My Guide to San Francisco Espresso (2015)

I know I said I can’t stand doing coffee shop reviews, but I dislike leaving a project unfinished even more.

On July 1st, I began a quest to explore as much of the San Francisco Bay Area coffee scene as possible. Even though I don’t want to litter the internet with yet another “best of” list, I have been to over 60 different coffee shops through the Bay Area and people are asking me which ones are my favorites and how this region compares to Seattle or Portland. This post is for them.

Whenever I post about coffee shops, I want to state my biases upfront.

  • I almost always drink espresso at cafes. I drink brewed coffee at home.
  • I prefer lighter roasts, but not so light they are sour. More on that later.
  • I detest dark roasted espresso, as it tastes ashy.
  • I think espresso should be served with a water back, preferably carbonated.
  • Good service might not make a bad espresso taste good, but bad service can make a good espresso taste worse.
  • I like coffee shops that offer more than one espresso option. Could be a blend and a single origin. Could be from multiple roasters. Bonus points if the offerings rotate.
  • I like transparency in both coffee offerings and pricing.

In this post, I will highlight a few of my favorites based upon the region.

san Francisco

San Francisco

  1. Mazarine Coffee – This downtown place just opened at the end of 2014. They serve an espresso blend from Klatsch and a single origin from Ritual.
  2. Front Cafe – In the Potrero Hill area. Class act coffee shop with just outdoor seating, so make sure the weather is nice when you visit.
  3. Coffee Cultures – Small coffee shop downtown with very little seating which is just open weekdays. They serve two espressos from Counter Culture. Their sign is very hard to read, so you might miss it if you aren’t paying attention.
  4. Stanza Coffee Haight – There are two Stanza Coffee locations. Go to the one in the Haight not the one in the Mission. Better espresso and better service. Stanza rotates, but right now is using coffee from Counter Culture.
  5. Pinhole Coffee – In the Bernal Heights area. Easy parking. They use 3 different roasters: Verve, Blue Bottle, and Linea. Excellent customer service.
  6. Hearth Coffee – A new coffee place in the Castro District. Their espresso is a blend of Sumatra and Ethiopia which is amazing. Both earthy and sweet with a syrupy mouth-feel.
  7. Ritual Coffee Valencia – For the first few months, I really did not like Ritual. Every shot was thin and sour. Then they opened the expanded cafe on Valencia and changed their seasonal blend. Whatever they did, it is now working. Their Honduras from Nelson Ramirez was the best-brewed coffee I had in 2014.

Two other honorable mentions for those that prefer a little more weight to their espresso without getting any ashy defects are Linea Caffe and Contraband Coffee.

My pick for the most beautiful coffee shop goes to Sightglass Coffee’s SOMA location on 7th Street. Their espresso is underdeveloped and sour, so get brewed coffee if you visit. Four Barrel is popular with coffee aficionados, but I’ve discovered their wholesale accounts pull better shots than they do and do it with less attitude.

South Bay / Peninsula

  1. Chromatic Coffee – Hands down Chromatic Coffee is the best coffee roaster and pulls the best shots of espresso of anyone in the entire SF Bay Area. They have two espressos and are always innovating. They figured out how to get light sweet shots without sourness by manipulating the mineral content of the water. A week ago they just debuted a blend with 16% premium robusta called Holy Mountain that is awesome. Wish Chromatic wasn’t buried in a strip mall in Santa Clara.
  2. Red Berry Coffee – 3 espressos from 3 different roasters at this Los Altos cafe. When I was there they had PTs, Stumptown, and Temple. I also spied bags of Blue Bottle, Chromatic, and Intelligentsia. If you crave variety, this is a must-visit.
  3. Bliss Coffee – In downtown Redwood City. They serve both Four Barrel and a rotating second roaster, which has been Verve and Temple.

That is it. The South Bay is in a time warp. The people here still like that 1990s dark roast crap. It is gradually changing, but a decade behind SF and Oakland.


East Bay

  1. Devout Coffee – My second favorite place in the SF Bay Area is in Fremont. Really good espresso, just hard for me to get there. When I was last there they had a small cafe, but with plans to expand in size.

