Coffee bars offer unique, expensive brew

February 8, 2008 9:05:51 AM PST
Leave it to San Francisco to take coffee drinking to a whole new level. Two coffee bars in the city now have some of the fanciest, most expensive coffee machines in the world and brag about finding flavors in coffee you've never tasted at Starbucks.

It looks like an apparatus that belongs in the lab of a mad scientist, but it really belongs to a man who is just mad about coffee.

"Nobody needs a siphon. I've always loved siphon coffee," says James Freeman, owner of Blue Battle Cafe.

So James Freeman spent years and about $20,000 to bring this siphon bar from Japan to San Francisco. This is the only halogen powered model in the United States and it doesn't even make espresso -- just plain ole coffee.

"If we have good technique and we do the right profile, we can bring things out of the coffee that you might not notice in a filter drip," says Freeman.

The siphon heats the water with a burner and pushes it through a pipe into the coffee grounds. After the coffee brews, it is sucked back through the pipe to the first canister. The coffee is so precious, the rushed morning crowd doesn't even get to experience it. Freeman only sells pots of the siphon coffee between 10 am and 6 pm, when people can linger and appreciate. However, he did agree to make a couple of pots for our expert taster.

Greg Sherwin has rated almost 600 San Francisco coffee shops for his Web site,, and he definitely appreciates the siphon bar.

"It's the kind of coffee that you'd have really because you're focused on the experience of having coffee," says Sherwin.

However, Freeman and his staff at the Blue Bottle Cafe on Mint Street aren't the only ones striving for a fine cup of coffee. The folks at the coffee bar in San Francisco's Potrero neighborhood have also moved beyond the drip coffee maker.

"We're trying to raise the bar and give people a better, superior product," says Jason Paul, coffee bar owner.

They use a machine called the clover, it isn't quite as rare or expensive as the siphon, and only costs $11,000, but it's pretty new and pretty cool to watch. It also brews a cup of coffee that tastes pretty darn good. Sherwin describes it as "very nice."

The clover works like a mechanized French press. It brews one cup at a time, eradicating the problem of stale coffee that sits in the pot waiting for customers. Like the siphon, it motivates the coffee drinker to think of the most colorful adjectives when describing the taste.

"It's a cleaner cup of coffee," says Paul.

So has it really come to this? Is coffee drinking the new wine bar?

"San Franciscans can come enjoy something that's kind of almost partly unique to the city. I think that's always a good thing,"

A pot of the siphon coffee costs about $11 or $12 and a cup of the coffee from the clover costs $3.

There's even more to the art behind the perfect cup of coffee, and you can read about that in The Back Story.