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Sunday, April 07, 2002

Coffee Anyone?

This is to be the first in an irregular series on my favorite coffee places. While I must commend Starbucks for creating a corporate business out of what had been a very local phenomenon, I now make a point to search out local coffee businesses to patronize.

There are several reasons for this:

  • The overall quality of Starbucks stores has dropped significantly over the past year, becoming more like the "McDonald's" of coffee than the trendsetter it once was.

  • While the use of super-automatic espresso machines helps to set a certain level of quality throughout the chain, it removes any chance for a particular store to shine if they find the proper barrista talent.

  • Local coffee establishments, especially those that roast their own beans, can deliver a level of "freshness" in their coffee that Starbucks cannot possibly match. As I have learned over the past several months, fresh roasted coffee is a world apart from anything you will find in the grocery store. Even I was skeptical about just how different the quality could be, but one purchase at my local coffee roaster made the difference crystal clear.

  • Local stores, with small staffs, are more likely to get to to know you, and you them. This adds another dimension to your experience at any retail establishment. You begin to relate more closely to the staff and the other customers, creating a small community were you can feel very comfortable.

  • Finally, I love helping a local business thrive. It is such a pleasure to see someone who loves what they are doing succeed.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about the first coffee store I would recommend to anyone who asks.

The Coffee Roaster, Sherman Oaks, CA

13567 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423

(818) 905-9719

Even though this store is less than 2 miles from my house and I have driven past it probably hundreds of times over the years, I had never stopped in. Finally, in response to a posting on the alt.coffee Usenet newsgroup, I checked it out.

The place was as anti-Starbucks as any place you might imagine. First and foremost, the coffee roaster has a prominent place, front and center, as you walk in the door. It is surrounded by bags and boxes of green coffee, awaiting roasting and roasted batches waiting to be shipped or sold in the store itself.

I happened to arrive at precisely the right time this day, as the owner was just starting to roast a batch. I had recently read about the intricacies of coffee roasting and was treated to a hands on primer. My son, Joe (4), and I watched the beans flow past the glass window, got to check the progress of the roast with a little scoop, listened to the first and second crack of the beans (it sounds like popcorn) and watched as the beans were dumped in the cooling tray with a whoosh.

This isn't really a place to come and hang out. The coffee bar is small, but functional, seating about 2 people. There are only 2 tables, once inside and one out. Even so, you will find people there throughout the day. The staff is friendly and efficient, equally adept at making a great Latte or bagging and ringing up your whole bean coffee purchase.

In fact, you should make sure you never leave The Coffee Roaster without something for your home machine. You will think that you have purchased a new (and more expensive) coffee maker. I was getting rather blase about my morning coffee, but once I tried these fresh roasted beans I became slightly obsessed. I started reading more and more about coffee, watching how it was made in the various stores I frequented, thinking about the taste like you would a nice glass of wine. My favorites are Milano, a custom blend that is used to make espresso in the store and Half and Half, which is also available in Decaf. Both make great espresso or drip coffee, whichever you prefer.

If you enjoy coffee at all, I highly recommend you check out The Coffee Roaster the next time you are in the neighborhood. You won't be disappointed. Heck, I may even join you!


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