I don’t know if my experience at this coffee shop was more about the shop itself or a personal Ted Talk. Either way, I’m glad I walked through those doors. This review is going to be much different than the last 46 shops I have discussed, as it was nothing like anything I had encountered thus far. Get ready.
Some of the previous coffee shops told me that I had to meet John at Caffe d’Bolla for the ultimate Salt Lake City coffee tour. Oh, I did, but unfortunately a little late. One of my biggest pieces of advice after traveling to over a hundred coffee shops, never show up to a specialty coffee shop an hour before closing. Caffe d’Bolla specializes in siphon coffee and John had already begun washing them as I was walking through the door at 5:15 pm. I immediately started my interview off on the wrong foot. Oh, and you’re wondering what siphon coffee is? Stay tuned.
John was a fascinating guy to learn about, he has been studying coffee and EVERYTHING that goes into it longer than I could fathom. He never repeats an espresso twice because, like seasonal dishes, they’re always changing. “How often” you ask? He has a new espresso every week to week and a half, making that 35-40 different kinds of espresso per year. He began explaining everything from the size of a coffee bean and its origin to how cup shapes affect the taste. I’m not going to lie to you, at first I thought this guy was messing with me, but when he started to realize I was genuinely interested in everything he was telling me, the conversation shifted and I learned so much. He did accuse me and say, “Are you just another reporter who takes pretty pictures, asks terrible questions, and does a terrible write-up?” I assured him I was not.
John asked me if I knew about him previously and I told him I didn’t. I should’ve done my homework. John has received dozens of awards for his espresso and siphon brewing, been interviewed on TV nationally and internationally, and he is recognized as a key player in the coffee world. He had the awards to prove it, they were all over the shop. John opened Caffe d’Bolla in 2004 – the first artisan micro-roaster and siphon bar in Salt Lake City – with a mission to nudge people to try good coffee.
I knew visiting shops would be an experience but this one exceeded my expectations. John strives for experience – he used the word throughout much of our conversation. The experience he offers here is one for your bucket list, siphon coffee. This is a brewing method that takes about an hour to complete, using both vapor pressure and gravity to produce the coffee. This process is extremely complex and unique to find. The best comparison I have to this siphon is a large hour-glass with two chambers. Heating the bottom creates vapor pressure that forces water up, brewing the grounds on the top; then as it cools, the coffee comes back down to the bottom chamber passing through the filter, making for a very clean coffee. He has spent a long time perfecting this brewing method and is proud of the product he delivers to the customer. I plan to visit him again soon to experience this. Unfortunately, they were all packed away when I was there, but here is a photo by the New York Times of John.
After all of this coffee talk, I needed coffee. Bummed I couldn’t order the siphon coffee so I asked him what he recommended and he said the most popular drinks at Caffe d’Bolla are the americano, espresso, and siphon coffee. I ended up ordering a shot of his latest espresso. He served it on a little wooden tray with a small glass of water. I held it up to smell the notes and really take it all in. The crema looked very appealing. I still remember the taste while writing this article, it was delicious! For food options, they offered waffles, pumpkin spice with pecan muffins, and chocolate chip cookies.
He then asked me, “Would you hop on a plane to go to a coffee shop?” I had never thought about this, especially as I am currently interviewing coffee shops on a shoestring budget. I answered and said, “Maybe.” He told me that four guys from Switzerland have come to this shop for the past 10 years. They stop in the minute the plane lands and make it their last stop before leaving for the airport. Wow. And, If you find that crazy, I met someone who was even more passionate about their coffee, sitting only a few barstools away. Meet Les: he happened to walk in a week after John opened and had such a great experience that he has been coming twice a day for the past 15 years. WOW!
It wasn’t all about the coffee though. John and I had a long discussion on cups. Cups matter: the size, the shape, the texture, the handle, and most importantly, the shape the coffee falls into the cup. He compared coffee to wine: the aromatics it gives off when it swirls around the glass, the temperature it hits, and the specific cup for each coffee/brewing method. He pointed out a cup on the shelf from 1960 that had been hand-painted in Asia.
We discussed the process of coffee and the etiquette behind it. He is a firm believer that hand-brewed coffee shouldn’t be to go. “A barista spends all of their time, skill, and patience making you an amazing cup of coffee. You should appreciate that. Getting coffee to go so you run to your next meeting is a big F*** You to the craft.” I agree with him. Gas station coffee could be the exception, but even so, people spent a lot of time getting that coffee into your hands.
