Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, one of the foremost pioneers in the United States’ new wave of coffee roasters.
Oakland, California is home — both to James and to Blue Bottle. The company has roasteries in Oakland and Brooklyn, plus coffee bars scattered throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and New York. James also frequently travels to Tokyo, whose kissaten coffee culture has inspired much of what Blue Bottle does.
Helping Belcampo’s coffee operations continue to grow and improve, among plenty of other projects. The lodge just planted their first seedlings, and the staff is learning to make what’s likely the best espresso in Belize.
As the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee and a frequent traveler, James Freeman has more or less perfected the art of finding outstanding coffee on the road — not to mention packing his own beans in order to brew his own. He recently began a partnership with Belize’s Belcampo Lodge, helping to develop their on-site coffee program and offering seed-to-cup courses for travelers and staff. James took the time to talk with us about Belcampo, his travel habits, and his favorite Tablet hotels.
We’ve been down there three or four times, and it’s just been great to see it evolve. We were there a month ago, doing the inaugural coffee course and seeing their new coffee area. Belcampo is one of the biggest employers in Toledo state and in Belize, and some of the people have been there four or five years, and they have like the only La Marzocco espresso machine in Belize. The trip before last, I was training some of their staff, talking about the history of coffee in the United States and about our cafés, and I’m like, “So who here has been to a Starbucks?” And out of six people, nobody raised their hand. So it’s kind of a blank slate. They’re good people with a lot of skills, and they want to do well. We were cupping — leading a cupping course for staff as well as the visitors and, you know, the people there are dying to do it. They really want to get this done and make good coffee because there’s nothing in Belize.
It’s beautiful! You go up there and you’re in this room and you hear the howler monkeys. You go out to the verandah and you can get this plate of just incredible fruit salad, everything grown on the farm.
And we have a nine-year-old. So it’s been fun for Dashiell too. There’s this incredible island, so we went out there and did a little snorkeling and came back, and the guide looked at Dashiell and he’s like, “Do you want to drive this boat?” And Dashiell gets these big saucer eyes, you know, because you could never do that in the States. The staff and guides are really, really great. They’re super nice guys and they’re very, very knowledgeable.
It was funny because here I am in Belize and there’s a sipping table and hot water and a grinder and our coffee, and it was cool to be able to tell everyone, “Look, we’re in a club.” There are people all around the world doing this every day, you know — and I’ve been cupping in Japan and cupping in São Paulo and now I’m cupping in Belize. But we’re all doing it pretty much exactly the same way. We’re talking about the same things. We could be in Oakland or New York.
Well, the general perception is quite wrong. The thing about Tokyo is that if you’re into jeans or pizza or mozzarella cheese or coffee or whatever, you can find its highest practitioner somewhere in Tokyo. So I’m into coffee and I love it there. As a company we’ve been super inspired by Japanese coffee techniques. And I think there’s an opportunity as a business to reflect Japanese coffee culture back to them in a way that’s a little more interesting to a younger demographic. Some of my favorite coffee bars in Japan are — you know, I fit right in because I’m old and unfashionable. But they’re not where the cool kids go.
In New York, we have a little apartment near the roaster. That just seems like commuting now. I don’t even need to bring a toothbrush or anything. It feels really luxurious.
I do like Cerulean Tower in Tokyo. It’s basic, comfortable, quiet, and has a really good view that I don’t expect in Tokyo. I think I like going to the same place a few times because it’s one less thing to figure out. It’s all about trying to preserve certain habits. So when I’m traveling I like to stay in the same place, do the same thing, and I always bring a coffee grinder and coffee with me so I know that, first thing, I’ll be making the coffee that I want to make.
I’m a little obsessive and a bit of a stickler. It’s been a long and arduous journey to try and be a little more free and easy. I’ve been helped by having a very supportive wife, but I like to do things a certain way. It’s hard not to do them that way. Every once in a while I feel happy that I’ve managed to break free of those particular habits, but it’s always a struggle.
Yeah, I’ve been rewarded very much for doing things a certain way and not having sizes or flavors or offering ground coffee. So let’s just say it’s a mixed message the culture is sending.
Oh gosh, yes, there’s a mini-grinder, a pouring kettle, usually a cone, and some filters, and then depending on if I’m going somewhere with US voltage, I’ll bring a little water heater. Blue Bottle is actually in the process of making a little travel kit — a bag with sections for the Porlex [grinder] and the cone and everything, so you just add your coffee and you can go.
Oh sure, or a lot. The nice thing is that it’s under your control. But sure, there’s eye-rolling.