The California bagel has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the food world, especially for those who’ve lived in New York or Montreal, where many claim the crème de la crème of bagels were born. It’s something in the water, some East Coasters say, that makes their bagels different. But the most devout bagel lovers from back East like to think it’s something more — they say it’s in your blood to know how to make an authentic bagel.
I’ve listened to and read the gripes that there’s no such thing as a real-deal bagel found outside of these two cities, especially in California, where bagel snobs say we’re just eating puffy, baked donut-shaped bread. They point to Noah’s, founded right here in Berkeley by Noah Alper, which steams — rather than boils — its bagels. True bagel sacrilege.
In the last few years, though, the East Bay’s bagel game has been on a sharp rise. A crop of bakers is making crusty, chewy bagels that are putting the East Bay on the bagel map. Many of them are originally from the East Coast, and have decided to make their own version of “holey” goodness that pays homage to the bagel they grew up eating. Exact replicas of New York or Montreal bagels they may not be, but they’re delicious nevertheless.
I decided, for Nosh’s bagel taste-off, to recruit tasters from the world’s bagel capitals to join me in tasting and judging the best the East Bay has to offer. Justine Sharrock and Jessica Lanyadoo have eaten countless bagels growing up in New York and Montreal, respectively.
“I grew up in New York City eating bagels. There was a void in my life when I first moved to the East Bay in the ‘90s and Noah’s was offered to me as as the best option,” said Sharrock, who recently returned from a back-to-back trip to New York and Montreal, where she ate a bagel every day.
Lanyadoo has strong bagel feelings that are also rooted in her hometown.
“I am from Montreal, home of the world’s greatest bagels. I would eat bagels straight out of the wood oven on the regular. Also, I’m Jewish, so bagels are part of my upbringing,” she said.
For this taste-off, we judged five noteworthy bagels made in the East Bay.
Before getting to the results, let me lay down the criteria for how we judged them.
Based on research and feedback, we chose the five most popular and respected East Bay-made bagels. We didn’t throw in any foils for fun. The bagels are from established bagel shops, up-and-coming vendors and wholesalers.
As there is too much variation in the amount and style of toppings for seeded and flavored bagels, we tasted only the plain variety from each vendor. We also felt we could more easily taste the flavors of the dough without the added seasonings.
We chose to judge bagels untoasted. If you are a devout follower of the Golden Rule of bagelry, you know that a good bagel does not need to be toasted. In fact, toasting can make a bad bagel somewhat decent and make waste of all that goes into a truly good bagel.
Although cream cheese was offered, each bagel was tasted first without any topping, and, for the most part, judged in its naked state.
All the bagels were supposedly made on the morning of the tasting. Unfortunately, we could not confirm the exact time that each bagel was actually baked.
In the case of Boichik, a pop-up out of Alameda that does not currently have a storefront or a retail outlet, the bagels were hand-delivered to us for the tasting. In the case of Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy, which is a wholesale-only business, we were told to get our bagels from Whole Foods on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley — we arrived minutes after the market opened to pick up our test bagels. For Baron Baking, which is also a wholesaler, we picked up our bagels at Saul’s, arriving at the deli minutes before the doors opened to ensure we were able to procure them (it was a Sunday morning, after all).
Note that because we couldn’t control that the bagels were all made at the same time and eaten within minutes of being baked, these conditions can, and probably did, affect our judgment of the bagels. However, since we did source the bagels in the same way the general public can get them, we think this is still a fair assessment.
We judged the bagels blindly. Tasters were not aware which bagel they were eating. I prepared the bagels for Justine and Jessica to taste first. After they scored their bagels, they prepared mine for me to judge blindly. Tasters were only aware of which bagels they scored after the tasting was completed.
Bagels were scored on each of the three following characteristics:
1) Texture and appearance of the exterior crust.
2) The quality of the crumb.
3) The overall taste.
We gave each characteristic a score, from 1 to 5 — with 1 being not good, 2 being OK, 3 being good, 4 being very good, and 5 being excellent. The bagel’s total score was the average of these three scores. We did not judge the bagels based on price, but I do list the cost of each bagel in the descriptions below.
