If you buy a bag of whole bean coffee at the cultish third-wave coffee shop Blue Bottle and ask the barista to grind it for you, he will say, "Sorry, we don't do that," or some variation thereof. You might be surrounded by coffee grinders. One for the company's Bella Donovan blend. Another for the Ethiopia Hambela Estate Buka. Grinders nearly pouring from the rafters. And there you are, staring slackjawed as the barista gently explains that to preserve the coffee's quality, you should grind the beans yourself at home. Blue Bottle won't touch them. As a matter of policy.
Today the VC-backed, Oakland-based chain is debuting a new product: ground coffee.
Called Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground, it's prepackaged, single-serving ground coffee that will be sold at Blue Bottle's shops, online, and in Whole Foods alongside the likes of Illy and Peets. Each packet is ground for a specific production method (such as pour over or French press), includes detailed instructions on how to make a perfect cup, and has the sleek white and blue design that has become a Blue Bottle calling card. Packets cost $3.50 each or $17.50 for a box of five.
To those who prize Blue Bottle for its unflappable—some might say fascist—commitment to coffee purity, Perfectly Ground might seem like a terrible idea. Another company chasing the Starbucks dream. James Freeman, the shamanic CEO who started Blue Bottle by roasting beans in a 183-square-foot potting shed in Berkeley, California, wasn't even sold. He had spent 14 years vowing to never sell beans more than 48 hours out of the roaster. But Freeman was persuaded by Neil Day, a serial entrepreneur who tinkered with engineering problems in his spare time and developed what Freeman calls an "uncompromised way of selling ground coffee."
The secret is a warehouse in Belmont, California, that Blue Bottle employees enigmatically dub "the dome." Roasted coffee beans start to go stale when they're exposed to oxygen. That's why the decaf Folgers in the back of your cabinet tastes like coffin dirt (and why Blue Bottle baristas won't grind beans for you). The dome provides a zero-oxygen environment for Blue Bottle to grind beans to the perfect grain, then pour the grounds into airtight plastic packages, effectively locking in the flavor.
There are no public photos of the dome. And Blue Bottle is annoyingly tight-lipped about exactly how it works; like so much in Silicon Valley, the technology behind it is "proprietary." Day, who has done stints at Shutterfly, Apple, and Sears, developed the technology for the dome at nights and on weekends—a "hobby run horribly amok," he says. He tested it with coffee from other companies but felt that if he could convince Blue Bottle—and its exacting CEO—he had created something of real value. Many (many) taste tests later, Freeman got on board. Blue Bottle acquired Day's company in 2015.
I blind-tested Perfectly Ground and coffee from freshly ground beans at Blue Bottle's light-filled cupping room in Oakland last week, and I couldn't tell them apart. Mind you, I am not a discerning coffee drinker. Anything is fine as long as it doesn't come from a gas station, and even then . . . I also had the early stirrings of a cold. But I still had taste buds. And neither sample tasted bad. For prepackaged ground coffee, that is a feat.
The bigger question is why Blue Bottle elected to release ground coffee in wasteful single-serving packets, inevitably inviting comparisons to Keurig, the bete noire of the coffee world. Freeman is quick to dismiss similarities. Keurig is selling convenience. Blue Bottle is selling its process in a slightly more convenient form. You still have to boil the right amount of water and pour it over the grounds for the right amount of time, then pause to let the coffee "bloom," and so on. It is almost as precious and as time-consuming as buying a coffee at Blue Bottle itself; but at least you don't have to grind the beans. "There is still cultural resistance to grinding coffee [at home]," Freeman says, because it's tough to get the measurements and grain size just right. Perfectly Ground is for people who may treat themselves to Blue Bottle on the weekends, but still drink homemade coffee Monday through Friday. It's a way to get Blue Bottle inside customers' homes.
It was also too difficult for Blue Bottle to develop packaging that could both accommodate more grounds and retain the coffee's quality. Day, who is now Blue Bottle's vice president of technology, describes single servings as the minimum viable product. Eventually, the company hopes to sell two- and four-serving packages. It is also looking for an environmentally minded alternative to the existing packets, which can't be reused once they're tossed. "We are actively looking for a recyclable option, but the consumer packaged goods industry has not focused on that for the kinds of films we use," Day says. "One offset is that we overall use less coffee and there is far less less waste due to spoilage because it stays perfectly fresh 12 times longer."
Blue Bottle has grown at a rapid clip since Freeman's days roasting coffee in a shed. This echoes momentum in high-end coffee industry-wide. The company has raised more than $100 million in several rounds of funding, counting everyone from Instagram founder Kevin Systrom to Jared Leto among its investors, and has 26 locations in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo. Freeman is noncommittal about how ground coffee might play into a larger business strategy. "What do you really know that you can predict?" he says. Of course a company that builds its brand on quality and experiences risks losing customers when it tries to branch out. But more likely, this will help Blue Bottle expand its retail presence outside the precincts of cosmopolitan coffee snobbery. I, for one, would be glad to see it at my local gas station.