RWC Locals: An Interview with Bliss Coffee

Photos by  Natalie Whearley .  Bliss Coffee co-owner, Jimmy Huang, behind the register.

Photos by Natalie Whearley.  Bliss Coffee co-owner, Jimmy Huang, behind the register.

We have been huge fans of Bliss Coffee since they opened their doors on Broadway last year. So naturally, we were excited to sit down and chat with Jimmy Huang, who owns the coffee shop with his partner, Kevin Lei. They opened Bliss with the aim of bringing the best of craft coffee to the Peninsula with a rotating tap of local coffee roasters and simple, honest ingredients. The inviting, modern coffee shop is a haven for local creatives in need of an inspiring place to work. And the outdoor seating offers a lovely place to sit and catch up with friends over the best latte in town. We spent some time chatting with Jimmy about the movement behind craft coffee, staying true to their values, and how to experiment with making the perfect cup at home.

So how did you get started in the world of craft coffee?
(Laughs) It’s interesting. I wasn’t really that into coffee in the beginning and then my wife kind of got me into it. I had this really good latte from Blue Bottle. Once I tasted that, I was like “Oh wow!” I hadn’t tried anything that tasted like that. You grow up drinking coffee and you put in tons of milk and tons of sugar. I never got into coffee because I thought you had to add so much to it to make it drinkable.

After that, I started going to other coffee shops in the city and was like, “Wow, this is amazing!” People should really know about this kind of coffee. At the time, I was working in Redwood City and I looked around and realized that there weren’t a whole lot of these craft coffee places here. And I thought, “You know what? It would be kind of fun to open one here and see if people like it as much as they do in San Francisco.” So that’s kind of how I got started.

My business partner, Kevin Lei, who is also my brother-in-law, was into coffee, and started to get into it a little more. He used to be in construction, and was like, “You know what? Why don’t we do something together?” So now we had a construction guy who could work on the shop, and I set up the business stuff. We were both at a point in our careers where we wanted to try something new and different.

What inspired you to start Bliss?
We just want to make really good coffee. Craft coffee hasn’t been around very long. Intelligentsia and Stumptown have been around for about 20 years. Blue Bottle is huge in San Francisco, but they have been around less than 15 years. It’s a new phenomenon. There is a new way of doing coffee. It's a product that is centuries old, and yet it seems like there’s a whole new renaissance in it. There is so much to learn and no one really has it figured out yet. So I thought it would be a very interesting industry to get into: for one, because people love coffee; and two, there’s this new wave of thinking that you can change something that’s old and make it so new and refreshing. I think that’s really fun.

I was doing a little bit of research last night, and read about James Friedman from Blue Bottle and how he imported this crazy machine from Japan. We just have a Chemex at home, but it seems like there are so many ways to make coffee these days.
That guy really inspired me. I read his book before I started the shop. James Friedman really laid the groundwork in San Francisco. Before, the way he did coffee was really controversial, but he just kept at it until people started to realize the quality. At Blue Bottle, they don’t do espresso to go. They don’t do iced lattes. They don’t grind beans for the customers because they want people to go home and grind it themselves. He really held true to those values, and I can’t imagine how hard that must have been.

When we opened the shop we had a lot of requests as well and it was hard because you don’t want to turn customers away, but at the same time you want to stand behind what you think makes great coffee. So you always have that conflict. But because he laid the groundwork, people are more familiar with the concepts of craft coffee. He made it a lot easier for shops like us.

Jimmy and his baristas working their magic behind the bar.

Jimmy and his baristas working their magic behind the bar.

In that vein, is there anything you won’t serve or that you try to stay away from?
We don’t offer a large size coffee. At first we just had the standard 12 oz. size, but then we added a 16 oz. size. A lot of our customers wanted a bigger drink. In craft coffee, the size is one of the main criticisms: “It’s so small and so expensive!” But there’s a good reason why. For example, when a cappuccino is 8 oz. the espresso to milk ratio is exactly right. And we make the espresso so it will show up well in the cappuchino. If you offer a cappuccino that’s 20 oz. with the same proportion, but more shots, the ratio is completely off.

Every morning when we come in, we calibrate all the machines so the espresso tastes the way we want it to taste, and if there’s any slight variation you need to recalibrate the machine. Everything with craft coffee is measured out specifically and you have to follow that formula in order to get the right taste. Throughout the day, you have to constantly change that formula because the coffee beans change throughout the day, due to the temperature and humidity. The barista needs to keep checking the grinder, the espresso machine, the extraction time, and how much coffee they are using.

A lot of people don’t realize how much is involved. They think you just press a button and the coffee comes out. There’s so much that goes on in the background to make the espresso consistently taste good. And we are still learning. The way I look at it, we’re always trying our best to improve what we’re doing. There is always room for improvement. And that’s something that when I got into it, I thought was really fascinating. Because you don’t want to do something that’s really easy to master. You want to do something where there is a lot of room for you to learn.

