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Cold Brew Killah

Nick Cho wants to smash up the world of fancy coffee—and maybe even save a gentrifying neighborhood or two in the process.

SLIDESHOW

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Nick Cho is an authority on pour-over coffee who nonetheless scoffs at its pretensions.

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Cho’s wife, partner, and fellow third-wave-coffee luminary, Trish Rothgeb.

(3 of 3)

Read more from the August 2017 Food Issue here.


Nick Cho
doesn't much care for cold brew coffee.

You can tell, in part, because his Twitter feed consists, at rough estimate, of 70 percent social justice activism and 30 percent trash talk about iced coffee. (Sample tweet: “Hate the cold brew. Love the cold brewer.”) And also because when I meet Cho, the cofounder of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, at his company’s SoMa roasting facility in June, he offers the following analogy: “There are people out there who derive a lot of pleasure out of getting kicked in the balls—like, they like getting their genitals stomped on by other people. That’s fine for them to like it. I can also say that it’s a bad thing to do.”

“I’m not saying people shouldn’t drink cold brew coffee,” Cho goes on about the drink, which is made by steeping ground coffee in room-temperature water overnight, yielding a product that, to Cho’s palate, has an astringent, “old coffee” taste. “I’m just saying it’s not good.”

If you run a coffee company in the year 2017, aka peak cold brew, those may as well be fighting words. Here in the Bay Area, practically all the big-name roasters have skin in the game: Blue Bottle sells not one but two varieties of adorably packaged, ready-to-drink cold brew—one in a child’s milk carton, the other in a pocket-size can. Emeryville-based Highwire Coffee Roasters offers a version of nitro cold brew—i.e., regular cold brew shot through with nitrogen to create a Guinness-like carbonated drink—on tap at its cafés. Even relative purist Ritual Coffee recently rolled out a line of cannabis-infused cold brew. 

Wrecking Ball is in many ways not so different from these competitors. It, too, specializes in high-end pour-over coffee and espresso drinks, brewed from coffee beans roasted with a lighter hand than was the norm 10 or 15 years ago. And yet Cho has long set himself apart from his peers, attitudinally if not stylistically. He positions himself as a kind of maverick within the specialty coffee industry, a self-styled truth sayer who will tell you that the leading brands “don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” In the past few months, he has mused on Twitter about who the coffee world’s greatest charlatan may be—the java equivalent to the bearded Mast Brothers chocolate makers of Brooklyn, whose handsomely wrapped, scratch-made $10 chocolate bars turned out not actually to be made from scratch. He has groused about the obsceneness of an $18 cup of drip coffee hawked by a café in Brooklyn (what is it with Brooklyn?). And he’s asserted that for all its lofty talk of supporting poor third-world farmers, the coffee industry has accomplished little from an economic-justice standpoint, beyond some amorphous sense that it has helped “raise awareness.”

Though his criticisms of the industry aren’t unique—trendy, hipster-approved coffee has become an easy symbol for the smug superiority of urban epicures—they carry more resonance because Cho and his wife, Trish Rothgeb, might be the closest thing the Bay Area coffee scene has to a power couple. Cho describes their respective roles at Wrecking Ball thusly: “She’s the DJ; I’m the rapper.” Or, in coffee terms, she’s the roaster and he’s head barista.

As it turns out, Rothgeb is as responsible as anyone for the post-Starbucks fancy-coffee deluge. She was just the seventh Q trainer to be certified in the United States, a classification that allows her to teach coffee professionals how to taste and grade coffee according to a formalized point system. And, not for nothing, she’s also the person who coined the term “third-wave coffee”—patterned after “third-wave feminism”—in a 2003 trade article about the young, innovative baristas she met while working as a roaster in Oslo, Norway. (Broadly speaking, the first wave was mass-produced coffee companies like Folgers and Maxwell House; Peet’s and Starbucks spearheaded a second wave that taught Americans to enjoy higher-quality “specialty” coffees; and the third wave has been characterized, in part, by the mainstreaming of what Cho calls coffee “connoisseurship.”)

Cho and Rothgeb became a couple in 2007, a few years after meeting at a coffee event in Atlanta . Six years ago, they moved to the Bay Area and founded Wrecking Ball, eventually opening a small brick-and-mortar coffee shop in sleepy Cow Hollow in 2014. The West Coast migration allowed Cho to be closer to his kids, who live with his ex-wife in Seattle. But the move has also made it easier for Cho to play the role of inside agitator—a figure well respected within the insular world of hardcore coffee nerds, standing within mug-throwing distance of the popular crowd, the Blue Bottles and the Sightglasses, with their slick marketing and millions in venture funding.

