The Bitter Fight For Decaf Coffee in San Francisco

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As someone who is, unapologetically, pushed far away from caffeine — my heart condition doesn’t limit me from trying to quest out the other alternatives. But from where I stand, San Francisco has a vendetta against decaffeination and I’m dumbfounded.

So what is my heart condition? Well, little is known about it but the most I can gather from the three generations of my family who also have it (namely my mother and my grandmother). Most individuals consuming moderate amounts will experience few, if any, negative side effects. Caffeine may increase heart rate, body temperature, blood flow to the skin & extremities, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, stomach acid secretion and production of urine (diuretic).

For myself, I experience a winded kind of sensation when I ingest caffeine and maybe it’s for the better. I’ve learned to cope with other substances such as milk tea, actual tea, water, juices, non-caffeinated sodas. As for my family, when they visit, they are tried and true decaf coffee drinkers. Their daily ritual involves my mother coming home from work, driving to my grandmother’s house, having a cup or two of decaf coffee and working on a puzzle.

Just like an addiction to cigarettes or late night television, these two stick to the cups of creme infused decaf coffee every single day. So when came time for a visit to the golden state, the search for a single cup became a challenge. The day would start with breakfast — parked and rolled up into a cute breakfast spot in the Western Additions district (*and not too out anyone — I will be naming all names. Yeah, you heard me.) We sit down and immediately they both want a cup, fair enough, they’ve gone a day and a half without their fix. We order, they ask, and the cute waiter replies, “Ok, no problem.” We wait 20 minutes and out comes the holy water known as their decaf. One sip and down for the count my Grandmother goes — “Is this caffeinated?” she asks, the waiters reply, “Yes, isn’t that what you wanted?” “Absolutely not” she replies. We all switch to Sprite and keep on with our day.

As we made our way around, doing the exploring that every tourist wants — we find ourselves camped outside of the General Store on Judah absorbing the breeze for the ocean. Then sparks the idea, “Hey Anth, could you get me and your grandma a decaf?” I, of course, reply “sure, I’ll go to Trouble Coffee next door.” BIG MISTAKE. I was met with the most stank side-eye this side of the Bay, “we only serve caffeine…” I ask, “I’m sorry?” “We don’t do decaf.” I just walk out without saying a word and proceed to tell them that a coffee shop doesn’t serve decaf coffee. Again, met with major side eye from my family.

We proceed again with our day void of any decaf in our bellies. As dinner time rolls around, we head to Burger Bar it’s a tourist trap, to say the least, but that window seat would easily impress whoever you’re with. As we make our orders and spend way too much on frilly meats, my grandmother blurts our to our waitress, “do you have Folgers?* (*A generic coffee brand.)” The waitress replies with, “what? Sorry?” “Do you have Folgers decaf coffee, that’s what I want,” “Sorry ma’am, we don’t. But I can get you decaf.” She agrees begrudgingly. A moment later the coffee comes out on a platter with milk, sugar, and whatever and what have you. As she takes a sip, a little lick of the lips and replies, “this is espresso” to my mother’s reply, “probably burnt or reheated coffee…” You can’t seem to win.

The morning my family left, we decided to grab a hardy brunch before their flight back to Washington — where decaf is highly served. We sit down at The Corner Store SF on Masonic and start scanning the menu. We see only a regular black coffee option and as my grandmother likes to be her loud mouth self without hesitation, “do you guys have Folgers? Or any decaf coffee?” — “sorry ma’am, we don’t serve decaf…” she slaps her hands down on the table, “I’ll take a green tea” to my mother’s reply, “same.” It seems they lost the war on caffeine this time around.

And finally, the reckoning — as we make our final pit stops, I said, “let’s pop into Mazarine Cafe - they must decaf here.” I approach the counter preparing for a verbal showdown, “can I get one hot chocolate, and… two… decaf coffees?” The cashier takes a quick look at me and quickly spots my hesitation, “were you expecting me to say no?” He saw the strain in my brow as I uttered the words ‘decaf coffee’. “Well, yes — we’re been having a hard time trying to find a place that serves sold decaf without a fight.” “Well, we take pride in our decaf coffee, for here or to go.” The bells and whistles went into a full dramatic climax as I informed the family that yes, we would be getting our decaf fix.

So tell me, San Francisco, why no decaf?


This is an open letter that engages conversation. Written by Anthony Rogers, coffee illustration by Tim Tomkinson, San Francisco illustration by Peter Glanting

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