Subsequent to the devastating Earthquake that occurred in San Francisco in 1906, the neighborhood South of Market Street became an Industrial Wasteland, with run down warehouses, diverse industries and sweatshops and remained in this derelict condition for almost eighty years. In the 1990’s, there was an awakening with the beginning of the dotcom era, when it began to attract a different population, including techies who wanted to live and work in the same neighborhood. While there are still vagrants on the streets, the changes have heralded a younger, more hip demographic, bringing a new prosperity and greater spending power.
SOMA – South of Market.
Today SOMA, or the South of Market Street neighborhood in San Francisco is an eclectic mix of New Condo Buildings, Software Companies, Startups, Museums, small Theatre Companies, Art Spaces, Restaurants, Bars, Liquor Stores, run down Hotels and refurbished Warehouses. It has equal amounts of day life and nightlife with a share of counter culture both Gay and Straight. While several modern buildings have replaced some of the original structures, fortunately many of the older ones have survived, including Warehouses that were ripe for refurbishing. With their large volumes of space and uncomplicated architecture, these old Warehouses are an essential ingredient of this “evolution” because they can be converted to lofts for work or to live as well as providing interesting commercial spaces. With these changes, the word SOMA has taken on a new connotation.
One of the refurbished Warehouses associated with this neighborhood is Sightglass Coffee and Roastery. The Company was started in 2009, by two brothers, Jerad and Justin Morrison, serving coffee from a rickety cart behind a a roll up garage door. With a few pour over glass Chemex pots and a leaky Espresso Machine, they succeeded in building a neighborhood following in the changing environment. Both had previous experience in the coffee industry and had a desire to build their own Company. Fast forward, and today they have taken over this same entire Warehouse that is now Sightglass Coffee, Roastery and Warehouse. The Morrison Brothers had both spent time at different coffee companies including Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco and give credit to James Freeman from Blue Bottle Coffee for the generosity, encouragement and mentoring they received from him.
Walking into the huge 7,000 plus square foot fully renovated space today and seeing the hive of activity, it seems like it has always been there – but nothing is as easy as it seems and it took passion and determination to overcome the many problems associated with a conversion in San Francisco, especially the permitting that can be never ending. Much work had to be done on the old Warehouse to bring it up to code, plus installing new plumbing and electricity.
One of the biggest hurdles was getting the 1969 Probat vintage Coffee Roaster approved free of emissions and passed by the Bay Area Quality Management Group that monitors factories, restaurants and other commercial endeavors. At the same time they had to begin building their team of Roasters and Baristas and finding suppliers of single origin coffees from the coffee producing countries in Africa, South and Central America and the Pacific. Working tirelessly and in tandem, the Siblings have established a well respected and well run Coffee Roastery and Cafe attracting lines of customers every day of the week and a growing wholesale division – a far cry from its origins of a rickety cart, parked in the open.
Sightglass Coffee is located in the middle of the block at 270 – 7th Street between Folsom and Howard Streets in the South of Market Street neighborhood. The exterior of the restored Warehouse is painted a distinctive industrial charcoal grey, a color that “pops” compared to the other buildings on the street that are painted in safe creams and neutrals. It is a two story bi-level Warehouse, Circa 1914, with large industrial style windows facing the street and skylights in the ceiling letting in the natural daylight. The domed ceiling and trusses lined with restored timber slats beg the eye to linger on its height and proportions. This is the outer shell for the coffee shop and the “drama” that takes place within is the stage.
Entering through the racks of customer’s bikes, a popular mode of transport in this part of San Francisco
The Vintage Probate Coffee Roasting Machine
one immediately sees the huge, dramatic 1969 vintage Probat Coffee Roasting Machine, dominating the space, being actively worked by the Roaster, surrounded by burlap bags of green coffee beans, waiting to be processed. It is the roasting process that transforms the “green” coffee into a consumable product.
Dominating the rest of the Warehouse is an outsize coffee bar with well trained and educated baristas, using an assortment of coffee making equipment, producing cups of extraordinarily flavorful coffee made from the freshly roasted beans, plus another counter with “ringside seats” in front of the Roaster. The customers are encouraged to engage with the Baristas to better understand the coffee “notes”. An upstairs mezzanine area with rustic wooden communal tables is filled with people occupied with their cell phones or tablets between bouts of conversation. Overall, there is a hipster, tech, start up vibe represented by a young demographic. Above the constant hum of people chatting and coming and going, is the music, provided by a vast selection of vinyl records, a cross section of many musical genres.
The Affogato Bar.
Against one wall is an Affogato Bar, a unique feature, serving delicious Affogatos. What is an Affogato ? It is a combination of ice cream and espresso. From the Affogato menu, I selected “Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons” from “Salt and Straw’s” artisan ice cream selection (from Portland} with a hot stream of Ethiopian Yetatebe Espresso “pour over” and as the ice cream melted into the coffee it produced a frothy, decadent and delicious combination of flavors to be highly recommended.
Coffee cupping is the professional way coffee importers compare different coffee origins, by testing their aromas, body and taste. Every Friday afternoon Sightglass does a Coffee Cupping for twelve members of the public in a small dedicated room adjacent to the Affogato Bar. This is the same room where their wholesale coffee customers come to taste and select their choice of coffee and where the new Baristas are trained to develop their craft. We were introduced to Cupping by Ashley, whose title is: “Training and Education”, a member of the staff who is well versed in coffee culture. It was a full on education both in learning to distinguish between aroma and flavors and also in the horticulture of coffee growing. Ashley explained the importance of the “terroir” and other geographic conditions, such as rainfall, altitude, amount of sun versus shade, closeness to the equator, harvesting the coffee “cherries” when they ae at peak ripeness, volcanic soils and on and on that affect the flavor and aroma of the coffee and create the different “notes”.
Six single origin coffees were selected and individually roasted in the mini roaster and placed into the six ounce coffee cups that were set out on a long rustic table. We were requested to walk around the table, lightly shake each cup and then smell the aromas. Next, six ounces of water, that was just under boiling point was added to each cup and we watched as the “crust” of ground coffee formed on the top. Special cupping spoons were handed out and we then walked around the table again, smelling the aroma of all the coffees, by bending low over the cup and breathing in. After four minutes, Ashley demonstrated how to break the crust with two cupping spoons and we smelled the coffee again. The coffee was then allowed to cool for fifteen minutes. At this point we were told to taste the coffee using the cupping spoons, slurping it and swirling it around on our tongue and inside the mouth testing for flavor and acidity.
Throughout the Cupping, we were chatting and having a good time. When Cupping is done by coffee buyers, it is very serious and performed in silence and concentration. The focus is on the tasting and the coffee tasters make notes relating to the different coffees that lead to their decision of what to buy.
The Green Coffee Buyer
Sightglass has a “green” coffee buyer who who spends four months on the road visiting the Coffee Growers at their farms, covering South and Central America, Africa and the Pacific, getting to know the provenance of each coffee’s origins and its terroir. By visiting the Growers, they are able to develop strong personal relationships and can select the highest quality and most delicious coffees from across the coffee growing countries. Being a smaller company, as differentiated from some of the huge Coffee chains, Sightglass can buy harvests of single origin coffees from smaller Farms that allow them to present some unique coffees that are not available to the larger importer.
Meaning of the Name “Sightglass”.
This refers to the window in the Probat Coffee Roaster through which it is possible to check on the color of the beans while they are roasting. A very dark color roast coffee gives a burnt flavor such as burnt toast, so it is important to control the roast, whether it be light, medium or dark.