Oh America, the land that coffee forgot! I'm sorry, but that battery acid festering in drip filter pots, or the insipid-flavoured muck served in "grande" milkshake containers at Starbucks is not coffee, not as Australians know it, anyway. And please, when I ask for a cappuccino, I'm not ordering a soup-bowl of froth ...
But at Santa Barbara, 150 kilometres north of Los Angeles, a revolution is quietly taking place, one that gives hope to travelling caffeine addicts. Here, in the coastal foothills of the Santa Ynez range, an exotic fruit farm called Good Land Organics is producing the continental United States' first commercial crops of organic coffee. And, trust me, it's a fine drop.
Located on loamy slopes shielded from icy winter winds and cooled by Pacific breezes in summer, Good Land Organics is abundant in fruits rare beyond the tropics – zingy Australian finger limes, avocados, dragonfruit, lychee and cherimoyas, or custard apples. But what started as an experiment nine years ago in conjunction with the University of California is starting to dominate farmer Jay Ruskey's life, as America's interest in specialty coffee – with an emphasis on flavour and sustainability – catches up with the rest of the world.
"The coffee industry is starting to trend towards varietals, like wine," Ruskey tells me as he plucks a ripe red coffee bean off a heavily laden shrub and pops it into his mouth. "Sorry," he says laughing, and chewing. "This is sooo delicious. Here, try one."
The coffee cherry is sweet, like watermelon with a hint of rosewater. "Hey," I joke, "This would make a great drink!"
"You can't make good coffee without perfect beans," Ruskey continues. "But, like wine, you can make bad coffee from good fruit. It's all in the fermentation process, and that's something we're still trying to refine."
Mass production is not on Good Land Organics' agenda – instead, Ruskey prefers to keep sales local and intimate. Following the business model of neighbouring Santa Barbara County wineries, he believes interested parties will come to them – his farm is the cellar door, his workshed the tasting room. Roasted beans are available only at the farm, online, or in a few select outlets; and most of his business comes from a stall at Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Markets.
Showcasing the region's staggering abundance, these iconic markets are held in a different location each day, with Saturday and Tuesday dedicated to Santa Barbara city and the rest of the week in regional centres. Growers bring their certified organic produce direct to the consumer, allowing customers to meet the farmers, ask questions about their cultivation practices and to taste before purchasing.
In State Street in Santa Barbara – closed to traffic for the occasion – I wander through two blocks of cheery white tents, feasting on pistachios, cheese, fresh figs and sweet, succulent strawberries that redefine the meaning of ambrosia. In a nation of processed foods, this epicurean bounty is both reassuring and covetable, and I'm truly envious of locavores laden with fresh baguettes, bagfuls of organic veges and freshly cut flowers.
For visitors keen for a taste of Central Coast seasonal produce, Santa Barbara's restaurant scene offers inspiration served with a dash of creative flair. The "farm-to-table" trend is the norm here, with restaurants such as Julienne, The Lark, Olio Crudo Bar and Finch & Fork all proudly showcasing locally raised meat, fish, vegetables and wines on their menus.
Taking their relationship with the Farmers Market one step further, two highly acclaimed restaurants – Bouchon and Wine Cask – also offer Tuesday "Foodie Strolls", where guests accompany the chefs on their shopping expeditions, chatting to farmers and helping to select ingredients, before returning to the restaurant for a three-course dinner paired with local wines.
Visitors can also now experience the best of Santa Barbara's artisanal culinary scene under one roof at the new Public Market in West Victoria Street. Open from 7am daily, this cavernous, industrial space is a one-stop pantry, offering fresh meat and seafood, bread, fresh pasta, olive oils, cheese, and good coffee. There's a bar with 12 craft beers on tap and eight local wines by the glass; while special epicurean events, such as cooking masterclasses with local chefs and winemakers dinners, are held in The Kitchen.
And, at the end of the moveable feast, there are cupcakes. Wine-infused, of course – this is Santa Barbara, after all.
The writer was a guest of Visit Santa Barbara and United Airlines.
Good Land Organics, goodlandorganics.com
Santa Barbara Farmers Market, sbfarmersmarket.org
Santa Barbara Public Market, sbpublicmarket.com
Visit Santa Barbara, santabarbaraca.com
United Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, visit united.com.
Santa Barbara is a two-hour drive from LA. Car rental via driveaway.com.au
Located in the heart of Santa Barbara, rooms at Canary Hotel starts from US$245, canarysantabarbara.com