Walking into the new Algorithm Coffee shop is like stepping into an alternate universe. Sleek and minimalist, the space is worlds away from the snarling, honking traffic of University Avenue in West Berkeley. It bears almost no resemblance to its former identity as the eclectic, bohemian Café Yesterday that shuttered late last fall.
Still in place is the long counter near the front door and side bar outfitted with beer and cold brew taps. And Aaron Hubbard, who took over the café in 2014, is still pouring coffee.
But, he says, he is now doing it his way.
Hubbard came into Café Yesterday as a relative newcomer.
“It was my way to get into the coffee business,” he said. “I was able to dive deep into the business but also have a testing ground for what I wanted to do [in the future].” Over time, he ditched Verve Coffee Roasters in favor of his own house-roasted coffee and introduced Flux Cold Brew on tap. But he kept Café Yesterday’s unique food menu and homey interior mostly intact.
The plan, however, was always to overhaul the café into something more Hubbard’s style.
Over the last year, Hubbard toured over 50 different coffee shops in Seattle, Portland, Atlanta and San Francisco. Last fall, he closed down Café Yesterday and began construction on what is now Algorithm. He replaced the granite countertops with poured concrete and reclaimed wood, painted the walls white, hung nouveau Edison bulbs, and added several work-from-home-friendly tables, complete with plenty of outlets.
Another major change? The menu. Algorithm’s highly simplified drink menu is based around espresso and pour-overs. There are no drinks like lattes or cappuccinos listed. Instead, customers can order espresso with a custom amount of milk.
It’s a little disorienting for first time customers, but Hubbard insists that his staff is trained to help translate the menu. “If you come in and are totally confused, they can help you,” he said. “You can tell us what you like and we’ll make it for you. In our style, of course.”
The ordering process is reminiscent of the late-aughts cocktail bar trend where there were no menus, and bartenders were encouraged to have a conversation with customers about their preference. It means a slightly longer ordering process, but is likely better for forming a bond with your neighborhood barista.
Non-coffee drinkers can choose from a line-up of tea from Berkeley’s Blue Willow Teas. A small sample of each sits in a small bowl at the front counter for full aromatic transparency before ordering.
Food selection, for the time, is minimal — Hubbard is serving Firebrand pastries, and will eventually roll out a more substantial market-based menu. But he doesn’t want to rush. “It’s really important for us to create a five star coffee shop,” he said. Algorithm won’t serve food “until we can get it to a level that matches the quality of the coffee.”
It is clear when speaking with Hubbard that he is laser-focused on making great coffee, but he also wants to make that coffee as accessible as possible: “We want to serve coffee at its finest without being pretentious. … It can be hard to approach a place like this and we’re trying to change that. We want to simplify how you get a great cup of coffee.”
Algorithm serves single origin coffees from “unique” and “strange” sources, said Hubbard. I sampled their pour-over beans from Bali, which made for a bright and fruity drink that was — thankfully — not sour in the least. Hubbard is also getting beans from Yemen, Congo, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Uganda, all of which are roasted in a shared space Oakland.
Once the beans make their way to the East Bay, Hubbard and his team are “meticulous” about the roasting and brewing process. To that end, he is trying to embrace his new company’s name. “We’re all about the process from farm to cup,” he said. “We’re dialing everything in to a science.”
While most of Algorithm’s beans are being used to make the custom espresso drinks and pour-overs, a smaller selection is being made into cold brew on tap. Hubbard developed his cold brew method while working with Arsalan Pourmand on Flux Cold Brew. Pourmand has since moved Flux’s operations to New York. “We wanted to explore the market there,” said Hubbard. Plus, he said, he wanted to keep Algorithm’s branding consistent. “I just wanted one brand here.”
Eventually, local beers will join cold brew in Algorithm’s taps. It will likely appear at the same time as the full food menu, said Hubbard.
When I visited Algorithm last week, there was small but steady stream of customers coming in for their morning cup of coffee, several of whom set up camp at a table to work for a while. It’s a crowd that Hubbard hopes will continue to multiply as word of mouth of his reopening continues to spread.
Ultimately, he wants Algorithm to spearhead a more rapid growth in the Berkeley coffee community. “There’s so much going on in coffee in San Francisco, I don’t know why it hasn’t really been happening here,” he said. “There’s a potential for really great coffee in Berkeley.” The tides, however slowly, are changing. Small roasters like Catahoula Coffee are moving in, Berkeley Co-Roasting set up its shared roasting space in West Berkeley, and Blue Bottle will be opening in downtown Berkeley later this year.
He hopes that Algorithm will continue to stand out for its insistence on maintaining its independence from larger coffee companies. “It’s a dream come true for me for sure,” he said.
Algorithm Coffee is currently in soft opening mode. It will hold its grand opening this Friday, March 4, at 4 p.m. with a ribbon-cutting organized by the Berkeley Chamber. City Councilman Darryl Moore, Vice Mayor Linda Maio and Berkeley Chamber CEO Kirsten MacDonald are expected to attend.
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