Jen St. Hilaire grew up hating coffee.
“I had only had coffee that tasted like swill,” she said. A visit to the famed Espresso Vivace in Seattle changed all that.
“I went there and was blown away,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how sweet and how delicious it tasted. It was so amazing, that I had to work there.”
Susanna Handow didn’t hate it, but she only drank it with lots of milk and sugar. It took meeting St. Hilaire to change that.
St. Hilaire gave her some made from Brazilian beans that she had roasted. “When I tasted it, it was unbelievable,” said Handow. “I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t bitter. It was naturally sweet all by itself. When I had espresso the way it was meant to be prepared, I totally got it, that this is life-changing coffee.”
While St. Hilaire struck out on her own as a roaster in 2009, the time has come for her to open an espresso bar in Emeryville. With Handow as her business partner, Scarlet City Espresso Bar is slated for an August opening at 3960 Adeline St.
Hilaire acquired her roasting chops at Vivace, which is known for its Northern Italian style of espresso. Its owner, David Schomer, wrote what many consider to be the espresso bible called Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques and he popularized latte art.
The pair – who met in 2004 when St. Hilaire used to come in for coffee where Handow was a barista, “doing the best I could with the beans I was provided” – were a couple, but are now just business partners. They emphasize that Scarlet City will not be just another café where people plug in their laptops and get their work done.
“The concept is to continue the Northern Italian tradition where you stand at the counter with other patrons having their espresso and chat,” said Handow, “– where getting your coffee is more of a social experience than an isolating one, where you’re having an interaction with the people who work there and other regulars.”
“I really like the ritual of the espresso,” added St. Hilaire, “the way the Italians have a certain drink for certain times of day.”
St. Hilaire moved to the Bay Area in 1999, attracted by the Bay Area’s music scene. While gigging at night with her band, she was consulting for Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffe in Santa Rosa.
By 2005, her band broke up and she began to thinking about roasting full-time. Despite her years of experience in the industry, she said coffee-roasting is still a male-dominated profession, and she was even told directly to her face once that a company wouldn’t hire her because she was a woman.
With encouragement from Handow, she took courses at the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, where she wrote her business plan. She identified roasting as her passion, and started Scarlet City in 2009.
While she has earned plaudits from espresso lovers for her Warp Drive roast – sold at Berkeley Bowl West – she said her coffee isn’t as beloved by places doing pour overs.
“I do medium or Northern Italian style roast, where the coffee is roasted to the point where all sugars are fully developed inside the bean and not extracted to the surface,” she said. “When the sugars come out, they are exposed to oxygen and become rancid, but when they’re contained in the bean, they taste fresh. If you don’t roast them to where the sugars are caramelized, your cup will be overly bright and taste like a sour fruit and it won’t have the sort of depth and nuance.”
Handow was working in the non-profit world, but felt that St. Hilaire’s coffee was not getting the recognition or sales that it deserved. “I really love this industry and didn’t trust anyone else to represent Jen’s coffee,” she said.
St. Hilaire will continue to be chief roasting officer, while Handow will oversee the operation of the espresso bar.
Both fans of science fiction, the pair said the place will have a sci-fi aesthetic with a transit-hub like feel, based on the noodle bar in Blade Runner.
St. Hilaire is a lifelong Trekkie, and all of her blends have sci-fi inspired names.
“One thing that’s so alluring to us is that sci-fi offers this notion that you can explore ideas of the way the world could be, as a utopia or playground for trying out what life could be like if we made this or that change,” she said.
“Scarlet City embodies our ideals beyond just feminism, but ideals about the way we’d like to see the world, for example as a place that uses sustainable energy,” added Handow. “Scarlet City is a fantasy city in a future post-apocalyptic world where people come up with solutions.”
While phase two of their project includes beer and readings by sci-fi authors in the evenings, they hope their style of espresso catches on.
“Many cafés can have this pretentious vibe even if they don’t mean to,” said St. Hilaire. “Sometimes customers can feel coffee is this pretentious and elitist thing, and they’re not part of the club.”
Added Handow: “We see humor as a way to invite people in and break the ice. If they know we think we’re ridiculous, they can come in and check it out and feel comfortable. They don’t need a passport, they only need a sense of adventure.”
Scarlet City Espresso Bar will be at 3960 Adeline St. (at 40th Street) in Emeryville. Connect with Scarlet City Espresso Bar on Facebook.
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