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Ritual Coffee Roasters

Upscale Coffee Culture Hits the Valencia Corridor

If enough people took their lead from Eileen Hassi and Jeremy Tooker, the world would be a better place -- well, at least, the coffee would be better. When Starbucks bought Torrefazione Italia, the gourmet coffee roaster where Hassi worked, she took drastic action. Loath to don a green apron and serve mediocre coffee -- never mind gingerbread crème Frappucinos -- she decided to open her own coffeehouse. She called up Tooker, whom she had met when they were both Torrefazioneemployees (she in Seattle and he in Portland). By May of last year, Ritual Coffee Roasters was open for business.

Hassi, 28, and Tooker, 27, share an almost obsessive passion for coffee. On this particular Friday afternoon, it is relatively quiet at Ritual, although "quiet" in this case is the equivalent of "bustling" anywhere else. Hassi has laid out an arrangement of steaming-hot cups filled with just-arrived coffee from Stumptown Roasters in Portland. She and the other baristas are performing a tasting process known as "cupping", which allows them to better taste the characteristics of a particular batch of beans.

Pouring hot water directly over fresh grounds and letting them sit allows the grounds to float up and form a soft crust over the top. By breaking the crust with a spoon and immediately inhaling, it's possible to notice a host of subtle scent characteristics. Hassi smells the Balvanera from Colombia and pronounces it spicy and "watercressy". The La Esperanza, also from Colombia, is far more savory, with notes of boullion. She notices that the third roast, from the Torrez Co-op in Nicaragua, is heavy and much more sensual.

"San Francisco is such a dark drip town," she says. "All you taste is the roast." Ritual's coffees are all medium roast, which allows more of the flavors to come out, says Hassi. The coffeehouse carries 15 different single-origin coffees that come from all over the world and are all fair trade or direct trade. The Ethiopian Sidamo ($12 per pound) gives off an uncanny aroma of strawberries and cream, and the Esmeralda from Panama ($24 per pound) has a bouquet of spring flowers and cake mix.

All the coffee here is French-pressed in small batches. Hassi says that this method releases the natural oils and sediment -- normally caught by a filter -- into the brew itself, which is another reason, she explains, that Ritual's coffee tastes especially good.

She points to a hulking piece of metal, painted a cheery shade of red, sitting in the corner. "That's Greta," she says.

Greta is a pre-war coffee roaster from Germany; Ritual's owners, who consider roasting to be an art form, are apprenticing under Stumptown's master roasters to learn the process. Until then, the machine will sit dormant, and Hassi and Tooker will leave the roasting to Stumptown.

Stumptown Roasters is a mecca for coffee lovers in Portland, and Hassi says she has seen recently-displaced Northwesterners react with anything from utter disbelief to tears of joy upon discovering the provenance of Ritual's beans.

The espressos ($1.50 single, $2 double) and cappuccinos ($2.25 single, $2.75 double), poured by Ritual's award-winning baristas, all arrive with a thick, rich cap of frothy crema topped with a rosette design. (For the curious: There is such thing as an award-winning barista; Ritual sends its most talented employees to a barista competition held every year.)

The espresso comes out singularly smooth and delicious, with hints of toffee and chocolate. The menu is fairly small and simple; alongside the standard selection of preparations, from a latte ($3 large, add 50 cents for soy) to a plain old mug of coffee ($1.50), there are offerings of tea and hot chocolate. Not on the menu but worth asking for is the Gibraltar ($2.25), a heady mix of double espresso and milk, poured hot into a special glass with a heavy base. It's Hassi's favorite drink, and she has one pretty much every morning.

Neighboring cafés Javalencia and Que Tal, both within blocks of Ritual, say that their businesses have not been affected by their newer, more popular neighbor. Perhaps this is because many of Ritual's devoted customers come from other neighborhoods, and in some cases, as far away as Marin or the East Bay. Many people complain about the crowds, which can be overwhelming. During the morning rush, it is not unusual for the line to extend out the door.

The playfully industrial-chic space is packed at all hours, a sea of laptops and fashionably disheveled hair from sunup until well past sundown. A small, concrete back patio, where noise is restricted to the level of a stage whisper, serves fresh air to non-smokers only.

Detractors complain about the overwhelming crowds and the combined din of voices and background music, which can make it difficult to concentrate. Nonetheless, Ritual appeals not only to coffee aficionados but also to graphic designers, aspiring novelists, grad students, and the rest of the work-at-home crowd, who appreciate the free wireless internet and plentiful power outlets. However, in an effort to create a little turnover on weekends, Ritual now covers its power outlets. Once those laptop batteries run out, it's curtains for your electronic kaffeeklatsch.

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