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The Roast of San Francisco : The City Partly Built on a Hill of Beans Is Waking Up to the Smell of a Gourmet Coffee Renaissance

Times Staff Writer

Not long ago, the sweet smell of roasting coffee beans from a Hills Bros. plant at the foot of the Bay Bridge wafted fragrant welcome to travelers from Oakland and beyond.

“On most days, you could smell it halfway across the bridge,” recalls a librarian at the California Historical Society. The redolent air evoked a romantic era when San Francisco was one of the top three coffee-importing ports in the country--a bygone time when coffee was king in this city’s economy.

But that aromatic vestige of the past vanished two years ago when the old plant was torn down to make way for offices and condominiums. Although Hills, now a subsidiary of Switzerland’s Nestle food conglomerate, maintains headquarters offices at an adjacent site, the firm transferred production to a facility in the industrial Potrero Hill section of the city.

And that is about all that is left of the big-time coffee industry in San Francisco, a city that spawned two of the nation’s three biggest national brands--Folgers and Hills Bros.--and such regional favorites as MJB. (Maxwell House, the nation’s leading coffee brand with about 19% of the ground coffee market and 24% of the instant trade, originated in Tennessee and was named after a classy hotel in Nashville where it was first served.)

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Like most food and beverage products, the $5-billion-a-year U.S. coffee industry is no longer controlled by local or regional roasters; rather, it is dominated by huge multinational conglomerates. Maxwell House, Sanka, Yuban and Brim are products of General Foods, itself a unit of tobacco giant Philip Morris. And Folgers, sold by Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, abandoned San Francisco for industrial South San Francisco many years ago.

A coffee renaissance of sorts, however, is under way here as San Franciscans and their sophisticated palates turn away from mass-marketed national brands and embrace locally roasted “gourmet” coffee. About 15 small roasters sell such exotic coffees as Jamaican Blue Mountain, French roast and Mocha-Java to demanding drinkers who often grind their own beans in their quest for the perfect cup of coffee.

“It’s a trend that got going in the Bay Area and has spread to other parts of the country with affluent people who demand the best,” says George Boecklin, president of the National Coffee Assn., an industry group. According to Boecklin, the trend has forced the big national coffee makers “to recognize that there is a market out there for top quality instead of just another mass-produced vacuum can.”

As a result, he says, General Foods introduced Maxwell House Private Collection coffees in whole bean and ground forms--and even instant coffee makers are trying to attract coffee snobs. Recently, Nestle Taster’s Choice brand introduced Maragor Dark Roast, which produced darker, more flavorful coffee than traditional instant and freeze-dried products.

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A General Foods spokesman contends that the Private Collection line, which is sold in sealed bags, makes better coffee than the beans purchased from open bins in gourmet shops. “Everybody knows that coffee degrades when it comes into contact with air,” he says. In any case, he says, the new line is selling well in upscale communities around the country.

In a sense, the rise of the small roasters--who constitute a minuscule share of the market with an estimated $15 million in annual sales in the San Francisco area--have brought the industry here full circle. According to Folgers, the coffee roasting and grinding business began here in 1850, when San Francisco was more of a staging area for gold miners rather than a city.

The population had spurted to 40,000 by 1850 from 800 two years earlier as fortune hunters flocked to California from throughout the country; among them were James Folger and William Bovee. Bovee, who needed a carpenter to build a spice and coffee mill, hired Folger, and the pair later became partners in the Pioneer Steam Coffee & Spice Mills.

According to a corporate history put out by Procter & Gamble, theirs was the first commercial coffee-roasting firm in the West. The partners quickly realized that Northern California’s then mostly male population would be an ideal market not only for roasted coffee but also for ground beans, so they inaugurated production of coffee that was ready for a prospector’s pot: roasted, ground and packaged in small tins.

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Though San Francisco’s coffee was then commonly known by the slang term “Java,” the name didn’t reflect the origin of the beans sold here. The mountain slopes of Central America were the biggest source of beans brought into the local port; ships shuttling back and forth between San Francisco and the Isthmus of Panama picked up sacks of the stuff as they stopped at intermediate ports on their way north.

By 1855, according to accounts, Jim Folger was peddling coffee “to every damned digging in California.” Other roasters quickly sprang up, most notably in 1878 when Austin and Reuben Hills--the Hills brothers--set up the Arabian Coffee & Spice Mills. In 1890, the San Francisco directory listed 27 coffee and spice mills, 24 importers and more than 100 “coffee saloons.”

Nationally, the coffee roasting and packing industry grew around the three major ports of importation. Roasters in New York served markets on the East Coast; New Orleans served the Midwest and San Francisco the West Coast and Mountain states.

“There were literally hundreds and hundreds of roasters selling through small mom-and-pop type of grocery stores,” Boecklin says. Some roasters expanded regionally, but it took the rise of nationwide grocery chains to give coffee roasters national reach.

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By the late 1920s, coffee was San Francisco’s largest industry, according to a survey by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “The West Coast was always reputed to have superior blends than back east,” says Carroll Wilson, who joined Hills Bros. in 1924 and retired as a vice president and director in 1966. “We made a lot of noise about it.”

In 1931, for example, a Hills Bros. advertisement noted that the per-pound value of coffee received in San Francisco Customs District was 30% higher than New York’s and 50% higher than New Orleans’, “proving superior quality.”

Given San Francisco’s history as a bustling coffee port and its reputation for top quality, Wilson thinks it is somehow appropriate the the city is a leader in the trend towards “gourmet” coffee. The beans are roasted locally and sold through about 100 retail outlets, many of which bear such fanciful names as The Daily Grind and Has Beans. Some of the shops also do a thriving business brewing and serving up espresso and cappuccino.

“The industry began here as a large number of very small roasters, and, except for Hills Bros., that’s what the industry is today,” says Wilson. “What goes around, comes around.”

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