Jun 16, 2015 · 4 minutes

James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee took to the stage this morning at Pandoland and in less than half an hour secured his place as perhaps the most enigmatic of San Francisco’s myriad venture-backed founders. Softly-spoken, bombast-deficient, earnest, gray, and fatherly, he might be best described as the Colonel Sanders of pour-overs. And $115.7 million in venture investments agree.

Freeman made quick work dashing expectations of what an emergent venture-backed CEO looks, sounds, and feels like. When asked to describe his product, he didn’t take the elevator-pitch bait. He paused, reflected and replied:

“We do our best. Some days we do better than other days. We’re always trying to be a little bit better. I think about the experience of one person walking in, ordering their coffee, getting it, and enjoying it…”

He trailed off. It was 10 am and a glass of amber liquid perched sweating on the table before him. There was a conversational pause. Was he nervous? Out of depth on a tech conference stage? Or simply being cagey?

“Is this whiskey?” He asked moderator Sarah Lacy, lifting the glass. “Great.”

Just one quaff and any sense of tension slipped cooly away.

“My background is in classical music, so I never expected to be here talking to you, and with people like this,” he explained.

In the past three years, Blue Bottle has gone from a high-end local coffee roaster with a rabid fanbase to an off-the-beaten-path startup sitting on an impressive cash pile and facing a looming horde of familiar investor expectations. This perhaps unlikely ascent has raised many eyebrows and caught more than it’s share of flak in print, hoisted as an example of the Silicon Valley miracle ready to burst.

Yet Freeman took few pains in Nashville to speak fast and reassure such detractors. His responses would have been as appropriate delivered from a shady front porch rocking chair.

He sketched out the growth of Blue Bottle. It began with his realization that roasted coffee was overlooked as a fresh food and was still considered a durable commodity by most. The discovery fueled a personal coffee-roasting hobby that expanded into farmers markets as Freeman honed his craft.

“This was in the ‘90s, when the Internet was just starting to take the joy out of personal discoveries like this. I felt like it was mine and mine alone,” Freeman said. “As it turns out, more people like coffee than classical music, so that is great.”

On the theory of “third wave coffee,” Freeman said, “This idea of waves is common. For those of you who might not have heard that, people say the first wave was canned coffee, the second wave was Starbucks, and the third wave was some pinnacle of evolution. I don’t really like thinking like that.

“In Cairo in the 1500’s, a city nearly the size of San Francisco now, there were thousands of cafe’s with single-source roasts from Yemen in little brick shacks. What wave was that?”

Meanwhile, Freeman provided what some might view as a surprisingly gracious attitude toward Starbucks.

“Starbucks created a market. My child goes to a good school because of Howard Schultz, basically, so I have a lot of appreciation for this market that Starbucks has created. But any time you create a market of that size and influence, some crumbs fall off the plate and that creates other opportunities.”

As for how venture capital fits in with providing the world better coffee?

“Just before this latest deal was signed, with Fidelity, we had what I called the banker parade," Freeman said. "And this analyst from Fidelity came in. She was paleo or vegan, and she got an almond milk cappuccino. Anything at our bar we test and test. So many almond milks. Well this investor, she raved about it. I call it the $70 million almond milk cappuccino. The thing is, it’s the same transaction, whether you are investing in us as a business or as a way to increase your personal happiness for the next five minutes. The product has to remain primary.”

Finally, having given a quick but satisfying account of himself and his business, he faced the traditional Sarah Lacy wrap-up question: What would be your mediocre super power?

Again he paused to reflect, sipped whiskey, and bantered a bit before arriving on the unlikely formulation:

“I’m reading this novel, slowly to my unborn daughter. It’s a very long book, actually like seven books. It’s called In Search of Lost Time. I think for my super power I would like to be able to remember it all by heart.”

If someone were to write an updated Proustian masterwork centered on today’s San Francisco society, its narrator would inevitably be dunking a cookie into a Blue Bottle almond cappuccino, and be visited by involuntary memories of a time when entrepreneurs built their companies made of a hobbyist’s zeal in farmers’ market stalls, face-to-face with their clientele. That time lives on in James Freeman and Blue Bottle, and he is determined that it won’t soon be lost.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]