Think you have to go to New York City to get a good cuppa cawfee? Or that Seattle is the caffeine capital of the United States?
Well, welcome to Southern California – where coffee is grown, roasted, ground, and served up for folks who’ll wait in line an inordinate amount of time just to do the java jive.
Whether you like it brewed hot or cold, pulled as an espresso, or poured over, coffee is as much a part of Southern California culture as wine, craft beer, and farm-to-fork dining. And sometimes those worlds intersect in a perfect confluence of flavor and aroma.
Whether you prefer light to dark roast or “alternative” milks to cream, here are the five best places to explore how SoCal denizens keep their motors running, even when they’re not behind the wheel.
1. Good Land Organics, Goleta
Coffee? Grown in California? It’s true – and Good Land Organics in Goleta was the first coffee farm in the continental United States. It’s nestled in a sufficiently tropical locale in the foothills of the mountains above Santa Barbara – and at 650 feet elevation and only two miles from the beach, it benefits from foggy mornings and generally frost-free winters. Coffee isn’t actually the farm’s main crop, as it’s been interplanted among several varieties of exotic fruits like avocados, dragon fruit, cherimoyas and finger limes (also called "caviar” limes). The coffee plant itself (mostly varietals of Coffea arabica) produces a fruit called a “cherry” that contains the familiar bean (or “seed”) that’s dried, roasted, and ground before it winds up in your cup.
Good Land Organics is part of Frinj Coffee, which is single-handedly establishing coastal Southern California as its own coffee-growing region, having planted two-dozen additional coffee farms between Santa Barbara and San Diego. One of its more sought-after varietals is the Geisha, which has recently risen in popularity (and price), despite the fact that its predominant flavor profile is petroleum. It’s also carving out a niche in making coffee out of the rare yellow cherries as well as the traditional red ones. You can purchase roasted coffee (and organic, exotic fruit) directly from Good Land online, though since it’s sold out of its 2017 stock, you’ll have to wait for the 2018 harvest to be ready. Or keep an eye out for one of the farm tours offered seasonally, usually around harvest time.
2. Blue Bottle Coffee, Downtown Los Angeles
Once you learn about where coffee is grown and harvested, the natural next step is to witness the roasting process – which you can do in an intimate setting at Blue Bottle Coffee’s roastery in the Arts District of downtown L.A. Founded in northern California 15 years ago, Blue Bottle has been at the forefront of the so-called “third wave” of coffee culture, which approaches the bean business as an artisanal process and handmade craft. That’s quite a turnaround from the worldview of coffee, which has until recently been considered simply a raw agricultural material. (In fact, it’s the world’s number-two traded commodity, just behind crude oil.)
Literally steps away from the L.A. River, Blue Bottle captures the “maker” spirit of the area by offering a roastery tour and coffee primer on Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. and partnering with The Spirit Guild next door for a roastery and distillery tour combo on Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. On both, you can learn about the different techniques and equipment and experience variations in the final result – from the lighter side to extra roasty. It’s a visual, aromatic, and tasty journey behind the caffeine curtain, where quality control requires expertly tasting coffee beans and grounds at various intervals after roasting to determine the timing of its peak freshness. (Take that, Folgers.)
3. Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Downtown Los Angeles
If you consider yourself a “taster” – someone who enjoys a flight of wine, beer, or whiskey – head to Stumptown, where you can experience the industry standard method of tasting coffee. During the “cupping” process, you’ll inhale the dry fragrance of freshly ground beans (as it sells no pre-ground coffee, only whole beans), the wet aroma of the grounds once hot water has been added, and the volatile compounds that escape when you “break the crust” with a cupping spoon. It’ll give you a whole new appreciation for coffee as a sensory experience before you even slurp the coffee off the spoon!
At Stumptown’s L.A. Training Lab in the Arts District of downtown L.A., the Portland-based coffee purveyor offers free cuppings and other tastings on Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. Every week, the group tastes a different blend or single-origin coffee – usually, the newest and freshest out of the bag, perhaps from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, or even Indonesia – led by an experienced and knowledgeable coffee educator. Because the curriculum changes from week to week, and the tastings only last an hour to 90 minutes depending on group size, visit repeatedly to get as much connoisseurship as possible under your belt. And L.A. is one of only three markets that provide such “bean-to-brew” public tastings. The other two are offered at the company headquarters in Portland and the Training Lab in NYC.
4. Counter Culture Coffee, Silver Lake Los Angeles
For a more advanced coffee educational experience – whether you’re an aspiring barista or a voracious homebrewer – head to the Los Angeles Training Center of Counter Culture Coffee, a roaster out of North Carolina that’s set up shop in Silver Lake with free public tastings on Fridays at 10:00 a.m. Other classes are offered throughout the week as well, with topics ranging from latte art to brewing and tasting techniques and full-on palate development. Counter Culture has even created its own unique version of the coffee tasters’ flavor wheel so you can figure out whether your brew evokes notes of raisin, leather, soil, dark chocolate, wood, lychee or any number of other fruits and vegetables. You’ll even learn how to articulate the coffee’s mouth feel and pick up an entirely new vocabulary of descriptors for your morning joe (including “dirty,” “rounded,” and “wild”).
Though coffee novices are welcome, these tastings and classes are a bit more advanced – making them perfect if you want to dive right in. At the very least, you’ll learn how to drink coffee that’s not burning hot (a cooler temperature closer to that of your body is preferred) and not drowning in cream, sugar, and/or foam. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
5. Modern Times Dankness Dojo, Downtown Los Angeles
If you want your beer to taste like coffee, or your coffee to have a little extra kick in it (besides caffeine), there are plenty of good local options – including Smog City’s Coffee Porter, Eagle Rock Brewery’s Stimulus, and Golden Road’s Sunset Coffee, for starters. But if you want coffee stout on tap and a “full-spectrum coffee experience,” head over to the Modern Times brewery, restaurant, and café in downtown L.A. The San Diego-based brewer has created a unique beer-and-coffee experience in its L.A. flagship on Olive Street, located in the ground-floor office space of the former Southpark Hotel, an SRO built in 1911. Its current tap selections give you the choice between the Membata coffee stout brewed in L.A. or the Black House oatmeal coffee stout brewed in San Diego, but other seasonal releases come and go as the taps rotate. Coming in November is a nitro brown ale and coffee concoction known simply as Bedrock.
Although Modern Times may be more closely associated with canned and bottled beer, the employee-owned company describes itself as “an intrepid cadre of brewers, coffee roasters, and culinary wizards.” So, it also offers branded bags of whole-bean coffee and is, in fact, one of the only breweries in the world that roasts its own coffee. For the full Modern Times experience in Southern California, you should also hit its tasting rooms in San Diego’s Point Loma (the “Lomaland Fermentorium,” which opened in 2013) and North Park (the “Flavordome”), each of which features its own unique concept and occasionally tests its experimental pilot batches of beer. You can find Modern Times at a number of off-site events throughout SoCal as well.
Top Image: Sandi Hemmerlein