When we talk about coffee, "best" is a problematic word. What one person considers ideal could be another person's nightmare. Add to that the fact that a bevy of drinks — blended, syrupy concoctions; premium, single-origin espressos; standard drip java — technically fall under the "coffee" umbrella, and pointing to a good cup gets to be a complicated thing.
When we thought about compiling a list of the current best coffees, we decided to focus on those that are unique and delicious and have broad appeal. Each coffee we chose is lively and interesting on the palate, offers up pleasant and discernible flavors, and wins on its merit as a "bridge cup." (A "bridge cup" is a good transition coffee for bringing newcomers into the fancy world of specialty coffee, all while maintaining enough complexity and nuance for the die-hard purists.) A note to remember: Coffees are as seasonal as vegetables, so it's best to get your hands on these soon.
Highwire's Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Aricha
Available at Highwire Coffee Roasters (5655 College Ave., Oakland, 510-653-0450)
For a company that brings to life some of the more exciting and thoughtfully developed coffee in the Bay Area, Highwire doesn't make much fuss. It's a tiny operation, nestled inside Rockridge Market Hall, and is branded with little more than white labels on brown kraft paper coffee bags. The company roasts its beans in Emeryville twice a week to maximize the freshness of its stock, and makes a point of providing approachable coffee. While some premium roasters stick to currently trendy lightly roasted single-origin beans, Highwire has a wide variety of blends and even a rich, dark French roast.
Highwire's Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Aricha stands out on this list as a lighter-bodied, delicate coffee. If you're into the florality and citrus of an Earl Grey tea, this one offers up much of the same. The coffee undergoes an unusually intensive sorting process at the Aricha washing station in order to hedge against off flavors, producing a reliably clean, citrusy cup. If you like coffee that feels like a big, rollicking thing in your mouth, this one might be too shy for you. The Yirgacheffe is naturally sweet enough to knock the sugar packet out of your hand, and has a glimmer of lemon. Of the coffees on this list, it takes the least well to cream and sugar. That said, a splash of dairy won't drown out all the goodness.
Recommended if you like: Earl Grey tea, pan flute ballads, preserved lemon.
Verve's Kenya Chorongi
Available at Alchemy Collective Cafe (1741 Alcatraz Ave., Berkeley) and Duende's Bodega (468 19th St., Oakland, 510-893-0174)
Verve Coffee Roasters is flourishing as a darling of the coffee scene's latest evolution. Based in Santa Cruz, the company exudes that indescribably mellow, unaffected coastal vibe. Verve succeeds partly because of its alluring branding, but more so because it's nailed a middle-ground profile, sating fans of the toasty dark roast as well as those fanatical supertasters, who tend to prefer lighter blends. The Kenya Chorongi is a prime example of the balance.
Thanks to meticulous processing, good infrastructure, and highly trained farmers, Kenya has its coffee game locked down. Verve's Chorongi blooms with tropical fruit, foregrounding coconut and melon. It's got a lively acidity and a big, bright feel that will appeal to fruit lovers. For at least a short while, you can find it at Alchemy Collective Cafe's new, expanded location on Alcatraz Avenue, and in the bodega at Duende.
Recommended if you like: melons, piña coladas, sunblock, ecstatic dance.
Four Barrel's Ethiopia Chelba
Available at Local 123 (2049 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-647-5270)
Four Barrel Coffee's trademark tasting profile is distinct, wrapped in a triad of descriptors: clean, sweet, and complex. The Chelba is all of these things. Taken straight, it lands on your tongue with a punchy sweetness, then takes a smooth tour down the hatch. Also from Yirgacheffe — a region whose coffee is noted for an unmistakable citrusy kind of acid —this coffee has a sweeter, rounder feel. It trades in that sharp, lemonlike edge for something less acerbic, a little bolder, a little like sticking your face into a bowl of ripe nectarines — that is, if nectarines took party drugs and then melted into a syrupy mess on the beach. Local 123 serves the Chelba as pour-over, brewed using metal Kones and Chemexes, equipment designed to preserve coffee's every nuance. Sip on it as long as you like; the Chelba loses nothing when it cools.
Recommended if you like: tart jams, high-school prom punch, stonefruit pies.
Stumptown's Guatemala Finca El Injerto
Available at Modern Coffee (411 13th St., Oakland, 510-835-8000)
Kristen Nelson, owner of Oakland's Modern Coffee, likes to call Guatemalan coffees the "little black dresses" of coffee: classic, elegant, and refined. In the same breath, she'll also compare them to sneakers, burritos, or a favorite hoodie: accessible, affordable, and satisfying. Guatemala's higher elevation lots tend to give its coffees hints of rich dark chocolate, and by nature, are as inoffensive as they are distinct. If Guatemalan coffees are the chocolate cakes of the coffee world, call El Injerto a brownie sundae. Its appeal is broad, and though sweet enough on its own, stands up well to cream and sugar.
Roasted by Portland's coffee cult leader, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, El Injerto coffee comes from Guatemala's Huehuetenango district. It's a loveable cup, partly because it's a forgiving one. While some coffees are finicky, beg an expert touch, and favor certain brew methods, El Injerto tastes good just about any way Modern Coffee makes it. You'll find it brewed in batches; as a single, handcrafted pour-over; and, starting next week, as espresso.
Recommended if you like: vanilla ice cream, sneakers, late-night burritos, Neil Young.
Coava's Ethiopia Kilenso
Available at Bica Coffeehouse (5701 College Ave., Oakland, 510-350-7875)
There are two standard ways of processing coffee: wet and dry. Wet-processed coffees are fully washed and stripped of the fruit surrounding the seed before the coffee is dried. Dry processing allows the coffee bean (actually a seed) dry inside the fruit under the sun. Most of the time, dry processing results in a heavier-bodied, sweeter cup of coffee due to prolonged contact with the fruit. The process risks muddying the flavors, but if done well, rewards the extra labor.
Order the Kilenso at Bica and you'll smell the coffee being ground across the room. It's a vocal bean, the kind that interrupts your reading with a bid for attention when you drink it. It mimics good wine in complexity and pays a bounty to anyone who approaches it as a meditative inquiry. Granted, that's not many of us, but it's good either way. I call it a "bridge" cup because the heavy body withstands cream and sugar without drowning out the midtones, and because it mimics fine liquor. And, if you're looking to get into third-wave coffee, it may as well taste like brandy. While purists would encourage you take it clean, a dollop of half-and-half feels luxurious in the way of whiskey cream sauce on bread pudding.
Recommended if you like: wine, brandy, jazz on vinyl, expensive ice cream.