Through the Looking Glass
For some it’s barrel-aged whiskey, for others exotic cheese from Swiss goat herders, but for me it has always been locally roasted coffee that has pushed my taste bud’s proverbial buttons. And when it comes to the dark and sultry brain elixir, I’m a snob. Give me the rarest single-origin bean that has been shat out by an Indonesian mammal, brewed in a platinum-encrusted siphon contraption, and served in a specially crafted mug equipped with laser beams any day. Call it luck that my living quarters are conveniently located around the corner from San Francisco’s newest micro-roastery darling: Sightglass.
It's before 8 a.m., which is far too early by most freelancer's standards, when I’m greeted by Sightglass’ convivial caffeine peddlers in San Francisco garb (sleeves of colorful tattoos and dashing full beards), swilling finely crafted potions that make a coffee lover’s heart flutter. They’ve taken a solemn oath not to shave until the full café opens, and I can’t speak as to whether the female employees have made the same pact.
Behind the small coffee cart parked in the roastery’s awning, I glimpse the voluminous interior tempting passersby with its exposed wood beams.
Despite the fact that the full café is not open to the public yet (the opening is slated for this spring), the co-owner Justin has invited me to partake in an exclusive roasting session on Sightglass’ vintage drum roaster. Justin and Jerad are the young and affable sibling proprietors who started the coffee operation with little more than a passion for old-school roasting traditions. This morning I am giddy with excitement to experience how beans are readied for the standard French press, pour-over, or siphon pot.
To start my first roasting experience, Justin proudly leads me over to the star of the show: a hulking Probat roaster built in 1961. It’s a cast iron oven with a small glass window for monitoring the roasting beans in process (hence the café’s namesake). This heavy metal mama commonly roasts 600–700 pounds of delectable beans per day. The revered roaster was shipped direct from Germany in a deplorable condition before the brothers lovingly refurbished the entire machine themselves. Striking a delicate balance between using new technology and relying on the tried-and-true old-world roast methods, I notice that the brothers have hooked up their spanking new MacBook to the vintage drum roaster in an unlikely match that would make the late Anna Nicole Smith and her 80-year-old tycoon’s marriage look legit.
Justin still remembers his first roasting experience on a simple kitchen stove top, long before acquiring his own Probat. “It was a humbling experience” he fondly reminisces, “but I drank it anyways.” I'm eager to get that big German roaster fired up, but before we can begin, Justin whisks me aside to check out his stash of unroasted “green” beans. Each coffee bean actually starts as a red cherry growing on a low lying bush. After being handpicked by farmers, the coffee fruit is processed in one of three ways: wet, dry, or honey. The wet process produces a clean, clear, and balanced cup of coffee; the dry results in a fruit forward and possibly “dirty” cup; and the honey results in a unique (if somewhat unpredictable) coffee. The end product always produces green beans that need to be coaxed by heat to result in the addictive wallop that I have grown to crave.
Ultimately, the brothers' goal is to seasonally source the beans themselves from small farmers, thereby circumventing the need to buy from a distributor. Already, I am beginning to grasp that the coffee roasting business is more complicated than I at first anticipated. Roasting is a “combination of science and art,” my bearded guide advises. “There’s always more to learn, it’s a never-ending process: the growing, harvesting, importing, preparation, seasons, and agriculture present challenges and new flavor opportunities.” I look at my coffee cohorts with newly found respect.
We saunter back to the roaster I have fondly nicknamed “Gertrude” for the purpose of this story, and carefully measure out my first batch of green beans. CC, our lead roaster and demonstrator, dumps the tub of beans into a funnel-like hopper with a hatch at the bottom that is triggered when the drum is up to optimal temperature. And with a flourish, the roasting process begins.
Gertrude's high-tech Mac appendage immediately starts to busily chug away, tracking our batch's time and temperature with an OCD level of accuracy. “We’re ultra geeks” Justin admits with a grin. Inside the drum, heat from the burners is causing a series of chemical reactions that is encouraging particular flavors and natural nuances in the coffee beans. "So do these graphs tell the roaster when the batch is done?" I query. Justin shakes his head. Make no mistake about it, “the actual roasting process is 100% sensory,” he explains. “We go by sight, smell, and sound.” The “sound” aspect of this sensory triage refers to listening for cracks, much like little popcorn pops.
Right on cue, I can hear the first cheery dings that signal the sugars trapped in the beans are beginning to caramelize and expand.
The Sightglass brothers aren’t letting just anyone hop on the roaster to try their hand. Not only could you ruin pounds of precious beans by over-roasting, you could also run the serious risk of starting a coffee inferno. While the brothers won't demonstrate that parlor trick, CC lights up his lumberjack beard with a toothy grin, explaining that the combustible oils trapped in the beans can ignite much like a grease fire at a blue plate diner. “You have to be attentive. It’s a ball and chain.” Justin agrees as I watch on.
With practiced finesse, CC slides the little secret drawer out to spy on the different stages of the beans’ development. As I hover over his shoulder, I naively ask my guides what exactly we are looking for in the beans. With true Zen focus that would make the eyes of Mr. Miyagi tear, I watch CC repeatedly check the product, demonstrating how the beans develop from an olive green, into a pale yellow, a toasty-smelling light brown, to a striped mottled pattern, and finally fully transforming into a deep mocha. You generally don’t go to “roastery school” to learn these subtle nuances of coffee roasting. To understand the secrets of the bean, most roasters work their way up through a process more akin to a traditional apprenticeship.
As I sip on an excellent cup of the Boon blend from a previous batch, Justin explains that The Master Roaster schemes up and follows specific “roast profiles” that use a particular temperature pattern to bring out desired flavors and nuances. The roast style – from the lighter City style to the dark Full French – dictates how long the coffee beans stay in the drum. Surprisingly, the lighter the roast the more caffeine and the more natural flavor characteristics of the bean are kept intact. Sightglass (and most local micro roasters) tend to stay on the lighter side of the roasting scale in order to highlight the unique single varietal characteristics that would otherwise be overshadowed by the roast.
After spending approximately 13 minutes in the roaster, the coffee beans have reached their perfection. I am immediately assaulted by the intense aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans as they are quickly let out into a large tray complete with a rotating paddle that allows for even cooling. “This is a vital step to stopping the development of the beans,” Justin explains. Otherwise, those hot little caffeine nuggets will continue to mature beyond their ideal time, and you will be left with a potentially bitter and possibly charred mess. The coffee is then carefully weighed, bagged, and put aside for several days. During this resting period, the emission of gasses allows the natural sweetness of the bean to develop.
Transfixed for the rest of the morning, I continue to watch the Sightglass crew working smoother than a NASCAR pit, quickly roasting, weighing, and packaging batch after batch of beans originating from the far reaches of the globe. Finally, waving good-bye to my favorite coffee comrades, I can still smell the faintly bitter chocolate scent of roasting beans all the way to my SoMa apartment's door.
If you’d like to try a cup of Sightglass’ roasted coffee, just stop by the kiosk located at 270 7th Street in SoMa. And watch for the full opening in the spring.
If you’d prefer to try to roast your own coffee beans at home, there are several options. You can invest in a sample roaster, which commonly roasts about 100–150 grams of coffee (or five cups worth).
Or if you want to kick it true DIY style, there are ways to use particular popcorn air poppers for roasting beans. It takes some trial and error and it certainly won’t taste as delectable as Sightglass beans. But hey, good luck convincing your landlord to let you install a Probat in the living room.
For more information on how to roast at home or to buy your own green beans, check out Sweet Maria ’ s (located in Oakland), one of the only distributors who sell unroasted beans to the public.