We both worked at Starbucks back in the day and basically pressed a button. A lot has changed!
Starbucks did a really good job getting people into coffee. We serve craft coffee, which is also called third wave coffee. The second wave was your Starbucks and Peet’s. The first wave was Folger’s and like coffee in a can. Before Starbucks came along, most people in the U.S. were drinking pre-ground coffee. Then Starbucks came along and did a great job at convincing everybody that espresso is a great tasting product too. And they were one of the first to grind the beans and serve fresh coffee. They did a really good job of converting everybody. The third wave came along and took it a step further. Now you know exactly where the beans are sourced, how the coffee is roasted in smaller batches, how they scientifically control the preparation of the coffee. This is kind of where coffee has been evolving to.

Cliff enjoying a cup of coffee. Artwork by the Kuriosity Lab and Bliss barista Anna Kachelries hang behind him.

Cliff enjoying a cup of coffee. Artwork by the Kuriosity Lab and Bliss barista Anna Kachelries hang behind him.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you designed the space? And how you work with artists to display their work?
When it comes to artists, me, myself, I’m not really an art guy. I don’t claim to know that much about art. When we opened, I really struggled with what to put on the walls. I was really excited to learn about the Kuriosity Lab and what they are trying do. It’s a really small local non-profit and the director [Mark Gordon] is a customer here. We started talking and I learned about what they are doing. He showed me some pictures they took with kids and how they were experimenting with light. What they found is that when you play with light, you can get kids to be more interested in math and science. I thought that was a really cool story and wanted to post the pictures on the wall, with a note next to them to let other people know what the Lab does. There is also a note on the counter so people can learn more about them. It’s something that I personally understand and can get behind.

And lately, we posted some other paintings that were done by one of my baristas [Anna Kachelries]. I can get behind that. She also did the menu and drew all the iced coffee drinks. The other pictures by the register are by one of our customers. I try to go for things that I can connect with.

In terms of designing the space, we looked at a lot of coffee shops in San Francisco. Third wave coffee shop design really focuses on the coffee. More traditional coffee shops will have a ton of products on display. They’ll have an ice box with yogurt, sandwiches, salads, and everything. And then along the countertop they will have bars and candy and things. So when we designed our shop, we just wanted people to come here and know this is all we do: coffee. We don’t do anything else. We don’t do sandwiches. We don’t do soup. We don’t prepare any food in house. I want my baristas to be able to focus on just the coffee.

When you come into the shop, after ordering your coffee, you walk down and can see the beautiful espresso machine and the grinder. You can also see everything in the back. You can see exactly what we’re doing. It’s kind of the open kitchen concept. We wanted people to know that their espresso is being prepared by somebody.

So people can see all the preparation, and that goes with the whole third wave craft coffee scene and traceability. You know exactly where the beans come from, how they are roasted, and you can see exactly how the coffee is prepared. There are no secrets: we can tell you the recipe, how many grams of coffee we use, and the temperature. If a customer wants to find out, we'll tell them everything. So it’s completely transparent.

The espresso bar features a beautiful, curvaceous La Marzocco Strada. 

The espresso bar features a beautiful, curvaceous La Marzocco Strada. 

You do have one of the most beautiful espresso machines I’ve ever seen. Is there a reason why you chose it?
The La Marzocco brand is kind of the king of espresso machines. Some of their older models have been the workhorse of the industry. When we wanted to open the coffee shop, this model, the Strada had just come on the market and we just loved the design of it. A lot of the older machines are a little more bulky, like a giant box. This one has a little more curve and is a little more aerodynamic. I don’t know why you would need it to be aerodynamic, but it has more curve and design to it. A lot of times, the espresso machine is behind the counter so you don’t really see it or it’s blocked. But I thought it would look really great to showcase it right on top of the counter.

How do you choose the local roasters you work with?
There are so many great local roasters in San Francisco and around the Bay Area. We chose ones where we just like the coffee. We work with Four Barrel because we really like the coffee, and it’s also very unique. Four Barrel coffee, like the espresso straight up, is very fruity. It’s almost like a cocktail. There’s a punch of a bunch of different fruit flavors. It’s one of a kind. We tried Verve Coffee at a coffee convention. We had a macchiato there that my business partner and I absolutely loved. And their coffee is a bit more chocolatey, so it gives a good contrast between chocolate and fruity. Not everyone likes fruity espresso, so we also have the more traditional chocolate flavor.

Along the way, we also found out about Temple Coffee, which is a roaster in Sacramento. The way they roast their coffee is so unique, you can notice the difference just by smelling it. The other coffee we carry is Chromatic, which is a roaster in San Jose. Their coffee flavor profile is very nutty.

Every coffee that we pick has a very unique flavor profile that stands out, so people can try these different roasters and taste the difference in how they roast their beans. There are so many local roasters who are doing a great job. You don’t need to go to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, San Jose. You can taste them all in Redwood City.

And you have them on a rotating tap?
We always have Four Barrel as the anchor beans. We worked with them to open our shop, so we always have their beans as our anchor. And for our guest roaster, we’ll change every two week. So right now it’s Temple, but if you come tomorrow it will be Chromatic.

Do you sell beans too?
We do. We don’t have a huge rack, but we do pack a few bags for people to buy.

Bliss sells beans from their rotating tap of coffee roasters. 

Bliss sells beans from their rotating tap of coffee roasters. 

With so many ways to brew coffee these days, can you share how you make the perfect cup.
If you’re making coffee at home, there are a few things you can do to improve on the quality. The grinder is actually really important, but it can be really expensive. If you want a really nice one, it can be around $200 and then it goes up from there. Definitely get a weight scale that measures in grams. They’re only $20 something, so that’s affordable.

You don’t have to have the most expensive gear though, you just need to experiment and play around with the coffee. Measure how much coffee you grind every time and then really think through your whole process. When you’re making coffee at home, you’ll want to keep all your variables constant, and then you can change one variable at a time. So you’ll probably always heat the water on the stove, that’s probably not going to change, so that’s always constant. If you’re always going to let it sit for two minutes because you need to use the restroom (because that’s more important!) then do that, and leave that constant. However much water you put in there, leave that constant.

So what do you change? You can change the grind size. Grind it coarser next time. Grind it finer next time. And find the correct grind size for whatever you’re doing at home that works for you. This way you can experiment with it and find your own perfect recipe and stick with that.

When you’re making coffee at home it should be a relaxing experience, not something that you stress about. So always try to think about the whole ritual you go through when making coffee. Keep everything constant and just think about changing one variable at a time. And then see how did that change the taste of the coffee? If you try to change multiple variables every time, you won’t be able to tell what made the coffee tasted that way.

Do you have any favorite gear that you use at home?
I actually don’t drink that much coffee at home because I spend so much time at the shop. I recently got my father an electric grinder. He uses the stovetop coffee maker, that’s like an espresso maker. He used to drink coffee from Costco, and now I’m starting to get him into craft coffee. I’m from China and not that many people from China drink coffee. I think my dad is an exception. He loves the Gibralter. It’s kind of mind boggling that even he could change.

Bliss Baristas are well versed in latte art. The best part? They taste amazing too. 

Bliss Baristas are well versed in latte art. The best part? They taste amazing too. 

So the first thing I tried when I came here was the Nutella Latte. And I thought it was just so simple, and so genius! Can you tell us a little more about the ingredients you use in your lattes and cold brews? Do you make everything in house?
A lot of the ingredients we use are really simple. For the Nutella lattes, we just get the Nutella spread and put the espresso right in the Nutella. We use Clover Milk since it’s a local dairy. Our coffee is all local. When we make our syrup, like our vanilla bean syrup, we just use three ingredients. We use the actual vanilla bean pods, brown sugar, and water, and that’s it. So you know exactly what goes into the syrup, as opposed to syrup that has like a paragraph long list of ingredients. Same thing with the lavender: we use lavender, sugar, and water, and that’s it. For our mocha, our chocolate comes from TCHO in San Francisco. They make really, really good chocolate. They have a whole traceability thing like coffee. You can see exactly where the cocoa beans come from. We just try to keep it simple.

Do you personally have any favorite hangouts around town?
I like to go to Aly’s on Main. I know the chef, he comes over here for coffee sometimes. It’s a very laid back environment and the food is amazing. The chef is huge on local. He makes his own burgers and will grind up the meat himself and make his own patties. He makes his own ketchup. Everything there is organic, locally produced, traceable. I love going there in there to get some food and a lesson in locally sourced food. They also have a really nice cocktail bar.

Is there anything else you want to share or that you want people in Redwood City to know about you guys?
Come and try the coffee! It’s very different. Some people come in here and wonder why the coffee tastes so different, and I encourage them to talk to our baristas and ask them, “Hey, what’s going on with this coffee here? Why does it taste like fruit? Or chocolate?” Just talk to them and learn about what’s going on in the craft coffee scene. I’d love for people to come in here and talk to us. We love learning from our customers too. We like to learn as much as we can, but we never talk down to anybody. We try to be coffee nerds, but not coffee snobs.

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RWC Locals is focused on local businesses and the people who run them. We believe that small businesses add so much vibrancy and character to the city and are a huge part of what makes Redwood City such a wonderful place to live. We are looking forward to meeting more folks around town and supporting their work and business. If you know of a business you would like to see featured, let us know!