NEW YORK —
It's called Blue Bottle, and it's the creation of a former freelance clarinetist named James Freeman. As a coffee enthusiast in San Francisco a decade ago, Freeman recalls, it was nigh impossible to find a cup roasted the way he wanted it — which is to say, with a light touch, to set free the beans' natural flavors. Instead the city's sippers were in thrall to the dark, oily, French-press style purveyed by Peet's, a contemporary of Starbucks. Inspired by traditional Japanese siphon bars, where baristas brew each cup by hand, Freeman opened a tiny Blue Bottle kiosk in the city's Hayes Valley neighborhood in 2005.
It quickly found a cult following, and by 2009 Freeman had opened a larger café in Mint Plaza and a booth at the Ferry Building, San Francisco's answer to Seattle's Pike Place Market. He expanded to New York in 2010 and now has 13 cafés and counting.
Its method may be Japanese, but Blue Bottle's sleek aesthetic also carries a strong whiff of Cupertino. The words "Blue Bottle" and "coffee" are not plastered on large placards outside the company's cafes. Most locations are marked only by a simple stencil of a blue bottle, which doesn't shout "coffee" to the average passerby any more than the silhouette of an apple shouts "computers." As a result, just walking in makes you feel like you're in the know.
Exclusivity wasn't the intention, Freeman tells me. It's just that he doesn't like shouting. "I'm very secular, but there's a quote I love that's often attributed to St. Francis," he says: " 'Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.' "
In contrast to the corporate uniformity of Starbucks outlets, each Blue Bottle café is snowflake-special, its layout tailored to the quirks of its real estate. But the focus is squarely on the coffee: no Wi-Fi, no power outlets, no special deals on Sarah McLachlan CDs. The seating skews scant and Spartan, and the menu options are relatively simple. You will not find pumpkin spice lattes, dark cherry mochas or any other sorts of coffee that do not taste like coffee. Nor will you be asked to choose between talls, grandes or ventis. At Blue Bottle, a cappuccino is a cappuccino, and it comes in cappuccino size. What it does not come in, typically, is a to-go cup: Freeman is convinced that drinking espresso from a paper vessel results in an inferior experience.