Originally, I was going to rank the five bagels in order, based on an average of the three testers’ scores, but because our scores varied so greatly, I thought it would be more illuminating to show how each individual scored each bagel, along with the notes we wrote about each as we tasted. Aside from Beauty’s Bagels, which got almost the exact same score from each of us, and was the clear winner of this tasting, our thoughts about what makes a good bagel were very different.
So, here are the results of the Nosh East Bay bagels taste-test!
Beauty’s Bagel Shop
Beauty’s is a Montreal-style bagel shop in North Oakland opened by Amy Remsen and Blake Joffe, a couple who are originally from Philadelphia. As the lines out the door on weekends attest, Beauty’s is a local favorite. At Beauty’s, the bagels are made from a dough that’s cold-risen for 24 hours to develop flavor. The dough is then hand-rolled, boiled in honey-sweetened water and, finally, baked in a wood-fire oven. Montreal bagels are supposedly a tad smaller than your typical New York-style bagel. During our testing, all of the bagels were cut to generally the same size, so their size wasn’t a dead giveaway. The biggest difference — and what pushed Beauty’s to the very top of our list — was the bagel’s beautiful blistered exterior. The crackly crust gave way to a delightfully springy, dense interior dough with a tinge of sweetness. Beauty’s bagels are $1.50 each. Beauty’s Bagel Shop, 3838 Telegraph Ave. (between 38th and 39th), Oakland
Sarah: 4.3 (crust: 5, interior crumb: 4, taste: 4)
The blistered texture of this bagel is amazing. You can hear it crackle when you tear into it, like a baguette. The crumb is chewy, tender and springy. The flavor isn’t quite as yeasty as I’d like from a bagel. I could eat this bagel untoasted and without cream cheese and still love every bite.
Justine: 4.5 (crust: 5, interior crumb: 4, taste: 4.5)
Beautiful crust; dark, shiny, perfect color. This crust, hand’s down, put the bagel at the forefront. It has good density and spring; not bready. It’s more tangy than the others. I could eat this all day.
Jessica: 4.5 (crust: 5, interior crumb: 4, taste: 4.5)
It has a perfect look and is crunchy. Crackle = excellent. It’s delicious, but it’s almost a bit too chewy. The flavor is slightly sweet.
Authentic Bagel Co.
Oakland’s Authentic Bagel Co. is a business started by two brothers — Mark and Jason Scott — who are originally from Providence, Rhode Island. The Scotts started making bagels after coming upon their great grandmother’s recipe, made with naturally leavened starter dough. Authentic slow-rises its dough for 24 hours to maximize flavor, before boiling and then baking them. Although the bagels were not as aesthetically pleasing as Beauty’s, without any crackly crust to them at all, the quality of their chew and flavor really won some major points for the tasters. Authentic bagels are $1.75 each. Authentic Bagel Co., 463 2nd St. (at Broadway), Oakland
Sarah: 3 (crust: 2, interior crumb: 3, taste: 4)
This bagel comes closest to the flavor I associate with “bagel.” I didn’t love the exterior crust, which didn’t have much crackle or shine. The inside is dense; the crumb is tight, but it doesn’t spring back when you chew into it. There’s a slight onion flavor, possibly from contact with onion bagels? But, you can taste an underlying sour, fermented flavor, which I really like.
Justine: 2.2 (crust: 3, interior crumb: 2, taste: 2)
This bagel is not very crusty. It’s medium dense but too bready in texture, and I don’t like the cornmeal on the outside. The flavor is tangy.
Jessica: 4.8 (crust: 4.5, interior crumb: 5, taste: 5)
Now THAT’S a bagel! I’m elated. It has a perfect exterior texture, perfect light chewiness and perfect flavor. It’s yellow, but excellent.
