A Passion for Coffee

Barefoot Coffee takes its beans very, very seriously

The experienced nose of artisan roaster Ryan Adams takes a whiff to check on the beans' development.

Photograph by Kyle Chesser

I never thought I was a snob about anything. I eat what I’m offered. I know how to be polite about others’ culinary passions—to nod and smile when they swear that such-and-such is the best fill-in-the-blank they’ve ever tasted. When a friend said, “Barefoot is the best coffee in the valley,” I took it with a grain of salt. I nodded. I smiled. I wasn’t going to judge—yet.

We ventured to Barefoot’s unassuming coffee shop in Santa Clara. One step inside reminded me why this small company is like the friendly neighborhood dog that everybody loves. Their café is filled with eclectic art, unassuming hippie-types writing novels, and brooding teens clustered in comfy, mismatched chairs, having existential conversations over lattes.

That day was when I had my first espresso from Barefoot Coffee. It was rich, velvety, and smooth. It floated over my tongue like a silvery fish shimmying through clouds. It rolled off the back of my tongue, leaving nothing but soft, silky essence and the taste of slightly darker, brooding chocolate. It was a glimmer of a naughty, late-night binge that leaves you secretly pleased, but just a little ashamed.

This is what coffee is supposed to taste like.

I had to meet the source of this addictive concoction. I found Andy Newbom, Catador of Barefoot Coffee, in the middle of a suburban business district in San Jose—a place that looked more like a regular neighborhood than anything eclectic or industrial.

Newbom claims he never really cared for coffee. As a chef, he was one of the “weird ones” who didn’t even enjoy a good shot of espresso. That is, until one moment of pure chance, when he was making his escape from a tradeshow tasting after quaffing 11 cups of espresso. The idea of choking down one more was intolerable, yet he paused at the pleas of a last-stop barista by the exit sign and was peer-pressured into sipping from yet another 4-ounce paper cup. It was then he experienced the sweetness, the darkness, and the astoundingly perplexing epiphany of the perfect espresso.

He literally shouted: “Oh my God—that’s what everyone’s talking about!”

Newbom had to know why. What made that cup of espresso so good, so sweet, so rapturous, where others had failed? His mission was clear.

“I must be the one that makes this!” Newbom said.

Two years passed as Newbom searched for the “why” of great coffee. He moonlighted at a café part-time and eventually wound up at a barista competition. After struggling to master a monstrous espresso machine for nearly four hours, a barista named Bronwyn came to his rescue. Her hands flurried, she bustled about the machine, and even though there was no magic that he could see, the espresso she handed him was perfection.

He had discovered the why: It’s the person who makes it.

“It’s the hand that crafts it,” Newbom says. “If you can take your hands and make something that everybody else makes crappy, and you can make it fantastic—then you get all that ego boost and warm fuzzy satisfaction. I was like—that’s for me.”

And thus began Barefoot Coffee. The entire premise of the company is Newbom’s original discovery—the value of the people who make the coffee.

“Our whole focus is to bring the farmer all the way to the cup. Our value is the people behind the coffee, much more than the processes behind the coffee,” Newbom says.

The company’s labels feature facts about the farmers who grow the beans. Each highlights the farm, the elevation, the varietal, the process, and the region the beans were grown in.

“If you have to add cream, something’s wrong with your coffee,” Newbom says.

“We actually want you to taste the hand of the farmer that grew it. To know that a person grew it, and processed it, and picked it, and … worked the machine at the mill, and loaded it into the truck,” Newbom says.

Barefoot Coffee does all their roasting by hand, with two big roasters. Their processes are so clean that they can claim to be carbon-neutral. Not only are their methods environmentally friendly, they’re reducing the state’s unemployment rate in the process.

“We don’t have any automation machines,” Newbom says. “We could get some different automation systems that would basically get rid of him doing that [as he points to a co-worker] … but we really like him, and he really likes coffee, and he really likes what we do and I’d rather have someone checking on it. And he owns every process he does ... and every bag is perfect. So, basically we’re just paying more for good people.”

This same people-oriented philosophy goes into how the company chooses their beans. “We look for great coffee people at ordinary farms. You find a great coffee person, they’re going to consistently deliver great coffee,” says Newbom.

Geography matters, too. “We always say if you’re buying coffee and it says ‘Guatamala’ on it, and that’s all—then run away. It’s like saying, ‘Where is this wine from?’—‘America’,” Newbom says. “You can taste the difference [from different farms] in the same country.”

Christian Rotsko, Roast Master General of Barefoot Coffee, and Newbom work together to test the chosen beans first on the coffee farms, and again back in San Jose. The process is called “cupping.” At the Barefoot facility, cupping happens in a small room with lab-like coffee equipment.

“Grind a little coffee, pour straight into the cup, wait four minutes, and then you break [stir] it. And then you slurp it in order to aerate the liquor, and cover all your taste buds, and really open it up to get to your olfactory glands,” Rotsko says.

Sitting in for a recent cupping of their latest creation was like eavesdropping on a secret ceremony. Rotsko had traveled to Brazil to choose the final beans, based on the pair’s shared vision of what this new coffee flavor should taste like.

Rotsko and Newbom hovered together intently over small, unmarked glasses filled with the freshly brewed elixir, holding wide, silver spoons in hand to slurp and taste. They slurped, paused, rinsed the spoons, then repeated the ritual, diligently attempting to interpret the dance between taste buds and beans. The ensuing discussion included terms like “vanilla, bright, citrus, dark, earthy, supple, syrup.”

Barefoot Coffee doesn’t make roasts like light, medium, or dark. If you don’t like flavor in your coffee, this may not be for you.

“We don’t have light, we don’t have dark. We just roast right,” Newbom says.

There are many nuances. Coffee, as it turns out, has different moods in different temperatures. Coffee is typically brewed at about 160 degrees at home and 205 degrees in a café. “I don’t like hot coffee. Hot coffee is just a waste,” Newbom says. “You can’t actually taste above 160 degrees. Great coffee tastes even better cool than it does hot.”

And what about those of us who add cream or milk to our coffee?

“If you have to add cream, something’s wrong with your coffee,” Newbom says.

“[There’s this] preconceived notion that coffee is supposed to suck,” Rotsko adds. “Culturally, there’s so much horrible coffee, because nobody even bothers to Google-search how to roast coffee … They think it’s supposed to be this burnt crap, and it’s obviously not.”

In Barefoot’s world, coffee exists on a whole different plain. Barefoot’s coffee is about people, it’s about the environment, and most importantly, it’s about flavor: pure, warm, sultry, and wicked, with twists and turns for every mood, at each temperature—perfectly reflecting the diversity of the land and the people who work so passionately to create it.

Desiree Hedberg, a writer and editor living in Willow Glen, seeks to live a healthy and sustainable lifestyle while co-parenting two toddlers, working as a consultant, and going back to school. She drinks a lot of coffee.

Also read: Perfection in a Cup