I have seen the future of iced coffee.
There I was, wandering the grocery-store aisles—when suddenly, next to the kombucha, opposite the rotisserie chickens, I spotted something I never thought I’d live to see.
A blue and white carton—like the half-pints of milk that come on elementary school lunch trays—emblazoned with the words Blue Bottle New Orleans Iced Coffee.
This coffee is legendary in the Bay Area, and now that Blue Bottle has expanded to New York, I’m sure its name echoes on the streets of Manhattan and Williamsburg, too. Brewed with chicory, cut with whole milk, sweetened with cane sugar, it’s a cold coffee beverage that is at once sophisticated and unpretentious. It’s not an austere challenge to the Starbucks-trained palate like so much of high-brow coffee culture. It just tastes good in an interesting way.
James Freeman, the founder and CEO of Blue Bottle, created his version of old New Orleans drink back when his company was a stand at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market, only 10 years ago. It was an alternative to iced lattes, which he told me were a “compromised beverage” because the hot espresso hits the ice, changing its flavor profile.
NOLA iced coffee, by contrast, was perfect. Maybe it wasn’t the pinnacle of coffee, but it was my favorite coffee experience.
Not aggressively artisan like so many Portlandia products, it was a delicious, not financially ruinous luxury that I learned to love in the ruins of the 2008 economy. And now, here in my grocery store behind the rotisserie chickens, were cartons of NOLA GODDAMN ICED COFFEE.
As I piled the last five cartons on the shelf into my red basket, my mind vacillated between evangelical excitement—HALLELUJAH!—and the kind of dread I get seeing Ice T on Law & Order.
What if this carton was terrible? What if this beverage, which accompanied me into adulthood, was just a lame knockoff, a packaged imitation, The Monkees of cold coffee?
I knew Blue Bottle had taken tens of millions of dollars of venture capital—and you know what that means. After their second round of investment in 2012, one former Stumptown Coffee barista and popular coffee blogger said of Blue Bottle, “If you were to go out into the coffee community—not the consumer community, but the coffee community—and ask coffee insiders to describe Blue Bottle, ‘high quality coffee’ would not be used by pretty much anyone.” Were they really going downhill, or was this just my-favorite-band-got-popular hipster coffee syndrome?
This drink might let Blue Bottle challenge Starbucks, which controls the vast majority of the ready-to-drink market. It would be the latte of the 2010s—and you know what that means, too.
But I had heard things about Freeman that made me wonder if he even could sell out. He was famously compulsive and exacting, carrying a special coffee kit on the road, slipping into In-and-Outs to beg for hot water for his travel kettle, then grinding beans by hand on the plastic benches outside. This sensibility extended to his company. One time, I requested an iced espresso drink at a Blue Bottle–serving cafe in San Francisco and was refused out of fear that I was a surreptitious inspector from the coffee company. (Blue Bottle really did run undercover inspections of their customers to make sure they weren’t mistreating their coffees, so everyone was a potential tattle-tale.) Annoying, no? But this guy took brand seriously. I had also heard he had been a professional clarinetist, which was oddly reassuring.
“You get the sense from him that it is still as much of a passion project now as it was when he was roasting 5 lbs of beans in a garage in Oakland; that spirit remains,” said Jessica Battilana, a former Tasting Table senior editor, who has covered the San Francisco beverage scene for nearly a decade. “You meet him, and he doesn’t seem like a pompous jerk, more like a quirky nerd who’s made a go of something he really loves.”
Back at the grocery store, I hurried to the checkout, snatched a carton off the conveyor belt before it could be bagged and ran outside to try it. Fighting off my son’s grabby hands, I managed to get the carton to my mouth and take a sip.
I did not have to think. My tongue knew. It plugged my brain directly into the memories of all the other places I’ve had this beautiful coffee: three alleyways, one converted electrical factory, the fanciest coffee shop in America, two farmer’s markets, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and now, the sidewalk outside the market.
This coffee was the real deal. Maybe not everyone will like it as much as I do (my wife thinks it’s too sweet). But right away, I sensed it was going to be huge. Blue Bottle was already making 10,000 cartons a week, even though they’d only rolled out in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
Somehow, Freeman had scaled perfection.
On behalf of all craftspeople, including writers, I had to know how.
Meet James Freeman. It is California and it is Oakland, so the sun is streaming in through the big windows of a converted old truck showroom. The white tile on the floor inside matches the white brick outside. Freeman is dressed in a dark chambray shirt, matching striped skinny tie, and gray cardigan. His hair is white, but he doesn’t look old.
We sit down at one end of the high table that runs the length of the cavernous space. To our right, behind a transparent wall, mechanics fix the world’s fancy, finicky espresso machines. A flight of different iced coffees and a little pudding form a dotted line in front of him. He is explaining how he is trying to resist the evils of the poodle.
Not a literal poodle, but the poodle that appears in Goëthe’s Faust.
“This production manager Arno I mentioned,” Freeman says, “he was the second barista I ever hired and he was a German literature major, and Goëthe was a big thing for him. And I remember reading some of Doctor Faustus a while ago—you know, to get to know Arno better—and there is a great, great metaphor in it that I’ve been thinking about so much. It’s the prevailing metaphor of my last 18 months. In the book, Mephistopheles appears first in the guise of a poodle. Who could resist a poodle? So lovable, so cute.”
Stop for a moment to appreciate that this is a devil poodle, because Mephistopheles is the devil (roughly). But for Freeman, this poodle is actually about a different varietal of evil.
“Sure you can make a lot of money from this. It’ll be easy. You don’t have to care so much,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper, like a devil poodle would talk. “How can something so irresistible end up being so poisonous? It’s that mindset: It’ll be easy. You won’t have to care. It’s hard to care.”
He pauses for half a beat. “I think about that a lot, especially with this influx of investment. There are a lot of people telling me how I can make my life easier. But is that the right decision to make, or is that the poodle coming into the room?”
I’ve listened to many interviews with him and I know his conversational affect. He says he makes a cappuccino before he puts on pants. He revels in cheery pedanticism about his personal collections of stereo equipment and old cars (“old French cars,” he would say). He relishes the tale of his failure as a professional clarinetist (“good enough to get the jobs I didn’t want, not good enough to get the jobs I did.”) And he talks about coffee, of course, in ways that are intricate and unembarrassed. He once described one lot of Brazilian coffee like this: “It had this luminous shimmery top-end, very caramely body, heavy without being pudgy, and it had this beautiful brightness and layers and layers of flavors … like thinking about your wedding day.”
But going into our interview, what I found most interesting about him, and a defining trait of Blue Bottle’s business maneuverings, is that he considers all the micropsychological conditions that someone might be in as they enter a cafe. “Sometimes people go out for their first coffee of the day and that’s a very vulnerable time in someone’s life, while they’re waiting for that first cup of coffee,” he told the Food Seen podcast, for example.
His approach has differentiated Blue Bottle from a lot of its competition. Ever since the early 1970s, when George Howell started traveling around the world on a mission “to seek out the best coffees on Earth” for his Boston store, The Coffee Connection (since sold to Starbucks), many of the finest coffee people have focused their businesses on ever-more involved, meticulous, and obscure sourcing. They see their role as deepening the relationship between coffee farmers and consumers.
Nowadays, at the San Francisco company Four Barrel, they sell coffees by essentially blogging about the trips they take to see the trees and the people who tend them. It’s all origin stories and earthiness. (“He pointed out the prevalence of Pache plants, a dwarf mutation of Typica. We always have a soft spot for Typica, the ‘mother bean’ that carried the wonders of Arabica coffee beyond its Ethiopian home.”) This is a beautiful way of seeing and participating in the coffee industry.
Blue Bottle is different. Yes, their coffee buyer flies around the world, but travel writing is not part of the brand. They’ve always been known for consistent, delicious blends, for sophisticated brewing methods, for perfectionism. And nary a coffee cherry or tree can be found on their website. Instead, we see beautiful cups of coffee and contexts for drinking them. Sure, there are fancy single-origin coffees for sale, but the images show it being made into espresso, not harvested. Freeman fell in love with coffee roasting it in his oven and meticulously developing his brewing methodologies at home, not on a finca under the trees.
Freeman believes coffee makes us the people we want to be. “I am actually able to change the brain chemistry of my customers,” he has written. And his personal obsession has been perfecting the art of constructing coffee, not growing it. Making coffee is “a performance that lasts 90 seconds,” and that alters the people who experience it.
