While revisiting Dynamo Donuts earlier this month, we quickly noted the bags of Four Barrel Coffee in the back. Like the Four Barrel Coffee mothership, Dynamo had been using Stumptown Hairbender to date — with rumors that they would switch over to Four Barrel once they got their roasting operations going. Four Barrel commenced their roasting operations earlier this year, and their Friendo Blendo roast had now made it to Dynamo Donuts.
Yet the results at Dynamo Donuts, while very good, were a bit of a disappointment compared to the Hairbender shots they previously pulled. Was it the coffee? The day’s barista? The wet February weather? To remove some of the espresso preparation variables from the equation, we recently revisited Four Barrel Coffee to find out what they were doing with their own roasts in place of Stumptown’s.
It had been a few months since our last Four Barrel visit (and since our last Trip Report). Not much has changed inside — other than the roasting operations at the rear looked polished up. Also, there is new counterspace off to the left as you enter — where we found Four Barrel staff holding a cupping.
Of course, there is the same pair of Mistral machines, the four eBay-purchased boar’s heads, and a wall of roasted coffee for retail purchase. To further evaluate some of Four Barrel’s new roasts, we also opted to also buy some for home use — and encountered quite a bit of frustration.
Four Barrel’s shelves were decked out with various single origin roasts from Guatemala, Panama, Ethiopia, El Salvador, etc. — but not even so much as a label indicating the existence of a sold-out blend (e.g., Friendo Blendo). Four Barrel certainly sells their Friendo Blendo blend directly to consumers, and the supplies on their shelves may have been starting to thin out (with three-day-old roast dates). But all single origins and no sign of a single blend? This struck us as frustrating on two levels.
At one level, over the past few years single origin coffees have become so overly faddish and trendy that we can see the eventual backlash forming like a tsunami on the horizon. Now we really do love a lot of single origin coffees. And sure, many coffee consumers still need to get the single origin thing out of their systems to educate their palates with the constituent parts. But the recent irrational exuberance over single origins, at the almost complete exclusion of any blends, is a bit myopic and far too limiting — especially when espresso is involved.
Which brings us to our second issue: we largely agree with Mark Prince’s (of CoffeeGeek.com fame) statement that, “I still have yet to meet a single origin coffee I’ve truly enjoyed as an espresso.” Here Four Barrel showcases some of the most exquisite espresso machines on the West Coast. Their coffee menu is dominated by espresso preparation, despite the occasional French press. And yet their retail bean stocks reflected absolutely none of that.
But don’t take our word for it. Just try some of their Panama Duncan Estate Micro-Lot #1 in a home espresso machine. We did, and the results were as poor as we expected: a thin crema; a flat, one-dimensional, and slightly metallic flavor; and little body. (Even though we knew we were doing unholy things to a good roast, we are experimentalists after all.) Fortunately our home vacuum pot justified some of their efforts — though we must add it did not justify their notably (and expectedly) steep price tag. (UPDATE: a couple days after first writing this, the coffee did peak and shined in a vacuum pot — but still not as much in a French press.)
Comparing Four Barrel Coffee’s Friendo Blendo to Stumptown’s Hairbender
But back to the main event: Four Barrel’s in-store espresso. In some ways, Four Barrel’s (and Dynamo’s, for that matter) Friendo Blendo and Hairbender shots were similar: a very dark, textured, patchy crema; a lighter body than you’d expect for such a precisely made shot; and a more potent bright taste at the bottom of the cup.
But in other ways, the new Friendo Blendo shots didn’t measure up at all to their Hairbender predecessors: they lacked their intense brightness, they exhibited a relatively muted flavor potency in the cup, and even their dynamic range of flavors seemed abbreviated. We’ll even go so far as to suggest that Four Barrel’s Friendo Blendo shots taste like Hairbender put through a low-pass filter.
Which isn’t to say we didn’t like Friendo Blendo — or that Four Barrel doesn’t produce some of the finest espresso shots and coffee roasts in the city. But, given their pedigree and pricing, Four Barrel Coffee carries the weight of a lot of expectations. And while Four Barrel will hopefully ratchet up the quality as their roasting operations continue to get underway, these expectations remain largely unmet.
Read the updated review of Four Barrel Coffee.
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