Back and Forth: Supersonic Coffee

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Nicole White/Staff

Supersonic Coffee is an up-and-coming Berkeley roastery focusing on “awesome coffee that breaks barriers,” taking roast quality to new levels with cutting-edge technology and a penchant for precision. While Supersonic has not yet instituted its own flagship café, its roasts can be found all across the Bay Area in higher-end coffee shops. The Weekender sat down with the John Laird (general manager), Brian Jones (director of brand and marketing), and the rest of the Supersonic team to discuss the historical implications of coffee in the Berkeley community, as well the advancements they’re seeking to make within third-wave coffee culture.

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The Daily Californian: To what extent is the economy surrounding third-wave coffee allowing quality-focused companies like Supersonic to exist?

John Laird: I think you have to take a step beyond the economics surrounding third-wave coffee and look at the economics in society as a whole, especially as it relates to food culture. I think what we’re seeing today is a greater sense of implied value in the products that we’re looking for. It’s a multi-layered thing, but if I had to encapsulate it in on sentence I think food culture has evolved to the degree that I think people are looking for higher value of all of their products, and are willing to spend for it. This goes especially for a small luxury like a cup of coffee.

The cost of coffee itself, ironically, has not gone up. Still, keeping the cost below a certain level is a secondary aspect to us getting our good coffee. We will pay the price for coffee that we think represents what we want to project as our style.

DC: Since Supersonic is trying to differentiate itself as new and cutting edge, what is it with the roast profiles and processes that you might be doing differently from other coffee distributors?

JL: If we’re going to paint broad strokes, you might say there are respectively dark, medium, and light roast coffee roasters. The next question is how do you get there? What is the raw material that you’re starting with? That you’re working with to develop this type of coffee?

Dark roasted coffee roasters are either buying poor quality coffee and roasting it dark to mask the quality. Some dark roast coffee roasters actually do start with fairly good coffee but they don’t understand what they have in front of them so they lose a lot of those attributes which we find attractive. Then there are others in the dark roast camp that do it well.

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Brian Jones: And there is a market for that. Throughout history with instant coffee and stuff like that, the green quality was not very good. So the coffee was roasted dark to mask it. For many years we’ve sort of been trained to like dark coffee, and people drink it with milk and sugar because that’s what they’ve become accustomed to.

JL: I think the take that we have on it is also a very technical approach. We have roasted, cupped, and analyzed until we kind of found our zone, which coincidentally falls toward the lighter side of the spectrum. I would say the roast style is the result of letting the flavor be our guide, and that’s been our pathway.

There used to be a big thing with “we want to let the coffee speak for itself,” and I think that’s a little bullshit. The coffee is the coffee. There are flavours that exist as potential within that coffee. The coffee doesn’t have flavour in its green form, and anybody who tries to pull that just isn’t very knowledgable. We want to create new flavors from the materials that exist in that coffee.

BJ: It’s what I think is so fascinating about coffee is that every week that we roast we are recreating the product. As John mentioned, the green coffee also ages and it evolves, and so the way he roasts it has to reflect that as well. We’re just constantly responding to it based on how it tastes.

DC: I was wondering how that’s expressed with your branding, since for a lot of higher-end coffee chains the overall design seems almost as important as the product itself. Especially with cafés there is a huge emphasis on the whole aesthetic experience, and as a roastery I was wondering how your own emphasis on precision and technology might be expressed through your branding?

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BJ: From the very beginning, we wanted to avoid that, just to try something new and innovate from the name itself to the way the identity and brand is developed. It’s been very unique in the industry. And I think that has helped us a lot in earning recognition and setting us apart.

It took about three months for us to settle on a name and a starting point for the brand. So now moving forward when we have a retail space it’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot: so how does it translate? Because the current trend of why coffee shops look the way they do, there’s a reason behind it — they’re comfortable, they’re warm, they’re someplace you want to sit all day. So how do we do something that’s radically different that still meets those expectations?

DC: So I guess thinking of coffee in terms of the aesthetic space that it’s connected to, and how you touched earlier upon how Supersonic is something that’s very distinctly oriented towards the Berkeley community, and one thing I noticed is that other than Peet’s Berkeley does not have much of a coffee history that I’m aware of. To what extent might you be filling that vacuum?

JL: We did not come to Berkeley as outsiders, thinking only in terms of market and a niche to be filled. The relationship developed, this property existed, the opportunity was here, and for me it was great. I think the diversity that exists here is something that we wanted to be a part of. The coffee community here is going to range from one end to the other. It’s going to range from the birkenstock-wearing ex-professors who want a cup of dark roasted coffee because that’s what they’ve been getting here at Berkeley for decades, to the fair-trade organic type. While we’re not seeing that every one of them is going our customer they’re all part of the larger community. That’s attractive to us – not be slotted into a model or a mold that has a definition that somebody else has created. We want to be in a place that we can be available to everyone and anyone.

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Zackary Kiebach is a contributor for The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]