At Blue Bottle, coffee reaches the upper limit 

Starbucks vs. Peets? So old school. The hottest/coolest coffee drama in San Francisco today stars Blue Bottle and Ritual, two small, local coffee roasters that have elevated a cup of brewed coffee to grand cru heights.

The wine analogy works because both Ritual and Blue Bottle approach a cup of coffee the way a winemaker does a fine, distinctive wine. The ultimate cup starts with single-origin beans from artisanal producers who sustainably grow and harvest to enhance terroir, the characteristic flavor that comes from soil and climate.

Ritual and Blue Bottle roast these single-origin beans in small batches to specifications painstakingly calculated to capture their best natural qualities. Then, the coffeemakers use an arsenal of machines, both low- and high-tech, to produce a cup of coffee that realizes the full potential of these special beans.

The result is coffee you've never imagined: a drink with such lively aroma, fullness of flavor and complete lack of bitterness you feel as if you're tasting it for the first time. Great wines radiate the personality of their grapes and tell a whole story in each sip. Likewise, a flask of Blue Bottle siphon coffee that serves two ($9 to $12) or a mug of Ritual single-origin coffee made in the Clover machine ($4), also deliver a full narrative through complex layers of flavor and aroma.

The big development at Blue Bottle Coffee Co. is its stunning new cafe in an alley off Mission and Fifth streets. In an airy, high-ceiling space enclosed by tall, tall windows, supplicants wait in line to order not only coffee but a handful of lovingly crafted little sandwiches smeared with whipped butter and layered with Fra’Mani mortadella or chunky farm egg salad on super fresh Acme rolls ($3.50). There’s also soup, such as a velvety carrot puree drizzled with thyme oil ($4); and three sweets ($3.50 to $5), all of which go surprisingly well with coffee.

In the morning, the pairing with perfectly poached farm eggs on feather-light Acme white toast with whipped butter and flaky sea salt ($6.50), is a dream come true.

At first the coffee possibilities at Blue Bottle seem daunting. You can get fabulous espresso-based drinks from blended beans made on one machine; single-origin espresso drinks, including my favorite, the SG-120, a thin, sake glasslike tumbler of espresso and steamed milk named after the model number of the glassware, made on another machine; orthe famous brewed coffee from the Siphon Bar.

For the latter, you choose a type of bean from the three offered each day. The beans are weighed out, ground to order and put into a U-shaped glass beaker with a stem. Filtered water in another glass pot is heated by Japanese halogen lamps, at which point the coffee beaker is attached. The hot water is sucked up into the ground coffee and then back down through a filter into the water pot. You can watch. The brewed coffee is brought to you attached to its stand and poured into a glass cup and saucer.

The combination of artisan coffee, meticulously made cafe bites, a pioneering location in an alleyway and an uplifting, eco-sensitive space, makes Blue Bottle Cafe the iconic coffee house for the 21st century. Like Ritual in Flora Grubb Gardens (see above), Blue Bottle Café is worth a special trip.

Patricia Unterman is author of the "San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide" and a newsletter, "Unterman on Food." Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Blue Bottle Cafe

Location: 66 Mint St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 351-9276 or www.bluebottlecoffee.net

Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

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Patricia Unterman

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