Scarlet City Coffee. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Scarlet City Coffee founder Jen St. Hilaire, pictured at the company’s espresso bar in Emeryville. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Scarlet City Coffee founder Jen St. Hilaire, pictured at the company’s espresso bar in Emeryville. Photo: Benjamin Seto

In the food-conscious Bay Area where sourcing is essential, it’s no surprise that specialty coffee drinkers will often ask: “Who roasts your beans?”

While many times you’ll hear popular names like Ritual, Sightglass, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle (of course), more and more consumers are choosing beans from a small crew of brands like Highwire, Bicycle Coffee, Supersonic or Red Bay. They all have their own unique ways of roasting coffee, but they all have one thing in common — they make the East Bay their home.

A growing number of so-called “third wave” coffee roasters — those who roast small-batches of often hard-to-find or exotic green beans — are popping up on this side of the Bay, mostly because the founders already live here or they believe there’s a stronger sense of community in places like Oakland and Berkeley than in San Francisco. For a small roaster starting out, community can be a key to success.

“People who live and work [in the East Bay] are constantly on the lookout for new experiences when it comes to food and drink, and looking to support local businesses,” said Martina Nemling, co-owner of Modern Coffee, which serves a variety of local roasts at its two Oakland cafés. “That combination, coupled with the fact that lots of people live here, can make for diverse entrepreneurial opportunities.”

Rich Avella, one of three owners of Highwire Coffee Roasters, says for years small roasters didn’t want to go up against hometown big boy Peet’s, which got its start in Berkeley, and is now so large it recently gobbled up two popular coffee brands (Stumptown of Portland and Intelligentsia of Chicago). But Oakland’s growing food movement and vibrant arts-maker scene are encouraging more artisan coffee roasters to set up shop here.

“More roasters equal more voices equal more diverse points of view about what coffee can be,” said Avella.

Growth of specialty brew

Proyector Diaz Coffee. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Lee Cabuhat and Jonathan Orantes package roasted beans at Proyector Diaz Coffee. Photo courtesy: Proyector Diaz

The thirst for that special blend roasted with the right balance is a growing business in the United States. About 34% of U.S. adults drank specialty coffee in 2014, up from 31% the year before, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. And, for the first time, specialty coffee’s market share surpassed the sales of regular coffee in 2014, growing from 43% to 51%.

“Roasters like Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia re-envisioned specialty coffee for consumers,” said Jason Sarley, specialty coffee analyst and co-editor of the Berkeley-based website, Coffee Review. “It’s not just coffee but the whole experience, transcending from the support of the farmer and fair trade to the cafés offering unique experiences. … [Third-wave coffee roasters] are trying to change a commodity into a lifestyle.”

Sarley also believes the last 2008 economic downturn added to the demand for high-quality coffee. As more people realized a cup of coffee was getting just as expensive as specialty coffee, he said, they cut back on their coffee while also selecting specialty brands.

Coffee companies like Blue Bottle — which built its headquarters and roastery in Oakland’s Jack London Square and is now an international brand — inspired many roasters to break out on their own as they started to see a demand for good coffee and a pipeline of willing investors. Several of the newest coffee brands have been founded by people whose résumes are dotted with names such as Blue Bottle, Sightglass and Verve.

Roasting in the East Bay

Highwire Coffee in Berkeley. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Highwire Coffee in Berkeley. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Micro-roasters aren’t just in the East Bay of course, but all over the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco. And while East Bay roasters like to look at themselves as being more “scrappy” than their San Francisco counterparts, most admit there’s little difference between roasters on either side of the bay.

“Most roasters have different interpretations of coffee, but that seems company-based and not city contingent,” said Kaleb Houston, director of coffee at Oakland’s Red Bay Coffee. “Any overarching trends are trans-bay trends and probably more homogenous than we would like to admit.”

Alex Roberts, co-owner of RoastCo in West Oakland, said, “Most of us started with smaller investments and have worked hard to build our bases through surrounding communities and social ties.”

Avella of Highwire echoed the community sentiment, saying a lot of sharing happens among roasters here and across the bay. Highwire has a tenant-roasting program where new roasters train at its Emeryville facility. The East Bay also has a couple of multi-roaster facilities serving as an incubator for new artisan roasters.

A few months ago, Oakland’s Modern Coffee started roasting its own coffee even though its cafés continue to serve a rotation of other local brands. “I want Modern to serve the cup of coffee that people want to drink every day, not something that simply wows on the cupping table or is favored because it’s exotic,” said co-owner Nemling.

And in the end it’s going to be the consumers who benefit from the variety of coffee that’s on offer.

Bjorg Brend Laird, co-owner of Supersonic Coffee in Berkeley, said that some wonder whether this latest boom can be sustained. “I think there will always be room for those that answer the question of value,” she says. “But it’s the consumers that will ultimately decide.”

East Bay coffee roasters

Modern Coffee in Oakland. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Modern Coffee at 381 19th St. in Oakland. Photo: courtesy Modern Coffee

Here’s a sampling of some of the micro-roasters keeping the East Bay coffee culture percolating.

