How Do You Like Your Coffee? A Conversation with St. Clare Coffee

a post from our San Francisco girl, Esther

Coffee is a culture here in San Francisco. If you've toured the city, you may have gotten your fuel (and re-fuel) at Philz or Blue Bottle. I was recently thrilled to discover a unique cafe with a special mission: St. Clare Coffee, who partners with Not For Sale (also based in San Francisco). Kate, the cafe manager, and I sat down in the cafe for a quick chat about being a business with a mission.

Here's a little bit about how the cafe got started and what you may not know about coffee...

Where did the idea of St. Clare Coffee come from and how did you become interested in the coffee business?
I studied undergrad at Westmont college. My third year there I attended an Urban Studies program in San Francisco, my version of a study abroad. The core of the program was getting an internship in the city, to get a taste of “real life.” My internship was at an organization in the Tenderloin District called Because Justice Matters. We worked as a connector organization for exploited and isolated women in the neighborhood, many of them living on the streets. During my time with this organization I met many women who desired a job as an escape from the current problems. However they were unable to get hired because of their past. For many it seemed hopeless that they would ever escape their current states of homelessness, as there was nowhere else for them to go except the streets. Seeing this sparked the idea in my head that the solution was to create jobs for the women I talked to. During this same semester, I fell in love with coffee and the community that a cafe could build. Then it hit me. The perfect solution would be to create jobs through coffee. Train women to be baristas. 

After graduating, I realized if I wanted to make this a reality I had to start somewhere. First step for me was moving to San Francisco, where I hoped I would find a job in coffee. And I did. In fact, I landed at the best cafe in the city, Saint Frank Coffee (perhaps I am a bit biased, but I am sticking to it being the best). Kevin Bohlin, the owner, and the rest of the staff are some of the best baristas in the specialty coffee world. All of them have done a wonderful job training me. 

After about a year and a half, an organization called Not For Sale (NFS) contacted us. At the time NFS had a cafe in the Dog Patch, called Dignita. I started going over there and helping with barista training. About a year into this relationship Dignita offered to sell the business to us at Saint Frank. But we wanted to maintain the relationship and cause that Not For Sale was fighting for. So we had to create a separate brand. Which is when we came up with the idea for St. Clare.

Why the name St. Clare?
Our brother store, Saint Frank Coffee, is named after Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Clare was the first female follower of Saint Francis. When deciding on what to call our new brand, it seemed fitting to choose a name that had a direct correlation between the two stores. In addition, Saint Clare was a woman that broke cultural norms for women in her time in a way that helped fuel women empowerment. We at St. Clare share Clare’s vision for empowering people, especially women. 
What's something not a lot of people may know or understand about coffee production that you think is important when deciding what coffee to buy?
I think people often forget or are unaware that coffee beans begin their life as a cherry. Then it is not until after a very long, difficult process that it turns into the roasted coffee we use to brew. There is actually a wonderful film called A Film About Coffee that exposes the beauty of this process. It is produced by one of our good friends, Brandon Loper, and features our owner Kevin.

People don’t often think about where their coffee may come from, but rather only focus on their cup in hand. Each geographical region has certain taste profiles associated with it, and each farm has its own personality in the way it tastes. 

Your partnership with Not For Sale is something you've highlighted on your website and in our meeting! Can you tell us more about how that works and what good things will come from that partnership down the road?
We work with a branch under Not For Sale called Just Business. Just Business has a specific program called Reinvent. The Reinvent program is designed to prepare disconnected youth (18-24) affected by trafficking, exploitation, and related traumas for work in the Bay Area’s booming industries.The students attend four weeks of work-readiness training and life-skills coaching. We will be going over and helping with the basic job training and committing a portion of our proceeds towards the organization. 

You've traveled to some of the countries where you source your coffee... what's been the most profound moment in your travels?
Kevin does all of the sourcing for the company, and I had the opportunity to travel with him to Chiang Mai, Thailand this past year. We met with a couple amazing companies over there: Lanna Coffee and Akha Ama. Both are working towards shifting the way coffee production is done in the Northern Hills of Thailand. While we were there, we got to camp at Lee Ayu’s farm (he's the owner of Akha Ama Coffee). Lee showed me how to pick my first coffee cherry!

We only stayed out picking for about an hour or so, but I came back exhausted. The effort and labor that goes into one making a single cup of coffee is mind blowing. After experiencing a minor glimpse into the difficulty of coffee production my perspective on the cost of a cup of coffee in the States was completely changed. Now when someone complains about the price of a cup of coffee, I usually respond by saying, “Did you know that someone actually spent their whole day laboring so that you could have one cup of coffee? I would say that is actually a very good deal for you, it should be much higher priced.”

In your opinion, what makes the "perfect cup of coffee"?
In my opinion, the perfect cup of coffee is well balanced. It should have equal amounts of acidity and sweetness. The finish should linger in a way that is pleasing. Personally, I tend to enjoy fruity African coffees the best; however, one of our current coffees from the Caranavi region in Bolivia coffee has tasting notes of cocoa and melted caramel and I think I must drink at least four cups a day, it’s just that good!

Planning a trip to SF? Be sure to stop by and grab a cup o' joe at St. Clare Coffee! You can find them at 654 Mission Street, San Francisco