It’s a little after 10 a.m. and Hunter Pence is wide awake. In fact, he might be the widest awake. The former Giants outfielder drinks a pot of black coffee a day, plus two espressos.
“Which is eight cups and two espressos,” observed Alexis Pence, his wife and apparent math major. “And the espressos are double shots. So, it’s technically four.”
Such a robust caffeine intake might surprise everyone except, of course, anyone who has ever seen Hunter Pence play, heard him deliver a clubhouse speech or clicked on this GIF. The four-time All-Star is such a bundle of bees that he once hit the ball three times with one swing — a triple bat-uccino.
For this reason and countless others, he and Alexis make an ideal blend. About six years ago, the couple began reviewing coffee places around the country on YouTube, sipping everything from Dunkin’ Donuts to extra-caffeinated Death Wish Coffee to the famed Irish Coffees of the Buena Vista in San Francisco. (Note: Pence did not do these all in one day.)
Hunter grew so tapped into the café scene in every major-league city that, while with the Texas Rangers in 2019, the team’s official road-trip itinerary included a heading called “Hunter’s coffee shop to go to.”
Along the way, the Pences became so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the bean business — from the farming to the roasting to the ethical concerns of fair trade — that they have launched their own specialty line. Pineapple Labs introduces a new batch of roasted whole-bean coffee each month, with each roast representing a new charity. This month, the May Pearl brew benefits “Ladies Who Launch,’’ which fights for gender-equal entrepreneurship. There are also $20-per-bag coffees with cheery names like “Lucky You” and “Rise + Grind” and, improbably, a decaf bag called “Chillaxin’.”
Their charity mission is why the Pences were on a husband-and-wife Zoom call with The Athletic on Monday, speaking so enthusiastically that the notetaker nearly required hospitalization after trying to keep pace.
“We can geek out about this all day!” said Alexis, not long after her daily latte.
The saying goes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something, and perhaps the Pences are proving the same thing is true of 10,000 cups of coffee. Because their java is already jumping. Matthew Dolan, a chef with a Michelin Star, recently selected Pineapple Labs coffee to serve at his 25 Lusk Restaurant.
Hotel VIA, the independent boutique hotel near Oracle Park, entered into an official partnership with the Pences and began serving coffee in the lobby, at meetings and in the restaurant on April 1.
“Their coffee is just completely different than anything else that you drink,” Barbara Perzigian, the general manager for the hotel, said by phone. “It’s very, it’s full-bodied but you can actually taste all the notes in it. You know how sometimes every coffee tastes the same? And some are so bland and some you may as well not even bother. This is actually an experience.”
That review — full-bodied, anything but bland, an experience — could just as well have described Pence himself during a baseball career that spanned 14 seasons in which he batted .279/.334/.461 and won two World Series with the Giants. He also played for the Astros, Phillies and Rangers.
As major-league careers go, it was way more than a cup of coffee. But in a way, Hunter and Alexis are in the minor leagues again, just now embarking on something promising.
“We still have a lot to learn,” Hunter said. “I’ve tasted a lot of coffee. But the whole process is just massive, and it’s a very fun journey for us.”
It should be noted here that the Pences know what they don’t know. They are a half-step into the coffee business largely because they have deferred from the start to those who understand more about the process than they ever will. Sometimes that means listening to David Buehrer, the renowned Houston-based brewer behind Greenway Coffee in Texas, who continues to show them the ropes.
Sometimes that meant getting lessons from the impossibly patient baristas at coffee shops around the country who answer Hunter’s pesky questions and have even taken him behind the counter to show him how to make latte foam art.
And as with so many of the best athletes, Pence brings some natural ability to the equation. The former ballplayer now has a good approach at the palate.
“He’s so good at pinpointing the notes,” Alexis said. “And sometimes they can just be so crazy.”
It was at this point of the call that the Pences began rattling off some of the more memorable subtleties that Hunter detected after a sip or two:
- Brown-rice syrup
- Froot Loops
- Blueberry pancakes
- Black tea
- Arnold Palmer (the drink, not the golfer)
- Tomato soup
“Oh, yeah,” Pence reiterated, correctly anticipating a double-take. “One time we had this coffee that tasted like tomato soup.”
When it comes to his tasting process, Pence likens the experience to wine in that it’s not as simple as light roast vs. dark roast, just as there’s a whole world beyond red vs. white. Attention must be paid to the complexity of the flavors. Appreciation must be given to the craftsmanship that distinguishes the good stuff.
“The process of cleaning the beans and getting the natural flavors out of it can really completely change it from being potentially stanky coffee, or a bitter, earthy coffee,” Hunter said. “Some people like that, and there’s a place for it, but you want to get to where you get the fruity tastes and get flavors out of it.”
This is just part of why Hunter and Alexis pay extra for beans that can be traced to two farms, one in Ethiopia and one in Guatemala. Yes, they want a high-quality coffee. But they don’t want to be jerks about it. The dark side of the coffee economy is that workers are often exploited.
“We’re ethically and transparently sourced,” Alexis said. “So we make sure that we pay four times the fair trade price to make sure that we’re taking care of the indigenous farmers, the producers, the roasters, everyone in the chain of command. That’s a super important aspect for us.”
