Mark Twain supposedly quipped “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” It’s debated whether he actually said it, but one thing is certain: if Mr. Clemens had visited San Francisco today he would have found a great cup of coffee to warm him up. In a city teeming with great cafes, Four Barrel Coffee is one of our favorites.
Founded in 2008 by coffee-veteran Jeremy Tooker, Four Barrel is a cafe and roaster in San Francisco’s Mission District, a historic neighborhood known for its Victorian architecture, colorful murals, and great burritos. Four Barrel is named for a century-old, four-barreled sample roaster (which is still in use), but customers are more likely to notice the four mounted boar heads that line the north wall.
The interior at Four Barrel is decidedly analog– fitting for a store that roasts all of their coffee on a vintage Probat. There’s no wifi network or power outlets, and all of the music is played on a record player. In other words, this isn’t your office away from office. The impossibly cool aesthetic has attracted both admirers and cynics, but there’s no denying the quality of the product.
The coffee line up at Four Barrel is an impressive array of direct-trade coffees, sourced by Four Barrel’s globe-trotting team of coffee buyers. “At the end of the day, I’ll pay the highest prices for coffee.” Tooker explains in a recent video “All I want is the best coffee.” With such a revolving door of different coffees one might think each coffee’s subtleties might get lost in the mix, but a sample from each batch is cupped to ensure quality and consistency.
Slow Bar v. Fast Bar
San Francisco is a bustling city, and few people have time to wait around while some barista waxes poetic about a coffee’s flavor characteristics. However, for a cafe-crawling coffee aficionado it’s a little disappointing to be shoved a take-away cappuccino without getting a word in edgewise. Thankfully, the separate slow bar and fast bar means whether you’re late for work or have time to kill, Four Barrel is your huckleberry.
The fast bar features twin work stations, cranking out shots of their signature Friendo Blendo espresso on Kees van der Westen espresso machines. Although Four Barrel is a very high volume cafe, each drink is still made with skill. My espresso was well extracted and my cappuccino was thick and creamy, with a simple but thoughtful latte art heart.
If you have some time to kill, like I did my second visit, the slow bar offers a more relaxed pace and an incredible (and overwhelming!) selection of 6 different coffees for pour-over or single origin espresso. Even if there’s a line, the barista on duty is happy to explain each coffee and even shoot the breeze- which shows the South doesn’t have a complete monopoly on hospitality. The barista, Alex, recommended the Colombia San Augustin La Cabana, which was incredible as a filter coffee and espresso. It was a super sweet and floral coffee with a pleasant acidity – my favorite espresso I had in San Francisco. The pour-overs are made with Hario V60s attached to some Thomas Edison-esque contraption and beautiful Takahiro Kettles, a coveted status symbol in the barista community. Once again Four Barrel proves design and culinary excellence go together.
So if you’re going to San Francisco, skip the flowers and get some Four Barrel Coffee.
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All photos by Eric Wolfinger.