This story was published on my food blog that I have since neglected. I’m putting it up here because I was particularly proud of the photography and this coffee shop. I got to know Steve, the owner, a little better through doing this article and Zumbar continues to be my go-to coffee establishment in San Diego.
Zumbar Coffee: A Better Buzz
Once in a while you’ll come across a find so great, so satisfying, you’ll want to keep it to yourself. I cannot tell you the countless times I have walked by this small, unassuming coffee shop near my home in San Diego dismissing it as “just another establishment” in a business park strip mall.
Oh man how many times do I wish I would have just stopped and smelled the coffee.
Steve Rayle’s, simply dubbed “Coffee Shop” from the outside (yes, that is all the sign says, very apropos) is called Zumbar. What does that Z-word mean? It’s a Spanish verb that means “to buzz”. It also has different connotations depending on the region. In Catalan, it means “to purr” like a cat. In Venezuela it is used to describe the ringing or sensation after you get punched in the face. Personally, the latter description is the most accurate because as soon as you inhale the intoxicating aroma of their carefully selected house-roasted coffee or sip their expertly-pulled espresso, you’ll begin to realize that you have been slapped upside the head with extraordinary coffee.
Zumbar serves a variety of traditional espresso drinks (as in, look elsewhere if you’re craving a blended slushy with caramel twirls in the cup) as well as a traditional French Press. As you walk into the small, quaint shop and you notice a couple things. It is a clean, no-frills establishment with mounds of burlap sacks leaning against the wall filled with green coffee beans. Right away, you’ll notice a beautiful, cast-iron Probat coffee roaster staunchly standing in the back as well as a shiny, silver La Marzocco espresso machine flaunting itself in the front. The flat-white cups are always neatly arranged, hanging on the wall or preheating on the machine. There’s a small display case of locally baked pastries and many bags of whole-bean coffee for sale as well. Even if you have never been to a quality coffee shop, it becomes apparent, once you’re inside Zumbar, that coffee is the star here.
It starts with the beans. Steve gets his green coffee beans from a distributor that specializes in sampling the world for great coffee. Picking those beans is a matter of collaboration between himself and the distributor. When I asked Steve about the process, he simply stated that it was a matter of knowing the right seasons for the right coffee and knowing when one region begins and another is ending.
Let the Roasting Begin
In-house coffee roasting is something that puts Zumbar in a coffee shop league of its own. Very few shops in San Diego do such a thing. Most buy their beans pre-roasted from places like Zumbar or elsewhere. Naturally, this was one of the first parts of the shop that Steve showed me.
“It works kind of like your household dryer.”
I can tell that Steve was trying to dumb down the technicalities of such a wonderful machine (a cast iron Probat L12) so that he could more easily explain it to me but essentially that is really how it works. He then turned it on and promptly warned me, while pointing to the belt-driven powerplant, “Don’t stick your hand in there.” The drum started rotating and there was some internal flames to heat it up. It was also fairly noisy and very industrial sounding. This was my first time witnessing a coffee roaster in action. Granted, there was no coffee in it but by showing me the inner workings of what I perceive to be a very rustic and hands-on task, I gained a clearer understanding that roasting beans is not necessarily about the equipment but rather the operator and his technique.
I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Steve’s love affair for coffee began just as mine did: someone had simply persuaded him to try better coffee. During his college years Steve was lured to try a better, fresh-ground coffee while in a supermarket and he decided from then on that not all coffee was the same.
“Once I knew there was a difference. That changed me.”
Since then, Steve has lived and breathed coffee. He started with his own coffee cart and has now successfully established a brick and mortar shop in the form of Zumbar. With more and more people discovering his coffee, he plans on expanding in San Diego and selling his whole beans to businesses looking for a great product.
Technique Technique Technique
Coffee is a finicky mistress. Since oils of coffee in a shot of espresso is extracted in a much shorter period of time than regular drip coffee, the flavors of it, both good and bad, are more pronounced. So it makes sense that bringing coffee to its drinkable state should be treated with diligence and respect. Every stage in the life of coffee from roasting to pulling the shot will contribute to the taste, aroma, and color of the final cup. While Steve admits that roasting has the most important effect, he doesn’t devalue the work it takes to consistently pull a good shot of espresso.
Steve found himself being schooled in the technique of coffee roasting in Seattle. He credits a lot of his knowledge to his mentor which was a big part in helping him start Zumbar as well. In fact, the proprietary espresso blend called “The Hummingbird” is similar to the one that Steve learned while in the northwest.
When the properly roasted bean hits the grinder, the barista takes it from there. Zumbar has only four employees other than Steve himself and they are all expertly trained. They contnually monitor the coarseness of the grind, the length of the shot, the temperature of the milk, and other important factors knowing that each step is critical in coming up with the perfect cup of coffee.
The Perfect Cup
Zumbar is on a mission to build a name for itself. A great tasting cup of coffee is important but the consistency matters just as much. Steve wants Zumbar to be associated with quality-driven coffee and wants to sell his beans to places serious about the drink. While we discussed what the perfect cup of coffee would be like, both of us relented to the fact that while perfection was not truly attainable, attempting to do so each and every time will yield a superior product.
“It is between good, really good, and perfect.”
Looking for perfection is how Zumbar is distinguishing itself from the countless other coffee joints in San Diego. Frankly, it’s easy to find pretty good coffee in San Diego. However, it is tough to find extraordinary establishments with the same passion and attention that Steve Rayle gives to his product. Zumbar is truly one of a kind.
Decide For Yourself
Visit Zumbar Monday thru Saturday to get your buzz on and taste their coffee for yourself. They also make a pretty mean house-brewed Chai Tea.
Hours: M-F 6a-5p, Sa 7:30a-12:30p, Closed Su
10920 Roselle St. #106
San Diego, CA 92121
Order beans online at: zumbarcoffee.com