San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee has been at the forefront of the ‘Coffee Revolution’ since 2005.
How did you get started roasting?
Ritual Coffee started roasting in the back of the café on Valencia Street, using a small Probat. We developed our unique flavor profile with a ton of trial and error, roasting and cupping, roasting and cupping.
Tell us more about the name Ritual.
When [founder] Eileen Rinaldi was starting Ritual and she’d describe why she chose to open a coffee bar, the word “ritual” kept coming up. In her words, “I drink coffee every day, but unlike all the other things I do every day, there’s something sacred about coffee, especially that first one of the day.” So she kept coming back to the name Ritual. We’re very methodical about our roasting and preparation, so the word Ritual fits our processes too.
What is a “coffee revolution” and why is it so important to your values?
San Francisco has always been a coffee town, dating back to the Gold Rush. But circa 2005, the citizens of SF were very underserved compared to cities like Seattle and Portland. When Ritual was founded, a principal goal was to elevate the standards for coffee in the Bay Area, and educate people as to why it’s worth a premium price. Since then, San Francisco has become a veritable coffee mecca, with the Bay Area defining its own unique style. Old guard coffee companies are now copying what Bay Area coffee has been able to achieve. But our work isn’t done. The full “revolution” in coffee will come about when coffee is as valued as we think it should be, and all coffee farmers are able to sustainably produce coffee and make a decent living, from commodity grade all the way to the top tier, super rare stuff. This is what is important to us at the end of the day, the value of coffee.
What is the meaning behind your logo?
Ah, our iconic cup and star! This was designed based on the vision that what we were doing was really revolutionary and that we needed an instantly recognizable symbol, perhaps even a flag. Aimee Kilmer of Good Stuff Partners came up with the cup and star, inspired by both the bold color contrasts of the Turkish flag and the iconography of the Soviet era. People still ask us if we’re communists sometimes. We are not.
What do you look for when sourcing coffee?
We look for something very specific when we’re sourcing coffee. We are looking for producers who share our ethos that coffee can always be better, and are as enthusiastic as we are to put in the time and effort to make it incrementally better each year. In terms of flavor profile, we seek out coffees that have bright acidity, a clean mouthfeel, and a distinct sweetness.
How has your approach to sourcing changed over time?
Ritual began sourcing from producers we knew personally back in 2007. We were probably the smallest company trying to source all of our coffee that way. It was outrageous to exporters. Many tried to talk us out of it, citing that we’d have to pay more if the producers knew where the coffee was going. They were shocked when we were not just amenable, but enthusiastic to pay more. While our approach to sourcing has stayed fairly constant, the landscape has changed drastically – there are so many more exporters and importers who specialize in playing matchmaker between producers and small coffee roasters now that this is much easier than it was back then. We’re thrilled to have had an impact on that, as anytime you can connect directly with the people in your supply chain, it makes the world a little smaller. But what hasn’t changed even a little is the price that farmers are paid for their coffee, and that is the industry’s biggest threat. Ultimately, our philosophy is that in order for us to succeed, farmers need to see a future and a livelihood in coffee farming, and Ritual is willing to put our money where our mouth is on that one.
How does Ritual set itself apart in the busy Bay Area?
Ritual was a pioneer in the Bay Area coffee scene, instrumental in making the city world renowned for its coffee culture. In that way we set ourselves apart pretty early on, and had loud and some say aggressive branding and marketing philosophies. Those have softened over the years, and now as an adolescent in the specialty coffee world, we find that we don’t have to yell so much in order to get folks to try what we offer and to see the value in quality coffee. Our brand has softened its look and feel a bit, but we still have the reputation of being one of the most fun and simultaneously quality focused coffee companies out there, and we’re proud of that! We’re also woman-owned, totally independent, and incredibly fortunate to have such a diverse group of co-workers.
What have been the biggest changes in specialty coffee in your nearly 15 years?
Specialty coffee is huge! The industry is starting to resemble the highly nuanced wine industry in certain aspects. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, and gaining acolytes every day. The sheer number of quality focused roasters in the US and around the world is staggering, and the availability of impeccably produced green coffee has grown in tandem.
How does Ritual approach sustainability?
We aim to create win-win situations anywhere we do business. Environmental stewardship is at the top of our priority list, from all compostable materials in our cafes, to our reusable to-go jar program, to being one of the first coffee roasters to switch to biodegradable materials in our packaging. Sustainability at the farm level involves continuing relationships with farmers and helping insure their business is sustainable and kind to the land.