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San Francisco’s 2019 Coffee Festival was an utterly awakening experience

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While the first weekend of November brought with it the salvation of daylight savings, so too did it bring a bout of unusually lovely weather to San Francisco (so long, Karl the Fog!) — just in time for the annual Coffee Festival. Suffering from the classic pre-winter cold, I was especially grateful for the warmth, admiring the brilliance of the sunlight against the warehouse-like buildings near the pier, just as we joined the queue of caffeine-enthusiasts entering the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture’s Festival Pavilion.

What do you get when you combine San Francisco’s decidedly “hipster” city identity with the edgy, counter-culture aesthetic strongly associated with the modern coffee industry? You get an afternoon of caffeine-filled, Instagrammable fun! It was almost comical at times — the main line walking in was just to get a photo next to the big, red #SFCOFFEEFESTIVAL sign by the entrance.

Naturally, this “Bay Area influence” was equally present throughout the actual event — vendors offering hemp-infused coffee, nitro cold brew, superfood lattes, and oat milk affogatos attracted prominent crowds, and even I couldn’t resist stopping by a few. Oatly’s cappuccino was a heavenly combination of creamy texture, smooth espresso, and nutty aroma, while SAKU Tea’s Golden Chai with turmeric was a sweet and spicy standout. The ever-popular Califia Farms made quite a splash with their strikingly vibrant matcha lattes mixed with butterfly pea flower or dragon fruit.

But why stop at lattes? Coffee liqueur, coffee bars (like chocolate bars, but pure coffee!), coffee cocktails, coffee soap — pretty much any coffee product you could dream up was available for sampling and purchase. I particularly enjoyed the works of East Bay artist Jarold Cadion, who paints watercolor-esque portraits using a coffee-based staining method. 

All that said, for my fellow coffee purists out there, the options were perhaps even more overwhelming. Each roastery sampled four to five blends on average, and there were over 90 vendors present! In addition to the extensive variety of roasteries I’d never heard of, it was nice to see local favorites like Verve, Blue Bottle and Bluestone Lane all making appearances. For the curious, here’s the full list of roasters.

Unfortunately, while caffeine limitations prevented me from tasting every cup of black coffee available, the experience helped me pinpoint exactly what sorts of beans I like most: Proyecto Diaz Coffee’s El Carmen roast, described as a light roast bearing notes of “orange, honey butter, and pecan,” was my first and favorite cup of coffee I had all day.

A regular consumer of the mysterious dining hall blend, I had almost forgotten how smooth and balanced a good, quality cup of coffee can be. If you’ll allow me to get a bit pretentious for a moment: a year of working at Starbucks taught me how to conduct a “proper” coffee tasting, slurping the liquid such that droplets individually coat all parts of the tongue from front to back. El Carmen notably lacked the acerbic, almost briny notes that commonly hit the back of the throat (perhaps the influence of the honey butter), while the tip of my tongue also picked up on the slightly acidic, brightening notes of orange. Overall, a perfect, comforting cup of caffeine goodness.

On the way out (general admission sessions are limited to three hours), I was surprised to learn that this was only the 5th year of the festival’s occurrence, given the event was quite organized, well-publicized and several industry giants attended. If you’re considering attending next year (and I know I am), I highly recommend grabbing a group of friends (pro tip: tickets are cheaper if you buy in bulk!) and making a fun day trip out of it, especially if you’re new to the Bay Area, since the city itself has a lot to offer.

All in all, I have to say I found the whole experience — tasting top quality teas and coffees, discovering new blend preferences and admiring the current state of humanity’s caffeine-obsession — incredibly awakening.

Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.