Photos by Brian Addison.
Coffee is never just coffee—and Long Beach has a storied history and relationship with the almighty coffee bean.
True Beans Roasters, attempting to separate itself from the dark roasting tactics of the original Long Beach roaster that is Polly’s, came and went with the blink of an eye.
Then there’s the plethora of specialty coffee houses that have tainted attempts at building a larger coffee scene: there was the captivatingly beautiful, split-level joint in the Broadlind building at the southwest corner of Linden and Broadway might now be Linden Public but its ran through endless iterations of a coffeeshop: The Broadlind Cafe, the screwed-everyone-over Sipology, The Greenhouse…
The northwest corner of Temple and Broadway has also been a Sipology (which, due to its tainted legacy, also disappeared), a Temple Coffee, a Makai, and now Deja Brew while Aroma di Roma had been kicked out of its original Belmont Shore only to open another right down the street as well as a location in DTLB.
But these squabbles, mainly driven by bad management or bad timing, have been squashed—and the people who are truly shifting Long Beach’s obsession with caffeination are not necessarily its baristas or managers but its esteemed coffee roasters.
With Recreational Coffee now joining the rank of roasters, that marks Long Beach’s third distinct and local roaster beside Lord Windsor and Rose Park Roasters that’s roasting stellar coffee. Even more, it marks a distinct chest-out moment while eying Los Angeles. Not only is Long Beach keeping up, but it’s doing it on its own terms while LA is becoming much more privy to larger speciality coffee roasters—think Stumptown or Blue Bottle, which overtook LA’s specialty roaster Handsome Coffee—than it is its hometown roasters.
And while Long Beach has yet to attract an Intelligentsia or Four Barrels, what is has done is generated a decent bulk of incredible beans.
“I love Long Beach, and truly believe we are a city of people that would rather figure things out on their own than look elsewhere for answers,” said Wade Windsor of Lord Windsor, the pioneer so to speak of brick’n’mortar coffee roasting in Long Beach. “For me, it all comes down to quality, honesty, and community—and Long Beach has that.”
This isn’t to dismiss the areas surrounding LA proper, such as Pasadena’s Copa Vida or Culver City’s Cognoscenti and Bar Nine. Certainly not dismissing LA-based Demitasse, whom I’ve raved about. Hell, even out-of-garage operations like Trystero and Compelling & Rich are legitimately cool but Windsor’s point about quality and community is what makes Long Beach shine.
Long Beach coffee can stand up to the big boys and it is largely because culinary-driven coffee never really here to begin with. Staples like Portfolio and Hot Java relied on darkly roasted, commercialized fare like Illy and Klatch coffees to feed their customer base—and it was a base that was largely immune to changes, as Portfolio owner Kerstin Kansteiner once pointed out that, five years ago, there was “no viability in specialty coffee.”
But while that left successful coffeehouses in a commodified bind, it opened the door to allow the risk takers to take the plunge. Take Rose Park Roasters, for example, which started out in pure Long Beach fashion: delivering coffee by bike.
“When we started out, our single purpose—even more so than to make any kind of living for ourselves—was to share the world of lightly roasted coffee with our city,” said Nathan Tourtellotte of Rose Park Roasters. “At the time it was totally non-existent. Coffee can be so much more than the two dimensional experience you get with dark roast, and, while we keep a special place in our hearts for that darker roasted flavor profile we all grew up on, we wanted to blow Long Beach’s mind with what coffee can be and do.”
Windsor notes that lack of existence and how trying the first years of roasting truly were but how the existence of shops such as “rivals” Recreational and Rose Park contribute to the culture.
“When we first opened, people would curse us out for charging over $3 for a coffee,” Windsor said. “Now, people expect it because the standard has been risen because of the other amazing coffee shops that have opened. In other words, we’re not so much a novelty anymore, but part of a niche market of people looking for an elevated coffee experience à la choosing a Beachwood IPA over a Budweiser.”
