A story about a West Oakland artisan coffee roaster incorrectly referred to the business as an "artesian" coffee roaster
OAKLAND -- Jen St. Hilaire is a video game geek, an ABBA fan, a metal band rocker and a science fiction aficionado. She moved to the Bay Area in 1999 to "make it big" with the band Shevel Knievel; when that didn't pan out, she turned to her other love, roasting coffee, and founded Scarlet City Coffee Roasting in West Oakland.
A cursory glance at St. Hilaire's miniature artisan roasting spot doesn't look like much. Several brown burlap sacks of raw beans sit in one corner of the warehouse, and a blue roasting machine with a chimney hood takes up a small stamp of floor space nearby. The place is dotted with toys from science-fiction movies, and her Doctor Who pinball machine fills about as much space as her roaster.
But what St. Hilaire creates in this nondescript spot is sweet nectar to her loyal customers: coffee that's superior to any other type they've tried.
"You grind a shot off and do a pull and it's just pure crema," said Scott Howard, a video game producer from Emeryville. "It's this goopy, syrupy, sweet brown joy in a cup."
St. Hilaire is an expert coffee roaster, one of several artisan roasters in the East Bay who are trying to make names for themselves in the competitive small-scale coffee roasting business. She founded her one-woman coffee roasting company in 2009 and has been roasting espresso blends and single-origin beans for drip or French press in tiny batches ever since.
St. Hilaire, whose easy laugh and bright smile light up a room, started off in this world hating coffee.
"It was gross, really bitter," she said. "All I had was Starbucks and really over-roasted coffee."
Her world changed when she stepped into Espresso Vivace, a storied coffee shop and roaster known for their espresso in Seattle, where she then lived.
"It blew my mind," she said. "I couldn't believe how sweet the coffee tasted, how delicious."
That cup of coffee started her on her path to become a craft roaster with a following from the Bay Area to the East Coast and with beans sold at Berkeley Bowl West. Although she had a computer science degree and wanted to design video games, St. Hilaire joined the Espresso Vivace team, lead by founder and "Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques" author David C. Schomer, in 1995. Like all Vivace employees, she started as a coffee bar back. Just about the time she was ready to graduate to the coffee bar, she was offered a position to roast beans for Vivace and jumped on the opportunity.
"I didn't have a choice. I became obsessed," she said.
Under the counter in the small kitchen at her workspace is a dog-eared copy of "Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques"; St. Hilaire said every espresso-maker worth their caffeine has a copy. It teaches coffee makers and roasters how to craft the perfect shot, one that tastes as sweet as it smells.
"Espresso is a culinary art," she said. "Coffee has all this natural sweetness in it, and it really makes a difference in how you roast a bean."
St. Hilaire follows the tradition of Northern Italian roasters and espresso bars and American roasters such as Espresso Vivace who brought the Italian tradition to the U.S. She roasts beans until their brewed flavor is rich chocolate-caramel with a boldness that cuts through milk. It's never bitter.
By 1999, Hilaire left Seattle for the Bay Area "because the rock 'n' roll was calling me. I wanted to be a rock star." She played bass guitar in Shevel Kinevel from 2001 to 2005, rocking the Bay Area nightclub circuit and going on small tours with the band that she said was a mix between David Lee Roth, Black Sabbath, Rush, Iron Maiden and ABBA.
"We just liked to have fun," she said. "It was kind of ridiculous. We weren't tight, and we weren't trying to be tight. We were trying to have fun."
While rocking out, St. Hilaire worked for a roaster in Santa Rosa. About the time when the band fell apart due to oft-cited musical differences, St. Hilaire started thinking about doing her own roasting. Not only does she now have a woman-owned business, but she sources many of her beans from women-owned farms.
St. Hilaire, 44, is a meticulous roaster, roasting only three to eight pounds at a time and less than 100 pounds a week.
"I put love into it," she said. "Every batch I make I hover over like a mother hen waiting for that perfect moment."
And her dedication is noted by her customers, who buy her batches for $16 to $17 a pound.
Larry Keeshan, of Berkeley, was looking for an alternative to Blue Bottle's coffee beans when he found Scarlet City on the Internet.
"I've tried everything around here, a lot of good local roasters," he said. He ordered Scarlet City's Warped Drive blend -- most of the company's coffee names are inspired by science-fiction themes -- and fell in love. "This one has the most character complexity for espresso of anything I've had."
St. Hilaire, who works part-time at UC Berkeley supervising a staff that takes care of 1,000 tanks of zebra fish, offers her beans for pick up and mail order.
Always up for fun, she is planning to attend a pinball convention in Pennsylvania and is working on a post-apocalyptic graphic novel based around a real Scarlet City, where underground organizations bring coffee to citizens after oil runs out.
"I like to have fun," she said. "I take my coffee seriously, but I don't take myself too seriously."