Walk the streets of the East Cut and you’re bound to find a coffee shop on nearly every corner. But did you know our neighborhood’s connection to coffee goes all the way back to the Gold Rush?
It turns out the East Cut was home to the state’s first large-scale coffee roasters and some of the nation’s most recognizable coffee brands today.
As tens of thousands of gold rushers settled in San Francisco in the mid-1800’s, so did the service industries catering to this swelling population. Roasted coffee, an already established industry in the eastern and southern United States, was non-existent in California. But as San Francisco’s dominance in the Pacific shipping economy grew, high-quality coffee beans from Hawaii, Java and western Latin America made their way to our shores and the coffee industry quickly established roots in the city by the Bay.
Here are the stories of two coffee entrepreneurs who made a lasting imprint on San Francisco and the East Cut:
To make coffee before 1850, San Franciscans had to purchase green coffee beans and roast and grind them on their own. That all changed when William H. Bovee started roasting and grinding ready-to-brew coffee at the Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills in San Francisco, the first factory of its kind and a revolutionary concept in the coffee industry.
To help build his mill, Bovee hired fellow pioneer and gold rusher James A. Folger as a carpenter. After working at Bovee’s mill for nearly a year, Folger had saved enough money to buy a stake in the company. And along his route to mine gold, he would carry samples of coffee and spices. Soon he began taking orders from grocery stores.
Folger eventually bought out all the other partners and renamed the company to the familiar J.A. Folger & Co. with headquarters at 101 Howard Street in the East Cut. The brick, five-story building still stands and is listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places.
Hills Bros. Coffee
Hills Bros. Coffee was founded by the three sons of shipbuilder Austin Hills. Earlier, in 1875, the brothers operated a stall selling dairy foods in the Bay City Market, located in what is now Civic Center.
While selling butter preserved in brine to the Army during the Spanish American War, the Hills brothers were unhappy with the unpleasant aftertaste. To improve the flavor, brother R.W. borrowed a vacuum packing method from a Chicago coffee distributor, refining a packaging technique still used to this day. A few years later the brothers purchased Arabian Coffee Mills on Fourth Street, and by 1900 they were using this new vacuum packing for their coffee with great success.
In 1926 Hills Bros. moved its operations to 2 Harrison Street, a Romanesque revival building that is now a city landmark in the East Cut. The building sports a large tower which was both decorative and functional — the tower was used to blend the aromatic roasted beans stored inside.