For decades, the “Craft Coffee Capital” title has fluctuated between two main contenders: Portland and Seattle. But recently, San Diego, California, has thrown its hat into the ring and rapidly become a top contender for the crown. Over the past few years, San Diego has undergone a craft coffee revolution, quickly climbing the ladder both in popular opinion and global recognition.
Prior to 2009, San Diego was barely dipping its feet in the craft coffee scene. Fast-forward 10 years, however, and the landscape has completely changed. A quick Yelp search reveals that between San Ysidro and Oceanside, San Diego County houses well over 50 established roasteries, with more popping up regularly. Numbers like these easily compare to those of revered coffee cities like Portland and Seattle.
The increasing pervasiveness of coffee shops in San Diego County seems to stem from an ever-growing consumer demand. As the third-wave coffee trend continues to expand nationally and globally, San Diego has answered the call. WalletHub recently conducted a study to determine the “Best Coffee Cities in America;” the personal finance website compared the top 100 most populated cities in the U.S. across 14 metrics, including average household coffee expenditure, percentage of adult coffee drinkers, and number of coffee shops per capita. The findings ranked San Diego as the ninth best coffee destination in the country. (San Francisco and Los Angeles also ranked within the top 10, coming in at No. 3 and No. 5, respectively.)
Another recent study performed by New York–based personal finance firm SmartAsset ranked San Diego as the fourth best coffee city in the United States; the SoCal town was outranked only by Portland, Seattle, and Oakland. This study examined factors like average Yelp ratings for local coffee shops, the percent of “exceptional” coffee shops in a particular location, the overall number of coffee shops and roasters, and Google search traffic surrounding the word “coffee.”
While the Pacific Northwest continues to maintain its grip on the top slot for now, the data makes it clear: San Diego is climbing its way to the top—and fast. As the city’s incredible craft coffee becomes increasingly ubiquitous, connoisseurs from across the country are beginning to take notice. In fact, for the past several years, San Diego has been one of 12 American cities selected for the Caffeine Crawl, an annual event hosted by beverage publication and marketing organization The Lab. Jason Burton, The Lab’s founder, created the event to give coffee enthusiasts an immersive, location-based, flavor-driven, one-of-a-kind coffee experience.
In a recent interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Burton associated San Diego’s coffee success with its craft beer success, indicating that the two often go hand in hand. In the interview, he said, “San Diego is certainly in the top three of underrated coffee scenes—there’s been a huge jump in the past two to three years.” One strength, he indicated, was the rich cultural diversity of San Diego County. Noteworthy San Diego coffee shops like Caffè Calabria in North Park (with its Italian heritage) and Banana Dang in Oceanside (with its owners’ Puerto Rican roots) generate innovative styles and flavors that simply cannot be found anywhere else.
Another indicator of San Diego’s impending dominance is not only its increased quantity of specialty coffee, but also its equitable growth in quality specialty coffee. San Diego coffee is beginning to turn heads globally, too. Over the past several years, a number of San Diego–based coffee roasters have earned numerous accolades. Last year, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, originally based out of La Jolla, won the prestigious Good Food Award in the Geisha XO Roast coffee division. (Bird Rock also won the same award in 2016 and 2017.) This award is given to coffee shops that are distinguished by exemplary flavor as well as fairness and transparency from seed to cup. The highest-scoring entries undergo a rigorous vetting process to verify that they met the sustainability and social responsibility criteria to win the award.
Other San Diego County coffee award winners include Carlsbad’s Steady State Roasting and San Diego’s Mostra Coffee, which was named 2019’s Micro Coffee Roaster of the Year by Roast Magazine. Several San Diego roasters—including Bird Rock Coffee and Café Virtuoso—have also had their creations featured on Coffee Review’s prestigious list of the Top 30 Coffees of the Year.
Perhaps the main reason why San Diego coffee shops truly stand out is because they have not modeled themselves after those found in Oregon and Washington, but instead blazed their own trails. Leading the charge in coffee innovation, once again, is SoCal’s shining star: Bird Rock Coffee, which recently became one of the first American coffee roasters to break into the coffee-growing game. In 2015, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters signed a deal with Oceanside’s Mraz Family Farms—owned and operated by famed singer-songwriter and San Diego local Jason Mraz—to sell the first San Diego–grown coffee. The specific type they chose to grow is a rare and coveted varietal known as Geisha. Prior to this ground-breaking partnership, Geisha varietals were generally only found in Panama; the coffee is considered by many to be the gold standard for its smooth, deep, and uniquely rich flavor profile. While coffee farms are beginning to sprout across the entire state, the largest concentrations are found in California (and it should come as no surprise, given California’s compelling coffee culture), but no other farms currently grow the Geisha variety.
Though San Diego has already made incredible strides in the coffee game, there is still ample room to grow. Many experts believe that San Diego roasters have already “arrived,” at least in terms of product. So, the biggest hurdle now seems to be helping consumers understand that a truly high-quality, specialty cup of joe from a local coffee shop is worth more than just a couple of bucks.
But if there is one thing San Diego has proven, especially given its mark on craft beer, it is that consumers dare to try new things and enjoy new flavor experiences. It certainly appears to be only a matter of time before San Diego dons the craft coffee crown.
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