Taste the bean, not the roast

New-breed coffee roaster lands in Little Italy
  • New-breed coffee roaster lands in Little Italy

James Coffee Co.

2355 India Street, Little Italy

While a handful of roasters have been at it for years — La Jolla–based Pannikin has been cooking beans since 1968 — most of San Diego’s developing artisanal coffee movement has been spurred by newcomers. One of these quick-rising outfits, microroaster James Coffee Co., started barely more than a year ago in Poway. In May, James launched a coffee counter in Little Italy, and now plans to move its entire roasting operations into the storefront.

James had originally moved into the shared space as a tenant of retail collective VI Star, serving individually made cups of its own coffee, along with 20-hour cold brews and espresso drinks. When VI Star closed and the other vendors moved out, David Kennedy, founder and roaster of James (a family name), opted to lease the entire venue.

Kennedy says he had been thinking about finding a more central base of operations since launching the company out of a furniture workshop in Poway in April 2013. While he may look to bring in other local vendors to fill out the yawning garage-like space, at the moment it houses a couple of picnic tables, a motorcycle or two, and a lot of room to mull over the taste of Kennedy’s suddenly popular light-roast beans.

The former rock guitarist began working with coffee a little over three years ago, following a visit to a German village where he encountered some small-batch roasters serving fresh espressos from the sidewalk in front of their apartment. Kennedy says “a light went off” in his head — the idea that coffee wasn’t the exclusive domain of large commercial enterprises. Employing the DIY mentality of his punk-rock days, he went online to figure out how it was done. He received some mentorship from friends roasting at San Francisco third-wave outfit Sight Glass but worked out the basics online.

He researched coffee websites and YouTube tutorials to learn how to roast. He started buying green coffee beans from coffee-hobbyist site SweetMarias.com and roasting them using a made-in-the-1970s popcorn popper purchased on eBay.

Following some success playing guitar for bands including Angels & Airwaves and Box Car Racer, Kennedy says it was important to him to continue pursuing a career that inspired passion and creativity. “With coffee I found it, and started working towards it.” Once the popcorn popper’s inconsistent temperatures started getting in the way of what he was trying to do, he made the decision to upgrade to a professional-grade roaster and viewed it as a business investment.

In a short time, James Coffee has garnered positive word-of-mouth by serving coffee at store openings and charity events. A few local partnerships have also contributed to the company’s growth. James beans are carried by Roast Coach carts working out of North Park and East Village. Meanwhile, the Patio Restaurant Group recently announced plans to serve custom blends in their Mission Hills and Pacific Beach restaurants in conjunction with Mission Beach roaster Swell Café.

Kennedy says his goal is to “taste the bean… not the roast,” and like most artisan coffee purists, pursues lighter roasts, which allow brighter flavors to stand out. He says he enjoys the challenge of roasting East African beans, which he describes as “fruit forward, with high acidity.” However, he seems most confident working with the “clean” flavors of Central American beans and recently introduced his first direct-trade coffee, a Pacas varietal from western Honduras, working directly with a coffee farmer whose own growth is now linked to one small roaster’s success a continent away.

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