wholesale accounts, including about 25 restaurants. In fact, many credit him with improving the quality of restaurant coffee.
“In restaurants, typically coffee was, if not an afterthought, certainly never given very high priority,” said Daniel Patterson, chef-owner of the four-star restaurant Coi in North Beach. “James is coming in and saying, ‘Why don’t you pay the same amount of attention to coffee that you do to the food?’ “
A center of coffee roasting since the Gold Rush, the Bay Area has seen various trends fall in and out of fashion. Along with Blue Bottle, a handful of other new local roasters share similar specialties: buying beans from sustainable, often individual, farms; roasting in smaller batches and at lighter levels than standard coffeehouse style; and a weakness for technology, such as coffee grinders that cost as much as a flight to Rome.
On a recent morning, Freeman left his San Francisco apartment to bring his son, Dashiell, 6, to summer day camp. He had breakfast at the Ferry Building cafe and then headed to the company’s Emeryville roasting facilities to join his staff for the daily coffee tasting called cupping.
They cupped four top Nicaraguan coffees from the online coffee auction Cup of Excellence and a new Brazilian coffee.
“I’m not super into No. 3,” Freeman said. “It feels like it’s hollowed out. No. 1 is the most expressive.”
Over the course of the week, the staff would cup 30 Nicaraguan coffees to decide which, if any, to bid on.
Made to order
Daily cuppings are standard industry practice, but the way Freeman runs things can seem extreme. A customer once asked how long he could store his ground coffee for espresso. Freeman’s answer: 45 seconds. When the customer said, no seriously, how long, Freeman thought about it and told him, well, maybe 90 seconds.
“If he was looking for advice, well, that’s what we think is right,” said Freeman, pointing out that ground coffee quickly dries out and becomes unpleasant tasting.
Visiting a Blue Bottle cafe is a rarefied experience, from the time it takes to get a cup of coffee – a barista makes one cup at a time, grinding the beans, then stirring the grounds while pouring in the water – to details like soft-scrambled eggs from pasture-raised chickens pillowed between crustless slices of Acme bread. Customers can get irritated by the long lines and not-piping-hot lattes, but Freeman counters that each cup is made to order and is meant to be consumed right away.
The son of a State Board of Equalization administrator and a homemaker mother, Freeman attended UC Santa Cruz, mostly so he could be near clarinet teacher Rosario Mazzeo in Carmel. After graduating, he earned his master’s degree in clarinet at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Freeman joined what is dubbed the Freeway Philharmonic, a group of Bay Area musicians who travel between part-time jobs with small orchestras. Burned out after a decade of being a musical nomad, he welcomed a brief foray with a music dot-com that ended in being laid off in the wake of 9/11.
Freeman had been in the grip of coffee obsession since the mid-1990s, when he started roasting his coffee at home on a perforated baking sheet. He would bring a manual coffee grinder and French press aboard airplanes to make himself a cup.
Started with cart
While unemployed, he began roasting tiny batches of beans and selling them at farmers’ markets. Miette Patisserie, co-owned at the time by Megan Ray and Caitlin Williams, was one of his first customers. The pair also had an espresso cart they were happy to sell to Freeman. (The relationship with Miette also became personal later, with Freeman and Williams marrying last year.)
Freeman has come a long way from that first cart. His Mint Plaza cafe in downtown San Francisco is distinguished by its refinement – black-aproned servers remove ceramic coffee cups and organic pastry crumbs from your table – and a row of Japanese siphon coffee makers that has drawn the attention of coffee geeks around the country.
Still, those close to Freeman say he’s not a snob or even a perfectionist.
“I don’t know if he would ever say he’s trying to get perfection,” said his wife, who is now the company’s pastry chef. “I think he would say he’s trying to do things as carefully as possible with as much thought as possible.”
It can be hard to find a crack in Freeman’s politeness; he’s even been quoted saying nice things about Starbucks. But he has his moments. Right before the SFMOMA location was about to open, an employee came to show him the new menu. He had fallen in love with a typeface called Gil Sans Light and was excited to see it in print.
“I said, in a very snippy way, ‘That’s not Gil Sans Light, that’s Gil Sans!’ ” said Freeman.
If only the high school bullies could hear him now.
Name: James Freeman.
Title: Owner, Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
Home town: Fieldbrook (Humboldt County)
Education: UC Santa Cruz, bachelor of arts, 1990; San Francisco Conservatory of Music, master of music in clarinet performance, 1992.
Career: Clarinetist with several Northern California symphonies, 1990-2000.
Businesses: Blue Bottle Cafe at 66 Mint St., Ferry Building No. 9, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Rooftop Garden, all in San Francisco. Kiosks at 315 Linden St., San Francisco; Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Tuesday and Saturday; and Temescal Farmers’ Market (Oakland) on Sunday.
Family: Married to Caitlin Williams Freeman. Son, Dashiell, 6, from a previous marriage.
E-mail Tara Duggan at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle