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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
The Candymen: From left to right, Rory Phares, Manthri Srinath and Roman Bondarenko feed Santa Cruz's jones for fresh-roasted coffee.

Beyond Java

Santa Cruz coffee entrepreneur Manthri Srinath on the perfect cup.

By Christina Waters

If it's too hot, you kill the coffee," says Manthri Srinath. He's busy scooping up handfuls of freshly roasted Colombian beans, smelling them, feeling their temperature, examining their color. The owner of Lulu Carpenter's and Lulu's at the Octagon in Santa Cruz and Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley is intensely involved in every aspect of his business, and his business is coffee. "Starbucks created many jobs for this industry," he grins, "including mine."

With plans to open more stores in the near future, Srinath has been swilling, making, buying and roasting coffee since his junior year in college in Kansas. Born in the States, Srinath lived in India, England and Africa before returning here in his teens. Opening his first coffeehouse in college, Srinath hooked up with Espresso Royale and opened many of their stores across the country before ending up in Santa Cruz, where he launched the store that's now Lulu's just after the 1989 earthquake. He's been at it ever since.

"I get easily bored," he admits. "And this," he says, gesturing toward the crimson interior of his Scotts Valley shop, "is a never-ending challenge."

For the newest Lulu's, housed in the 19th-century Octagon in downtown Santa Cruz, Srinath brought on "technology-forward equipment." The Clover vacuum press coffeemaker is one of only several on the West Coast. And as I sip for myself later in the day, it smooths out any edges the fresh-roasted Guatemalan beans might have considered displaying.

"Our business is complex," he says, looking over my shoulder every now and then to check on traffic flow in the cafe outside. "We're doing more of our own foods, we have a bakery on premises, we roast our own beans, we do wholesale and have three retail outlets." There isn't much downtime in that lineup, and that's exactly the way Srinath likes it.

We are currently riding the third wave of coffee culture, I'm told. The post-Starbucks reality includes a whole new coffee sensibility, including an emphasis on sustainable agriculture and a new inclusion of farmers within the profit equation. "We've also simplified things," Srinath points out. "Removed all the paraphernalia from the bar. We've gotten back to the product itself."

And that product famously depends upon the four M's, starting with mano, the touch, the instincts of the bartender (Srinath hates the Starbuckian conceit of "barista"). Miscela is the all-important mixture of coffee itself--the proportions, the degree of roast, the freshness. Macinazione--the quality of the grind--refers to fineness, freshness and a dozen other refinements involving grinding technology and coffee beans.

And finally there's the macchina, which includes, in the case of espresso making, everything from stable brew temperature to timing of the pour and viscosity of the cup. The parallels with winemaking lore and complexity are striking.

"Americans are obsessed with espresso--we fool around with technology," he says with as much admiration as sarcasm. "Espresso has moved leaps and bounds because of Americans." Bombarding me with details, Srinath explains how the thermostat is programmed and why a few clicks to the left or right of 200 degrees in the macchina brewhead can be fatal.

"If water is too cold you end up with a sour cup of coffee," he says, aiming his gaze directly at me for emphasis. "And if it's too hot, you kill the coffee. It will taste flat, carbony, one-dimensional." He is a gold mine of such details. Contrary to popular myth, espresso is not meant to be roasted dark. "We use a northern Italian roast, a lighter roast, which produces a sweetness I like."

But "at the end of the day," he reminds me, "this is an artisanal craft." And here he's not shy about demonizing Starbucks. "One thing Starbucks did to the industry that's unfortunate is the commodification of our product. It's become fast food." And yet making fine coffee is a slow process. "At Lulu's, our coffee takes longer because we've returned to the roots of the craft."

By 4am each morning Manthri Srinath has tasted everything. "I'm very quality control," he beams. Business is brisk, even in a town filled with coffeehouses. Why?

"Nobody does it as well as we do." Many would agree. And there's no sign of letting up for the restless entrepreneur. Oh, and he hates that term too. "I'm a nomad--I like discovery. I can come to work on any given day and improve my customer's experience. There's no question that I can challenge myself." And he knows not everyone can say the same. "I'm a lucky man," he says.

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