June 5, 2017

A Specialty Coffee Shop Tour of San Diego


San Diego already had it all. Beautiful beaches, local mountains, craft beer and, of course, tacos. But over the last couple of years, as craft beer grew to dominate the local food and drink headlines, a new market opened up: specialty coffee.

As the beer taps flowed, the coffee slowly followed. And today, from the hippest neighborhoods, like North Park and Little Italy, to the posh beach towns of La Jolla and Encinitas, you’ll be hard pressed to not find at least one specialty coffee shop slinging cold brew and a single origin batch.

You’ll find long-time roasters like Bird Rock Coffee, local favorites, and up-and-comers like Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, Global Coffee Trading, and more. So allow me to serve up my recommendations for a specialty coffee shop tour of San Diego.

San DiegoA coffee in hand, and a view like this – what more do you need? 

Why These Five?

It’s difficult to pick the “best five” of anything – and this is even more true in a place such as San Diego, which has so many great coffee shops to offer. So instead, I’ve chosen five of my personal favorites as a local San Diegan.

Among these five shops, you will notice a trend: four of them are local roasters. They’ve all worked from the ground up, and they’ve all managed to stay humble, and true to San Diego, a now thriving coffee city.

So, in no particular order, let’s get started.

San Diego One of North Park’s many street art installations. Credit: James M. Coyle

1. Bird Rock Coffee Roasters

These guys are local legends. From their iconic Bird Rock location just a few blocks from some of the surfiest beaches on the West Coast, to their newer, third-wave locations in Little Italy and Bay Park, they have come a long way. Recently acquired by Kansas-based PT’s Coffee Company, they are now, more than ever, ready to take on the coffee world.

But before all of that, Bird Rock Coffee was busy introducing direct trade coffee to San Diego. One of those direct trade coffees was their Geisha, a natural processed Panama from Esmeralda Estate’s Lino lot. In the last two years, that Geisha has been San Diego’s only Good Food Award winner in the very competitive coffee category.

Coffee Shop Bird Rock Coffee’s original store has a shorts-and-sandals kind of vibe. Credit: James M. Coyle

Where 5626 La Jolla Blvd. La Jolla, CA 92037 (Bird Rock Ave and La Jolla Blvd)
Atmosphere Neighborhood coffeehouse, beachy
Espresso Machine Synesso Hydra
Espresso Roast Monkey Bite (Guatemala, Uganda, Ethiopia)
Filter Roast A variety of light-medium single origins (bright, floral, sweet)
Must-Try Drink Panama Geisha (when available)
Retail Offerings Coffee, tea, pastries, and equipment
Nearby Sights Bird Rock, La Jolla and Pacific Beach neighborhoods and beaches

Chuck Patton, Head Coffee Buyer at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, leads a public cupping. Credit: James M. Coyle

2. James Coffee

Past the boutique clothing shop on the right, and the designer optometry store on the left, and just below the hanging, neon-orange sign reading “coffee,” you will discover one of the city’s coolest roasters, James Coffee.

If you’re heading from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters to James Coffee, plan on trading in your flip flops for a leather jacket to fit in with this hipster biker environment. Some of San Diego’s hippest coffee vibes can be found here.

Whether it’s their batch brew shop blend, their amazing coffee soda (cold brew with soda water) or a dolled-up latte, you can’t go wrong with any coffee drink at James. So sit down on those hand-forged steel seats, marvel at the space’s weirdness, and enjoy a coffee in one of San Diego’s trendiest coffee shops.

Coffee Shop The space at James includes a fashion and lifestyle boutique, optometry studio, barber shop, design studio and women’s accessory pop-up. Credit: James M. Coyle

Where 2355 India St. San Diego, CA 92101 (India St and W Kalmia St)
Atmosphere Hip
Espresso Machine La Marzocco Linea
Espresso Roast White Owl (Honduras, Ethiopian)
Filter Roast A lightly roasted shop blend (sweet, chocolate, vanilla)
Must-Try Drink Coffee soda
Retail Offerings Coffee, tea, equipment, and local-made pastries
Nearby Sights Little Italy, Downtown San Diego, Marina District

Coffee Shop You’ll find plenty of steel tables, neon lights and coffee in James Coffee. Credit: James M. Coyle

3. Coffee & Tea Collective

In this bright white, hipster haven, you’ll find one of the masters of light roasted coffee in San Diego. Opened in 2012, off the famous El Cajon Boulevard in North Park, C&T was one of San Diego’s first third wave coffee shops. Now a hangout for coffee lovers and minimalists alike, it’s been a cornerstone in North Park’s ongoing revival.

But if you’re not feeling the hipster vibes at their flagship store, head downtown towards their East Village location. At both locations, you’ll find strong cold brew, mean latte artists and some pretty killer teas.

Where 2911 El Cajon Blvd. San Diego, CA 92104 (30th St and El Cajon Blvd)
Atmosphere Hip
Espresso Machine La Marzocco
Espresso Roast Seasonal
Filter Roast Light
Must-Try Drink Cortado
Retail Offerings Coffee, tea, and local pastries
Nearby Sights North Park neighborhood, Lafayette Hotel, Balboa Park

Coffee Shop Two black coffees and a cactus at Coffee & Tea Collective. Credit: James M. Coyle

4. Hawthorn Coffee

Folks, meet Hawthorn Coffee, a newcomer to the San Diego third wave café scene. Located just a few blocks from one of the city’s original specialty coffee chains (Dark Horse Coffee Roasters), it has been incredibly successful in its first year of business.

But it hasn’t just been successful because of its coffee, which hails from Cat & Cloud in Santa Cruz. Hawthorn, which sports a robust menu featuring your customary pour over and batch brew coffee, has also helped make cascara and Japanese style cold brew (hot coffee over ice) popular in the region.

And above all else, if I’m being perfectly honest, Hawthorn Coffee has some of the friendliest baristas in town. And that’s no small feat in “America’s Finest City”, known for its friendly locals.

Coffee Shop Hawthorn Coffee, San Diego. Credit: James M. Coyle

Where 3019 Adams Ave. San Diego, CA 92116 (30th St and Adams Ave)
Atmosphere Hip neighborhood coffeehouse
Espresso Machine Synesso Hydra
Espresso Roast The Answer (Cat & Cloud blend)
Filter Roast A variety of light to medium offerings
Must-Try Drink Cascara Fizz (cascara from Global Coffee Trading)
Retail Offerings Coffee, pastries, and merchandise
Nearby Sights Normal Heights and North Park neighborhoods

Coffee Shop Hawthorn Coffee is one of few cafes in the area that serve Cat & Cloud. Credit: James M. Coyle

5. Cafe Virtuoso

Like Coffee & Tea Collective in North Park, Cafe Virtuoso has arguably become the epicenter of its neighborhood’s revival. Housed in the industrial area of Barrio Logan, Virtuoso is a 100% all-organic coffee roaster. Their focus is on ethically sourced, carefully roasted coffee.

If you’re looking to pick up some beans, attend a public cupping, or talk about coffee, you’re in the right place. Also, with their roastery in the building, baristas and office staff alike are always up for some friendly shop talk.

Coffee shop Great coffee and a great atmosphere and staff. Credit: Becky Peterson

Where 1616 National Ave. San Diego, CA 92113 (16th St and National Ave)
Atmosphere Industrial
Espresso Machine La Marzocco Strada
Espresso Roast 100% Kona Coffee
Filter Roast Light
Must-Try Drink Single origin
Retail Offerings Coffee, pastries, merchandise, and equipment
Nearby Sights Barrio Logan, Downtown, Coronado neighborhoods

Though San Diego might not be internationally known as a “coffee city,” it can easily satisfy your coffee cravings. Be it by the beach, downtown, or in any one of its many neighborhoods, specialty coffee is booming. Although I’ve mentioned my five personal favorites, there are plenty more coffee shops that you should try if you’re around for long enough.

So, when you’re in “America’s Finest City,” think about what you want out of your coffee experience first. Looking for a neighborhood cafe that serves specialty coffee? We’ve got it. How about a local roaster in a hip neighborhood? We’ve got those too (and plenty of them). And you can’t forget those college cafes either (Lestat’s, I’m looking at you)!

San Diego, with all of its glorious beaches, hoppy beer and bougie tacos, now has good coffee too. This city officially has it all.

Other coffee shops that nearly made this list include: Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, Global Coffee Trading, Lofty Coffee, Communal Coffee, Heartwork Coffee, Copa Vida…

 Featured photo: Michael Flores

All views within this opinion piece belong to the guest writer, who is a local of San Diego, and do not reflect Perfect Daily Grind’s stance.

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