Cho likes to say that he feels like either the oldest young person or the youngest old person in coffee. He opened what eventually became one of the first third-wave shops on the East Coast in 2003—Murky Coffee in Washington, D.C., not far from the northern Virginia suburbs where he grew up. During the time when artisanal coffee was first crystallizing into a movement, he was one of the most prominent baristas on the scene—both on the competitive circuit (he was the driving force behind the Brewers Cup, a manual-coffee-brewing competition that is now part of the U.S. Coffee Championships) and as an out-spoken board member for various trade associations.

Cho’s self-appointed role as the chief resister to the prevailing wisdom of the coffee community “is a fantastic thing,” says Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association. “Contrarians are the ones who make change.” Elise Hogan—who worked with Cho and Rothgeb for four and a half years, most recently as Wrecking Ball’s chief operating officer—says that every young barista coming up in the industry has heard of Cho, in part because he can be such an infuriating figure. He stands out, too, she says, because unlike all the other “coffee famous people” with loud opinions, Cho isn’t a white man.

Whatever image you have of the (bearded, white, male) third-wave coffee guru, Cho, a pudgy 43-year-old Korean American with a bowl cut and a penchant for old-school hip-hop and collectible sneakers, doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. Cho says that people in the coffee world often downplay his race: “Gosh, I never think of you as Korean or as an Asian guy.” But he’s clearly comfortable embracing that outsider’s identity, and the political advocacy that comes with it.

This fall, if everything goes according to plan, Cho and Rothgeb will open an as-yet-unnamed coffee shop in a 1,000-square-foot storefront on Mission Street. That fact in itself doesn’t qualify as news; the Mission is awash in coffee shops where you can get a $5 pour-over served, slowly, by an unsmiling monk with a sleeve tattoo. But Cho and Rothgeb want to turn the usual café-as-stalking-horse-of-gentrification narrative on its head: The new café, which will sit in a stretch of the neighborhood that’s still predominantly Latino and working-class, will have an explicitly anti-gentrification business plan.

This is what Cho calls his “big, audacious goal”—creating a café and roaster that serves some greater purpose beyond just selling coffee that tastes good (in part by eschewing cold brew, naturally). Cho says he and Rothgeb have dreamed up dozens of concepts, both hazy and fleshed out, for different cafés they’d eventually like to launch: a coffee shop that doubles as a sneaker store, for instance, and a coffee shop that will (exactly how, they’re still sorting out) cater specifically to Asian Americans.

But none of these are more ambitious than the idea of using a third-wave coffee shop to fight gentrification in one of the most expensive cities in the world—and, while they’re at it, to smash through some of the old notions of what a coffee company ought to be. 


One of the sacred
cows of third-wave coffee is the idea that it’s better, in general, to roast coffee lighter. This is a reaction to the standard set three decades ago by Starbucks, which roasted its coffees dark enough to impart a generic bitterness, thereby masking whatever individual flavor characteristics the beans themselves might have had. Cho argues that as part of their effort to differentiate themselves from the Seattleites, many of the third-wave roasters are now taking things to the opposite extreme. Whereas second-wave adherents favor roasts that are dark and proudly bitter, the new guard roasts “so light it’s going to knock your teeth out; it’s going to dissolve your teeth in your mouth,” he says.

One of the results is something that many customers have encountered at any number of new cafés: coffee that tastes distinctly, undeniably sour. It’s a product of what Cho describes as a brand of “toxic masculinity” that pervades the coffee world. In much the same way that certain beer brewers skew toward double and triple IPAs that are “super, super, super hopped,” he says, many third-wave coffee companies subscribe to the idea that ultra-light-roasted beans provide a “purer” coffee experience—even if that means the coffee tastes downright unpleasant. “There’s something psychological that makes men in a male-dominated industry want to push things just to make a point, just to say ‘Fuck you’ to the rest of the industry,” Cho says.

Cho’s disdain for cold brew coffee puts him even more out of step with the mainstream. Walk into whose sales rose by 580 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to the market research firm Mintel. Even Starbucks sells bottled cold brew coffee now.
You can buy it at Target.

According to Cho, the problem isn’t that cold brew has become a mass-produced commodity; it’s that it just doesn’t taste good. More to the point, it doesn’t embody any of the qualities that today’s high-end roasters claim to value. Cho argues that, by its very nature, the drawn-out process of making cold brew means that certain acids in the coffee wind up breaking down. As a result, the dominant taste is the kind of bitter, metallic flavor he associates with coffee that has been sitting out for too long. Cold brew adherents like to point out how well the drink takes to milk and sugar; Cho counters that that’s just a way to cover up the fact that most cold brew tastes terrible black. You have to doctor it up.

