What began with a bucket and a bag of beans in a home kitchen has, in only two years, turned into a burgeoning business for sisters Arianna and Analyssa Cruz. Their company, Charlie May Coffee and Tea, has developed a reputation for serving up some of the Bay Area’s most unique cold brews, and will officially open its first location in Oakland’s Grass Valley neighborhood on Dec. 3.
“We started at home during the pandemic, brewing around one pound just for us, which grew to five pounds once we started making it for our friends,” Analyssa said. (She learned the cold brew trade after working at cafes, including Berkeley’s Artís Coffee.) After effusive praise from friends, the two decided to turn their cold brew hobby into a solid business called Charlie May, an amalgamation of their grandmothers’ names (Charlotte Ann and Ana May). Soon, the sisters were a standby at Bay Area pop-ups and markets.
Armed with two coolers and bottles of cold brew, the duo would arise at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. five days a week to prepare their drinks and promote their concoctions. “One day we would be in San Jose and the next we would be in San Francisco,” Arianna said. As their business grew, the Cruzes moved their production to a space in Oakland’s Forage Kitchen, where they had more space to better prepare their buzzy drinks.
What makes their caffeinated cold drinks stand above the rest are the flavors influenced by their Guamanian and Filipino backgrounds. “Before we started doing the pop-ups, we went to Guam for a month for inspiration and to realign where we wanted to go as a business,” Arianna said. Eschewing the cane sugar and dairy one-two punch de rigueur to most American coffees, Analyssa and Arianna decided to make “sauces,” as they call them, to add to their drinks.
Want a sneak peek of Charlie May? The fledgling spot is quietly open on Thanksgiving week from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 7 a.m. – noon on Thanksgiving, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday-Sunday. After its official opening, hours will be 7-1 Tuesday-Friday, 8-2 Saturday-Sunday, closed on Monday. Watch for changes to that schedule in 2023.
Their popular champorado cold brew ($7), based on a Filipino chocolate and rice porridge, uses rice milk, coconut and chocolate as its sauce. And their latiya cold brew ($7) is a riff off of a Guamanian dessert of layered vanilla custard and yellow cake dusted with cinnamon. “It’s a treat we’d usually have as kids,” Analyssa said. “We would always look forward to a family member coming over carrying a big pan of it as they walked in the door.”
As their cold brew biz took off, the two dreamed of opening up a brick-and-mortar business at some point in the future. In five years, perhaps? Maybe more? As luck would have it, and much to their surprise, the sisters secured a spot in less than two years after brewing their first batch of coffee in their kitchen during the pandemic.
When the store opens next month, customers can also look forward to classic cold brew ($5), lattes ($4.75-$5.25), cappuccio ($4.50), cortado ($3.90) or a double espresso ($3.60). And, if you must, you can get your hands on old fashioned hot coffee ($3.75-$4.50). Champorado and Latiya sauces can be added to almost any drink for an extra $1. Charlie May roasts their beans using Berkeley’s own Bellwether Coffee, a zero-emission, all-electric coffee roaster. They brew Colombian beans for their jolty coffees and espressos and Nicaraguan beans for decaf options.
In addition to cold brews, which are steeped for 24 hours, Charlie May also offers teas, including a chai tea latte ($5.25 -$6.25) that, unlike the cloying drink one might find at chain coffee shops, is lightly sweetened with agave but heavy on the spice.
“It also has a little bit of vanilla powder, but primarily, it’s very, very spicy,” Arianna added. Don’t miss their popular hibiscus mint cold brewed tea ($6) of hibiscus petals, green rooibos, and spearmint. “That drink really took off during our pop-ups,” she said.
Another highlight customers can look forward to at Charlie May’s new shop is a store design that, by intention, stands apart from the gleaming white and antiseptic decor one finds at so many local artisan cafes.
“We wanted to move away from traditional white walls and white countertops, so we have a lot of black in there,” Arianna said, beaming about the texture-forward, black corrugated metal wall that anchors the space. “That’s our favorite part of the design.” And although they had planned on replacing the old ceiling with a new one, the renovation process exposed gorgeous wall-to-wall wooden slats.
The new shop means fewer pop-ups on the Cruz sisters’ future, but it also means the Bay Area born-and-raised women will have a place to plant roots, greet regular customers on the daily and even sleep past their previous 4:30 wake-up call. But tot too much. “Now we’ll have it a little bit easier,” Arianna said, “because we can wake up at five o’clock to open the shop.”
Featured image: Arianna and Analyssa Cruz in their pop-up days. Credit: Edwin Borbon