An epic roast

Meg Elison explores the world of $12 espressos and Baristas from Ritual Coffee

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Devin Cooper/Courtesy

It’s my first time at Ritual Roasters in San Francisco, and it’s time to pretend I drink black coffee. Before I meet the crew, before I see the space, I am told I must drink. A gorgeous golden-brown cup is poured out of a tall French press, and I am treated to pictures of the farm where the beans were grown, the man who owns and works the land. The cup is glossed with a reddish oily sheen when I examine it up close before drinking. Nobody offers sugar or milk. There is none in sight.

I thought I had become a coffee snob while I lived in Portland, under the watchful eyes at Stumptown. When I moved the the Bay Area, I looked around for the next best thing. I’ve loved Sightglass and Four Barrell, and I’ve waited out on the sidewalk with the crowds for Blue Bottle. Nothing epitomized the minute, fussy perfection of the $5 cup of coffee like Ritual. The place is aptly  named; everything is at once ceremonious and relaxed, witchy and performative. I became a devotee… and then I became obsessed. My obsession led me to a thousand-mile drive, and a look at an insider’s world that few coffee snobs will ever know.

Ritual Coffee is not the sort of thing one chooses because it is simple or cheap. (My esteemed colleagues may beg to differ.) This is the top of the line in single-origin, fair-trade, hipster, highbrow coffee in San Francisco. In order to serve coffee roasted at Ritual, vendors must send their baristas to receive training here, from the experts. These people are not messing around.

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Tiny, handle-less cups carry distinct coffee tastes unique from the regular cup of coffee. (Devin Cooper/Courtesy)

The staff gives me a tour of the roasting facility, which is not open to the public. Inside a wide sunlit space, three man-buns pack bags of roasted beans while the Shirelles play overhead. One meticulous coffee nerd in a wool hat watches a clock count down the seconds on the roast itself. The result is a lighter roast, a reddish tinge on the shiny beans, miles away from the black-burnt look of most retail coffee. This is serious business.

On a long black wooden bar, there is a “cupping” in progress. Tiny cups without handles are lined up with blind-labeled beans beside them. I am instructed to slurp loudly from my spoon, mixing the coffee vigorously with the air. I roll my eyes a little at the pretension of it all — the insistence on detailed descriptions of flavor profile and subtle notes in this same dark liquid. My superiority lasts for less than a minute when I slurp from a cup that tastes of coffee … and melon. And banana. And citrus. And then my education begins.

I walk through the storage area in the back, where sacks of green coffee beans are piled on pallets. My tour guide explains that Ritual will order only directly from farms, from places where the orders ship quickly and in front of the larger cargo loads. In comparison to some of the bigger roasters in the Bay Area, Ritual receives a fairly small amount of raw coffee beans. Despite this, the next staging area is stacked with roasted bean packages labeled for shipping to the Google and Facebook campuses. At each campus, a suitable espresso machine and trained barista has been installed. You may never have heard of this stuff before, but it’s the jet fuel of choice among those who can afford it.

Despite this insistence on personal engagement, no one here is condescending or unkind. A roaster sits me down and explains patiently why a cup of coffee really should cost far more than it does. Coffee is an equatorial crop, requiring intense labor and best grown by people who grew up on the land. Its processing afterward affects the flavor in a thousand subtle ways. It’s then transported thousands of miles via expensive and ecologically costly conveyance, to be processed again by people who pay close attention to making it exactly right in very small batches. “Really,” he says, “it ought to be $12 a cup. We don’t respect it at all, because we’ve come to expect it.” I drink another cup of black coffee. I feel like my palate is evolving by the second. Already I am ashamed of my childish latte habit. This is the black sacrament. The roaster goes back to his religion of technique.

“Really, it ought to be $12 a cup. We don’t respect it at all, because we’ve come to expect it.”

Chris the barista is training a group of would-be Ritualists in the mock-cafe in the roastery. He is blond and slight, with a very delicate hand on the machinery. He is precise about seconds, milliliters, degrees, minutiae. He is intimate with the espresso machine, knocking switches with confidence and familiarity, instructing on the shimmy and tolerance of every appendage of the system. He’s talking all the time, reassuring, adjusting without looking by rolling the knobs along the blade of his hand and down the side of his forearm. His trainees follow his muscular but feminine hands, and they smile back at his cheery openness.

The group moves fast, and in no time at all, they’re creating latte figures, keeping a watch on the foam and sheen of the hot milk. Chris shows them his own techniques for leaves and circles and faces, teaching the art of the latte with a scientifically fussy set of tools, including a diode thermometer.

“OK, let’s do hearts.”

What Chris produces with a flip of his wrist is as good as any cup of coffee I’ve ever seen filtered through Instagram. I watch him dance in the small space, curling and relaxing his limbs in a brilliant and expressive impression of the proteins in milk, folding and unfolding with the heat. Chris is the reason I’m here, the reason I’m drinking all this black coffee and learning so much of this technique. In a month, Chris will compete at the Big Western U.S. Coffee Barista Championship against professionals from Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. If you didn’t know there was a competition for that, you’re not alone. It’s a small, specialized world.

“This is a Starbucks-quality latte,” moans a trainee, unhappy with his results.

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Chris the barista meticulously pours coffee into tiny cups. (Devin Cooper/Courtesy)

“This would be an amazing Starbucks latte,” Chris says mischievously. They begin again.

