$20 for a Cup of Coffee in the Bay Area: Is It Worth It?

Ain’t Normal Cafe in Oakland is known for its Strawberry Columbia, a rare coffee bean with an uncanny flavor of fruit like grapes, peaches, and melons. The coffee is brewed using an experimental process where coffee cherries are fermented with various aromatics and botanicals, giving new meaning to the idea of flavored coffee. This coffee has been gaining popularity in the Bay Area, with some coffee shops and roasters adopting the style.

The Crown in Oakland is one of the earliest to brew and roast this special coffee in the Bay Area. Its parent company, Royal Coffee, is a coffee importer that sells unroasted green beans to roasters across the country. Royal started working with co-fermented coffee in 2022, offering retail bags and pour overs ($5) at the Crown on a seasonal basis. Past examples include beans processed with cinnamon and another fermented with hops and ginger.

Ain’t Normal has brewed beans processed with cinnamon or mangoes, simulating warmth and tropical sweetness, respectively. A watermelon-processed coffee ($10) tasted like Hubba Bubba chewing gum with a hint of salinity. The Oakland outfit is what coffee nerds call a multi-roaster, meaning its bean selection for drinks — espresso, drip, and pour overs — constantly rotates. When it comes to the sheer variety of co-ferments, the shop is a trailblazer.

Mental Coffee, a newer shop just north of UC Berkeley, regularly pulls shots of co-fermented espresso. On a recent visit, the author sampled peach-infused shots, which had sharp, tart notes of stone fruit on its own ($3.95) and in a cortado ($4.95), it made me think of a peach creamsicle. Owner Vivana Wang attaches the mission of mindfulness to her cafe, from promoting mental health to equitable sourcing. Wang, who trained under Crown roaster Doris Garrido, is very hands-on, going as far as sourcing and roasting the coffee in-house.

Because of the fermentation, roasting this style of coffee might be a little more chaotic than others. The goal is to toast it to the point it develops flavors, but not so much that it destroys or mutes it. Garrido takes a more gentle, intuitive approach to roasting them, blending light and medium roasts.

Bill Li of Hydrangea Coffee, the Bay Area’s sole roaster focusing on fruit-infused beans, prefers lighter options like strawberry coffee. Past offerings include lots infused with passion fruit, coconut, and koji, the fungus used to brew sake. One of the aspects that attracts Li is that it can improve the price of a less-desirable crop. Farmers might be able to sell coffee cherries, normally priced at $6 per pound, at double the price if it’s co-fermented. Chris Kornman, director of education at the Crown, shares similar approximations, saying that crops that might sell for $2 per pound could climb to $10 or $15 per pound. Infused coffee will likely remain limited or seasonal because it represents a small percentage of a farmer’s overall production. Isabella Vitaliano, the Crown’s lab and education coordinator, says that these coffees are “not where they’re making the bulk of their money. It’s a very small part of their harvest that they’re experimenting with.”

Co-fermented coffee has gained popularity in the Bay Area, with Colombia being one of the leading producers of the style. Edwin Noreña, an engineer and biotechnologist from Colombia, leads and mitigates the risk of the experimentation. The Crown was among the first to dabble in co-fermented coffee in the Bay Area.

Roaster Li wants to make these coffees more accessible by making them more affordable than top-of-the-line coffee. His 4-ounce bags of coffee cost anywhere from $16 to $30, and Mind Coffee’s co-fermented coffee is available like any other coffee on the menu, and the beans are available indefinitely. Even the more costly pour overs at Ain’t Normal have slim margins, according to owner Faunus Lucas.

However, there’s one lingering question: Can a $20 cup of coffee ever be worth it? Lucas argues that co-ferments could encourage palate development, with its clarity of flavor and high-definition tasting notes. When done right, this kind of coffee is some of the greatest I’ve ever sampled and it is an experience.

Read More @ San Francisco Chronicle

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