Subsequent to the devastating earthquake that occurred in San Francisco in 1906, the neighborhood South of Market Street was an Industrial wasteland.
Run-down warehouses, diverse industries and sweatshops had remained in derelict condition for almost 80 years.
In the 1990’s, there was an awakening with the beginning of the dotcom era. The South of Market Street neighborhood began to attract a different population, including techies who wanted to live and work in the same neighborhood. The changes have heralded a younger, hipper 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.
Together are new condo buildings, software companies, startups, museums, small theater 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 counterculture both gay and straight. While several modern buildings replaced some of the original structures.
Fortunately many of the older ones have survived, including warehouses ripe for refurbishing.
Offering large areas of space and uncomplicated architecture, these old warehouses are an essential ingredient of this “refurbishing evolution.” They can be converted to lofts for livings spaces, and provide interesting commercial spaces. With these changes, SOMA has taken on a new identity.
The Sightglass Backstory
One of the refurbished warehouses in the neighborhood is Sightglass Coffee and Roastery. Started in 2009 by two brothers, Jerad and Justin Morrison, who served coffee from a rickety cart behind a roll-up garage door.
With a few pour-over glass Chemex pots and a leaky Espresso Machine, the brothers succeeded in building a neighborhood following in the changing environment.
They 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.
This coffee industry experience led to a desire to build their own company.
Sightglass Coffee today
Fast forward, and today they have taken over this same entire Warehouse that is now Sightglass Coffee, Roastery and Warehouse.
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. 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, including installing new plumbing and electricity.
One of the biggest hurdles was getting the 1969 Probat Vintage Coffee Roaster approved. It needed to be free of emissions and passed by the Bay Area Quality Management Group who monitors factories, restaurants and other commercial endeavors. At the same time Sightglass had to begin building their team of Roasters and Baristas and find suppliers of single origin coffees from 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 air.
The Refurbished Space
Currently, Sightglass Coffee is 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 which 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 are lined with restored timber slats that 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.
One enters through the racks of customer’s bikes (a popular mode of transport in this part of San Francisco) and immediately sees the huge, dramatic 1969 vintage Probat Coffee Roasting Machine.
It dominates the space, actively worked by the Roaster who is surrounded by burlap bags of green coffee beans, waiting to be processed. This roasting process 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.
They use an assortment of coffee making equipment, producing cups of extraordinarily flavorful coffee made from the freshly roasted beans.
Another counter with “ringside seats” resides in front of the Roaster.
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, startup 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 the “Salt and Straw’s” artisan ice cream selection (from Portland} with a hot stream of Ethiopian Yetatebe Espresso “pour over.”
As the ice cream melted into the coffee it produced a frothy, decadent and delicious combination of flavors. Highly recommended!
Coffee cupping is the professional way coffee importers compare different coffee origins. They test the 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, she is well versed in coffee culture. It was a full-on education in learning to distinguish between aroma and flavors.
Emphasis was placed on 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, and closeness to the equator. Then there is harvesting of the coffee “cherries” when they are at peak ripeness, the volcanic soils and on and on, all factors that can 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, then placed into the six-ounce coffee cups set out on a long rustic table.
We walked around the table, lightly shook each cup and then smelled the aromas. Next, six ounces of hot water just under boiling point was added to each cup. We watched as the “crust” of ground coffee formed on the top.
Special cupping spoons were handed out and we walked around the table again, smelling the aroma of all the coffees. We bent low over the cup and breathed 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. Then we tasted 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 red “cherries” are the ripe beans.
Sightglass has a “green” coffee buyer who spends four months on the road visiting the Coffee Growers. At their farms, in South and Central America, Africa and the Pacific, they get to know the provenance of each coffee’s origins and its terroir.
By visiting the growers, buyers 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.
Sightglass Coffee is serving Coffee that is produced to Fair Trade Standards with a commitment to high quality coffee. It is sourced directly from origin and is freshly harvested from perfectly ripened “cherries” (the coffee beans), using sustainable and ethical methods.
To quote from the Sightglass “Story”:
“We aim to deliver the highest quality achievable in all aspects of our business, whether that be sourcing the most beautiful and wondrous coffees attainable or employing the most thoughtful and quality focused practices possible. Coffee is our craft and we look forward to sharing it with you.”
- 270 – 7th Street,
- SanFrancisco, CA 94103
- Tel. 415/861-1313
- Hours: 7.00 a.m. – 7.00 p.m. everyday.