Looking for the best coffee? Come along on a Caffeine Crawl

Heartsleeve Coffee owner, Brandy, just celebrated the second anniversary of serving some of the best coffee in San Diego.
Some of the best coffee in San Diego is served at Heartsleeve Coffee

Heartsleeves Coffee owner Brandy finishing one of her signature brews.

I thought drinking coffee was a caffeine delivery system and a delicious ritual. How wrong I was. My education began four years ago during a Caffeine Crawl and I just attended the fifth San Diego tour. I wasn’t jonesing for more nervous energy (I enjoy a morning brew and that’s plenty) but it sounded fun and interesting. The 2014 tour was a first for San Diego and organized by The Lab in Kansas City. Founder, Jason Burton, has led 65 events searching for the best coffee in cities across the country and the number would be higher but he took a little time off for the birth of his daughter.
I was lucky to get in with ticket Number 84 – by Saturday, the tours were sold-out. No doubt the time was ripe for non-coffee-industry locals interested in knowing more, seeing more, and tasting in new places.
Inside Intercontinental Coffee Importers at the beginning of the first Caffeine Crawl in San Diego, 2014.

2014 -InterAmerican Coffee Importers at the beginning of the first San Diego Caffeine Crawl. 

My ticket was a back-stage pass to coffee roasters and we met first in the corporate offices of InterAmerican Coffee, specialty green coffee distributors. Each of the four groups had a different itinerary of four or five stops over three hours. Some of the tours were walk-able, bike-able, or self-driving and everyone had a map.
Before the morning was out, I’d glimpsed the culture behind the best coffee and realized how many dedicated roasters and ‘coffee nerds,’ (as Mondo of Swell Coffee Roasters self-identifies,) there are in San Diego. Was I converted to giving up my corporate cups and drive through, membership privileges around town? Had I gone over to the dark (roasted) side? First, grab a cuppa java and read on about the history behind this enticing brew.
The Bean Belt crosses the Equator with some of the best coffee beans

The Bean Belt wraps around the Equator where some of the best coffee beans grow

Where the best coffee started
According to legend, in ancient times an Ethiopian Shepard noticed how frisky his lambs got after eating the beans of a certain hillside bush. True? Perhaps, but if his sheep started acting up I’m surprised that the beans got off that hill. By the 1500’s, coffee was being served in cafes around the Middle East and then was banned by Islamic law, which claimed that the intoxicant that led to illicit sex. That rule was overturned quickly. In Turkey coffee became so popular that, “lack of sufficient coffee provided grounds for a woman to seek a divorce!”
In the 1600’s a headline in Great Britain claimed that the best coffee could cure alcoholism. The cure was a more likely a reflection of the times when drinking water was dangerous. It was common for children to adults imbibe distilled ales and beer, from morning to night. By 1730, Tea was more popular in London but in the colonies, Tea Party Revolutionaries threw that trend in the drink.
Coffee beans in various stages at Bird Rock Roasters in Little Italy

Coffee beans in various stages at Bird Rock Roasters in Little Italy

Most thought that the brew helped you work longer but there were still concerns. In 1916, Good Housekeeping magazine sounded an alarm that coffee stunts growth. At that time many were suffering already from insomnia, indigestion, nervousness and heart palpitations – coffee didn’t help. By the 1920’s coffee reports claimed that it would give you bad grades. Try telling that to today’s college students!
Current coffee studies
By 2000 there was a new study about the health benefits or risks from drinking coffee. Accordingly, the best coffee complicated urinary tract cancer, lung disease, stroke and prostate cancer, even leading to heart failure. In 2017 over half a million people in ten European countries participated in an exhaustive study. The results included claims that drinking coffee could significantly reduce the risk of death and the impact didn’t depend on how it was prepared or consumed. Drinking four cups or more a day increases the risks of fractures in women and pregnant women are cautioned to be wary. (Thanks to the CNN Report on Coffee History)
San Diego Caffeine Crawl Map for the 2018 Tour
The best coffee places in San Diego
After more than a dozen years working in hometown coffee shops, I discovered several new shops. Here’s a map of all the spots covered on the San Diego 2018 Caffeine Crawl Tour. I attended the last tour of the weekend in 2018.
Bird Rock Coffee
My 2018 Caffeine Crawl began at the Bird Rock Coffee Roaster’s location in Little Italy. Owner, Marita worked in the tasting business for 19 years with the Columbia Coffee Corporation when she met Jeff from Kansas City at an industry event in Ecuador. Dedicated to locating, supporting and serving only the best coffee, today the family serves “coffees that you might not experience anywhere else.”
The family behind Bird Rock Roasters in San Diego

