As I stood in line at the new Blue Bottle Coffee shop in Georgetown, I felt like a foreigner in my own country.
You see, I’m a hopeless coffee nerd. I’m the guy with all the gadgets, spouting off about brewing science and freshly roasted beans. Like many of my kind, I was looking forward to Blue Bottle’s debut in Washington, even though I had fears about what $100 million-plus in venture capital might do to the Oakland-based company and its expansionist plans.
Despite these concerns, I fully expected Blue Bottle in Georgetown to feel like home, or at least a place where I’d be at peace with my surroundings. But upon entering the shop, I had a sinking feeling that Blue Bottle had traded in its third-wave credentials for a lifestyle brand. The evidence was all around me.
First, there’s the location: in Georgetown, in a former yoga studio, down the street from Dean & DeLuca and around the corner from a designer clothing shop with its own bar. Blue Bottle looks to be making explicit what so many Regular Joe drinkers have already surmised: Specialty coffee, with its $5 single-origin pour overs, is designed for elites only. Or tourists willing to splurge.
The interior didn’t help matters: The shop features distressed concrete floors. Blank beige walls. Blond wood finishes. Exposed silver ductwork. A long white communal table and a handful of stools to stare out a picture window that opens onto the brick-and-cobblestone street. It’s Japanese minimalism meets warehouse chic.
As I inched toward the coffee bar, I inspected the products for sale: Blue Bottle branded drippers, filters, pitchers, mugs, cold brewers and more. A refrigerated case offered kiddie milk cartons filled with Blue Bottle’s signature New Orleans iced coffee (with chicory root) and cute 8-ounce cans of Blue Bottle’s cold brew (the ingredient list includes “time,” ugh). When I finally reached a barista, I was told there was only one single-origin coffee available on the pour-over bar. Otherwise, I had to order one of Blue Bottle’s blends.
Coffee and espresso seemed to be pretty far down Blue Bottle’s list of priorities. Style, I sensed, had supplanted the substance that had first attracted me to Blue Bottle in San Francisco several years ago. This place struck me as, arguably, the country’s first chain Boutique Coffee Shop, a destination where drinkers can revel in their good taste while sipping on a caffe latte made with beans from Blue Bottle, the coffee world’s closest thing to a designer brand.
Could this be the same Blue Bottle Coffee started by James Freeman, the classically trained musician who, 15 years ago, traded his clarinet for a Diedrich coffee roaster? The guy who has applied his deeply curious intellect to the pursuit of coffee roasting and brewing? The guy who co-wrote “The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee,” one of the most comprehensive mainstream books on growing, roasting and drinking coffee (and which includes his deliciously biting essay, “A Special Place in Hell: Pod Coffee”)? Something wasn’t adding up for me.
When reached by phone, Freeman set me straight on one thing: Blue Bottle doesn’t rely on demographics and market research to select its locations. He and Bryan Meehan, chief executive of Blue Bottle, are more intuitive than analytical, Freeman said. Georgetown, he added, “felt like a very natural extension of who we are.” In a separate interview, however, Meehan hinted at demographics, saying Blue Bottle was attracted to the neighborhood because its residents were “well educated and well traveled” and had an appreciation for culture. (Incidentally, Blue Bottle expects to open two more stores in the District, one at Union Market and another at the Wharf on the Southwest waterfront.)
The interior design isn’t supposed to signal anything to customers. The shop is more like a black box theater, purposely designed to strip away clutter so customers can enjoy their coffee experience with minimal distraction, Freeman said. It’s no coincidence that the giant, blond-wood frame behind the coffee bar looks like a proscenium arch. The baristas are the stars of the show, shaping your experience.
Blue Bottle, Meehan said, doesn’t have a marketing department or even someone with the title of “marketing manager.” The people who sell the brand are the baristas, and Blue Bottle sends each one to Oakland for six weeks of training, with company-paid room and board. Ultimately, the baristas, Freeman said, should be like “the coolest sommelier you’ve ever met.”
The baristas are trained not to talk down to those who walk into Blue Bottle, even if a customer wants nothing more than cookie and a caffe mocha. Yet employees should be able to engage with patrons at every level, from novice to licensed Q-Grader. Like the space in which they work, the baristas don’t flaunt their coffee-geek capabilities, preferring instead to conceal them under a friendly facade.
I can attest that the baristas at Blue Bottle in Georgetown are inviting and gracious, although some clearly have more knowledge and skills than others. Then again, not even Blue Bottle can turn an amateur into champion barista with just six weeks of training. The finest baristas I know have been making coffee for years and are always hungry to learn more.
Blue Bottle’s limited menu is also designed not to overwhelm, Freeman said. This is why the pour-over bar will feature only two or three coffees per day. You might even see those coffees for longer than 48 hours. Blue Bottle has revamped its old policy of trashing beans older than two days. The company’s blends will now be served for four days, and single-origin coffees will stick around for a week. Over the past 15 years, Blue Bottle and Freeman have learned a lot more about when coffees taste best.
“We have a saying internally,” Meehan said. “We don’t worry about staying the same as we grow. We worry about getting better.”
I must admit that seeing the Georgetown shop from Blue Bottle’s perspective has alleviated some of my concerns. The location is not a harbinger that Blue Bottle has embraced style over substance. It’s a sign that Blue Bottle has learned how to conceal substance within its stylish shops, a legitimate move if third-wave coffee ever wants to inch its way into the mainstream where it belongs. (At the same time, I feel like Freeman and Meehan are semi-oblivious to the image they’re projecting in Georgetown with this chic, austere space, which doesn’t invite inquiry into coffee as much as it creates a vacuum that customers must fill on their own, often with their phone.)
The other cup was a pour over of Blue Bottle’s Three Africas, a blend that includes a naturally processed bean from Ethiopia. I’ve had this blend many times in the past, and this version is, by far, the finest one yet. Sweet, fruity, full-bodied. It gives blends a good name. It also has me hooked on Blue Bottle, no matter what I think of the company’s evolving style.