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Santa Rosa's Bella Rose getting raves for low-acid, approachable blends

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Getting the barista glare for putting cream and Splenda in his $27-a-pound, hand-picked, fair-trade, organic, artisanally crafted, locally-roasted pour-over coffee can send a girl screaming back to Starbucks.

While such an act of heresy can be understandably horrifying to specialty-coffee purists, sometimes the rest of us just want a good cup of coffee, with cream and Splenda.

The owners of Santa Rosa's Bella Rosa Coffee Co. agree. Feel free to drink their coffee in whatever way you want.

"We're not coffee fascists," said co-owner David Greenfield. Inside their compact warehouse/roastery near the Sonoma County Airport, Greenfield and his partners, Jon Bixler and Cynthia Buck, brew sample cups of their Morning Star, French Roast, Roaster's Reserve and decaffeinated blends, which are served with a small carton of half-and-half.

Despite the fact that it's toasty both inside the warehouse and out on the warm fall afternoon, the coffee's bright, clean flavor is refreshing and bold, even without cream. It lacks the acidic, bitter quality that some may call "character," but the Bella Rosa crew simply call "burnt."

Hawking their air-roasted beans around Sonoma County at farm markets and in local markets, the trio is winning over coffee drinkers with their approachable, low-acid coffees. In the nine months since starting their roastery, they've picked up restaurant accounts including the Viola Pastry Boutique and Cafe, Stark Reality Group (Monti's, Stark's, both Willi's), the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Cafe, Omelette Express, Jackson's Bar & Oven and most recently, Three Squares Cafe.

"At restaurants, your first and last impressions are the coffee," said Bixler. "I want people to put their two hands around a mug and say, 'Ahhhhhhh, coffee.' Not, 'That tastes like lemon grass and burdock root.' "

While Bixler and Buck handle customers, Greenfield is the company's secret weapon. Part roaster and mostly mad scientist ("I'm not that mad anymore," he quips), the former machinist reigns over a hand-tooled, blinking, whirring set of contraptions hooked to switches, tubes, wires and a touch-screen pad. This is his coffee-making domain.

"Most roasting equipment used is based on 150-year-old machines. Coffee roasting is so full of Luddites," he adds with characteristic frankness.

He frequently dives into complicated descriptions of the equipment which, in lay terms, push heated air through the green coffee beans at a temperature lower than traditional roasters. It allows precise control over the darkness of the roast and the flavor, he explains.

"It's like non-vintage Champagne. The blends can be different, but the taste remains pretty much the same," said Greenfield.

He's currently working on a new roasting technology called "Greenfield Model No. 63" that looks like a large blender hooked to an air-conditioning unit. He wants to roast beans even faster at an even lower temperature to preserve flavor and achieve a dark, low acidity roast. The acid is what can make your stomach hurt after drinking coffee.

The three, admirers of many of the Bay Area and West Coast's artisanal roasters, including Flying Goat, Taylor Maid, SF's Four Barrel, Ritual Roasters, Sightglass and Blue Bottle, have set their own course.

"We just have no preconceived notions about anything," said Bixler, who uses organic beans from Ethiopia, Mexico, Guatemala, whatever the partners think will make a good cup of coffee.

"It always comes down to what's in the cup. We roast beans the way people like them," said Bixler, who's 18-month-old son toddles by carrying a cardboard box for the finished coffee. "I guess what we can say is that we don't have to convince people to like our coffee."

Want to try some Bella Rosa coffee? You can buy their coffees at local grocers, including Oliver's, Community Market, Molsberry's Market, and online at bellarosacoffeecompany.com.

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