Artis Coffee Roasters
Based in Berkeley
Started: 2013
Founded by a group of MBA graduates, Artis is a café, coffee roaster and high-end retail concept that opened its first large store in Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping district, featuring “live-roast” coffee beans. It’s rapidly expanding beyond with stores in San Francisco and one in Bangkok, Thailand. Artis is at 1717 Fourth St. (at Virginia Street), Berkeley. Connect with the coffee shop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Bicycle Coffee
Based in Oakland
Started: January 2009
Founded by brothers Cameron and Matthew McKee, Bicycle Coffee has a sustainable approach to the coffee business — it delivers its roasts by bike or public transit. It eventually grew into an Oakland business selling at Whole Foods and farmers markets. It grows by creating “chapters,” sort of like a franchise, including the flagship near Oakland’s Jack London Square and chapters in Tokyo and LA. Bicycle Coffee is at 364 Second St. (at Webster Street), Oakland. Connect with the roaster on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Devout Coffee
Based in Fremont
Started: 2013
Co-owners Jon Fisher and Steven Pape are brothers-in-law who started playing with roasting their own coffee using a gas BBQ in a garage. Now they have a coffee bar and roastery in the historic Niles district in Fremont. Connect with Devout Coffee on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Due Torri Coffee
Based in Oakland
Started: 1999
The family who owns this coffee roaster has roots in Guatemala, and its beans can be found at cafes, local stores, and online. Connect with Due Torri Coffee on Facebook.

Highwire Coffee Roasters
Based in Emeryville
Started: 2011
Highwire is a small-batch coffee roaster and tea company with three cafés: at Rockridge’s Market Hall, the Flowerland coffee trailer in Albany, and at the former Local 123 in Berkeley. This last location sells nitro-brewed cold coffee and has a partnership with Drake’s Brewing Co. Highwire Coffee is at 5655 College Ave. (at Shafter Avenue), Oakland; 1330 Solano Ave. (between Pomona and Ramona streets), Albany; and 2049 San Pablo Ave. (at Addison Street), Berkeley. Connect with the roaster on Facebook and Twitter.

Modern Coffee
Based in Oakland
Started: 2009
This coffee bar serves a rotation of coffee from local small-batch roasters. Just a few months ago, it started roasting its own beans sold at its two Oakland locations. Modern Coffee is at 411 13th St. (between Broadway and Franklin Street), Oakland and 381 19th St. (at Franklin Street), Oakland. Connect with the roaster on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Proyecto Diaz Coffee
Based in Oakland
Started: May 2014
This wholesale coffee company, which roasts its beans at an East Oakland facility, is available online and at cafés, stores, and some restaurants. Connect with Proyecto Diaz Coffee on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Red Bay Coffee. Photo: Benjamin Seto
Red Bay Coffee. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Red Bay Coffee
Slated to open at the Hive in Oakland.
Started: February 2014
This Fruitvale-based coffee roaster is available online, at local stores such as Berkeley Bowl and Umami Mart, and the Berkeley farmers market. It is building its first café — scheduled to open January 2016 — in a refurbished shipping container at the Hive project in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood. Red Bay Coffee will be at the Hive in Oakland. Connect with the roaster on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Based in Oakland
Started: 2008
RoastCo is a small artisanal coffee roaster and consultants, offering single-origin or post-roast blends, such as its West Oakland blend. Their roasting site on Beach Street is open to the public on weekdays. RoastCo. is at 1552 Beach St. Unit T (at Halleck Street), Oakland. Connect with the roaster on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Scarlet City Coffee Roasting
Based in Emeryville
Started: 2009
This roaster was founded by Jen St. Hilaire, who grew up in Washington and learned about coffee roasting in coffee epicenter of Seattle before moving to the Bay Area in 1999. Scarlet City sells its beans online and and at its espresso bar and café on Adeline Street in Emeryville. Scarlet City is at 3960 Adeline St. (between 40th Street and Yerba Buena Avenue), Emeryville. Connect with the roaster on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. 

SloJoy Coffee
Based in Oakland
Started: 2015
A new small-batch coffee roaster started by a small group of Oakland residents. It recently finished a Kickstarter campaign and plans to serve its coffee at Rocky’s Market in Oakland sometime this fall. Connect with SloJoy on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Supersonic Coffee
Based in Berkeley
Started: July 2014
The Supersonic team is temporarily roasting from the Berkeley Co-Roasting facility. Their coffee is available online and served in restaurants across the country. Co-owner John Laird, who has worked at Verve and Pacific Bay Coffee, is from Orinda. Connect with Supersonic on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Timeless Coffee Roasters
Based in Oakland
Started: 2013
This café and bakery on Piedmont Avenue also roasts its own beans for sale onsite. Owner RJ Leimpeter has worked in the coffee business for nearly a decade, including three years as head roaster for San Francisco’s Sightglass Coffee. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, he decided to open his first café and roaster in his neighborhood. Timeless Coffee Roasters is at 4252 Piedmont Ave. (between Glenwood and Echo avenues), Oakland. Connect with the coffee shop on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.

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Freelancer Benjamin Seto has worked as a reporter and editor for various newspapers around the country, and is currently a communications professional and food writer based in Oakland. Ben is also the...