The family behind Bird Rock Roasters in San Diego

Factoid: The Origin Effect
While drinking some of the best coffee from South America, I learned about the Origin Effect. A coffee belt runs around the Equator. With no frost, the sun hits plants evenly as the planet rotates. It also rises and sets at the same time each day year round. This leads to a consistent flavor but takes more time to ripen. The best coffee beans are picked by hand for sweetness, acidity, and flavor.
Putting the finishing touches on the Dirty White Rabbit in Heartsleeve Coffee

Putting the finishing touches on the Dirty White Rabbit in Heartsleeve Coffee

Heartsleeves Coffee
Set in a small Little Italy alley, Heartsleeves Coffee serves a different kind of buzz in the percolating and popular neighborhood. The owner, Brandy, worked in a risk management business but changed careers because, “Coffee makes people happy.” “You don’t go to school for coffee, ” says Jason, who was a graphic designer, among other positions, before founding The Lab and beginning the Caffeine Crawl Tours. Here’s a recipe for the drink Brandy served our group:
The Dirty White Rabbit:
  • Cold brewed expresso
  • Vanilla bean
  • Perrier water
  • Half and Half
Oatly is a new, non-dairy coffee creamer.

Oatly is a new, non-dairy coffee creamer.

Discovery: Oatly Creamer
Oat milk launched recently and the coffee creamer, dairy-alternative is worth tasting. Jason recommends it for the long shelf life as a non-cow alternative and says the chocolate version is ‘amazing.’ The Oat Milk company is active in the coffee community, training baristas to work with Oatly.
Pt. Loma features only the best local coffee roasters

Pt. Loma Coffee features only the best local coffee roasters 

Point Loma Coffee
Now I know where to find local roasters under one roof. Point Loma Coffee searches for local roasters and is dedicated to keeping it interesting, rotating amongst the brewers and brewing methods. “You don’t have to go all around town or the county to get whole beans.” They look for something new and different and use different brewing styles to show the flavors off; classic, drip, pour overs, espresso, and cold brews are included. A coffee may taste better made one way rather than another, the manager says, “We find the best way to showcase that coffee.”
Factoid: There are 30-40 different roasters in San Diego.
Family owned, the Coffee Hub, was a stop on the Caffeine Crawl

Bicycling parts and memorabilia in the Coffee Hub

The Coffee Hub

Family owned by bicyclists and bakers, the comfy Coffee Hub is set into a modest shopping strip on Shelter Island. The “coffee bar and café, with a cycling theme” is family owned and serves locally roasted coffee, breakfast, and lunch. Their family-recipe biscuits are incredible.

Mondo of Swell Coffee in Mission Beach

Mondo of Swell Coffee in Mission Beach

Swell Coffee

Laid back, with an inviting patio, the Swell Coffee location in Mission Beach is a sun, sand and caffeine lovers dream. Our group met Mondo, one of the owners, who treated us to samples of their cold brew and then went into a delicate ritual using top of the line products to create a few cups of the best coffee.

Stainless steel and calibrated, the Decemberist filter is a technical work of art. Mondo heated water to an exact temperature, then poured it in very slowly to wake up the beans. He used a specialized funnel, pitcher, a blue-tooth enabled scale and it took about 5 to 10 minutes to complete the process. The $500 set-up was more than most casual drinkers would invest in. Curious? If you’re in the neighborhood and Swell isn’t too crowded, ask for a Decemberist filter (not on the menu.)

Pouring the best coffee, Decemberist brew at Swell Coffee

Decemberist brew at Swell Coffee

I’ve gone over to the dark roasted side, proudly, and look forward to the 2019 San Diego Caffeine Crawl with Jason. New cities and dates are being added almost weekly. Check out the website to see if there’s one in your city.
Last few words about drinking coffee responsibly:
  • Avoid indulging in flavored, calorie-laden creamers.
  • Studies use an 8-ounce measure. Most coffee shops serve twice that size.
  • The oily compound, cafestol, can increase bad cholesterol or LDL. French press, Turkish coffee or Scandinavian boiled coffee fail to catch the compound in the cup.
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Travel Notes & Beyond


  • I haven’t been to San Diego but this is definitely something I would like to do if I ever visit. I do tend to drink the flavoured coffees usually (it’s one of my only vices) but would like to learn more about how coffee is made and try out all of the different places on the tour. Had no idea how many roasteries there were in the city! Great post!

  • I am a total coffee addict, so really would have enjoyed this tour. It sounds like a pub crawl but way better! I had never heard the story about the origins of coffee before. Whether it is true or not, it makes for a good tale.

  • Coffee has been our wake-up alarm for years. We like our coffee, freshly roasted and ground with some milk and sugar. The aroma is really heady. The Coffee Caffeine Crawl is something we would really love to do. Coffee has indeed come a long way since the day in Africa when a shepherd accidentally stumbled upon the magical Coffee berries.

    • We have a morning ritual when home – Whoever gets out of bed first pushes the button. Searched high and low for an automatic machine to grind and brew and wouldn’t want to live without it!!

  • I googled InterAmerican Coffee and found out they are already in a few cities like London and Hamburg. In the US, besides San Diego, they are also in Houston. I would like to gift my hubby a ticket to a caffeine crawl!

  • I love coffee. Especially really good coffee. This looks like something I would really enjoy. I may need to start researching to see if there are similar crawls/tours in all the destinations that I visit.

  • What a fun and unique experience! I was surprised to not see Costa Rica on the map of best coffee producers. When we went, the coffee plantations were everywhere. Too bad we didn’t take a tour. We’ve been traveling through Asia, and it’s hard coming across coffee we like. But, we find the coffee in Vietnam to be quite good. We’re kind of getting addicted haha. Anyhow, I like that you learned so much. Now when you drink coffee you’ll know much more about it. 🙂

  • I am not a coffee drinker but I can appreciate a good cup of coffee. Your post was very interesting to read. I can only imagine how those lambs must have “acted” after eating the coffee beans. They were probably very bouncy, hahaha!

  • My husband has worked in the food industry since he moved to the United States. He has taken several classes related to coffee and that world is really interesting. Also, we have friends who work in the coffee business in Honduras and El Salvador. That is good since we can get good quality coffee when we go. I am glad the selection of coffee in San Diego has boomed and keeps growing. Thanks for all the suggestions! #WeekendWanderlust

  • Thanks for sharing this on #TheWeeklyPostcard. I love coffee, black, with no sugar or milk. And when you drink it like this, you need the best roast you can get. I visited a coffee plantation/brewery/coffee shop in Costa Rica, I still remember it as the best cup I’ve ever had. HHowever, San Diego is much closer, and next time I go, I’ll be sure to check out some of the coffee shops you talk about. This tour must have been a great experience!

  • Very interesting! I didn’t realize there were Caffeine Crawls until reading this. It also became very apparent, with the visual map you included, where the “The Origin Effect” is!

    • You’d love a Caffeine Crawl although it’s packed with so much information that simply enjoying the brew is a bit overshadowed. Still I so enjoy visiting different spots around town and certainly have more to go on when I order or buy coffee.

  • I wouldn’t have expected San Diego to be home of a caffeine crawl!! I’m not a coffee person though, so I’m not the best person to judge anything related to coffee. I do laugh at people who LOVE coffee but douse it with creamers and flavors though. 😉 Your fact about serving size is interesting – the 8oz serving vs. people serving double that. I wonder if people actually know how much more they are consuming…?

    • We are one of several cities around the country that host Caffeine Crawls. I confess to dousing my coffee most of the time – it’s an effort to eat less but then there’s the calories, so who am I kidding!! Still life’s too short to drink bad coffee.

  • A caffeine crawl?!? Sign me up, I drink 2 cups every morning – black. It’s amazing to taste the difference in beans. I had no idea of the optimum growing area along the equator and to hand pick all of those beans sounds like an extremely tedious task.

  • This such a fun event! Sounds like my kind of day out.

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