Buehrer, their industry guru, makes regular trips to the farms to check on the worker conditions, the Pences said. There’s also a conservation approach to the process.
“They’re not pulling out trees and disrupting the natural ecosystems. They’re working with the Earth versus against it,’’ Alexis said. “So that takes a lot. Like, you need to study the soil. You need to study how the sun comes in. And there are all these other things that people don’t realize could be affecting the Earth, with climate change. So we just want to make sure … it’s done really, really right.”
Pence likely ranks as the all-time home run leader (244) among hipster coffee house dudes. He spent so much time hanging out at Blacksmith, the place that Buehrer owns in Houston, that it eventually inspired Pence to open his own place, Coral Sword, in Houston. Buehrer was a good connection to make; he recently finished sixth in the U.S. Coffee Championships, Barista Championship Division.
“He gave us some cold brew and then we just ended up becoming really good friends,” Pence recalled. “That’s even how Coral Sword started. It was just me saying, ‘I want to learn more.’ And took me to these different places and we started studying and looking for a spot.”
It was under Buehrer’s tutelage that Pence’s untapped skill came in handy. They could relentlessly tour all kinds of cafes, binge-drinking java all the while. “He realized I had a high capacity for drinking caffeine,” Hunter said.
Hunter and Alexis opened Coral Sword in 2018. It promptly inspired the Yahoo! Sports headline: “Hunter Pence’s new business is every nerd’s wildest dream.” The café combines board games like Magic: The Gathering, comics, video games and sprang to life, Yahoo! wrote, when Pence called Buehrer to ask, “Do you think it would be possible to make a coffee shop where you could play Smash Bros. and you could run tournaments?”
Such a question might have baffled baseball’s original Mr. Coffee. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
But over the years, the Pences have also made a game of finding the coolest place in whatever city they’re visiting. Propelled around the country by the MLB travel schedule, they find themselves looking for under-the-radar cafés in every metropolis. Fans who know this hit up the Pences with advance scouting reports. That intel remains helpful as Hunter has a new gig this season as an on-air studio analyst for MLB Network.
“We get a lot of fans asking for us to check out their local coffee shop,” Alexis said. “And then what’s really nice is the coffee shop owners will reach out to us afterward saying thank you because they’re like a mom-and-pop small business.
“And that’s another important aspect: We love to support. And we love when fans come in after us and say, ‘Hunter and Lexi sent us!’ To me, that’s the power of community. Right? And that’s the power of community and support.”
What’s their favorite place? Well, be careful when asking that question to highly caffeinated coffee enthusiasts. You won’t be asking another question for a while. There is Andytown Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, as well as The Coffee Movement, also in San Francisco.
Berdena’s, in Arizona, is near the top of Hunter’s list because “I call it a ‘unicorn’ when a place does breakfast insanely good and coffee insanely good. And Berdena’s has one of the best breakfast burritos I’ve ever had.”
Hunter: Common Room Roasters in Long Beach … Ipsento in Chicago …
Alexis: Oh! Dune Coffee Roasters is one of my favorites in Santa Barbara.
Hunter: What was the other one we went to in Santa Barbara that we really liked? They had a really good bagel? Cajé?
Alexis: Cajé. Yeah.
Hunter: Sorry, we’re just, like, rattling them off.
The Athletic: No, it’s great! I mean —
Hunter: Everyman Espresso in New York.
Alexis: Saint Frank Coffee (in San Francisco and Menlo Park) here is amazing, too. … They allowed me to brew in their kitchen, and they were just so amazing and helping me …
Hunter: Just good people. The owners —
Alexis: So supportive! And the same ideals as Hunter and I. Very much community-driven and wanting to help and support in any way possible.
This latest leap in their coffee adventure began with a note left on a hunch. Hunter was in town for a charity event and stayed at the Hotel VIA. As it turned out, Perzigian, the GM, had already been following their online reviews for a while, so she created her own introduction. She left a note in his room about a potential small-business partnership and attached her business card. Hunter and Alexis emailed back and things kept percolating from there.
Barbara reasonably figured “it must be great coffee since he’s such a coffee fanatic. And so as soon as they sent me a sample of the coffee, and we tasted it and everybody here at the hotel was like, ‘Oh my, God. This is amazing.’”
It helps that Barbara, like the Pences, views coffee as something beyond a mere morning jolt. There’s a higher calling here — a belief in the supreme bean. She noted that it was Small Business Month.
“I gotta tell you something. I think that the corporate concentration has become so common in our economy,” she said. “And I don’t think that it yields the best for workers or consumers, you know? And so I feel like small business, helping small business and teaming up with small business ends up — not only we support each other — but it ends up giving the consumer a much better experience, and a much better fit.”
The Pences will host a coffee tasting for media members at Hotel VIA this upcoming Monday, not far from where Hunter once provided a nightly jolt while wearing a Giants uniform. He played eight seasons in San Francisco, including the title seasons of 2012 and 2014.
He was was thrilled to win those rings, of course.
And now he and Alexis celebrate each day by hoisting a cup.
“We’re all our higher selves when we’re caffeinated, right?” she said.
(Photo of Hunter and Alexis Pence: Pineapple Labs)