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James Freeman Reveals Blue Bottle Coffee's Secrets to a Perfect Brew

He discusses his new book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, at Books Inc. in Berkeley.

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As a clarinet player, James Freeman was able to scrape together a modest living by touring the country. "But the moments of inspiration were fewer and farther between," he said. So he put down his clarinet and decided to pursue his real passion: coffee. Freeman, who already roasted his own beans at home on a perforated baking sheet, rented a potting shed behind Temescal's Doña Tomás restaurant and started quietly roasting his own coffee beans, selling them at Berkeley and Oakland farmers' markets. He was pleasantly surprised when patrons waited — patiently — for coffee that dripped one cup at a time, and for short shots of espresso, made perfect with a thin layer of crema. Freeman expanded to opening a kiosk in Hayes Valley, the first Blue Bottle Coffee location, and roasting centers in Oakland and Brooklyn. "I love the neighborhood," Freeman said of the Jack London warehouse district where his roastery/cafe is located, "but I had absolutely no faith in my ability to get customers over there." But people came, and kept coming, making Blue Bottle Coffee one of the breakout success stories of the third wave coffee movement. (It recently raised $20 million — see here for more.) Freeman and his wife/collaborator Caitlin will discuss how they crafted their coffee empire, as well as share recipes and techniques from their new book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, on Thursday, November 29, at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley).

Coffee drinkers will find the book a ton of fun. Others will be amused by the lengths coffee lovers will go to for a sublime cup o' joe. Writing with the Bay Area foodie in mind, Freeman reveals his favorites farmers in Hawaii and El Salvador, home roasting techniques, and step-by-step instructions on coffee cupping (essentially wine tasting for coffee geeks). He doesn't leave anything to chance: He includes details such as the appropriate direction to pour water over the coffee (always clockwise) and the correct temperature of water to use. And he prefers that you first drink your cup black, without cream and sugar, in order to properly decide whether you want to doctor it.

Home-brewing techniques include the pour-over, which is used at Blue Bottle cafes; the French press; and — my new personal favorite — the Nel Drip. You'll get pure giggles from reading this three-page process that requires no fewer than eleven implements, including a soft-bristle brush and a thin bamboo paddle. Nel Drip coffee-making involves pinching, spanking, and grooming the coffee until a mushroom cap forms. It's wicked, delicious drinking.

The book finishes with perfect coffee-pairing breakfast and dessert recipes courtesy of Caitlin Freeman, who gave up her San Francisco cake shop Miette to go on this crazy coffee adventure with her husband. And they don't forget those who came before them. "Anyone working in specialty coffee should feel a debt of gratitude towards Starbucks," Freeman said with sincerity. The coffee chain, along with Peet's Coffee & Tea, helped train consumers to enjoy good coffee, and, equally importantly, to pay increasingly higher prices for it. But to the true coffee lover, that's small beans.

7 p.m., free. 510-525-7777 or BooksInc.net

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