By Karen Solomon
WHEN WE SAN Franciscans think of buying fresh roasted coffee beans, our noses tend to lead us to places like Caffe Roma in North Beach, or to an outpost of Peet’s or some similar burnt-batch empire. There are myriad fine places to sit and sip, but when it comes to the backbone of the coffee experience – the beans that shape the body of the brew – only a handful of purveyors roast their own, and fewer still import the right quality and pair it with the perfect processing. Savvy Sunset residents might already be in the know, but not nearly enough people pay homage to the beany wizardry of Henry’s House of Coffee master Henry Kalebjian.
The shop has been percolating just under the radar for 40 years and has been under Kalebjian’s ownership and management since 1982. The Armenian son of a father who roasted his own at their family grocery, Kalebjian roasts as much as 200 pounds a day; that’s enough to supply his three shops in San Francisco and Burlingame, along with a growing national mail-order and wholesale business.
Today I have the pleasure of watching Kalebjian start his morning, as he does six days a week, roasting 15- and 30-pound batches of beans from a revolving menu of about 25 varieties. A kind, crisply dressed, bearded man with his trusty statistical clipboard at his side, he explains that his approach to the roast is “a little bit science-minded.”
In his charming accent, he tells me about the struggle to keep the flavor of the coffee consistent. “You have to pay attention to the air – wet or dry,” he explains. Kalebjian measures the density of every bag of beans and combines this information with the atmospheric pressure and humidity of the day on which it’s roasted. Using his series of formulas, he determines precisely which temperature and time frame are required for the smooth flavor he seeks.
We fire up “the San Franciscan,” the steam engine-sized, 15-year-old roaster in the back of his Noriega Street flagship location. After checking and double-checking that all gauges are set correctly, in goes a batch of Indian – 10 to 12 minutes at 418 degrees for these mellow-bodied, deeply dense beans. The beans brown slowly as they start to whirl around the turbine, then quickly reach a deep toast hue. Kalebjian constantly checks their color, pulling out a sample every 10 to 15 seconds. His obsessive attention, along with the crack of the skins, the rising steam, and the pungent, wonderful perfume in the room, makes the roasting process oddly exciting. Finally, the roast is complete, and the spilling brown beauties pour onto the air-cooling tray en masse in a dizzying swirl. And the process begins again with Sumatran: 12 to 15 minutes at 419 degrees, an increase deemed necessary by Kalebjian’s complex calculations.
Kalebjian’s obsession results in a superior brew worthy of a lengthy ride on the N Judah to purchase. Today the shop is pouring Salvadoran, a smooth, light, yet full-bodied brew with a fruity edge that, like the shop’s other selections, requires no additional sweetening. Kalebjian gives me some beans to try at home too: a perfectly balanced, medium-bodied Bella Finca and a refined Panama La Torcaza, a light roast with a vanilla vibe. “Your mind affects the taste,” Kalebjian insists, noting that his preferences in coffee are as varied as his preferences in food. “I want roundness in the cup, and body that lingers in my mouth after the finish.”
Henry’s House of Coffee sells more French roast than anything else. It’s a bargain at $8.70 a pound. But Kalebjian always enjoys introducing customers to new brews, such as the intensely charactered China Yunan, which is a bit lighter than the French. His repertoire includes several house blends and the predictable Kona and Kenyan beans, as well as more eccentric heritage roasts, including Abyssinia Harrar, Celebes Kalossi, and Costa Rica Terrazu.
What lights Back Burner’s fire is that Henry’s House of Coffee turns out a superior product to a small but appreciative audience. “There’s always room for getting bigger, but I don’t want to be greedy,” the owner says. “I’m not that famous, but I’m happy with what I have.”
Still, at age 63, Kalebjian is looking at the last few drops of his career and thinking about retiring from his tiny coffee operation. The San Francisco shop is going through an extensive remodeling, which should be complete sometime this summer. Kalebjian quips, “If a nice company comes and offers to buy, why not?”
He pauses from his roasting to taste from the fresh pot prepared in-house. I ask how much coffee he drinks a day, but Kalebjian insists that it’s not a matter of cups – that his job is simply to taste. Like a scientist in a white lab coat, he makes certain that the counter help brews the perfect pot every time: 2.2 liters of water to every quarter pound of grind. “I like what I do, and I do a good job. But I constantly check myself to make sure I’m doing the right thing.”
Henry’s House of Coffee. 1618 Noriega (at 23rd Ave.), S.F. (415) 681-9363; 1407 Burlingame (at Primrose), Burlingame. (650) 343-4434; 1243 Howard (at Lorton), Burlingame. (650) 766-1414. www.coffeesf.com.
Contact Karen Solomon at email@example.com.