The upcoming coffee brand of America


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2015)

The scent of warm, freshly ground coffee floats through the streets of San Francisco. Blue Bottle is a coffee company which puts the taste of the freshly roasted beans into the foreground - without wifi and deep armchairs - but with coffee of a standard unknown to many. What the guests are served here could be the beginning of a coffee revolution, just like it began with Starbucks in Seattle at the end of the 80s. On the west coast, Blue Bottle Coffee, whose name is a homage to the legendary first coffeehouse ‘Zum Hof der blauen Flasche’ in Vienna, has long been seen as the ‘apple’ of the coffee world.

James Freeman, a freelance clarinet musician got fed up of new-fangled coffee shop creations such as an ‘eggnog latte’ or a ‘fat free pumpkin spice macchiato’. Instead, he wanted to make a coffee for people who enjoy the taste of freshly roasted beans. He opened his first coffee roastery and promised to use only the best, pesticide-free, organically grown coffee beans and not to serve caoffee which was roasted more than 48 hours previously. 

Today, Blue Bottle Coffee plays a significant role in the so-called ‘third wave of coffee’ in the USA. The American coffee market has been experiencing a revolution for many years. The trend is a radical counter-movement to the completely lifestyle-trimmed concepts such as Starbucks. It’s much more about producing a qualitatively perfect coffee. Many manufacturers see coffee as a valuable raw material for manually sophisticated processing, similar to in Vienna.  

Improvements and innovations in each production phase are part of this - from optimum conditions for coffee plants in the plantations, the harvest and the processing, to closer cooperation between coffee farmers, intermediaries and roasteries. The so-called ‘third wave coffee’ was seen as a culinary luxury product and value is attached to the right cultivation area, the climate and particular types - just like wine, tea or chocolate. In addition, this coffee has to be from one variety, only the best quality beans are used and these are not so strongly roasted. When freshly brewed, these develop the most subtle of aromas, such as the Burundian ‘Twese Twoterimbere’ with aromas of apricot, lemon tart and brown sugar. Even the ‘Huehuetenango Chichimes’ from Guatemala seduces with its delicate notes of cherry, dried fruit and chocolate. 

Freeman’s preference for the procedure of a brewed coffee freshly prepared by hand lives up to his idea of quality. At Blue Bottle, the coffee is prepared in different ways, for example brewed in special glass flasks or poured by hand through a porcelain filter and therefore handled in a similar way to how wine is served in an exclusive restaurant.

However, it is a time-consuming process when each individual cup of coffee is celebrated, this takes three and a half minutes as a rule - as opposed to the typical 20 seconds from the machine. However, when you look at the impressively long lines in front of the Blue Bottle Cafés, the long wait seems not to bother the customers. 

When Freeman founded his company in 2002, he drove a small cart, packed full with fresh coffee beans, to the farmer’s market in Oakland himself,  in order to convince people of the quality of his favourite product. The business grew quickly and his first café opened in 2005 in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley area in the garage of a friend of James Freeman. Soon, ever more fans of coffee, who knew to value the taste of a freshly brewed cup, started coming. After a few years, several more cafés appeared in the San Francisco bay area. But James Freeman, obsessed with every detail, still felt a duty to keep his promise never to use coffee more than 48 hours after roasting. Therefore, expansion to the east coast was only possible when his own roastery and café was opened in Brooklyn. Today there are 22 cafés in total, 20 in the USA and this year two more cafés and a roastery were opened in Tokyo, Japan - as James Freeman was always a big fan of Japanese culture. 

Of course, such an expansion was not possible without the necessary investment. While Freeman managed to carry on his expansion with very little capital until 2008,  from 2012 several financing rounds took place in order to continue growing and to enable strategic purchases. And so James Freeman bought Tonx in April 2014, an online coffee ordering service from Los Angeles, and was able to put the service ‘Blue Bottle at Home’ online. Now, Blue Bottle fans were able to order their coffee beans to be delivered at home or at the office by subscription. In April, a strategic partnership took place with the cult ‘Tartine Bakery’ from San Francisco. In addition, James Freeman had brought out his first book - of course it’s all about the perfect coffee in ‘The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee’. And Caitlin Freeman, James’s wife, is a cookery book author. For her book ‘Modern Art Desserts’, she took inspiration from works of art from the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco - where there is also a Blue Bottle Café. The unusual dessert creations show the charm and artistic influence of the works of Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Henri Mattisse or Jeff Koons.

Therefore the coffee and the products of James Freeman go far beyond the average products on offer at other coffee chains. In the USA, a highly specific coffee scene, which can no longer be compared with so-called norms, has developed. The opinion exists that there is only weak filter coffee, which has been stewing on the hotplate for hours, in the USA, but the reality is that Americans are far ahead of the coffee market. There are even coffee concepts here which ban mobile phone and laptop users from the café, as they only want to attract coffee enthusiasts who dedicate their entire concentration to their drink and its taste. It is questionable whether the consumers in Germany are ready for this. In this respect, we will have to wait and see whether a brand like Blue Bottle Coffee can find its place on the market here on a large scale. But there are clear signs that the familiar Starbucks concept is beginning to crumble. Coffee lovers are starting to want the natural taste of coffee more and more. Anyone who has tried the excellent quality coffee will never want to leave it again, James Freeman is sure of this. 

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Picture credit © Blue Bottle Coffee


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