Though I’m grateful for the destination, I’ve always been more fascinated by the journey. Understanding the path you took to get to this very moment helps you appreciate the destination even more. When I found myself in the world of coffee, I was fascinated by the amount of expertise, history, and craft that is a part of my daily morning beverage.
The coffee journey is an ever-interesting one. Kevin Bohlin, founder of Saint Frank Coffee (clever name, huh?) in San Francisco, shares this with as many people as he can by cultivating meaningful relationships with coffee farmers, brewing the coffee in its best form possible, and sharing the Saint Frank coffee journey with his community.
Today, I’m sitting across from Kevin just in front of his shop, watching the hustle and bustle that is Polk Street on a beautiful Saturday in San Francisco. We’re meeting shortly after he competed in the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Regional Barista Competition, a place where coffee professionals share their skill, love, and mastery of their craft. It was exciting to learn about his recent experience there and the path he took getting into coffee.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, and it was a dramatic contrast to the life I live now. I had no real awareness of food or coffee. I kind of have this obsessive personality, right? If I get interested in something, I want to know more, experience more. When I was in college I started truly enjoying coffee. I went through the same experience that a lot of coffee drinkers have: I bought whole beans from Starbucks and would grind them at home, which led to all my friends considering me a “coffee snob,” which is really funny. Later on, as a wedding gift, we got a cheap, home espresso machine. I was like, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to figure this out.” I started making better drinks than I could get at the local coffee shops. I had a lot of fun with that but it still wasn’t great, but you couldn’t really get anything that great in Texas at this time. I went to grad school and was studying intercultural studies—cultural anthropology—and had a lot of informative experiences. As I was becoming obsessed with coffee, there was a connection with my interest in world cultures. During this time, a friend of mine that was roasting coffee and I started gathering people together around to share our passion for coffee and learning more about it.
What brought you to San Francisco?
I fell in love with San Francisco—with the culture, the food and the diversity. I wanted to be here. I had some amazing coffee experiences that I hadn’t had anywhere else. I would visit Ritual and Blue Bottle for the first time, never had I experienced anything like that. I thought it was the coolest thing. I would go back to Texas and as I was trying to figure out coffee on my own and teach myself, I felt like this little outsider looking in on this fascinating world of coffee. I had this huge perspective into everything—it was this incredible world that I wished I was apart of. Which is so funny.
I moved here in 2010 and I get a job at Ritual. Back in Texas, I was a big fish in a small pond of coffee. That doesn’t mean anything out here. I would hold these events in Dallas of about 30-40 people to teach them what I knew, which wasn’t a lot at that time compared to what I experienced out here. I learned a lot immediately and they wanted me to do the barista competition. I was intimidated, but it became a team effort and I took it as an opportunity to learn as much as possible. I spent time with the roasters, the green buyers, everyone. I wanted to go to the farm of the coffee that I was spending so much time with. So, I made it to finals and after the regional competition, I went to Honduras.
I was drinking from a water hose. Every turn was people with an incredible amount of knowledge, sharing everything. I was hooked. Particularly where coffee is grown you find beautiful people, cultures and experiences in coffee that the producers can show us—but they are really struggling and we don’t often consider them because we think they’re behind. That sort of thinking frustrates me. We can’t have coffee without these people. I wanted both their awareness and ours to go beyond the cash crop and caffeine fix. It’s not just cash for them and it’s not just a caffeine fix for us. There’s something much more beautiful going on.
What is the concept behind Saint Frank Coffee?
For me, I want to open up the community of coffee to more people—from the customer side to the producer side. What we do here is a small sliver of the bigger coffee pie. It’s tiny. The potential for that is to be much bigger. How? More people wanting it, enjoying it, demanding it, drinking it, and that means more producers producing it. But there are coffee producers with the potential to grow this quality all around the world that haven’t had the opportunity, the example, and the access to the resources and knowledge on how to do this, leaving them trapped in that commodity cycle which is quote vicious on how the seed market fluctuates. Oftentimes, coffee farmers are producing coffee at a higher cost than they can sell it—it’s bad because that’s their sole income. I want more people to see coffee as special and delicious, and an experience. The more we do that, the more we connect to producers that do the same thing.
The brain behind the Saint Frank Coffee storefront was in the works before the coffee stand at Public Bikes. I knew I wanted to have a place to serve coffee that was different than what other people had experienced. What we have is quite special—the bar, the experience, the layout—because for me it’s all about opening up that interaction and that connection, also inviting people into our process.
I want more people to see coffee as special and delicious, and an experience.
It’s the idea of inclusivity.
Yes. That’s exactly what we’re doing. The prototype of the espresso machine, first of its kind, is in the shop—I didn’t care if it was cool or not—I wanted it to fit in our vision and purpose. I see this as an incredible experience to connect more people though coffee.
Tell me about your interesting coffee experiments.
I want coffee to be seen more special than the caffeine fix. We can do more things with it that shows and illustrates how special it is and treat it with that attention and care. That means everything that touches it, everything that’s around it, needs to be special and good.
Is this why you’re making almond milk in house?
It’s kind of a recent thing to get off of the soy and move to almond, and that’s because soy tastes terrible with coffee. Almond is a more harmonious flavor. Anything that we’re doing with the coffee should be creative and have synergy with the coffee. It has to work. Milk and almond milk are harmonious with coffee. So, we use these. We started playing with what we could do on our own and what we could do on our own is much better. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it because the coffee tastes better in that milk than it does in anything else. We’re controlling the quality of our ingredients. We’re playing with different recipes and ratios of nuts and water, how much sugar and salt. This is more natural, the recipes work, it’s delicious, and it’s fresh because we make it every day.
I’ve noticed your new espresso and tonic beverage on ice. How did this come about?
We have this great community with the chefs and bartenders and we have a lot of fun. What kind of fun can we have with this in ways that really work? We don’t use chocolaty espressos with the tonic, we use fruity espresso because it has a citrus quality to it—it’s tasty and refreshing. I think it’s the most delicious thing on our menu. It’s a coffee soda in the greatest way.
How about that signature beverage at the Big Western regional competition this year?
It was such a blast working with Chef Andrea at Verbena across the street on the signature drink. It’s this whole other world of high cuisine that I had no idea about when I was in Texas. Andrea has this world experience and she’s a kindred spirit because she loves coffee and wants to learn about it. The food world and this neighborhood is definitely influential.
If you’re going to play with other ingredients it needs to make sense both in flavor and I like to have an outside connection that adds a layer of depth or meaning. The part of Honduras that I first visited is my favorite because it’s tied the to relationships. There’s this flavor and aroma that tends to show up in the coffee of that area of Honduras. It can range from juniper, to pine, to fir, and other herbaceous qualities that work with the coffee in this unique, beautiful way. For the signature beverage, there was this long unfolding process that happened. It just popped for me one day when I was having a cocktail at La Folie lounge with a Douglas fir Lacquer. I started researching and knew we could get some new growth tips. I needed to get out into nature and I took about 3 hours and left the café up to drive up Highway 1 to Mount Tam. I found these beautiful, bright green tips that were sprouting on new growth trees up there. It smelled incredible and they had an acidity to them—a lemongrass quality—that added to the complexity. The deeper layer? When I went hiking for the fir, it looked and felt like the coffee farm, Las Nieves, in Honduras. Here I am in Northern California on a foggy day and it feels like tropical Honduras. We almost named the farm Montana Peligrosa, “Danger Mountain”, because whenever we go it’s muddy, cold, and super steep. It’s not that beautiful, sunny, tropical experience that you might expect. That was another tie in that I looked for was to have that that Alpine quality that I think of. It’s very special to me. All of the flavors worked with the coffee, the rhubarb jam, and the fir ice cream. We plated the signature drink as to create a perfect journey of the flavors—beginning and finishing with coffee. The sequencing of the flavor experience goes: coffee, rhubarb, fir, rhubarb, coffee. So fun.
Finally, do you think Saint Frank will ever expand beyond Northern California?
That’s a tough call because it’s always a challenge to maintain your quality and your vision. I would say that if we did that, it would be a very different approach. The more you grow the more dependent you become on large farms, estates, cooperatives, and then all of a sudden you aren’t able to maintain the relationship with the little guys that you are trying to help and develop. I don’t want to lose that part of my vision. If we were to grow it would only be where new locations and new opportunities have their own coffees. You can’t keep the same degree as particular connection. This particularity is very important to me.
Saint Frank Coffee
2340 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA