10 Most Exciting Coffee Drinks to Try in the Bay Area

From a maple-infused cold brew to a chocolate affogato
October 31, 2017
by Trevor Felch

Baristas around the Bay are looking far past the customary espresso, cappuccino, latte, drip and iced coffee menu these days. From a nitro cold brew at Sightglass or Contraband's Iced Separator (a clever espresso and coconut milk concoction) to warm options like Four Barrel's "Slow Bar" pours, here are the region's 10 most buzz-worthy drinks.

One and One at Verve

Why it’s amazing: The Santa Cruz roaster serves a unique menu option at its Castro cafe for the indecisive and/or curious ($3.75): An espresso shot is split in half and served both on its own and with some milk in a demitasse for a concoction similar to a cortado. It’s a great chance to see how milk affects a perfectly pulled espresso shot.  

Perfect pairing: Verve gets its baked goods from Manresa Bread. You can’t go wrong with anything in the case but we can’t stop ordering the standout kouign-amann. Also, the avocado toast on levain bread is on point for the genre.  

Know before you go: The breakfast and lunch menu concludes at the odd hour of 1 PM.  

2101 Market St.; 415-780-0867

Snowy Plover at Andytown

Why it’s amazing: It's an Instagram sensation in the Outer Sunset — a dollop of thick homemade whipped cream nestled atop a cool, fizzy mix of espresso, brown sugar syrup and sparkling water — but the Snowy Plover ($4.75) is just as refreshing to sip. Think root beer float for coffee lovers.

Perfect pairing: Andytown bakes its own cookies, muffins and scones. However, it’s all about the homemade Irish soda bread served with butter, jam and Irish white cheddar.

Know before you go: You can order the whipped cream on a mocha if you’re not in the mood for this cold, bubbly drink.

3655 Lawton St.; 415-753-9775

Turkish cappuccino at Zombie Runner

Why it’s amazing: Don’t think of this spicy and tangy cappuccino ($5) at the quirky Palo Alto running store–coffee roaster as just another dirty chai. It’s an eight-ounce cappuccino that replaces milk with housemade chai — and makes you wonder why cappuccinos ever use regular milk. If you’re feeling under the weather, this is a cold-fighting pick-me-up.

Perfect pairing: No food is served, but there are dozens of unique granola bars, dark chocolates and licorice candies to snack on.  

Know before you go: The kiosk has one of the Bay Area’s most creative menus with the likes of Zombieproof coffee (with coconut oil and milk) and a nitro cold brew infused with hops.

429 California Ave., Palo Alto; 650-325-2048

Nitro cold brew at Sightglass Divisadero

Why it’s amazing: Sightglass finally joined the nitro cold brew generation at its latest coffee shop in NoPa. The gorgeous, wood and tile-heavy space invites lingering sans laptop (no Wi-Fi) for its full-bodied cold brew on nitro tap ($4.50). It has a perfectly frothy top and a smooth hazelnut-forward taste. Bring a book and stay a while.

Perfect pairing: The Divisadero cafe is pastry-heaven. Opt for a Neighbor Bakehouse pistachio croissant filled with raspberry jam or b.Patisserie peanut butter cookie. If you’re hungrier, order the mini ham on brioche sandwich from Piccino

Know before you go: If you want an iced coffee with a less-bitter profile, Sightglass also has a special vanilla cold brew on ice.  

301 Divisadero St.; 415-522-0112

Maplewood cold brew at Provender

Why it’s amazing: After a 15-hour steeping process that makes it exceedingly strong, this tiny Potrero Hill cafe’s cold brew made from Andytown beans is blended with maple syrup ($4) and topped off with plenty of milk to cut through the caffeine blast. The result is subtly sweet and smoky — with an umami kick from the maple.

Perfect pairing: Don’t miss the avocado toast with sous vide egg.

Know before you go: It’s hard to imagine that the compact kitchen has enough space to do any baking, but the cafe somehow churns out some tasty treats. Definitely try the terrific black sesame-banana bread and giant thin-style chocolate chip cookies speckled with sea salt.

