I guess it’s time for a true confession. I’m a coffee snob. And when I travel, I have a passion for supporting local roasters and coffee houses. Let’s just say I’ve BEAN Around the World and I’m feeling like now is the time to start sharing the love… and caffeine, one city at a time. You may recall that I started this series with San Francisco – Part 1. If you haven’t already read it, please do before reading this article. It will give you background and a review of the first three coffee roasters I sampled. So let’s open the TWG cafe society doors and talk coffee. Here are the next three coffee places in San Francisco I visited.
Verve is the new kid on the block. I say “on the block” because in fact, they’ve been down in the Santa Cruz area since 2007 (the owner is from Chico and a surfer dude, so he chose Santa Cruz to open his shops) but only opened a cafe on the corner of Church and Market in mid-February of 2017. Stewart, the wonderfully friendly and informative assistant manager, sat with me for a good while and we had a fun chat. He told me that Verve had actually been looking for a space in San Francisco for some time. They wanted a space with a lot of natural light, and while they had this San Francisco space for two years, due to all the rules and regulations in city coding, it took them two years to build out the space and open their doors. Stewart said, “You can’t really be a big dog on the Northern Californian coffee scene without a shop in San Francisco!”
The space is very thoughtfully designed, very modern, lots of natural light, and has a few different seating options. The tables were big and would be good for working. All their beans are roasted in Santa Cruz and they use Colombian and Honduran beans. Pour over coffee is actually their biggest seller and cappuccino the second most requested beverage. And of course like all the other roasters, they are heavily focused on their wholesale bean business.
Their latte is $4.75 so that puts them on the high end of the coffee places I tried. They have a signature drink called a whisky latte, which contains whiskey syrup. I didn’t try it but Stewart assured me it was yummy! I had my usual cortado and it was delicious. The espresso had a berry taste and tasted generally fruity.
Like many of the other coffee house managers I spoke with, Stewart said the owners of Verve were great to work for. He also told me something that I’ll admit surprised me. This was also confirmed by other managers. He told me he hired people with no coffee house experience! He was looking for a certain personality and work ethic, but felt that if people had worked at other coffee houses he would have to UNTRAIN their bad habits. Verve, as well as the other roasters, want things done a certain way, so better to work with someone who has a clean slate. Though surprising, I certainly see his point.
Stewart said if he couldn’t drink Verve coffee he’d drink Ritual. This segues perfectly to my next stop: Ritual. But before I talk about Ritual, let me give you a HUGE tip about ordering espresso beverages. Throughout my coffee tour around San Francisco every time I ordered a cortado it came warm, not hot. Even some of the lattes were on the warm side. I finally asked Stewart at Verve about this and he told me WHY!
There is an assumption that the smaller beverages, meaning in amount or cup size, will be drunk more quickly, so they don’t heat the milk as much. So for instance, the latte at Four Barrel that comes in a smallish ceramic cup, will be less hot than the latte at Andytown, which came in a much larger porcelain cup. Holy COW! As I thought back on this, it was totally true. And seemed to be the case only in San Francisco because I haven’t found this anywhere else in the world. Here’s the problem though, at least for me. I don’t drink ANY beverage quickly. I drink slowly. So if you drink slowly and order a smaller sized drink like a cortado, macchiato, or even a cappuccino, order it HOT or it will come out warm. At least in San Francisco!
I went to the Ritual in the Valencia corridor during the morning. Since so many people had said they’d drink Ritual if they couldn’t drink the coffee where they worked, and since Ritual was super early on the specialty coffee scene and thought of as top dog, I was looking forward to trying them out. It turned out to be my least favorite, though! Let me share why.
As I had done with every place I visited, when I went to the counter to order my latte, I introduced myself and asked if anyone had a few minutes to chat with me about Ritual. The fellow said, and rather brusquely, that everything I needed to know could be found online or on their packaging. I looked around, it was not crowded, there were plenty of staff, so I replied, “The managers of Four Barrel and Verve had time to chat with me. You mean no one here has a few minutes?” He repeated what he had said about where I could find out anything I needed to know. Wow, that’s some attitude.
I paid for my latte and decided to take a seat at the counter by the window. Before I tell you the rest of the story, let me first talk about the coffee. The latte was hot, but weak. It came in a simple cup and saucer, but the espresso blend, which was 75% Brazilian and 25% Rwandan, didn’t come through the milk.