“In terms of the semiosphere of coffee, there’s just so much imagery of the cherry and the tree, but people buy this,” he told me, tapping one of his coffees. “That’s what people think of as coffee.”
For our purposes, two events dominate the terrain of coffee history as a kind of thesis, anti-thesis: the rise of canned coffee and the the appearance of the latte.
Coffee has been a key part of life for centuries, of course, a legal stimulant available at a low price per dose. Civil War soldiers needed it for battle. “Soldiers drank it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat. In their diaries, ‘coffee’ appears more frequently than the words ‘rifle,’ ‘cannon’ or ‘bullet,’” wrote historian Jon Grinspan in The New York Times. “Ragged veterans and tired nurses agreed with one diarist: ‘Nobody can “soldier” without coffee.’”
Now, the value of the coffee trade is a commodity second only to petroleum. It’s a pharmacological necessity for the masses, from Vienna to Virginia to Vanuatu.
Strangely, Civil War soldiers may have had access to better coffee than the mid-20th century American shopper. For decades, food engineers at the big coffee brands of the day—Folger’s, Maxwell House, Hills Brothers—systematically reduced the cost of their product by adding ever-cheaper beans into their blends. They used a less expensive coffee varietal known as robusta that was easy to produce in bulk in Brazil—and even took the lowest grades of it that they could find. Over time, they replaced the actual smell and flavor of coffee with marketing and some engineering tricks. “Just before sealing the powdered coffee in the cans, manufacturers inject a simulated coffee aroma,” wrote Taylor Clark in his book Starbucked, “so when consumers open the container, they get a whiff of fresh coffee, which, because it’s entirely fake, instantly vanishes.”
Perhaps the canned coffee magnates should have tried to compete on something other than price, but coffee is such a daily necessity that diners and grocery stores alike used it as a door buster, making their money on other, higher-margin products. In that business environment, even tiny price increases might have been enough to bring a company’s market share down. So competition stayed fierce, prices stayed generally low, and quality kept dropping. While consumers didn’t seem to notice the difference month over month or year after year, eventually they just stopped drinking as much coffee. And why not? It was crap. If they wanted caffeination that tasted all right, they could turn to soda. In 1962, per capita coffee consumption went down for the first time in the statistical record, according to Clark.
During the decade after that low-point, people like Howell in Boston, Alfred Peet of Peet’s in Berkeley, Oren Bloostein of Oren’s Daily Roast in New York, and Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegl of Starbucks in Seattle began to lay the foundations for today’s coffee culture.
These early coffee lovers were an eccentric bunch by most accounts, craftspeople as much as business owners. They set up small shops in cool places and tried to get people to buy into the idea of better coffee. In 1982, they formed the Specialty Coffee Association of America. At that time, they held a few percent of the American coffee market. Even in the late 1980s, there were just a few hundred shops dedicated to brewing and selling coffee in the entire county. These small, scattered places could not really compete with the big brands. And then suddenly it was easy.
Thirty years later, specialty coffee holds 37% of the market and there are more than 24,000 coffee shops.
The latte. Well, the latte and a man obsessed by scale.
That would be Howard Schultz, who’d been brought to Starbucks by Baldwin to do marketing. In the late 1980s, the original partners sold the company to Schultz. Baldwin, for his part, turned his full attention to Peet’s, and Schultz set Starbucks on the path to megascale.
Schultz began to push Italianate sophistication and the practice of pouring espresso shots into very hot milk. The Starbucks latte, as it developed, became to its espresso+milk European ancestors what Panda Express is to high Sichuan cuisine: deracinated, but irresistible.
After all, Americans love milk. “It was always milk drinks,” our own Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee, told Clark. ”They’re easier to drink, and it was also a logical transition for someone going from a big tall cup of drip coffee. People think they like espresso. They don’t.” (Kummer’s book delves into this history, too.)
Starbucks now has a dominant, near-hegemonic position in the American specialty coffee market. All its competitors are a mere fraction of its size. And yet, many people in the coffee industry would say that Starbucks coffee is terrible, or at best, should be buried in a venti glass of hot milk.
Blue Bottle has been a standard-bearer of the post-latte coffee revival, which looks a lot like the one Starbucks itself participated in during the 1970s: weirdos and dreamers connected in loose, West Coasty networks by love of coffee.