This is the part of the Bay Area I know the least about. There may be some other gems, but my research didn’t find them.

Oakland / Berkeley

  1. Blue Bottle WC Morse – There are Blue Bottle locations in SF, but my favorite location is in Oakland’s WC Morse Building. This is a large cafe with big windows and even has an espresso machine repair shop on location. Blue Bottle serves two espressos here, both a single origin and the 17ft Ceiling blend which has a premium robusta component. Since Espresso Vivace dropped robusta from it’s Dolce blend in 2009, it has been hard to find it specialty espresso. 17ft is a great classic espresso blend.
  2. Modern Coffee 2 (Leamington Building) – There are 2 locations for Modern Coffee. Go to this one. This multi-roaster cafe served Chromatic, Verve, and De la Paz when I visited.
  3. Alchemy Collective Cafe – Located in Berkeley and serving two espressos, one from Verve and one they roast. Friendly staff.

Just Outside the SF Bay Area

  1. Verve Coffee (Santa Cruz) – They have 3 locations. If you can only go to one, head Downtown, although I do really like the East Side location as well. Verve is one of the best roasters in the country.
  2. Flying Goat Coffee (Santa Rosa) – Had a great espresso here when on my trip up north.

SF vs Seattle and Portland

In my opinion, San Francisco is behind Seattle and Portland in coffee. There are two main reasons.

#1 Underdeveloped Espresso

Many of the lighter roasted espressos are underdeveloped. They taste thin and sour. In Seattle both Kuma and Slate roast light, but they never taste sour. One could probably write 1,000 words on this topic. I’m not going to, but in general lighter espressos require higher temperatures, more volume out, and perhaps less mineral content in the water.

#2 Customer Service

I don’t know when things turned around exactly in Seattle, but around 5+ years ago you saw a change in how coffee shops treated their customers. That condescending attitude gradually got replaced with quality customer service. It spread across the city. I noticed the same excellent service every time I visit Portland as well. Specialty coffee made a strong effort in Seattle to be more welcoming to customers. As the organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, I noticed this. I’ve attended over 500 meetups, most of which I was the host working directly with the coffee shop.

That message has not arrived in San Francisco. The attitude that the customer is a nuisance to the barista is rampant in the city. I’ve been told that is an SF thing. Well, it may be, but I don’t care for it. When the owner of a coffee shop takes to Twitter to insult a paying customer for showing too much interest in coffee during opening weekend, I get upset. That really happened. A few times when I asked what the espresso offering I was asked why I needed to know.

Not every place has bad service, but enough to notice that SF is less kind than Seattle or Portland.

Last Words

If you are planning to visit the SF Bay Area and drink some espresso, I hope you find this guide useful. The San Francisco Bay Area is a great coffee city and getting better.


Add yours

  1. What’s a “water back?”

  2. Sort of a related topic, but care to list a few of your favorite mail order espresso/coffee places?

  3. @Brian – A small glass of water. Since espresso is very low on volume, you want to clear your palate before consuming so whatever might have been in your mouth doesn’t interfere with the flavor.

    Our house uses the subscription service from Chromatic. Roasters Choice.

  4. Oh cool. So you prefer a SF co. over a Seattle co. for mail order?

  5. @Brian – I have very little experience with coffee mail order. When I went looking for mail order subscriptions I wanted a great roaster at a fair price that allowed easy customization on the order form. Chromatic won.

  6. Great review, thanks. I am looking forward to trying them. ANY of them. Turns out I haven’t been to a single one of these… yet.

  7. I feel compelled to comment b/c you are absolutely dead-on with everything you have said and thankfully you have a few on your list I have yet to visit. I have added them to my list. Thanks for sharing. Chromatic is in my top 3 too, along with two new favorites – Andytown and Scout down in SLO (HoneyCo I think is the name of their beans). I like Jane as well (Stumptown)–curious if you have been?

  8. @Megan – I like Andytown as well. Did not try Scout or Jane. I’m back in Seattle now.

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