In Cho’s view, the cold brew trend is part and parcel of how the third-wave coffee scene has devolved over the past two decades. In the beginning, he says, everyone was just trying to “climb the mountain”—challenging every assumption in an effort to make coffee taste as good as it could possibly taste. At a certain point, though, companies started getting millions of dollars in private equity. They now had investors that they had to answer to. “Once you hit that money stuff, then the stakes change, and it’s not about climbing the mountain anymore,” Cho says. “It’s about growing your business.”

It really all just comes down to marketing, Cho believes. While the drinks themselves may taste inferior, the act of purchasing and consuming them makes drinkers feel superior. It’s all about projecting the image of a discriminating connoisseur, your own taste buds be damned.


On a Monday
morning earlier this summer, Cho offers a quick tour of Wrecking Ball’s SoMa roasting facility and company headquarters. He sports black-rimmed glasses, a Public Enemy T-shirt, and a pair of red-and-black, Kanye West–designed Yeezy Boosts. Later, as we drive down Fillmore Street on our way to the company’s Cow Hollow café, Cho says he’s looking into a couple of locations around the Western Addition and Fillmore as possible sites for his hybrid coffee shop–sneaker store concept. Part of his hope is that such a coffee shop might hold some appeal to black and Latino customers, who he feels have been underserved by third-wave coffee shops but who make up a big part of the sneakerhead community.

When talk turns to Wrecking Ball’s other forthcoming project in the Mission, Cho turns pensive. He claims he never wanted to open a coffee shop in the Mission, mostly because he didn’t see any way he could do it without accelerating the neighborhood’s already rampant gentrification. He was well aware of arguments made by activist organizations such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which has a map on its website that illustrates “the geographical relationship between rent prices and coffee shops in San Francisco neighborhoods.” It is, to a certain extent, the elephant in the café—a topic that, according to Cho, no one in the specialty coffee industry really wants to address. And when they do talk about it, no one ever does much more than suggest hiring people from the community or going out to meet their neighbors. This is, says Cho, “a certain kind of white liberal solution to a problem that requires more than just going and saying hi and being friends with people of color.”

Wrecking Ball largely avoided the gentrification issue when it opened its Union Street café, which caters largely to Cow Hollow’s population of “twenty-something young white women going to SoulCycle and back.” Then, a few months ago, the owner of the historic Redlick Building at the corner of Mission and 17th Streets approached Cho and Rothgeb with an offer that seemed too good to refuse: The landlord would cover all of the build-out expenses if Wrecking Ball was willing to open a ground-floor coffee shop.

So Cho thought about it some more and decided maybe the best thing to do would be to embrace his discomfort and channel it into something positive. What if he opened a café that was structured in such a way that it would not further gentrify the surrounding stretch of Mission Street, instead actually providing something to benefit the Spanish-speaking and low-income people who live and work nearby? What would such a coffee shop look like?

The beginnings of an answer came to him when he was walking around the neighborhood and passed by a fancy burger restaurant that was filled mostly with young, white customers and surrounded by businesses catering to the local Spanish-speaking community. “How do you have a place in this neighborhood and not have half the menu be in Spanish, or have it set up in at least a bilingual way?” he thought. “How can you say that you’re welcoming people and not actually offer anything?”

Cho came up with a plan: His Mission Street coffee shop will be similar in many ways to Wrecking Ball’s original café, with its fastidious baristas pouring sustainably sourced, expertly roasted specialty coffee, but it will have a fully bilingual menu, split in half, with the Spanish section in just as big a font as the English. The staff, too, will be bilingual, and a menu will be posted on the front door so that people passing by on the street will see that, yes, this is a place where I might feel welcome. Cho says they’ll bring their prices down a bit, perhaps by using a different selection of coffee beans, or a slightly less expensive brand of milk. Even though Cho is considered an authority on pour-over coffee, which is sold for $6 a cup at the Cow Hollow shop, he says he doesn’t plan to serve pour-over at all in the Mission—it’s just too expensive and too fussy. Instead, Cho wants to develop a few playful drinks that might appeal to Latino customers—maybe something along the lines of the horchata lattes that have popped up in certain Cal-Mexican restaurants. He wants to use a local Latino-owned bakery based in the Mission to help round out the café’s pastry lineup. And he plans to give an ownership stake to one of Wrecking Ball’s longtime employees, a bilingual Latino, and have him help run the café—not because he needs a “Latino beard,” Cho says, but because he feels like the guy would make the most of the opportunity.