When Freeman was getting Blue Bottle off the ground, Eileen Hassi was getting Ritual running on San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The two brands have become part of the new artisan (our generation’s “specialty”) coffee establishment, along with a select few other companies like Chicago’s Intelligentsia, founded by Doug Zell and Emily Mange, and Portland’s Stumptown, the creation of Duane Sorenson. And of course, there are the other Bay Area stars like Jeremy Tooker’s Four Barrel, as well as Jerad and Justin Morrison’s Sightglass.
If I squint back through the mists of history and Seattle, there is something oddly parallel about Starbucks in 1984 and Blue Bottle in 2014. And that thinking, in some ways, culminates in the NOLA Iced Coffee.
“Have you been to our shop on Mint Plaza?” Freeman asks me. Indeed I have been, as have many other readers of The New York Times, at least in spirit, because they profiled the place in January 2008 when its $20,000 Japanese siphon coffeemaker went into operation: “With its brass-trimmed halogen heating elements, glass globes and bamboo paddle, the new contraption that is to begin making coffee this week at the Blue Bottle Café here looks like a machine from a Jules Verne novel, a 19th-century vision of the future.”
“I thought up that shop in 2007, so it was a long time ago,” Freeman continued. “You walk in and it is filled with mystery. Like, what are those things? Coffee is difficult and mysterious! And that kind of betrays how I thought about it in 2007… With that carton, though, there is no manual or training. There is one word on the carton that you need to know, and that is ‘open.’ It’s so easy and it is very delicious.
“This is where it starts or it can start: ‘I don’t like coffee, but I like this. So maybe I’ll check out one of their shops or maybe I’ll look them up online. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe,’” he concluded. “There are all kinds of things that can stem from this.”
Out of all the companies in its cohort, Blue Bottle has been the most ambitious, not just in the number of its stores—which is still small—but the type of stores that it has built. Recently, it’s begun to make acquisitions, too, snatching up Handsome Coffee Roasters in Los Angeles and the Internet coffee company Tonx. And Blue Bottle just so happens to have a delicious, milky beverage of its own on which it could build a huge business.
“This is a move right out of the Starbucks playbook—by putting a ready-to-drink product in gas stations, Starbucks reached populations that would never find their way into a Starbucks cafe,” said Leif Haven, who covers the Bay Area coffee scene for Sprudge.com.
They’re not the only company trying to scale in this way, of course. Stumptown looms on the horizon as another major-investor-backed coffee brand. Twitter-Uber-Square founder Jack Dorsey is an investor in Sightglass. And there are other small, nimble startups going after the Frappucino-dominated ready-to-drink market.
“Black Medicine company, Kickstand, Project Juice are three I can think of that aren’t even associated with a well-known roaster or brand. Blue Bottle is simply one of the highest-profile efforts,” Haven said. “Since they’ve placed it in Whole Foods, it’s probably one of the largest scale iced-coffee ventures this side of Starbucks.”
All of which returns us to the question we began with: Can Freeman turn Blue Bottle into Starbucks without … turning it into Starbucks?
“Could we be the first 20-store chain, or 50- or 100-store chain that doesn’t suck?” Freeman asked rhetorically, in an interview with The New York Times in January. The question can be applied to his new product, too: Can Blue Bottle be the first company to make 20,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 cartons of iced coffee that doesn’t suck?
If Blue Bottle succeeds in scaling, it will be thanks to people like its West Coast production manager, Jen Apodaca, and mornings like this one at Fort Point Beer Company, which squats at the base of a bluff in San Francisco, across Crissy Field from the Bay. It’s foggy, of course, but the orange of the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen reaching out to Marin like an invitation.
The brewery is white and blocky, topped with a red tile roof. Through the facility’s two huge roll-up doors, there is shiny metal everywhere. Kegs are stacked against a back wall, and there are two rows of huge stainless steel brewing vats. Because if you want to brew hundreds of gallons of coffee, you need to find a brewer with big vats.
That would be Mike Schnebeck, head brewer at Fort Point, and the kind of tall, naturally strong dude who would have been really good at sports if he hadn’t been too busy playing the bass. He’s in charge of actually making the coffee with the operational guidance of Apodaca.
