All the buzz: a report from CoffeeCon San Francisco

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Whether your caffeinated allegiances lie with Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, or a non-coffee drink, CoffeeCon San Francisco offered something to appeal to everyone’s cravings on July 26. Venturing out of Chicago for the first time, the consumer coffee festival boasted a multitude of roasters — many of them local and therefore well-acquainted with using glorious Hetch Hetchy water in the brewing process — and a wide variety of presentations to intrigue both casual coffee drinkers and connoisseurs. Plus, unlimited coffee samples!

One of CoffeeCon’s immediate strengths was its venue. A far cry from a sterilized, gray environment, the event took place at Terra Gallery & Event Venue, a SOMA art gallery. Paintings and coffee naturally complement each other, and within minutes, it felt like a laid-back Saturday morning, where I admired colorful, contemporary paintings while sipping rich, appropriately bitter coffee. The only way for the event organizers to improve future venues is to recreate the feelings of a cozy coffee shop, which it seems like they made a crack at with the abundant comfy couches. However, I was a little disappointed to see that the live music, which was promised on CoffeeCon’s website to “add atmosphere,” was absent, although I suppose that gives it something to improve on next year.

While I was impressed by the roundup of some of SF’s more recognizable coffee brands and enjoyed their samples, I gravitated more toward more unconventional participants — ones that technically didn’t even sell coffee. Drawn in by the wafels and the company’s clever name, my first stop was Rip van Wafels. Stroopwafels are heavenly, although I’ve always been too impatient and scarfed them down before I could pair them with coffee. There are two main strategies to tackle the combo: you can either one, place the wafel on the edge of the coffee cup, let the steam from the drink infuse the wafel’s caramel flavor, and eat it once the wafel droops or two, say “fuck it” and just dunk the wafel in the coffee. 

In addition to Rip van Wafels, I was a big fan of Project Juice and Torani — all three of which are local companies. I did a double take when I walked past Project Juice’s booth; it seemed just a little out of place at a coffee festival. My hesitation quickly waned. The company sells organic, cold-pressed drinks, including a tasty, healthy coffee alternative: Get Up and Go-Go (claiming to be 67 percent less acidic than normal coffee), which is incidentally made with another one of its drinks, Almond Mylk. The other drinks were just as delicious, although I didn’t expect the ginger to pack such a punch. Torani was a breath of fresh air on the unusually hot SF summer day. The booth served iced coffee with liberal additions of its flavored syrups — vanilla is a popular, traditional favorite, but the s’mores syrup is a tempting flavor that recalls childhood summers.

Though the upper level of the gallery was a perfect setup for the booths, the lower level was much less suited to handle the presentations. Essentially, the lower level is divided into two rooms of similar size. A handful of presentations simultaneously went on in the first room, which was divided into curtained subsections. It was a cacophony; I’d strain to hear my speaker over the presentations happening mere feet away and the louder speaker in the other room, who had the privilege of using a microphone. 

Still, I managed to clearly hear one poignant comment Helen Russell, co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffee & Teas, made: “It’s more than just what’s in the bag.” Russell spoke about social and economic responsibility, telling a heartwarming story about a little girl with a debilitating leg infection she met on a Panama coffee farm. She invested in the girl’s medical treatment and education, and even bought her a horse named Barista (because why not?) Maybe there’s more to coffee than just being a life-restoring elixir in the morning.