Even more, all three of these caffeinated institutions did pull one Angeleno move: they didn’t undersell Long Beach’s taste for a better bean. For these roasters, Long Beach’s full array of misguided misfits, punkers, artists, politicos, pseudo-philosophers, musicians, and culture fiends allowed them a fruitful testing ground that ultimately proved Long Beach isn’t just a chill crowd but a tasteful one.
“Long Beach is a community of [people] who have a strong cultural hunger, but little tolerance for all the money, bling, and pretension that Los Angeles engenders and requires,” Tourtellotte said. “We love coffee because you can brew a cup of coffee at home that give you world class culinary experience, for less than a dollar. It’s like the street art of the culinary arts.”
And Tourtellotte is spot on in that regard. Think about your tastebuds and what they enjoy most—be it fries or foie gras, pizza or Pinot, cake or caviar—and think of your favorite version of that ambrosially sapid object. Got it? Now think of the worst version you’ve had of your favorite ingestive object and the nuances that made it, in your culinary opinion, bad: too much of this, too little of that, overcooked, undercooked, cheap ingredients, tacky presentation…
The idiosyncratic nature of your critique can be astounding. This is why coffee is never just coffee; everything that applies to what made that thing bad can be applied to coffee: too much roast, too little roast, over-brewed, under-brewed, cheap beans…
Coffee is, after all, cuisine—a cuisine that some 150 million Americans partake in daily. And the art of roasting is one that should be taken with the seriousness of any bar program director’s work or chef’s creations (and while I agree with Anthony Bourdain, a hero of mine, and his assessment of coffee culture being too filled with “man-bun, Mumford and Son motherfuckers,” I have to disagree that coffee from “any bodega” will do.)
“Roasting,” said Bobby Hernandez of Recreational Coffee, which just started releasing its beans for sale, “it’s like a relationship where you find out unique details about the person; how you feel an even stronger bond to them. It’s a strange comparison since we’re talking about an inanimate object but it’s true. I feel so much more appreciative and connected to the process of creating a delicious beverage having seen that same coffee in a different light and composition. It’s like we understand the coffee so much more now through sourcing and roasting coffees, as cheesy as that sounds.”
The results are astounding. Whether it’s Recreational’s Ethopian Koke—a wonderfully floral’n’fruity bean with a hint of honey—or Rose Park’s Kenya Karatina—a peachy, bright bean that exemplifies everything great about African coffee—these beans put labels like Blue Bottle to shame. They eschew excessive brightness, aim for incredible balance, and look to be not just good like G&B and Stumptown but truly phenomenal.
Even better, there’s a sense of camaraderie amongst roasters: they share notes about the differences they discovered while roasting the same beans. They don’t offer what they don’t think is stellar. Even Hernandez continues to offer other beans in his shop.
“There are coffees that I’ve roasted and have not been happy with and refused to serve it for the sake of never wanting to step backward in our progression of good coffee,” Hernandez said. “We still feature a couple other coffees that are insane even if they aren’t roasted by us. I feel it adds a level of transparency with our quality. We’re not subjecting you to just our stuff, but we invite you to taste coffees from other roasters that kill it and see how ours stacks up to it. It’s something that we do all the time and it really helps give us perspective on quality; so we’re not just kidding ourselves with our quality but we’re pitting our coffees with other amazing roasters in the blind evaluation process.”
That assurance of quality has proven fruitful. Lord Windsor is served at James Republic in DTLB. Rose Park’s beans can be found at Cuppa Cuppa, Portfolio, and Berlin. And Recreational has already scored some wholesale accounts while having the aforementioned Ethiopia Koke iced coffee on tap at the new Long Beach Beery Belly.
“We love it—that’s the bottom line,” Hernandez said. “We’re in love with our coffees and are beyond excited to serve them and to keep growing in it.”
There’s no question you can feel and taste that love with every drip.