For those who take their coffee seriously, it's the ultimate dichotomy: You pledge allegiance to either the single origins and lighter roasts of Third Wave companies like Ritual and Four Barrel, or to the megablends and super-dark roasts that've defined Peet's since Alfred's cupping days in North Berkeley. But if the three guys who bought Emeryville-based Peaberry's Coffee & Tea last month get it right, that coffee dichotomy might end up about as irrelevant as used espresso grounds.
Rich Avella, Eric Hashimoto, and Robert Myers bought the business from Lynn Mallard, an Alfred Peet protege who in 1989 launched the Peaberry's roasting business and retail kiosk in Rockridge Market Hall. Longtime friends, they met as co-workers at Peet's — Avella in education programs, Hashimoto in green-coffee logistics (i.e., figuring out transport routes from coffee-growing regions), and Myers (who's also co-owner of Oakland's Modern Coffee) in quality assurance.
So far, changes at Market Hall include installing a case of pastries from Emeryville's Starter Bakery, dumping the airpots of self-serve drip, and upping the baristas' overall game. Nice, but compared to what's going on in the Peaberry's warehouse-like roasting facility behind the Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, those changes seem like minor tweaks. What Avella, Hashimoto, and Myers really want to do is turn Peaberry's from a small-scale clone of Peet's into a company that offers a range of blends and single-origin coffees, in a range of roasting styles spanning the medium-dark divide.
In short, they want to tear down the coffee wall. "We have a point of view, and it's not exactly the same as Peaberry's," Myers told What the Fork, though he was careful to say he doesn't want to diss the company's loyal drinkers.
"We wanted to get into Peaberry's and kind of absorb what customers found so special about it, find out what was the soul of the company," Myers said. "We didn't want to come in with a huge impact and start changing things before understanding what makes Peaberry's tick." Still, when it comes to roasting styles, it's clear that Avella, Hashimoto, and Myers are hoping to convince longtime Peaberry's customers to take a step away from the dark side. A couple of baby steps, anyway.
Last week at an informal cupping — a comparative reckoning of freshly roasted coffee beans — Avella, Hashimoto, and Myers sniffed, slurped, and spit their way through six of Peaberry's standard blends in the Emeryville headquarters. When it came time to consider three different roasts of the same single-origin beans from Guatemala, excitement whirred like the metal burrs of a coffee grinder. The typical Peaberry's roast had depth and richness, but beans roasted a minute less had a certain elegance, a balance that the dark roast lacked.
"A dark roast was the norm," Myers said. "Peet's certainly introduced that. And then in recent years with a lot of newer companies the pendulum has swung completely in the other direction. There's always been this attitude that one or the other was somehow correct, but they're both valid points of view. Both are pleasurable for different reasons, even for different times of the day or for different drinks."
"We don't want to tie ourselves to one roast style," Avella added. "Roast degree is a bit of a blunt instrument. Some beans might become more vibrant, more distinctive with different degrees of roasting — it's not a one-size-fits-all approach." Under Mallard, Peaberry's came to be known for valuing smoothness over the heights and depths of particular beans. The new owners are going for more aggressive roasting at shorter times, trying to get more vibrancy.
Peaberry's new coffee relativism touting a rainbow style of roasts might be just the thing to convince East Bay coffee drinkers to lay off the Major Dickason's blend. While San Francisco has embraced the gentler roasts and single-estate sourcing of Ritual, Four Barrel, Sightglass, and Blue Bottle (which, though headquartered in Oakland, has a small barista footprint here), Oakland and Berkeley have remained loyal to extreme-roast proponents Peet's and Mr. Espresso. "We want to create something that pulls from both," Avella said, "create something that's really stronger than either."
Meanwhile, plans for Peaberry's in Market Hall include adding a pour-over bar (the guys are leaning toward Chemex, and weighing the merits of the Coava Kone over paper filters) and upgrading the espresso machine to a La Marzocco Strada. They might also sell beans directly from the Emeryville roasting site — home to a Fifties-era Probat roaster — and install a pour-over bar there, too. There's been a subtler change to the House, Morning, and Market Hall blends that make up the Peaberry's legacy, upping the quality of the beans and the consistency of the roasts while trying not to mess with the overall profiles.
They're profiles that may never change, if that's how the new owners read their customers' preferences. "We just want to get past what is the right way to roast coffee," Myers said. "It's about owning the point of view. Whatever you're doing."