Coffee Buzz

A look at the coffee empires that rule Berkeley

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We live in a world of underground coffee mafias and warring roasteries. That’s an exaggeration, but have you ever noticed the same cups, coffee or employees at multiple local coffee shops? Berkeley’s anti-chain mentality is part of what makes it so uniquely perfect for the independent bookstore and cafe culture. Upon closer examination, it’s clear that the independent cafe next door isn’t so independent.

Emeryville corporation Espresso Roma owns cafes on College Avenue and Hopkins Street, as well as Cafe Milano on Bancroft Way and French Hotel Cafe on Shattuck Avenue, and others throughout the West Coast, including Oregon and Colorado. What is so interesting is that their business model is an huge departure from standard business practices, making it the antithesis of corporate coffee. It fits perfectly into Berkeley’s counterculture attitude, doing away with branding and creating an identity based on uniqueness. Milano is a student favorite, convenient location for energy and studying. Their coffee is not the best in Berkeley, but it serves its purpose. For something different, try their chai latte and one of their prepared pasta salads.

UC Berkeley alum Daryl Ross owns Caffe Strada, Free Speech Movement Cafe and Caffe Zeb, along with what is now Free House. They are somewhat more standardized, and the size of the group is much smaller than Espresso Roma, but each location does have its own unique flavor. Strada is popular for their latte and Mocha Bianca, but if you are a coffee purist, their cafe au lait is something out of a dream. They use a dark roast from McLaughlin Coffee Company and three different kinds of beans. Pastries are baked at the Bancroft Hotel, and when possible, they use organic and local ingredients. For your own happiness, order an apple cloud to go with your au lait. Not only is Strada’s coffee punchy but endlessly smooth, the cafe is the perfect place to study or people-watch. Indoor seating is limited, but that’s fine because sitting outside is much more desirable. Cafe Zeb is around the corner in Berkeley Law for sandwich and salad options.

Peet’s Coffee & Tea seems to be an exception to Berkeley’s golden rules of business. The coffee chain started right here in Berkeley on Walnut and Vine streets, and has now has stores throughout California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington. Starbucks may have a larger market on coffee, but they got their concept from Peet’s. Their coffee is sometimes almost burnt tasting, but it’s still good quality and a more faithful alternative to Starbucks for Berkeley residents.

San Francisco, a site of intense coffee pride, and some of this coffee has even infiltrated Berkeley. Our beloved Philz is a native of San Francisco, but has become a Berkeley institution. There is no doubt in most Berkeleyan minds that Philz has some of the best coffee in Berkeley. If you’re a dark-roast fan, try Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew, or the mint mojito iced coffee if you’re having a rough start to a hot day. They sell bagels and pastries, many from Nabolom Bakery on College Avenue. Their focus on coffee is refreshing in a world where espresso drinks populate cafe menus. The space inside is eclectic and crowded, so it’s often nicer to grab a Cheese Board pastry and sit outside.

Whatever direction you walk in, you are bound to find a cafe. Berkeley breaks all of its rules out of a love for the brew. As Brewed Awakening’s slogan says, “There is no life before coffee.” Berkeley is full of something for every kind of coffee lover. Go to Strada for the atmosphere, Philz for the coffee, Milano for the service. If you are more of a casual coffee addict, we won’t blame you for frequenting Starbucks during frappuccino happy hour.