As I drank my latte, I decided to strike up a conversation with the guy sitting two seats away from me. The first thing I asked him was if he was a regular Ritual coffee drinker. He said he was. I asked him why and he said it was because he lived around the corner. I told him about my interaction with the staff and he said, “I’m not surprised!” He then spilled the beans and gave me some back story!
He told me he felt their reputation had gone to their heads. The staff wasn’t stable and there were a lot of changes in personnel. He told me the space really needed to be redone, and finally in 2015 they redid it. There are no plugs and no wifi. Maybe not a big deal for most San Franciscans who are connected in other ways. The space was now very modern and large with plenty of seating options. I talked with him for quite a while and he asked me if I had tried or was going to try Sightglass coffee. He said Sightglass was what Ritual USED to be. I didn’t think I had time to try Sightglass, but based on his recommendation, I made the time and as you’ll read, was very glad I did.
Before I leave off reviewing Ritual, they must have observed me talking with their regular customer and writing notes because a woman did come over to me to “talk” with me. I put talk in quotes because when I asked her some questions, she told me I could get everything I needed to know online. I told her maybe not and asked her what their most popular beverage was. She told me they were all popular. I asked her what coffee she’d drink if she couldn’t drink Ritual. She told me she didn’t know. At that point, I just thanked her for her time because I wanted to end the conversation and talk more with my coffee counter companion!
For me, Ritual was not the space, the coffee, or the attitude I look for in a coffee place. They do have other locations, so if you’re a Ritual coffee house regular I’d be interested to know why.
Ah, Sightglass Coffee! I went to their Mission District location and it was everything I look for in a coffee house. This location has been here three years, though there are other locations around the city as well. Sightglass is owned by two brothers, Jerry and Justin. And from my time spent at their Mission location, it feels like they hire great people who enjoy talking coffee and sharing coffee passion. Most of my information came from Carly, though the barista was super helpful too.
It’s a great space that felt airy with plenty of tables, comfortable cushion backed seats, and plenty of light. There are no plugs and no wifi. They play an old LP stereo and when I was there in the afternoon, Patti Smith was on.
They roast their beans in-house and have just gotten a much larger roaster, which is at one of their other locations. And of course, like the other roasters, they do a large wholesale business. In fact, I saw Sightglass being offered around the city and Carly assured me that if anyplace serves Sightglass coffee they are required to do the same training as the baristas who work at the Sightglass shops. That’s good to know!
My cortado came out hot and strong, and I verified with the barista what I had been told about smaller beverages being served with less than hot milk, and he said that was true, so he made mine HOT. They do NOT use Brazilian beans. The day I was there, they used two Latin beans and one African bean.
Lattes are their #1 requested beverage. They DO NOT charge extra for almond milk – that’s rare. Like the other roasters, they do roast a decaf bean, but unlike many of the other coffee houses, they actually do get many requests for decaf.
They have a pour over counter and Carly told me their pour over crowd is very loyal. Pour over is definitely the craze in San Francisco. What’s different about pour over coffee from the old style what we might call drip coffee is that the pour over method uses precise timing and weight measurements in making the coffee. At Sightglass, they change their pour over menu two times a day. It’s always served black in a 10 ounce cup and most often drunk black without anything added. If you haven’t ever tried a pour over cup, it’s always interesting to try one and see what you think. When I asked both Carly and the barista what they would drink if not Sightglass, they both said Four Barrel or Andytown. They knew Andytown because they happened to live out in that district.
Wow, so there you have it. Over 4,000 words and six different coffee roasters sampled. Did I hit up every roaster? No, of course not. I do hope that I gave you some insight you didn’t already have and some motivation to perhaps try a roaster you haven’t already tried. I’m looking for a total experience when I travel and enjoy coffee, so for me while a space and energy of the staff will never supersede a weak coffee experience, the best coffee experience must also come with an environment I like.
Is it the same for you? I’d appreciate it if you let me know in the comments if you think I did justice to the coffee scene in San Francisco! If you don’t live in San Francisco and will be visiting, did these reviews help you choose which roasters to try?
If you liked this post, please check out all the other cities I reviewed in Shelli’s World Coffee Tour.