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UC Santa Cruz Alumni Perk Up the Coffee Scene

By Dan White

The era of artisanal coffee is upon us.

Gone are the days of plain “morning Joe.” These are times of cupping, tasting, body, balance, bouquet, and flavor notes.

In this world of elite coffee, standing apart from competitors, and making a mark in the craft coffee world, requires determination and talent. But UC Santa Cruz has helped give this bumper crop of fine coffee purveyors a strong start. It turns out there are “perks” for being a Banana Slug.

Blue Bottle Coffee
300 Webster Street, Oakland, California with stores internationally

Headquartered in Oakland with several shops in the Bay Area, Blue Bottle Coffee has expanded internationally, making inroads in Japan. Lately it’s made impressive forays across the East Coast, as well.

James Freeman (Stevenson ’90, philosophy), a disaffected clarinetist-turned-coffee maven, started Blue Bottle in 2002 and is now recognized as a pioneer and leader of alt-coffee in America. Coffee allowed him to pursue artistry and excellence “but there was less pressure.” Even if things didn’t go a well as he hoped in his coffee explorations, “At least I wouldn’t be disappointing Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Freeman is part of a sprawling operation these days. It even has retail cold brew and New Orleans-style iced coffee. But Blue Bottle started off so small that it once paid a logo-designing artist in bags of coffee. “In the old days I did almost everything,’’ Freeman said. “Roasted all the coffee, put it in bags, went to the farmers’ market, made the espressos.”

Steeped in the ethics classes he took at UC Santa Cruz, Freeman has made a name for himself by combining his passion with an unstinting demand for quality.

But for all his success, he has never thought of himself as an entrepreneur. He follows his passion, while acknowledging “the imperfectability of what we do. There are people who will say ‘here is the solution, here is the spreadsheet,’ and all we have to do is this thing on the spreadsheet. But Carlos Noreña [one of Freeman’s professors] once said the world is so much more complicated than anything we can say about it.”

 

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