The literature tells us that there are five states to coping with the existence of “speakeasy cafes.” I’m speaking about those underground coffee carts that operate in seeming guerrilla fashion, either as a temporary coffee delivery system while a cafe build out is occurring (e.g., Four Barrel) or as a permanent operation with semi-secret status (e.g. Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Kiosk).
- Denial – What are these secret coffee kiosks? Would anyone do that?
- Anger – Why hasn’t anyone told me about these before. They are so cool.
- Bargaining – Come on. Tell me where I can find the next secret coffee cart.
- Depression – The pretension. The uber hipness of it all makes me want to drown myself in artisanal coffee.
- Acceptance – It is the way of things. I am zen.
I was somewhere deep in depression when I first heard about Sightglass Coffee and was only beginning to drift into acceptance by the time I finally got there, something I’d been dying to do for quite some time. In continuing to progress along my stages toward acceptance, it probably helped that relatively little about Sightglass seemed secret. The temporary kiosk is open to the street, sandwich boards positioned to draw maximum attention. Plus, Bay Area residents have, by now, become accustomed to this this not-so-secretive mode of business, as though a collective sense of acceptance has descended upon us all. Secret cafe? Yeah. I’ve been there.
Of course, this hardened, accepting attitude only masks the actual collective excitement the Bay Area seems to be directing towards Sightglass. One reason for this enthusiasm is that Sightglass will ultimately be roasting its own coffee, joining the ranks of Bay Area’s growing legion of high quality roasters. (They’ve already signed up at least one client – Matching Half Cafe). Sightglass’ angle on this rapidly growing scene will be an emphasis on blending. Not that blending ever went away, but arguably it has gone somewhat out of style in favor of high quality single origins.
The second reason Sightglass has people excited is that the space is absolutely enormous – 7,000 square feet to be exact. The eventual cafe will encompass a cavernous floor space plus mezzanine that will leave even voluminous Four Barrel Coffee feeling like something of a New York coffee closet. Given Sightglass’ slightly off the beaten path location, not exactly teaming with hipsters, lofts or anything but tourists and government workers, I’m really curious to see how potentially beautiful space will get used. If you stop into the kiosk, you can peek through the curtain to get a glimpse of what’s to come.
The kiosk area, while bare, is still full of tremendous detail which bodes well for the eventual large space’s aesthetic. Sightglass has obtained one of Four Barrel’s art deco angled coffee carts. One mostly bare wall hosts a rough-hewn wooden shelf which sits opposite from a similarly designed bench. Minimal accents like the lamp and hat hung on the wall are seemingly purposeless, yet utterly beautiful in their balance, and have captured the eye of many a budding photographer as is evidenced across the web.
When it comes to coffee, these guys are surely serious. Sightglass had, to my knowledge, the first Slayer espresso machine in the Bay Area, which, if you aren’t aware, is one of the hottest new pieces of espresso hardware on the market (FYI, Four Barrel also has one in their newly restored back alley operation as does Matching Half). I haven’t had sufficient head-to-head tests to know how much of an impact its variable pressure system and other features can make on a shot of espresso, but I do know that my Sermon blend espresso was so good that I went back for a second - something I rarely do.
What made the espresso so good was that while intensely bright, as are so many ristretto espressos you get from shops these days, it had a rich, sweet, dark side that was immediately obvious. The complexity was there at the front and the different notes melded nicely in a creamy mouthfeel with prominent berry and molasses notes. The espresso also had a slight, fresh herbal aftertaste. And, Sightglass serves their espresso with sparkling water. (For the record, the second shot was equally as good.)
Drip coffee options, during my visit, consisted of three choices of Verve coffee brewed on a Chemex and a cold brewed coffee, which in Sightglass’ case is spiced. I tasted the Ethiopia Yergacheffe Koke which was light, floral and tea like. In writing this piece, I realized that I similarly tasted this same coffee when visiting Verve. I forgot I had tasted it here as well. Maybe one day I’ll get to review this coffee in depth.
I also ordered a cup of the Yemen, which was savory with a slight sweetness of dried fruits. It was also a very light coffee with a tea-like body but with a bit more viscosity in the mouthfeel than the Yergacheffe. What I thought was odd, but pleasantly surprising, was the way this coffee chased my shot of Sermon. Usually an espresso before drip obscures the palate, but in this case the espresso really complimented some of the more intriguing notes of this coffee.
So all in all, Sightglass is very much a destination worthy spot and hopefully will only continue to be so. What’s beautiful about Sightglass, however, is that even if you aren’t ready to accept its semi-secret coffee status, you don’t really have to. Soon enough it will be a fully fledged cafe. No coping required.