1415 18th St.; 415-685-1722

Almond-macadamia nut milk cortado, cappuccino or latte at Saint Frank

Why it’s amazing: The nut milk trend hasn’t been a particularly delicious one (with countless bland or overly sweet milks from cashews, almonds and other nuts). Luckily, this spotless Polk Gulch cafe and its recently opened SoMa sibling offers a delicious exception. Whether you prefer a cortado, a cappuccino or a latte, the housemade almond-macadamia nut milk’s mix of sweet and earthy notes is something special.

Perfect pairing: The pastry case often has a locally made haute version of an Oreo with a thick middle layer of cream sandwiched between soft, pancakelike chocolate cookies.

Know before you go: For one of the city’s most intense coffee experiences, try one of the tasting flights with four different single-origin coffees.

2340 Polk St.; 415-775-1619

Iced Separator at Contraband Coffee

Why it’s amazing: Sure, the specialty drink ($5.25) of the Lower Nob Hill–SoMa duo has a pretty catchy name and happens to be dairy-free. More importantly, it’s a sweet and rich blend of espresso, coconut water, almond milk, coconut cream and honey that actually is kind of healthy. All of those ingredients are shaken together and served on ice with a cinnamon-dusted garnish for a chilled creation that tastes like an autumnal piña colada.

Perfect pairing: The muffinlike buttery Hawaiian mochi baked by Sam’s Patisserie in Berkeley are outrageous.

Know before you go: The 12-ounce Iced Separator has one espresso shot and the 16-ounce version includes two espresso shots. Our recommendation is that the latter is superior.

1415 Larkin St.; 415-839-7388

Slow bar pour-over coffee at Four Barrel

Why it’s amazing: When it’s time to nerd out on pour-over coffee, there’s really one destination to know about — the eternally chic Mission roaster and cafe’s midday “slow bar.” It resides to the left of the entrance, where a barista will teach you more than you ever imagined about single-origin beans from Ethiopia, Columbia and many other coffee-growing regions (generally around $5 to $7). Oh, we should mention that you’ll also get to enjoy one of the most robust, complex cups of coffee in SF at the end of the lesson and performance.

Perfect pairing: If any of Dynamo’s creatively flavored donuts are sitting in the pastry case, it’s all but mandatory to order one.

Know before you go: Four Barrel’s espresso is very love-it-or-hate-it. It’s the brightest, most citrus-flavored espresso served by any of SF’s major third-wave roasters.

375 Valencia St.; 415-896-4289

Off-menu affogato at Paradise Park Cafe 

Why it’s amazing: The recently opened spot at the Oakland-Emeryville border from the Park Cafe Group gives a traditional affogato the sundae-style multi-toppings treatment with this off-menu item ($6). Vanilla ice cream isn’t just served with a thick shot of Equator espresso — you'll find accompanying demitasses filled with homemade chocolate and caramel sauces. Enjoy everything on its own or pour it all together — no matter what, it’ll be fun and delicious.

Perfect pairing: Have some more ice cream — with the ice cream burrito. Yes, it’s ice cream wrapped in a flour tortilla and flash-fried in a tapioca batter. 

Know before you go: Some of the most exciting dishes at the restaurant are seasonal specials, like pumpkin tacos for autumn. They’re not off-menu like the affogato but you do need to look away from the regular menu board to find them.

6334 San Pablo Ave., Oakland; 510-756-3131

Islay Campfire at Nopa

Why it’s amazing: Coffee cocktails in SF aren’t limited to Irish coffee. Nopa has an intensely smoky dessert sipper blending espresso with Araku (a rum and coffee liqueur) and Ardbeg scotch ($11). It’s deftly balanced, taming the bitterness of the espresso and peaty scotch with the Araku's lush texture and mochalike taste. One word of warning since this drink is usually consumed after sunset — you will be wired for hours afterwards.

Perfect pairing: Try one of the desserts from pastry chef and 30 Under 30 winner Hannah Ziskin, like spiced quince granita with cardamom rose ice cream and coconut-pecan streusel.

Know before you go: For a simpler and less high-octane dinner digestif, try the shakerato with Sambuca and espresso.

560 Divisadero St.; 415-864-8643

cold brew
nitro coffee
third wave