San Fran Buzzing Coffee Scene

San Fran’s riding the Third Wave, loud and proud. Whilst we’re on the subject, let’s take a small detour and explore the origins of the term. The First Wave takes its roots in post-1940s, when corporations mass-marketed instant, freeze-dried coffee, that invaded US households.

The Second Wave took off in the 1960s and 1970s with companies such as Peet’s Coffee & Tea of Berkeley and later Starbucks experimenting with espresso machines and darkly roasted ‘specialty coffees’, ‘incepting’ the idea in the minds of the masses that coffee is cultivated in various regions around the globe. Consumers relished their cup of Joe not because of the complexities of the brew itself but rather skimmed the surface of its secondary attributes: the caffeine buzz, the sugar rush from syrups, the comfort of holding a warm beverage while making idle conversation.

All hail the 21st Century and the birth of the Third Wave movement, led by coffee enthusiasts around the world who are intensely focused on producing high-quality artisanal coffee.  These coffee shops not only seek to build direct trading relationships with coffee farmers around the world, but also adapt the roasting and brewing methods to the bean to ensure your coffee truly is ‘good to the last drop’.

San Fran’s buzzing hipster coffee scene is alight with independent coffee shops and microroasteries specialising in small-batch, seasonal, uber-fresh coffees. You don’t have to be a coffee nerd to enjoy coffee at one of these places. The experience itself might even reveal itself as an epiphany: the white procelaine 7fl.oz cup, velvety layer of milk, topped with a rosetta leaf or heart design (the signature of a skilled barista) and an incredibly smooth shot of espresso. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Then again, you could go through the five stages:

  1. Denial: Yeah, Third Wave’s just a load of baloney. Ain’t nothing wrong with my Nescafé.
  2. Anger: Why are these underground coffee shops so impossible to hunt down anyway?
  3. Bargaining: Ok coffee geeks, where can I get my fix? Web-based coffee guides and iPhone apps are my only salvation.
  4. Depression: OMG I didn’t realise I was drinking fake coffee all this time! I’ll just wallow some more in my Syphon Yirgacheffe brew.
  5. Acceptance: This is the way coffee was intended to be. All is right in the world again.


Interestingly, San Franciscans seem more accustomed to darker roasts. Whilst the coffee was really hit and miss at some cafés, there is one place that will knock your socks off: Sightglass. At first glance, Sightglass appears to be an inconspicuous independent coffee kiosk on 7th Street, somewhat similar to what you’d find in the back streets of Soho. Take a look behind the veiled windows and you’ll see this HUGE rustic warehouse with vaulted ceilings and a mezzanine level. This vast space makes up the extension to their new roastery and brew bars. The sibling co-owners will effectively have expanded the shop to over 650 square metres. Not bad for a first Third Wave venture. I tried this place on two occasions, and sampled a Chemex Salvador single origin brew that blew my mind. The vibe of this place is really chilled out and the baristas are more than happy to share their wisdom on the various brewing methods they offer and the complexities of their freshly roasted coffees. Sightglass attracts more of the local crowd as opposed to the usual hipsters. The baristas skilfully operate a little $18,000 hand built espresso machine known as the Slayer and manage to pull a creamy and bright espresso, served with a side of sparkling water. Definitely worth the trek – it’s gonna be awesome once they completely renovate the space!

Blue Bottle

Blue Bottle on 66 Mint Street has loaded the cafe with a five-light syphon bar and offers a weekly menu of three single origin coffees. I was really excited about trying the syphon bar, however on my first visit it was shut. I must say that I don’t really get why this place is so popular. It reminds me somewhat of Monmouth in London. I wasn’t all that impressed by the filter – the barista looked more like she was haphazardly splashing water rather than pouring it in any methodical way. The result was a bitter brew as expected… there’s no point in having amazing freshly roasted beans if the execution is sloppy!  I sampled some Blue Bottle coffee around the city, notably at the MOMA where the ‘flat cap’ was a much welcomed improvement but still lacked the WOW factor.

Four Barrel

No fuss coffee shop at its best. Expect the usual coffee nerds to be behind the counters and a long queue of customers – both a very good and comforting sign. Keep walking a little further on and uncover the massive roastery – OH YEAH! You can observe them roast the coffee right there in the store as you sip away. This coffee shop on Valencia offers both pour-over and espresso bars with baked almond croissants, etc.  I sampled the Costa Rica El Tajo described on the menu as having lime and caramel aromatics, dulce de leche and rainier cherry notes. Tasty!!! Definitely a step up from Blue Bottle.

Ritual Coffee

Walk a little further on Valencia, and you’ll hit Ritual Coffee. This place is like Marmite: you either love it or hate it. I’m not so keen on the ominous black panes and tired furniture. The coffee was OK, but doesn’t go any further. I do however dig their heavy drinker loyalty card!


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