Then and Now: MJB helped fuel S.F. coffee culture

A century before Blue Bottle Coffee installed its $100,000 siphon coffee press in Mint Plaza, Max J. Brandenstein’s MJB Coffee created a sensation at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, featuring a giant cup and saucer on the roof with the illuminated word “Why?”

The 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo in San Francisco photo/courtesy san francisco chronicle 1915

The answer to this oddly existential question? Because MJB Coffee saw its beverage not just as a business, but as a lifestyle.

The M.J. Brandenstein Co. was founded in San Francisco in 1899 by Max Brandenstein, whose father, Joseph, left Germany and created a thriving tobacco business here. When Max’s brothers joined the company, the name was changed to MJB Coffee to subdue sibling rivalry and downplay their German-Jewish name.

Along with local roasters Hills Bros. and Folgers, MJB Coffee set up the Bay Area for generations of American coffee leadership, which included North Beach icon Caffe Trieste’s introduction of espresso to the West Coast in 1956, and Alfred Peet’s empire of fine coffee retail, beginning in his North Berkeley shop in 1966.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin

Dan Schifrin is a teacher, writer and creativity consultant in Berkeley.