Update (3/1/09): Four Barrel is now roasting. See the updated review.
The wait is finally over. On August 21st, Four Barrel Coffee (officially) opened for business. I apologize for my somewhat belated review, but let’s face it. If you are are coffee-centric enough to be bothered by my tardiness, you’ve probably: a) already perused the panoply of press available on the topic and b) either visited the cafe or are planning to go regardless of what I have to say. Besides, the inner workings of this cafe aren’t all that different from its previous, outdoor instantiation that I covered a few months back. Staff still serve Stumptown Coffee and pull Hairbender shots on a Mistral. What else is there to know? Those two things alone warrant a visit.
Just to be clear, this is no longer the illicit back alley operation that Four Barrel used to be. There’s no more meandering down dingy alleys, stepping up to a loading dock to place your order or standing about staring at the schmuck who grabbed the single, rickety chair. Sure, I miss the adventure, but after one good sleuth, the adventure got old. Call me an elitist or a sell-out, but I’ve come to love life’s little luxuries like chairs, tables and bathrooms, especially when they are housed in a gorgeous space like this one.
Four Barrel’s plethora of restored wood beams, black granite counters, and sand-blasted floors, create a space that is industrial-chic, yet warm and soothing. The enormous space gets just enough natural light from both a front and back wall of windows to make it feel welcome during the day while giving it the potential to take on a more gritty tone at night.
The 2,000+ square foot space is divided into several distinct areas. A cupping station promises daily cuppings sometime in the future while seating is further divided into three main areas. The seats themselves are industrial-looking chairs and stools inspired by the old school drafting-table style stools I sat on in middle school. You can chose to sit at the restored wood beam tables along the right wall, two bar-height counters set into each front window or a long bar in back that separates the cafe from not yet fully operational roasterie. (See this timelapse for fantastic sense of the place).
The roasterie, of course, is the star of this location. It promises to be yet another top-end Bay Area roaster and a supplier of coffee to vast swaths of bay area cafes and restaurants, at least if the rumors I’ve heard about Four Barrel’s manifest destiny have any merit. The secret to their success will be their partnership with Stumptown coffee, who, if I understand it correctly, will help supply Four Barrel with many a green bean giving them a unique take on Bay Area coffee. When I asked owner, Jeremy Tooker, about the opening date on the roasterie, he let me know that he thought it would be a matter of weeks. While I’m keeping my fingers crossed, I’m not expecting anything too soon.
But even without the roasterie, there is still coffee to buy. The cafe is selling 12 oz. bags of Stumptown beans repacked in “Four Barrel” stamped and sharpie emblazoned, PLA-lined coffee bags. The 10-12 different coffee selections sell for roughly $11-12 each and are shipped down from Stumptown twice per week so you should always be able to find something fresh. As you can see from the photos, beans have been cleverly displayed in a manner meant to evoke the Four Barrel theme – four columns of shelves lined up beneath the four boar’s heads. (4 boar, 4barrel. It’s a stretch, but I think it works, no?).
You can, of course, order prepared coffee off the streamlined coffee menu which hangs in perfect alignment with the minuscule pastry case built into the front counter in the coffee bar. The case is currently filled with Dynamo Donuts, which make an excellent accompaniment to the tasty coffee assuming you don’t might the caffeine-sugar overload. As things progress, however, it would be nice to see an expanded pastry line, if only there is a place to put them.
Coffee is French pressed and regularly rotated. I had a taste of the Costa Rica Cafetine. It was mellow and very clean, with a very mild suggestion of something fruity. I imagine that this light-bodied coffee could be a nice way to ease into the morning, but it struck me as a little singular and not nearly as interesting as the other two coffees I’ve had previously from Four Barrel.
As I already mentioned, the espresso is pulled on a Mistral. The Hairbender started with a mellow orange acidity that transitioned into a more complicated, sweet base. The full-bodied shot had aromas of clove mixed with molasses and some smokey, grilled peach.
What I didn’t say is that inside this cafe are two Mistrals, for a total of 6 groups! These hotrod machines are lined up head to head. It’s an unusual arrangement, but then again, not many cafes operate two, three-group machines. I’m not sure if there is functional purpose to this arrangement, but there must be an aesthetic one. It reminded me of dueling dj turntables, appropriate given that the source of tunes for this cafe is the staff’s (mostly 80’s) LP collection. I don’t know if Duane Sorenson would approve, but the Hairbender blend will now forever be associated in my brain with Hall and Oates’ “One on One.”
I suppose it’s no surprise that Four Barrel is a hit. Even without the roasterie, this cafe’s “temporary” supply of Stumptown coffee, prepared with the skill and machinery housed here means that this is still one of San Francisco’s best cups of coffee. Part of me, will be sad to see this Bay Area source of Stumptown coffee disappear, even if that departure signals the arrival Four Barrel’s own unique flavor. But that’s another review.