In clouds of steam and gentle gestures, the trainees eventually make it up to speed. By the end, they’ve got his technique and his mannerisms, and he’s got their love, like the master in an art studio. Technique has been passed on, and the master goes to compete.

I see Chris again in LA, backstage behind the competition itself. I park my rental car under a 60-foot billboard of Ryan Seacrest and between three signs labeling empty industrial spaces as “available for filming.” The staging area at the Big Western is littered with glassware and the shining tools of this trade. I ask him whether he’s adjusted.

“I’m not sure about LA. The water extraction is different and may affect the flavors, but my practice run this morning went well, and I’m trying not to think about it.”

At another competitor’s base table, a young woman is pouring Aquafina into cobalt blue glass bottles labeled Italia Blu. It’s a desperate parlor trick, and I laugh a little. The chicanery doesn’t pay off; the young woman does not place.

The space is an exposed-brick-and-beam open warehouse with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Blue LEDs are pointed up the inside of the walls, and vendors line the hallways, selling pots and warmers and strainers and grinders. Full-length mirrors are spread out for better image management, and an upstairs lounge is furnished in all white leather. Cell service is unaccountably poor. Free coffee is available everywhere, and I don’t even think about sugar anymore. I’ve converted.

The prize table shows off carved-wood trophies, elegant little copper coffee pots and custom skateboard decks from Verve in Santa Cruz. A quick look at Amazon shows that the small tools offered as prizes cost hundreds of dollars each. The winner of this competition moves on to nationals in Seattle. The free swag is high-quality; the smell of money overpowers the smell of espresso.

When the competition begins, the rules become clear. Each barista to compete serves the judges one pull of pure espresso, one cappuccino and one signature beverage.

Each player uses words for coffee that describe everything but coffee: peach, black tea, blood orange, graham, fruit, flowers, spices, places, feelings.

This last turns out to be where the real showmanship happens. Hands shake and voices quiver as the players produce coffee drinks and mocktails flaming and on ice. Maple syrup appears out of a tin, cordial glasses are rimmed with sugar. Hot espresso is shaken with ice or cooled in a beaker stuffed with the peels of a blood orange. Technical judges hover behind the competitor, dropping into crouch to watch espresso leveled out and knocking off points if the workstation is not left clean. The crowd buzzes like a hive of caffeinated hornets but explodes when a barista calls time. Even the ones from the farthest away seem to have brought along an entourage.

After a few hours of competition, everyone begins to look and sound alike. The MCs of the event are a couple of dueling mustaches who won’t stop doing their impression of an inescapable daytime infomercial. Each player uses words for coffee that describe everything but coffee: peach, black tea, blood orange, graham, fruit, flowers, spices, places, feelings. The distillation process is magic, but watching the alchemist at work in this forum is at once oddly intimate and deeply detached. Each barista works hard to stand out, they look each judge in the eye and tell us who they are: a tea-leaf reading in reverse.

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In his first competition, Chris from Ritual Coffee finished sixth in the Big Western U.S. Coffee Barista Championship. (Devin Cooper/Courtesy)

Chris sets up his space, and he is just as earnest and intent as all who have gone before. He lays out blue-checked placemats that match his shirt, with bright yellow napkins for contrast. He lines up graduated cylinders, fat clean paintbrushes and a carbon dioxide dispenser.

Chris narrates us through the origin story of his Kenyan coffee of choice, talking genes and hardcore chemistry. His presentation is cerebral in the extreme, reciting elevation, molecular structure and taste interaction. Unhurried, he is genial, as if the judges are his guests. His hands are steady as he grinds and tamps. He lays down shots of espresso, giggling that it’s got “crema for days.” He muddles fresh currants and adds raw malic acid, fructose and salt. He carbonates the mixture on the spot, serving fizzy currant soda with espresso after, an alley-oop of flavor experiences. He tells the judges to sip them in tandem, saying with an irrepressible grin that they will taste banana between the two, like a ghost note in the composition. He cleans up before equably calling time. The judges look tickled.

Today is the final day, and competitors start to run long. The warehouse is packed with media and cheering fans, all waiting for awards to be given. February in LA is just hot enough to be uncomfortable, and under the lights and between packed bodies, we are all starting to sweat. The place becomes intolerable; the air is a coffee-scented soup with hints of body odor and smog. Everyone looks wired and tired, ready for this to end so they can begin the long trek home. Everybody’s real pale. Everybody has Bukowski tattooed on their arms.

Everybody has a beard. Everybody has a wool hat. I try to shake off the overstimulation and prepare for the big moment, but lined up, all the baristas look familiar and alike. It’s hard to accept that a retail process has a culture and a look, but I’m staring it in the face. I’m pretty sure I’ve been served coffee by every competitor I see. If not this dark-haired girl with a lot of tattoos, a reasonable facsimile. If not this bearded white guy, his brother.

The announcements break up their professional mien. Nerves and relief and triumph and defeat make people shake and laugh and cry.

Chris from Ritual placed sixth at the Big Western. It was his first time competing, and he was overjoyed just to place. When his name is called, he leaps into the air in a shocking kick and hugs everyone near him. He is a prince among coffee men.

Coffee is a small thing, but it isn’t. It’s a cheap drink, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a transactional experience, but it’s a culture. For Chris and the people in the San Francisco roastery and now for me, it’s a Ritual.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed photos to Meg Elison. In fact, the photos were taken by Devin Cooper.