Apodaca got into the business through her work in Chiapas, back when “I was into politics and I went to work for the Zapatistas and was like, ‘I’m gonna support the revolution!’” she said. “Because those guys sell coffee. And I was gonna import it and sell it. Then I moved to Portland, and realized how expensive the roasting machines are, and was like, ‘I’m gonna get a job as a waitress.’”
But she made her way back to coffee, apprenticing in roasting at McMenamin’s in Portland, which has a small coffee operation, then moving to Intelligentsia as a roaster and quality control specialist, before she got recruited to Blue Bottle last year.
Schnebeck leads us up a ladder to a platform that stretches between two steel cylinders, one taller than the other. Each has a hatch. He opens the smaller one and a rich coffee smell comes wafting out.
The previous night, coarse-ground coffee and chicory went into the vat along with 700 gallons of water. They gave it a little mix and then let it sit for 14 to 16 hours, depending on the batch. “If you just scaled this down to a five-gallon bucket, you would just do a couple of stirs of the coffee and water and let it sit. Some separation does naturally happen, but a lot floats to the top,” Apodaca said. “It looks like brownie batter.”
She knows this intimately because when the deadline arrived to get the coffee ready for market, some of the regulatory approvals to use the Fort Point facility didn’t come through. Just in case, she designed a back-up system that would have involved brewing the coffee in buckets in their own facilities.
“The operation was gonna be 75 five-gallon buckets. I had to calculate this. We were gonna try to do it over the course of four days,” she said. “It was gonna suck so bad. I’m so glad we didn’t have to do that. But I still have the plan. It’s approved, so, if we ever want to, it could be done.”
Schnebeck, an old home brewer, is not impressed by the difficulty. “Seventy-five? You get 10 people doing that? It wouldn’t take that long.”
The light falling through the portal illuminates just the top of the vat. The top of the mixing apparatus hangs above the coffee line, grounds clinging to it. It’s the most beautiful slurry I’ve ever seen.
The hatch is closed. Another hour goes by, and they begin draining the coffee into the adjacent 800-gallon kettle (equivalent to 25 barrels of beer). It comes pouring out of a tap like a waterfall—a caffeinated, cold-brewed waterfall. Foam covers the coffee, except where the stream from hits the liquid. It forms a dark-brown eye at that spot, the color fading outward to mocha.
Back in the other vessel, all the liquid is gone. Only the grounds remain. They pile up, forming a landscape with organic lines that remind me of cooled lava, or the photos our robots on Mars send back of places where water seems to have once flowed. The coffee grounds go to a composting facility where they become dirt, eventually.
Schnebeck pumps the coffee out of the kettle, through an in-line filter, and into a huge plastic bag that, when filled, resembles an enormous square brown waterbed. That gets shipped up north to Clover, a large dairy that mixes in the organic milk and and sugar, pasteurizes all that together, then “bottles” and distributes the cartons.
It turns out that the biggest difficulty in brewing NOLA iced coffee in these containers is the cleaning. The chicory gets stuck in all the wrong places, clogging up the works. So, most of the work for the Fort Point people comes after the coffee is gone.
There is something chimerical about any industrial-scale food process: the delicacy of an individual’s process grated onto the grandeur of our civilization’s technical progress. Even the gross ones—like dragging turkeys through ice baths, or grinding shrimp into powder—can seem thrillingly fantastical. We don’t know what it’s like to make one pencil, so the ability to make a thousand or a million of them is not that impressive. But we do know how to make one cup of coffee, so it is possible to understand the insanity of producing 10,000.
It took Blue Bottle a year and a half to get to the point where they could regularly produce iced coffee at this scale. The seed of the idea was a can of cold cappuccino that James Freeman had on a plane to New York in late 2011. “I got this canned cappucino for, like, six dollars or something. And I opened it and I was like, ‘This is so horrible. This is so horrible,’” he said. He started trying every ready-to-drink cold coffee on the market. “The range of tastes is somewhere between terrible and horrible.” (He makes two exceptions to this general rule: products from Portland’s Stumptown and Oakland’s Black Medicine.)
He tried to figure out how these beverages had gone so bad. “You think about the psychology. Nobody is like, OK, let’s have a meeting and let’s invest millions of dollars because we want to develop this horrible product. Nobody does that,” he said. “It’s always with the best intentions.”
