New Saturday Vendor: Sightglass Coffee | CUESA

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August 23, 2013

New Saturday Vendor: Sightglass Coffee

“Since coffee is such a global thing, it definitely presents its challenges for the average person, who can’t visit the farm,” says Justin Morrison of the San Francisco-based roaster Sightglass Coffee. For him and his brother, Jerad, getting to the origins of coffee has become an obsession. “We see it as an endless pursuit. The more you dig in, the more you uncover.”

But the coffee world wasn’t always such an open book for Justin and Jerad. Growing up in the Northwest, they fell into the coffee business independently, working as baristas at cafés in Oregon and Washington. Initially, they were drawn to the social aspect of coffee culture but had little knowledge of the intricacies of the bean business. “I don’t think we had the greatest interest in coffee at that time, especially being as young as we were,” Justin admits.

Brewing Brothers

As the brothers’ exposure to different aspects of the industry grew, their interest deepened. Jerad moved down to San Francisco to hone his craft at Blue Bottle Coffee Co., where he managed the roaster’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market stand, then branched out into roasting and sourcing. Justin eventually moved south to join him at Blue Bottle as a barista. The two immersed themselves in the San Francisco coffee scene and helped Jeremy Tooker launch Four Barrel Coffee.

Blending their coffee passion and knowledge, Justin and Jerad knew they were ready to embark on a project of their own. “We both wanted to do something outside of working for another company, and it became obvious that our ideas were in line with one another,” says Justin.

In 2009, they signed a lease on 7,000-square-foot warehouse space, with the goal of opening an artisanal microroastery. While they built out the space, they roasted and sold coffee through wholesale and a kiosk in front of the building, and in 2011, they opened their doors, bringing their fresh take to the third-wave coffee zeitgeist.

Common Grounds

Most coffee beans pass through a complex network of processors, brokers, exporters, importers, roasters, and retailers on the way to your cup. Crop quality and yields can vary wildly from season to season, and prices paid to farmers are generally set by the commodity market, which fluctuates based on supply and demand, leaving many farmers struggling in poverty.

At Sightglass, the approach to sourcing is different, valuing long-term direct relationships with growers and cutting out the middlemen. Throughout the year, the Morrisons make trips to “origin” in Central and South America and Africa, where they meet with farmers, sample their coffees, and negotiate prices directly, paying a premium for quality.

“We don’t just show up one year, and if a grower’s coffee tastes good, we buy it and they never see us again,” explains Justin. “We work with the same producers year after year, harvest after harvest, so that we can go beyond just the transactional relationship.”

The siblings have seen the fruits of such partnerships grow over the years. For example, one Columbian producer, Wilfredo Ule Vargas of Finca Alcatraz (pictured at right), has been able to improve his operation and rebuild his home due to the premiums he has received from Sightglass. “Because we pay what we pay at origin, we’re enabling someone to put shelter over their family’s head and put their kids into school,” says Justin. “If they were to sell their coffee on the commodity level, they wouldn’t have those opportunities.”

A Window into the Process

In a supply chain that is often murky, Sightglass strives for transparency. Jerad and Justin share their knowledge about each coffee’s origin with staff and wholesale customers, who, in turn, share the information with consumers. On their website and Instagram account, they highlight not only the uniqueness of each coffee but also the stories of the producers who grow them.

At Sightglass, the roasting process is a delicate art. “Each coffee roasts differently based on the variety, the altitude in which it was grown, and how fresh or green it is,” explains Justin. “Our goal when we’re roasting is to bring what we love about the coffee to the surface.” Coffees from the same parcel can vary, so quality control means cupping and evaluating each batch and adjusting the roasting time and temperature to taste.

At the SoMa-based café-roastery, customers are invited to watch (and smell) Sightglass’s vintage German Probat roaster in action, transforming green coffee into finished beans. The large warehouse space is airy and open, laying the whole process bare. “You can see everything from how the coffee is being roasted and packaged to how it’s being served,” says Justin. “You can even see directly up into our offices upstairs.”

It’s no wonder that Sightglass takes its name from the small window on the front of roasting machine that allows one to see inside. As Justin says, “We want to expose the process as much as possible, and if nothing else, spark some intrigue and engage people to ask questions.”

You can find Sightglass Coffee at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays in the back plaza, adjacent to Cowgirl Creamery.

All photos courtesy of Sightglass Coffee. Photo of Jerad and Justin Morrison by Michael O’Neal.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »