The first thing that strikes me when I walk into Roaster Family Coffee (烘培者咖啡) on Main Street is the espresso machine, plated with glistening hammered brass. There’s something about it that looks like it was made by an artisan’s hand, and further investigation reveals the Italian company has been producing espresso machines by hand for over a hundred years. This was the first clue that I’m not in Starbucks.
I had heard about Roaster Family from Alhambra Source contributors, who often meet there. Turns out Roasters is the extension of a coffee dynasty in Taipei, Taiwan, where it launched in 1990 and now has five outlets. Just over a year ago, the cafe opened an Alhambra branch. One of the major things that sets Roasters apart is that getting your coffee unsweetened is no problem at all, where in so many of those other spots in the West San Gabriel Valley coffee as a rule comes with sugar. This isn’t a Boba shop, an Italian or French cafe, a Vietnamese coffee house or a Taiwanese restaurant, though it has certain elements in common as well as with the Hong Kong-style cafes and similar places in Alhambra that fuse elements of East and West.
As I browse the products on display before ordering, other clues reveal themselves: Bulk coffee beans for sale are from all over the world, Jamaica to Indonesia. On a nearby table, Chinese and English newspapers sit side by side. Then something else catches my eye, a tall box with a picture of what looks like a piece of lab equipment on the front, the writing on the box mostly in Japanese — but with one set of big English letters that read “Coffee Siphon”.The first time I saw a Vacuum Coffee Maker, or "coffee siphon" was six years ago in Osaka, Japan. A seemingly modern method for brewing, coffee siphons were actually invented almost 200 years ago in Europe. There are a few places around LA you could sample the brew, but at Roasters I got to witness the process up close. Vacuum coffee siphons are not only used to brew coffee in-house at Roasters, the devices themselves are also for sale.
Roaster Family's founder, James Ting, imported the siphons from Japan to Taipei when he started his business there in 1990. The concept took off, and with the business firmly established, James decided to expand to the San Gabriel Valley in 2004, opening a branch in Arcadia.
The Alhambra Roaster Family is the newest and most diverse Roaster's Family yet. James' 19-year-old son Brian went to San Marino High and now often works the counter, when he is not studying to be a pilot.
"Once the city rebuilt the plaza – the movie theater and all that other stuff – they thought they might as well give it a try," Ting said of his parents' decision to open a branch in Alhambra. "They’ve been living in the area for a while now and what drew them was the way the city of Alhambra is becoming sort of like Old Town Pasadena. They see a lot of potential here."
When I visit he graciously volunteers to demonstrate the siphon technique. Water is poured into the bottom container and a second container fastened to the top is filled with coffee. When the heating element is switched on, it heats the air in the bottom container causing it to expand, the pressure forces the water upstairs into the container with the coffee. After a few stirs the heating element is switched off, and as the air cools a small vacuum is created which siphons the brewed coffee back into the bottom container, hence the name. The water hits the coffee at less than a boil, and that’s part of the point, the lower heat pulls less bitterness from the beans, making for a smoother cup.
In 1998, the city of Alhambra provided more than $100,000 in incentives for Starbucks to move in down the street, but Roaster Family still believes they are the better choice. "Our advantage is that we roast our own coffee beans," Brian Ting said. The coffee is imported from all over the world and then his father, owner of seven shops, will sit in the back of the Alhambra branch every day watching over them as they roast.