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Three Out of Four Barrels…

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Name: Four Barrel Coffee
Location: 375 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA
Rating: 4-

My ongoing coverage of Four Barrel Coffee is starting to take on a life of its own. During my delusions of grandeur, I can’t help wonder if my first few reviews (1,2) aren’t the foundations for an epic saga such as Michael Apted’s critically acclaimed “Up” series. I imagine, however, that this most recent post might conjure a different film in your minds.* Regardless of how history will judge this series, I felt compelled to update this blog given that Four Barrel’s roasting operation is now fully operational. Besides, I needed a break from my current, as yet to be completed, New York cafe odyssey.

Answering to the call of coffee seeking duty, I packed up the daughter and headed over to Four Barrel. On the day we arrived, we laughed at the funny boar heads on the wall before crying at the fact that they had run out of croissants. I deftly negotiated the fragile needs of a nearly three year old with a delicately phrased promise about future pastries. Fortunately, she seemed satisfied with her steamed milk and the opportunity to operate the new camera (pictures not included).

My best information about the coffee Four Barrel is roasting is a few months old, but I believe the story is that they have partnered with both Stumptown and Sweet Maria’s to supply their green beans. Based on the coffee sitting on the shelf, this seems more or less true. The coffees are pretty much Four Barrel’s take on Stumptown’s current menu with a couple of other coffees thrown in for good measure. Not that you would ever know this, of course, just from looking. You also may not have known that Four Barrel is currently, and wasn’t previously, roasting their own since they’ve consistently bagged the coffee with their own label since opening (tisk, tisk for transparency.) They have, however, come up with some clever, personalized and puzzling labels (see comments) for their cups.

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Here’s what we sampled that day, and later at home:

  • My daughter gave the steamed milk a thumbs up. She drank half which well exceeds her usual intake of barely more than a demitasse!
  • I had a mixed, but generally upbeat reaction to Four Barrel’s new Friendo Blendo espresso blend.  It was darker and more distinctive shot than the Hairbender pulled previously at this cafe. Confession time – I’ve never been a huge fan of Hairbender. Perhaps I’ve never had a really good shot of it (never without milk from the hands of Stumptown proper), but while it strikes me as complex, I also find it noisy and scattered. The Friendo Blendo is just the opposite, verging on overly simple. It has clearly defined top and bottom notes, with the top notes being mildly bright – orange or meyer lemon – but not too intense and the bottom notes striking very deep like the bass thumping over the speakers in the cafe. The clarity of this shot was highly memorable and generally enjoyed it. I’m eager to try it again.
  • The Panama Duncan French Press was fine, but far from wowing: roasted pear, chocolate, and a hint of lemon. Overall, it was fairly flat and subtle, not unlike many of the Stumptown coffees I’ve purchased from Four Barrel over the past few months.
  • The decaf blend, which I tried at home really did wow me.  It was rich, buttery and full of savory grilled portabello mushroom. This rich umami-filled experience had just the right touch of acidity – balsamic vinegar – and overall really surprised me given the oily exterior of the coffee and general youth of the roast. At the same time, this was all based on a single shot I sneaked before giving the bag to a friend of my wife’s (shhh! don’t tell).
  • Finally, the Kenya AA Gaichitania which I took home. In the end, I don’t think I particularly liked this coffee although it was interesting. It was unlike any Kenyan I’ve ever had previously. It eschewed the distinctive clarity and brightness – whether bright lemon, hibiscus or current – typical of Kenyans for a kind of full-bodied, heavy on the chocolate, cloying sweet brightness. The best way I can characterize this coffee is Juicy Fruit gum covered in chocolate. Seriously.

So what does this all mean? I’m still digesting it myself. On the one hand, I tend to agree with the opinion that Four Barrel, with their roasting, may still have a way to go to live up to the expectations – rightfully or not – thrust upon them. I liked these coffees less than the Stumptown beans they used to use, and their espresso perhaps equally although for different reasons. I’ve decided for now to downgrade Four Barrel just a little. On the other hand, Four Barrel has only been roasting their own coffee for a matter of weeks – a process that has a pretty steep curve. It’s only natural that they are still improving their roasting prowess while defining a distinctive taste of their own (all the while refining ordering and production schedules). I think they’ve taken a slight step back, but given the talent and drive of this shop, I expect that will change going forward.

*If the trailer isn’t working, try here. Scorcher VI is not to be confused with the unsequelled, and very real film, “Scorcher.”

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4 comments to Three Out of Four Barrels…

  • The star names and designs on the cups at Four Barrel are not labels, actually, but part of an art project: http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dcx4dxtk_108fcrqg4gd

    Really enjoy the blog – thanks!

  • Funny how we sort of have opposite thoughts about Hairbender/Stumptown but both feel Four Barrel’s roasting operations haven’t reached their full potential yet.

    Interesting to know about the “art project”, since I never order in paper if I can help it. But I have to say… it is far less artful than the comical, obscene illustrations in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions”. Which isn’t saying much. Gareth clearly has good artistic skills, but this is one project where you’d never know that.

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