So what was going on? Freeman found a source who had worked with big beverage companies, who could explain the problems. First, making a shelf-stable product is hard, and it is hard in ways that are particularly bad for coffees.
“It was sort of a spooky story around a campfire, like, ‘Gather around kids, I’m gonna tell you how a frappuccino is made. No, no! That’s too scary!” Freeman said. He learned about a machine called a retort, a supercharged, industrial-scale pressure cooker, into which bottled coffee is inserted, pressurized, and heated to 240 degrees.
“Basically what survives that…” Freeman’s voice trails off. “It’s the same way that canned chili is made, you know?”
To keep the beverages liquid during that process, the manufacturers also have to add stabilizing chemicals like guar gum, carrageenan, or other additives.
Then there are the FDA regulations about acidity. To extend their shelf lives, certain types of drinks need to have certain (high) acid levels to keep microbes from breeding. That requires a whole other set of processes to keep the beverages drinkable: more sugar, ultra-pasteurization, etc.
“When I heard all that, I thought, that sounds hard, but it had to be possible,” Freeman concluded. So he started writing checks, bringing in a food science lab to help them develop the drink and jump through the food-safety hoops. The lab worked with researchers at the University of Guelph in testing the safety of the processes that they developed. “When something passed muster and [microbes] didn’t breed, I would say, ‘Oh, good, no Canadians died,’” Freeman joked. “Just imagine a line of really nice Canadians stepping up, ‘Oh, I’ll try that.’”
Meanwhile Freeman used his every-other-Thursday R&D sessions to try to find the right ingredients and recipe. They would blind test different formulations and pilot processes to find something that they could be proud of. It wasn’t easy. After fending off heavily engineered options from the food science lab for a while, they made their first serious attempt at a product employing a sterilization method called high-pressure processing (HPP). Freeman’s favorite coconut water (Harmless Harvest) uses HPP, and he had high hopes for it with coffee because they wouldn’t have to heat the coffee. “These machines take up most of this room, and you load the coffee in a silo filled with water, lock it in this chamber, and it’s like sending it down to the bottom of the ocean,” Freeman said.
It’s actually more intense: the pressure at the bottom of the Marianas Trench is about 1,000 times what a human walking around on the earth’s surface would experience. HPP applies 87,000 pounds of pressure per square inch to foodstuffs, or almost 6,000 times atmospheric pressure. The microbes the FDA is worried about, for their part, can’t withstand “pressures above 60,000 pounds per square inch,” so HPP is generally considered a safe alternative to pasteurization.
HPP worked pretty well. Freeman was satisfied that they had something they could sell. The team piloted some black and NOLA iced coffee products in some Blue Bottle cafes, just to see if people would buy them. What they found was that they would lose a lot of money per bottle, that NOLA iced coffee is very popular (that they already knew), and that they had no idea how to go to production scale.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know how to do this, and I don’t want to hire a dozen people to figure out how to do it. And I don’t want to end up with a product that we lose a bunch of money on by the time it gets to the store or try to charge $10 for,” Freeman said. It was frustrating. “Maybe other people have gotten to that place before. Maybe there is a systemic reason it can’t work,” he thought.
“The whole thing is more like a thought experiment or a bet that I knew I might lose. Because if it couldn’t be just as delicious as the product we’re serving, then why do it? It’s stupid,” he said. “I mean, it’s tempting. There are a lot of temptations along the way.”
The devil poodle rears his cute, adorable head again! But Freeman couldn’t bring himself to put out an inferior product or commit business suicide by trying to sell $10 iced coffee.
And just when they’d given up and the development process had stopped, Ron appeared.
That would be Ron Megahan, a guy who worked his way up at Whole Foods from checker to vice president. Blue Bottle hired him in September of last year, and Freeman began to tell him about the failed experiments of the previous years. They went back to the food lab with one key change in the operation: they combined the coffee with raw milk and cane sugar, then pasteurized the whole thing together. The food lab spun out different versions of the pasteurization process, and one—actually the standard in the dairy industry (HTST: high-temperature, short-time)—was able to pass their blind taste tests as indistinguishable from the control version made by hand.
