We published our first trip report for Sightglass last July: Sightglass Coffee, Version 0.3. Back then, Sightglass was a tiny espresso-serving kiosk at the front of a vast, 4,000-sq-ft space with a 14-kg Probat roasting operation planned to start in the Fall of 2009. We revisited Sightglass this week to see how much things have changed.

It’s perhaps both bad and good news that things haven’t changed much at all since our first visit. They still operate as a tiny kiosk of a service station in front, offering espresso, Chemex brewing, and some salt caramels. Their roasting operations are still being built out; the current completion estimate is now June 2010. Instead of facing the permit issues that delayed Four Barrel’s roasting operations, the delays at Sightglass were primarily zoning: given that there are two other notable roasters in the SOMA district, the environmental impact of another neighborhood roaster required a rather thorough evaluation.

New Sightglass signs at the entrance Even so, after 9 months you cannot tell if this café is coming up or coming down

One other major change here was a highly publicized switch of their espresso machine. What was a beautiful, rare, refurbished, two-group La Marzocco GS2 espresso machine — straight out of the 1970s, and a sister to the one recently installed at Intelligentsia‘s fabled Venice Beach location — has since been replaced with a two-group Slayer machine. (Just like the one at Matching Half Cafe.)

Fourth Wave Espresso Machines — aka The Mother of All Hyperbole

Ah, the infamous, fetish du jour: the Slayer. While the verdict is still out on the merits of the Slayer as an espresso machine, its merits as a hype machine are unquestionable. For example, two months ago one barista/blogger made the ludicrous claim in Serious Eats that, with the Slayer, “fourth wave coffee has arrived”.

First of all, remember that the term third wave was originally coined to describe a level of consumer appreciation for coffee. Thus, the author literally suggested that an espresso machine will single-handedly make consumers appreciate coffee in such a significantly novel way as to change consumer culture. By comparing waves, her statement suggested that once consumers compare a Slayer-made espresso with a run-of-the-mill Blue Bottle shot, for example, public coffee-drinking habits will change as dramatically as when people raised on cups of Sanka brewed in 1950s percolators discovered the espresso made at Rome’s Sant’Eustachio il caffè.

Wow. Talk about Mother of All Hyperbole. We’re honestly incredulous at how someone could make such an absurdist claim.

Thankfully, the New York Times tempered the post’s price-tag-based hype: the Serious Eats post lead with sensationalist $18,000 price tag headline, completely oblivious to the fact that a decent, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 will set you back more than that. But then Salon magazine echoed that piece with a post titled “Baristas gone wild”, and local culture & clique rag, 7×7, anointed the Slayer at Sightglass as “ushering in coffee’s fourth wave”.

Sightglass Coffee's La Marzocco GS2 - the 70's are back! Sightglass's new Slayer espresso machine - with iPad register

Has the Sightglass switch to a Slayer revolutionized how we appreciate coffee?

We love a taste test challenge. But to make a fair and reasonable comparison, a number of variables must be held in check: location, barista, coffee roast, grind, ambient temperature and humidity, etc. Unfortunately, controlling all of these is a next to impossible task. However, there are a few things in our favor: the same place (Sightglass) using the same roast (a Sightglass blend made at Verve Coffee Roasters) and the same grinding equipment.

On the negative side, the baristas were different (but were hopefully trained to the same standards), the weather may have been different, the age of the roasts could be different, etc. But since we couldn’t reasonably get lab time to compare a Slayer with a La Marzocco GB/5, we’ll have to settle for a taste comparison made months apart.

Construction of Sightglass' rear roastery has progressed only some in 9 monthsThe other thing in our favor is that we’ve historically found our own espresso tasting descriptors and rating system to be very consistent between visits at cafés with good standards and consistency. We’ve been surprised many times when, having a “blind” test at a place we haven’t visited in over a year, we’ve compared our notes and scores with our previous visit and discovered that they completely agree. And if the Slayer truly created an entirely new wave of consumer coffee appreciation over the old standards, our lack of precision should theoretically matter little.

Comparing the Sightglass GS2 and Slayer Shots

We found our Slayer-pulled Sightglass shot to have a dark crema. Comparing it with the La Marzocco-made shot of old, the crema is a little darker but a little less substantial. The body is a touch thin, but that was true before here also. One greater difference was the focus of the flavor profile: instead of a potent flavor dominated more in the pungent range of the flavor spectrum (more of cloves, herbs, etc.), the Slayer-made shot had a darker, more earthy flavor dominated more in the smoky/muted tobacco end of the spectrum. And while their La Marzocco shot had a pretty limited dynamic range of flavors that were still executed well, the newer shot had the same limited range with the exception of a surprisingly acidic bite to its finish.

The Sightglass espresso from a La Marzocco GS2 in July 2009 The Sightglass espresso, Slayer-made, with a side of Pelligrino from April 2010

Even so, these differences were subtle. We noticed the $0.50 increase in their shot prices more than any tasting differences (namely: more smokiness than pungency plus a brighter finish). In fact, when we tallied our espresso rating scores, they were identical with the GS2 shot from last July.

So does that mean the Slayer isn’t a great machine? No. But it does suggest that the 2010 issue Slayer, for all its hype, imparted no noticeable difference to the resulting shot in the cup — from a 1970’s-made La Marzocco. At least from our espresso consumer’s perspective, this supposed fourth wave looks identical to the so-called third. We honestly couldn’t tell them apart.

Sure, we have taken a bit of poetic license to its literal extreme with this semi-facetious comparison. But if you are going make audacious claims, we ask that you back them up.

Of course, the Slayer’s prime advantages are manual pressure control and pre-infusion capabilities that are perhaps best suited for single origin coffees rather than blends. The reason we found little difference from the Slayer at Sightglass could be due to the coffee being a blend, or because they’ve tuned it to produce shots that meet their previous flavor profiles, or because their baristas haven’t yet learned how to take advantage of the additional controls.

But perhaps the biggest telltale sign as to why Sightglass switched from a perfectly reasonable GS2 to a Slayer can be found in their most recent cash register system, which is now based on the Apple iPad released just this week. Is there any better way to indicate how much you’re enamored with the new and less with the reasons why behind a switch?

Read the updated review of Sightglass.