Only 100 miles south of Oregon, Humboldt County often has more in common with our Pacific Northwest neighbors than the 40 million sun-loving residents of Cali. We wear plaid unironically, revel in rain and find any excuse to drink another cup of coffee. Instead of sports rivalries, locals pledge their allegiance to a particular coffee shop. And for rural folks who depend on home brew — or anyone with a firm grasp on personal economics — loyalties often lie with a particular roast or blend. To understand how the perfect Humboldt cup is crafted, we went beyond the baristas to learn more about three classic Humboldt roasters.

Humboldt Bay Coffee Company

A Humboldt legacy brand, the Humboldt Bay Coffee Company has been located in Old Town for 27 years. Self-identified coffee nerds Thomas Carter and Luci Ramirez purchased the business in 2013 and have continued to expand their caffeinated hold on Humboldt and the entire West Coast. By focusing on roasting alone — there is no proprietary café — HBCC is singularly devoted to bean quality.

While you can't order a $5 soy cappuccino, a crew of suspiciously upbeat employees welcomes visitors daily at the retail store at 527 Third St. There, you'll find a fresh pot of the featured coffee of the day, which guests are welcome to sample. After confessing to Ramirez that I frequently pop in to sneak a taste, she tells me, "We encourage that sort of thing."

With a fanatical devotion to quality and organics, Ramirez buys green (unroasted) beans from a number of small farmers in Latin America. While cupping score and taste are most important, all HBCC coffees are either USDA Organic or sustainably grown by producers too small to pay for certification. If you're looking for the freshest coffee available, Ramirez recommends scheduling a tasting at HBCC's roasting facility at 526 Opera Alley. There, the roasters frequently host senior groups, field trips and coffee club members. While large groups and personal tastings should be scheduled in advance, passersby can watch live roasting through the window — an activity best enjoyed with fresh cup of coffee.

click to enlarge OTCC's storefront. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • OTCC's storefront.

Old Town Coffee & Chocolates

A coffee shop so iconic to Old Town Eureka they share a name, Old Town Coffee & Chocolates has fueled Humboldt with fresh roasted coffee and gourmet espresso drinks for 16 years. A gathering place for study groups and community meetings, OTCC, as it's sometimes known, is an expansive café that many consider the hub of Old Town. Co-owners Cathy Kunkler and Gail Mentink purchased the business in 2002, retaining the focus on fresh roasted coffee, but adding "so much more," says Kunkler.

"We get artists and writers who come in, kids doing their homework. It's nice because it's a quiet space but also a community space," explains barista Dyllen Anderson. The everyone-is-welcome vibes are the direct result of how the café has served the community over the years. In addition to helping local organizations raise money through personalized coffee or fudge fundraisers, OTCC stays open late to provide an all-ages space for people sit and talk over coffee — and maybe a dark chocolate truffle.

"Our children have grown up hanging out and working here," says Kunkler. "Now they bring their grandchildren in. I've had customers tell me that while deciding where to move, they chose Eureka because of OTCC. It means so much to us," adds Kunkler.

Signature Coffee

Roasted in Southern Humboldt for 30 years, Signature Coffee has been the brew of choice for those seeking quality organic coffees since 1988. Located a few minutes off U.S. Highway 101 in sunny Redway, the Signature Roastery & Visitors Center is a destination for tourists and a neighborhood coffee shop for locals.

Focusing exclusively on drip-style coffee, owner Karyn Lee-Thomas explains they fear the sweet and creamy trappings of espresso drinks would dilute the nuance of their coffees. Roasting only certified organic beans, Lee-Thomas is also passionate about buying fair-trade coffee, a regulated term that means farmers are paid a just wage. In 2003, Lee-Thomas traveled to Nicaragua and visited farms with Women in Coffee, re-committing her business model to the financial, ecological and social bottom lines. Today, nearly all of Signature's coffee bear the Fair-Trade label.

Lee-Thomas's personal cup of choice is Sumatra, a medium roast often served in the line-up of coffees available daily at Signature. After leaving the corporate world and the Bay Area behind, Lee-Thomas and her husband David have never stopped appreciating the beauty of Southern Humboldt living. "We've got redwoods but we've also got breweries and coffee, cannabis and good cheese," says Lee-Thomas. "On top of all our natural beauty."

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Nora Mounce

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