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Original roast

Luciano Repetto doesn’t have an ironic mustache, he won’t make you a latte, and that’s OK.

By Tom Molanphy

Much like app developers and million-dollar studio apartments, artisan coffee roasters are a signature item in San Francisco these days. But contrary to popular belief, getting your cuppa’ Joe from a barista who looks like Rollie Fingers in skinny jeans isn’t a always the best indicator of quality. And despite these folks’ attitudes at times, they did not, in fact, invent coffee itself.

In a crowded market filled with java slingers striving for “authenticity,” one of the world’s premier roasters does what it does best—consistently, quietly, right under our noses.

Walk into Graffeo in North Beach, and the options are supremely simple. No “merch,” no CDs, no T-shirts for sale, no 23-minute wait for a cup (in fact, no cups at all), just a plain black sign that reads like a coffee liberation manifesto: Dark Roast. Light Roast. Water-Processed Decaf. $18/lb.

With its antiseptically clean marble counter and sparsely decorated cream walls mirroring its simple mission, Graffeo will refresh those who drink coffee to stay awake. But five minutes with the longtime owner, 72-year-old Luciano Repetto, will reward those who drink coffee to feel alive.

“Anything done well is an art,” Repetto says. “But coffee roasting is first a science served by technology.”
You don’t come to Graffeo for a cup of coffee—or a salad. You come for the best beans in town, Arabica beans picked from Colombia, Costa Rica, and New Guinea and roasted daily on-site.

Like his sparkling store and simple mission, Luciano Repetto is a lean man with the sharp features of a thoughtful physician. When asked in detail about his passion, Repetto remains as straightforward as the beans he loves to roast. He doesn’t take vacations, has no heir upon whom to bestow his business, and he spends his days at either his store in North Beach or its sister location in San Rafael.

Graffeo is simple and efficient because the company maintains the simple and efficient mission that the original Giovanni Graffeo established in 1935 at the same location, 735 Columbus. That philosophy was passed on to Repetto’s father, Giovanni Repetto in 1954, when he bought the business from Graffeo. Luciano took over for his father in 1978 and carries the mission to Graffeo every day on his seven-block walk from his Nob Hill home: Perfectly roast the best coffee beans. Period.

Repetto is reluctant to comment on any of the coffee trends in the area. “What we do here is unique,” says Repetto. “All we do is roast beans.”

In other words, in contrast to the hectic rush to reinvent coffee, Repetto’s philosophy would mirror Coco Chanel’s philosophy if his art was clothes and not coffee: Fashion fades, only style remains the same.

His style is grounded in his Italian heritage, and it’s not difficult to trace the world’s current infatuation with coffee back to what the Italians brought, namely espresso and cappuccino.

“Espresso will always be my favorite. The method of extraction is so precise and severe, the bean can have no faults,” he says.

What really opens up Repetto is the jubilant entrance of longtime customer Suzanne Klotz, a Russian Hill resident who has enjoyed Graffeo since the early 1990s but took a short coffee-hiatus during recent travels in India. She’s so excited for her Graffeo beans, it’s a wonder when she doesn’t order decaf.

“It can only be Graffeo for coffee. This is where the coffee has always been good,” she says.

Some of the best restaurants in San Francisco agree: Greens, Zuni Café and House of Prime Rib—to name just a few—insist on Graffeo.

Repetto’s and Klotz’s animated conversation turns to trends in the coffee industry (What does raspberry flavoring have to do with coffee?) and another sense, other than the distinctive earthy smell of coffee and the loud roasting of beans, fills the room: common sense, the common sense that proven methods and tested traditions take time but lead to excellence.

Klotz tells Repetto that she will use a French press for her pound of dark roast. Unlike discussing his personal life, Reppeto is eager to speak on the matter.

“Grind it to the texture of coarse salt. Too fine and it just clogs up the press,” he tells her.

Repetto is also eager to give most of the credit for his product to the enormous, 20-year-old fluid bed roaster in back, designed by retired chemical engineer and world-renowned coffee guru Mike Sivetz of Corvalis, Oregon (with Repetto’s “secret” modifications over the years.) Fourteen-year veteran roaster Sam Velasco works the loud and productive machine with the serious glee of Willy Wonka.

When pushed for details about his craft, Repetto’s sweet bedside manner sharpens, as if he’s addressing a patient insistent on finding a shortcut to good health.

“Temperature is the only criterion,” he says. “Control the temperature, and you control the quality of the roast. It’s that simple.”

The philosophy is simple, but the fluid bed roaster is anything but. With inordinately fine-tuned elements that apply exact coverage of heat, plus precise ventilation and an “arresting process” that blasts air on the beans to immediately stop the roast, there are only a few roasters of its kind in the entire world – and it is definitely the only one in San Francisco.

Repetto compares a handful of morning roast and a handful of afternoon roast, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between any of the beans.

“Outside color alone means nothing. Coffee is endothermic—it cooks from the inside out just like popcorn,” he explains.

To demonstrate, Repetto splits a bean in half. “It must be the same color inside as out, and with no smoky smell at all.”

Repetto only sells or ships beans roasted daily, which totals at least 500 pounds per day. He brews and drinks a cup each day for quality control, and if he senses any bitterness, he makes adjustments to the roaster and double-checks the beans to ensure uniform hardness and quality.

Back out front, another customer waits for his order. Repetto reminds him that coffee beans are essentially an oil, so it’s important to keep them dry and cool and not to worry about when the beans were ground—only when they were roasted.

The conversation lengthens, well after the sale, and it turns out the customer’s father used to bring Repetto game duck, years ago, and that the father passed the love of Graffeo on to his son.

Luciano Repetto smiles, very pleased. He hands the man his bag of beans and waves good-bye as he leaves. And then he does what he does best: waits to serve his next customer the best beans in town.    

Tom Molanphy is a San Francisco freelance writer.

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