Erick Arguello, president and cofounder of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, an advocacy group that works to preserve the cultural heritage of the neighborhood, focusing on the stretch of 24th Street that runs from Mission Street to Potrero Avenue, credits business owners like Cho who are at least talking the talk. But he isn’t immediately jumping to embrace Wrecking Ball’s ideas. “They’re making a conscious decision to move into a neighborhood that’s facing a serious threat of displacement,” Arguello says. That, notwithstanding a bilingual menu or a slightly less expensive cup of joe, is what might doom Wrecking Ball in the eyes of the community.

Arguello says he hopes the new coffee shop will hire locally—and not just college students who happen to be living in the Mission temporarily, but folks who have roots in the neighborhood going back several generations. He hopes that they’ll make the café family-friendly and that they’ll consider offering a senior discount. He hopes it won’t be like another unnamed, relatively new Mission Street coffee shop that caters almost exclusively to young white professionals with their faces hidden behind their laptops. Most important, though, Arguello says he hopes the owners of Wrecking Ball will reach out to organizations like his own. Edwin Lindo, a former District 9 supervisorial candidate who was born and raised in the Mission, puts it morebluntly: “If you aren’t bringing it to the community and having guidance from the community, you aren’t taking an anti-gentrification approach.”

Cho, for his part, plans to do that kind of outreach. But Arguello isn’t certain it will be enough. The recent history of the Mission is dotted with the arrivals of well-intentioned new businesses that, in his view, never really tried to fit in with the tight-knit local ecosystem. In the end, the proprietors were businesspeople trying to make a living, and profits mattered more than forging a connection with the neighbors. “It’s what happened,” Arguello says, “on Valencia Street.”


Cho is savvy enough
to recognize that opening an anti-gentrification third-wave café in the Mission, ground zero of tech-economy resentment, opens him and Rothgeb up to all kinds of criticism. This is doubly so because the Redlick Building has its own recent history of gentrification-adjacent controversy. When the current landlord bought the building in 2013, a group of artists living in an unpermitted live-work space on the second floor were evicted, setting off a series of protests and angry confrontations.

And then there are the more unsavory parts of Cho’s own personal history. Cho wound up losing his original Washington, D.C., café in 2008 over some $190,000 that he owed in unpaid sales tax—a debt he finally paid off in full last year. It was a situation he now describes as a “nightmare,” citing a series of bad financial decisions that mounted into a storm of tax-fraud charges and scandalous headlines. The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue eventually seized the coffee shop. 

Elise Hogan, the former Wrecking Ball COO, says she heard all the stories about the “bad-boy barista” with tax problems before she ever met Cho. But now she sees him as the mentor she credits with changing her life, someone whose willingness to embrace controversy tells only part of the story: “He’s not motivated by shame and fear the way other people are. He’s already been publicly shamed; he’s already been through the wringer.” This, she believes, is why Cho is often cavalier about saying the thing that will piss everyone off—why he never takes the safe road. “He has his impossible dreams,” she says. “I think if anyone is going to realize them, or at least be brave enough or stupid enough to try, it’s him.”

Cho and Rothgeb both say they know that the Mission Street café might not achieve everything they want it to—that all their customers still might turn out to be tech workers and affluent Mission dwellers. Even worse, Rothgeb says, is the prospect that they might just come across as poseurs or panderers. Some might see the whole anti-gentrification angle as the flimsiest of shields for a for-profit business, or point out that an even better strategy for keeping rent in that part of the Mission from further skyrocketing would be not to open another coffee shop at all.

But Cho says that, however harsh his future critics might be, his vision for the café—and the coffee industry as a whole—is ultimately a hopeful one. “We’re not going to fix gentrification with one café. But we’re not going to fix gentrification if no one tries to do anything a little differently.”

Cho grew up in the United Methodist Church, and while he doesn’t consider himself a religious person anymore, as a teenager he thought he was going to be a pastor. To this day, that kind of calling to be a shepherd, to lead people in a better direction, still resonates with him. But unlike John the Baptist, crying out the name of the Lord in the wilderness, all Cho has to do is serve decent-tasting coffee, and do it with integrity. This, frankly, shouldn’t be as hard as other coffee sellers make it out to be.

“Coffee,” Cho says, “is so amazing a thing that you can fuck it up 12,000 different ways, and people will line up every morning. Even if we mess it up, there’s something that people still like about it.”

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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