All they needed was a big supply of raw milk, and it was Megahan who realized that this problem was actually going to be the solution to the hurdle Blue Bottle encountered in its last attempt to create a drink for retail. “We don’t need to hire a fleet of trucks and all this team and lose millions of dollars until we get it to scale,” Freeman said. “What if we just work with a dairy? Because that’s what they do. They pasteurize raw milk, they put it in trucks, and they deliver it to stores.”
They met with the dairy, Clover. Clover got excited. They reached out to Fort Point Brewing Company, which had excess capacity at night, and could decant the coffee. They’d created a lean, scalable operation by depending on the strong regional ecosystem of food and beverage companies in the Bay Area. And they were off to the races.
Or, more precisely, to the Natural Products Expo West food trade conference in Anaheim, California. Back in March, Freeman and his team started pouring the beverages for supermarket people looking for new products. “I remember texting Arno, who is our head of production,” Freeman said, “and saying, ‘You’re going to have to buy all the organic chicory in the world, because we’re going to need a lot of it.’”
Next summer, look for the cartons to roll out across the country. They might also be joined in the Blue Bottle lineup over the next couple years by two new products: one black iced coffee and an intriguing Arnold Palmer-like drink made from the cherry that surrounds the coffee pit we call a bean.
I started out wanting to know how Freeman had managed to scale his operation so well, imagining there were secrets to be found in the engineering process. And certainly, there were a few tricks, or at least, methodological approaches that helped. The rigorous blind testing—which exists throughout Blue Bottle—keeps them honest. The raw milk trick let them find the taste they were looking for. The San Francisco food company ecosystem let them scale quickly without bringing all the infrastructure inside their company. All those things mattered.
But everywhere I looked, the most important component of scaling was the ideas of the people working with Blue Bottle. It’s Freeman avoiding the devil poodle, and Apodaca coming up with her bucket-brigade contingency plan. It’s Schnebeck tending the decanting process. It’s Megahan realizing that Clover would solve their distribution problem. It’s the quality-control testers going over every batch. It’s the Canadians who didn’t die.
Blue Bottle’s success at scaling comes from hiring and partnering in the right ways. Founders like Freeman scale their organizations in their own image, and the corporate person they create, that golem, moves like a shadow behind the founder.
Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ pivotal owner and executive, was a salesman. By his own admission, he was not the real coffee lover among the early employees. In his book about the company, he doesn’t even mention the quality of the coffee in the introduction, focusing on the in-store experience and on the way Starbucks treated its employees. He described his own “vision and values” as “the combination of competitive drive and a profound desire to make sure everyone in the organization could win together.” I’m not intimating that Schultz didn’t care about coffee, but he most certainly did not place the aesthetic experience of coffee drinking at the center of his company.
It is impossible to read Freeman’s ode to the art of roasting coffee, included in the book he wrote with his wife Caitlin, and not believe that he cares about coffee. Coffee, after all, saved Freeman. While he can make light of his failure as a classical musician, consider that he spent the better part of 30 years trying to perfect playing the clarinet. And then realized that his life as a musician was over. He’d never make it in the field to which he’d dedicated his life.
“For me, no matter when I got to bed, I always felt a sense of dread when the alarm went off at 4 a.m.,” Freeman wrote of roasting. “Classic Kierkegaard, straight out of The Concept of Anxiety: animals are slaves to their instincts and hence feel no responsibility, but humans are free and therefore constantly aware of their failure to live up to their responsibilities to God—or to Coffee.”
The only thing that staves off the dread is to get up and make the coffee. “Every working morning, roasters choose to animate their terrible feelings of anxiety, dread, and responsibility and face the daunting task of roasting coffee,” he continued. “That first decision to get up in the morning is a mirror of all the hard and lonely decisions that must be made for the rest of the roasting day.”
Freeman doesn’t wake up at 4am to roast beans anymore, but the decisions are only getting harder and lonelier. He’s the only person who can keep Blue Bottle from becoming like the companies that he was reacting against. And that damn poodle, who is also a demon, is about as cute as a squat little milk carton emblazoned with a whimsical blue bottle. Will Freeman fail to live up to his responsibilities to coffee, especially as investors begin to expect returns?
“The investors are like, ‘Why not? The sky’s the limit!’ There is that encouragement to think big, which I don’t think I naturally possess,” he said. “But I think that’s been good for me. And this New Orleans is a great example. If you can put this in a bottle: why not?”