One of my favorite takeaways from John was when he compared espresso to top-shelf whiskey. You do not just cook beans and drink coffee, no there’s way more that is involved. The difference is, whiskey tastes better after it ages and coffee goes bad. A much shorter shelf life. His three major components behind roasting are science, leaps of logic, and you have to get it right or it won’t taste good. Espresso should be just as valued and treasured as a shot of whiskey, if not more. If you were to pay $25 for a whiskey shot, you should be paying the same for a high-end espresso shot. The amount of time, energy, and practice that goes into getting it right is outstanding. He still recalls an Ethiopian roast from 2005 that gave him quite the predicament. He went through pounds of beans trying to master that roast. The Ethiopian beans were a third to half a size smaller and denser than what he was used to and he torched so much of it before understanding the bean profile.
He then turned the spotlight on me and wanted to know what it is like interviewing coffee shops. I started to answer and he cut me off and said, “How is my shop going to sound? The guy was an a**hole but the coffee tasted good.” I replied, “No” and we both laughed. I told him how I have difficulty with a few coffee shops and their baristas. He assured me that a bad experience is never the barista’s fault, it’s a reflection on the whole shop itself. He was right, and even looking back on that today, it stands truer than ever. The owner is responsible for who stands at the counter, the face of the coffee shop. And yes, I have dealt with a lot of tougher people than John.
For any coffee shop owners reading this or anyone with a business, this next topic is for you. He has given a speech on the topic of “negative reviews” and he kindly summarized it for me. He hates Yelp and he likes Google’s, but they all have their ups and downs. He said, “Some people will hate you and some people will like you, but someone has zero credibility if they don’t acknowledge what I’m doing.” He was right, you can’t judge a book by its cover or a coffee by the bag it comes in.
John is very particular about the way he does things and he stands by them. What I mean by that is, if you buy a bag of roasted coffee beans, he will not grind them for you. Everyone knows that they will not stay as fresh when they’re ground. He told me a story about how someone came in to buy beans and asked him to grind them before they left. He refused, saying he only has a one-cup grinder and the bag of beans would never fit in it at one time. The person left pissed off and wrote a one-star review online complaining “He won’t grind the beans because it’s a small specialty coffee shop and Caffe d’Bolla only sells whole beans.” Well, low and behold, two different customers came into his shop BECAUSE of that review and that he takes his coffee that seriously. Which in turn ended up being two positive reviews out of one negative one.
John was a funny guy and I really enjoyed my time meeting him and exploring his shop. He gave me advice if I ever decide to open my own shop. His three rules were to never practice on customers, learn the ins and outs of the craft, and make mistakes. Trial and error can be the best thing. He thinks artisan craft coffee posers can hurt the coffee world worse than Starbucks because they are misrepresenting the total experience for customers. John strives to serve consistent above-average coffee all the time.
Not For First Dates
Every time I go into a coffee shop I look around and try to imagine if it would be suitable for things like a date, business meeting, or a place to do homework. One of the funniest stories John told me was a time two people decided to meet there on a first date. I personally would’ve done my homework and realized that it would be more of a third or fourth date place because the shop is smaller and more intimate than say, a Philz. John listens in while preparing the potential couple’s coffees and he hears excitement in the girl’s voice as she exclaims “Isn’t this place so cool? And the coffee tastes so good!” The guy responds in the lamest tone, “Coffee is just bean juice.” John got a real good kick out of that! And to some people, maybe it is, but there are millions of people out there that enjoy it and appreciate it as much as John and I.
Thank You, John
I want to thank John for a one-of-a-kind experience. We ended up talking for two hours, an hour past closing time. This talk was the breakthrough I needed to hear. I have since paid attention to the mugs coffee shops use, the quality of the drinks they serve, and most of all, the appreciation they have for coffee. When you visit, make sure you tell him Spencer says hello.
The bathroom was around that back of the building which makes it kind of difficult if you really have to go. It is shared with the Italian restaurant above called Stoneground Kitchen. Better not forget the code to the door before you get all the way there. It was clean and fully stocked, for this I will rank it an 8/10.