Baron Baking is based in Berkeley and sells its bagels to local restaurants, markets and even some corporate offices. The company was launched in 2012 by an East Coast transplant named Dan Graff, a self-taught baker, who once worked as the deli manager at Saul’s. The dough for Baron’s bagels is made with organic flour and is fermented for 48 hours to develop flavor. The formed dough is then poached in a lye water sodium hydroxide bath, which gives the bagels a brown color and shiny crust. Although several articles speak highly of Baron’s crackling crust, we didn’t find that was the case with the bagels we tasted. We were unable to set a pick-up with Graff directly, so we got our bagels from Saul’s. Baron bagels can also be found at various locations in Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito, San Francisco and Sausalito, which you can find listed on Baron’s website. Baron bagels are $1.50 each at Saul’s. Baron Baking, 2701 Eighth St. (at Carleton), Berkeley
Sarah: 3.7 (crust: 4, interior crumb: 4, taste: 3)
This bagel reminded me of a pretzel — it has that alkaline taste of a lye bath. I love how shiny this bagel is, but I wish it had a cracklier crust. The exterior skin has a good strength to it and evidence of some blistering, which makes me think that straight out of the oven, it might be a whole different animal. I like its density and chew.
Justine: 2.7 (crust: 3, interior crumb: 3, taste: 2)
Solid, but not overwhelmingly good. The exterior has a nice shiny crust, but the inside is a little too bready and fluffy. I didn’t love the flavor.
Jessica: 3.2 (crust: 4, interior crumb: 3, taste: 2.5)
It has a good exterior crust, but it lost some points for flavor. It was a little too doughy for me and a bit bland.
Alameda-based Boichik is the newest East Bay bagel maker of this group. It’s the only one that claims to make New York bagels. Boichik founder Emily Winston has developed her recipe, using Manhattan’s now defunct bagel company H&H — considered the best by many — as her guideline. Winston, who’s originally from New Jersey and is a self-taught baker, makes her bagel dough using organic, unbleached, high-protein wheat flour, barley flour and malt extract, which adds a very distinct sweetness to her bagels. She cold-ferments the dough for 24 hours. Then she forms the bagels and boils them in a lye bath before baking. At this time, Boichik is a pop-up only business, although due to some good reviews, Winston’s currently pursuing a commercial production space to bring her bagels to more people. Boichik bagels are $3 each. Boichik Bagels, Alameda. Contact Boichik at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah: 3.7 (crust: 4, interior crumb: 4, taste: 3)
The bagel is plump and has a nice golden brown, swirled crust. The bottom of the bagel is actually more crackly than the top. The combo of crunchy bottom; the fluffy, chewy interior and the sweet, almost honey-like malty flavor is a great combo. It’s a tad too sweet to eat plain, but I think with cream cheese, it works very well. I’d get this bagel again.
Justine: 1.3 (crust: 1, interior crumb: 1, taste: 2)
This is yummy, but it is not a bagel; it’s too fluffy and not dense. It is a piece of bread.
Jessica: 2.7 (crust: 2, interior crumb: 3, taste: 3)
It reminds me of a muffin because it’s so puffy and sweet. It’s chewy, but it tastes like bread.
Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy
Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy is a lesser known local bagel maker than the rest even though it’s been around for more than 50 years. Still, it was mentioned by many when asked about their favorite bagel maker. Boogie Woogie is a strictly wholesale operation these days. While the company no longer has a retail shop on Gilman Street in Berkeley (now occupied by Berkeley Bagels) or on Park Street in Alameda (now Alameda Bagels & Donuts), you can still find Boogie Woogie bagels at various markets and coffee shops in the East Bay, including Whole Foods on Telegraph Avenue and Modern Coffee in Berkeley. Owner Henry Tang said the bagels are cold-risen for one hour before they are boiled and then baked. While Boogie Woogie wasn’t #1 for any of us, it wins for best bagel name, in my book. Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy bagels are $1.50 each at Whole Foods.
Sarah: 2.3 (crust: 2, interior crumb: 3, taste: 2)
Meh. The outside crust looks a bit anemic and doesn’t have a good “skin” on it. The chew is dense and soft, and there’s a weird, almost fishy flavor I detected on my first bite. Not into this bagel.
Justine: 3.3 (crust: 2, interior crumb: 4, taste: 4)
If it were crustier, it would be bagel magic, but the crust is very lacking. The inside is dense and chewy, like a NY bagel.
Jessica: 2.3 (crust: 2, interior crumb: 2, taste: 3)
The light color of the exterior crust makes it look like a donut. It’s also too chewy — the texture takes the score down for me. It’s much better with cream cheese.
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