SAN FRANCISCO -- In the beginning, there was Folgers, and people generally seemed OK with it. Then came Starbucks, which almost everyone agreed was pretty good.

But over the last decade or so, independent American coffee-makers have pushed those dark, magical beans much further, looking for improvement at every step in the process, from where the product is grown to how it is brewed. And they've begun to challenge and elevate consumer expectations of how a cup of coffee should taste and what it should cost.

Now two of the leading figures in the specialty coffee movement are putting down roots in the Bay Area, injecting more talent into what is already a thriving scene for high-end coffee, particularly in San Francisco.

Trish Rothgeb, 46, and Nicholas Cho, 39, are the people behind Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, a small company formerly headquartered in Redwood City but now anchored by a pop-up retail store on Pacific Avenue in the bustling Polk Gulch neighborhood of San Francisco. They sell beans online and in a growing number of retail outlets, including Bi-Rite Markets.

Rothgeb isn't new to the region, having been born and raised in San Jose. She pursued an art degree at San Jose State until her passion for coffee took her to Norway and later the East Coast. An expert roaster and coffee taster, Rothgeb was recently hired by the nonprofit Coffee Quality Institute to direct its Q Coffee System, a rating method that helps growers in developing countries demonstrate the value of their product.

"I decided that coffee was more interesting than art," Rothgeb said of her beginnings in the coffee business -- though, she added, the process of finding beans, roasting and brewing them could be considered "a long, drawn-out performance art piece."

Cho is a champion barista, former owner of an acclaimed coffee shop in Washington, D.C., and a leading thinker and writer about coffee. He is also the exclusive U.S. importer of Kalita coffee equipment.

The pair moved to the Bay Area in 2010 and opened up their Pacific Avenue cafe in October. They are in negotiations to open a full-time retail shop nearby.

Avoiding the pulpit

Rothgeb and Cho are a veritable power couple in the U.S. specialty coffee industry, part of a global movement whose practitioners apply more or less the same exacting standards to coffee that vintners apply to wine. Specialty coffee-makers, for instance, are interested in far more than the country where beans originate. They eschew brokers and travel to Africa or Central America in search of farms, and even specific fields on those farms, that possess the perfect characteristics, or "terroir." They develop direct relationships with farmers, paying them better than Fair Trade prices and helping them institute sustainable methods.

The hand-selected beans and coffee that result are of the highest quality, proponents say. But not everyone sees what all the fuss is about. Specialty coffee-makers have had to contend with the charge that they are snobs who look down on the pedestrian brew that most people gladly slurp down every morning.

Rothgeb said she is careful not to preach to her customers.

"The last thing we want to do is tell people they can't have what they love," she said. "I certainly have no illusions about taking over everybody's palates in the world. What I am excited about is people getting Starbucks in the morning but getting a cup of my coffee in the afternoon."

Like many of her peers, Rothgeb does her roasting in small batches, around 23 pounds at a time. Until recently she leased space on a roasting machine in San Carlos. She now has a similar arrangement in Emeryville.

A batch of coffee usually takes her 14 minutes to roast. The beans rotate in a drum as they cook so they don't get scorched. Their color turns from green to yellow to brown. Rothbeg closely monitors the time and temperature, listening for the moment -- after about four minutes -- when the expanding beans make a cracking sound.

"That's when it starts to smell really good," she said. "Starts to smell like coffee."

Highlight flavors

So what makes a cup of specialty coffee different? Among other things, there is a strong focus on the unique character of the beans. They are often roasted lighter than mass-produced blends so that what makes them distinct isn't obliterated. Some contain floral notes, making for a taste that is similar to tea.

"The longer you roast a coffee bean the more you roast those flavors out," said Jon Dolin, co-owner of San Jose-based Barefoot Coffee Roasters, another specialty coffee-maker, "so what we do is roast lighter to highlight the inherent natural flavors."

One reason corporate coffee-makers tend toward darker roasts, Dolin said, is that they cover up flaws or inconsistencies in the beans. That can make for a bitter or scorched taste, which isn't much of a problem for the millions of consumers who prefer their coffee with milk and sugar. But specialty coffee is meant to stand on its own.

"What I'm hoping to achieve is a balance," Rothgeb said, "so you don't need to add anything to it."

Still, Rothgeb and other artisan coffee-makers are loathe to criticize big-name dark-roasters. Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, said he is grateful to companies like Starbucks and Peets for setting new mainstream benchmarks for quality.

"It just means the next guy has to jump a little higher," Rhinehart said, "which is good for everybody."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.

Specialty coffee near you
Ritual Coffee Roasters -- San Francisco, Napa (www.ritualroasters.com)
Sightglass Coffee Bar & Roastery -- San Francisco (www.sightglasscoffee.com)
Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters -- San Francisco (www.wreckingballcoffee.com)
Barefoot Coffee Roasters -- San Jose, Los Gatos, Campbell (www.barefootcoffee.com)
Verve Coffee Roasters -- Santa Cruz (www.vervecoffeeroasters.com)
Chromatic Coffee Co. -- Santa Clara (www.chromaticcoffee.com)