We can trace the history of our love affair with coffee back to a Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. The story goes that one day Kaldi noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He nibbled a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock.
History tells us other Africans of the same era fueled up on protein-rich coffee-and-animal-fat balls—primitive PowerBars—and unwound with wine made from coffee-berry pulp. Coffee later crossed the Red Sea to Arabia, where Yemeni traders sold the beans to traders.
The term ‘specialty coffee’ was first used at an international coffee conference in Montreuil, France, in 1978. In essence, the concept is quite simple: special geographic microclimates produce beans with unique flavor profiles. Underlying this idea of coffee appellations was the basic premise that specialty coffee beans would always be well prepared, freshly roasted, and properly brewed.
OBceans love their coffee. The community boasts eight establishments that have coffee at the heart of their business plan, not counting bakeries and restaurants where it’s also possible to grab a cup of better grade coffee. Recession (nationally, sales were flat this year) or not, business seemed to be pretty healthy in virtually every location I visited over the last few weeks.
The market for gourmet coffee has exploded over the last decade. In 2007, consumption of coffee surpassed that of soft drinks for the first time. Over the past three years young adult coffee consumption increased from 2.5 cups to 3.2 cups per day. McDonalds, Burger King and 7-11 all now claim to be selling better brands of coffee these days.
The fact is, however, that coffee is a complex product whose ultimate quality is determined by a long chain of micro-climates, farming methods, processors, importers, roasters and even the quality of water used in brewing. One screw up (say, not cleaning brewing equipment) along this chain will impact the flavor of a cup of coffee. And, more often than not at the gourmet coffee level, what we’re getting is a cuppa joe that is only slightly darker and fresher than the stuff that’s served in truck stops. Having said that, my survey of local coffee shops turned up mostly above average brews along with intangible extras not likely to be found at truck stops or Denny’s.
I’m a long time coffee snob. I buy my locally roasted beans from Devine Madman Coffee, grind them up to order, and use a French press to extract as much of the flavor as possible. I’ll never forget—way back in the roaring 80’s—trying to share my newfound love of gourmet coffee with Sunday brunch customers at a restaurant I was running. Back then I was enthralled by the idea that roasters were adding flavors, an enthusiasm that was soon tempered by several patrons spitting out their first sip and asking me “what the hell” I though I was doing. That experience serves to remind me that coffee preferences are highly personal things, so let me tell you upfront about how I went about rating these coffee joints:
**I used a coffee rating system that I found on CoffeeGeek.com as a general guide for tasting. I highly recommend that site if you want to learn more about the process of “cupping” which is what professional tasters call their craft. For those of you who might want to wander into a more complex system, I suggest this tasting chart.
**I ordered a small cup of whatever “dark roast” that each establishment served. I drank it black. Dark roast means that the beans were kept in the roaster for about 12 minutes or so, until oils had just begun to rise to the surface to the bean. At this point in the roasting process some aromatic characteristics of the coffee are lost, the trade off being a richer body and some loss of “sweetness” as the sugars in the beans begin to caramelize. Dark roasted coffees are my personal preference.
**The rating system I used figured the coffee tasting as 50% of the total scoring. Other factors, including service, ambiance and pricing were included in the total score. The best potential score would be 100 points. Anything less than 70 means you should avoid the place. Nobody reviewed here fell into either of those categories.
4984 Voltaire St (at Bacon St in front of OB Quik Stop)
A drive through coffee place, with a couple of tables. The BEST cup of coffee in Ocean Beach: an Italian Roast with beans locally roasted at Café Calabria. Friendly staff, lots of choices. Or, and it was also the least expensive. Go figure.
Scores: Coffee/47 points + other/43 points= 92 points Cost $1.25
5047 Newport Ave
(619) 224-0249 junglejavaofob.com
I love the show at the Jungle. It’s a tropical garden facing out onto Newport where you can watch the OB experience unfold in all its glory (or pathos, depending). The coffee is excellent, service can be “same day” at times, as it’s a one man operation.
Scores: Coffee/45 points + other/43 points= 88 points Cost $1.50
1959 Abbott St, (between Newport Ave & Santa Monica Ave)
(619) 224-6666 www.newbreakcafe.com
Perhaps the most “Obcean” of all the places visited, in every sense of the word. Laid back, great view, nice vibe. And inconsistent. I had both good and bad coffee & service experiences. None-the-less, it’s my first choice as a hangout.
Scores: coffee/ 40 points + other/45 points= 85 points. Cost $1.75
1830 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard
(619) 226-4471 www.newbreakcafe.com/
For whatever reason, the coffee is always better here than at the Abbott Street location. And the service is more consistent. Having said that, it can’t quite escape the strip-mall-i-ness of it’s location..
Scores: Coffee/ 42 points + other/42 points= 84 points Cost 1.50
Your Mama’s Mug
4967 Newport Ave (619) 523-0687
It’s like an old school coffee house dropped into a storefront. A completely different vibe here. The street scene tends to be more soap opera-ish than a block closer to the beach. Still, it’s entertaining. Service can also be entertaining, although I don’t think that’s on purpose. And they have a larger selection of coffees than most.
Scores: Coffee/39 points + other/42 points= 81 points Cost $1.33
Pirates Cove Coffee
4949 Santa Monica Ave (in the Apple Tree parking lot)
It’s a pirate ship (complete with squawking mechanical pirate on top) that serves coffee mainly to its loyal drive-through customers. Very friendly staff. Very ordinary coffee unless you get it dressed up with whipped cream and a coffee bean.
Scores: Coffee/35 points +other/42 points= 77 points Cost 1.50
Tiki Port/Pirates Cove
4892 Voltaire Street (between Sunset Cliffs Blvd & Cable St)
Okay, I’m noticing a trend here. Cute girls serving so-so coffee. And even though the sign says a cuppa joe is $1.25, I got charged $1.50.
Scores: Coffee/37 points + other/ 40 points=77 points Cost 1.50
4994 Newport Avenue (619) 223-7794
I know that’s there’s probably an expectation out there in on the internets that I’ll trash this place because it’s corporate owned, and because there were plenty of people in Ocean Beach that protested their arrival here. But I’m not going to do that. I appreciate a cuppa Starbucks from time to time. Having lived in a part of the world (yes, there are some, still) where getting a cup of real coffee was a challenge, I have warm and fuzzy feelings about landing in a US airport and getting a cup ‘o Starbucks.
However, my experience at the OB Starbucks has been not so good. Wow, is that place sterile! Echo-y, over air-conditioned, and kinda creepy. And while the coffee was acceptable, not much else about the experience was. Being asked to insert 25 cents in a coin-operated lock to use the restroom that doesn’t include toilet paper as part of the amenities just blew my mind. Yes, I know that they’ve had a challenge with the homeless people of OB using the facilities. And yes, I know that they’ll give you a quarter to admit you to the restroom if you stand at the counter and announce your issues to the world. Never again.
Scores: Coffee/42 + other 29= 71 points. Cost 1.50