Jeremy Tooker, co-founder of Ritual Roasters, had a bit of a falling out with Ritual’s co-owner, Eileen, and he’s pursued his own vision of a quality coffee business in Four Barrel Coffee: no Wi-Fi, no squatting start-ups that can’t pony up rent, just no-frills retail coffee plus a roasting and distribution operation.
We admire the pursuit of good coffee without all the groan-worthy trappings. Except things have opened early at this location. Real early. There is no storefront café (it’s woefully under construction at the former Ideal Upholstery shop), the hours are semi-random, and the coffee comes from Stumptown (as when Ritual first opened, they plan to open a roasting operation later). They currently sling their coffee out of an open garage door along an unmarked Caledonia St. back alley (save for a “4B” sign), so some ask if it is too early to review Four Barrel Coffee.
Well of course it’s never too early for CoffeeRatings.com. If you serve espresso in SF, we don’t care if you’re some guy named Joe running a cart with a mobile Verismo machine connected by extension cord to the downtown Sherman Clay piano shop. We don’t even care if money exchanges hands.
Money exchanges hands at Four Barrel Coffee, but that’s about as legit as this location gets. As with the Hayes St. Blue Bottle location and echoed in the likes of Trouble Coffee, SF coffee geeks strangely crave the Malaysian street food experience when it comes to their espresso: serve it from a cart in an alley near an open sewer, and somehow your street cred shoots the moon.
Four Barrel Coffee clearly delivers on those criteria. But we have to ask: is it just us, or is it getting harder to enjoy top-notch espresso in SF these days without the odd pretense of feeling like you’re part of some low-budget, ghetto chic conceptual art project? (Here’s a telltale sign: if you have to guess if and what furniture might actually belong to the place, it qualifies.) Their arrangement consists of a simple counter (on wheels, no less) surrounded by stacks of burlap coffee bags and simple, colorful artwork. For seating, there are two randomly placed chairs on a sidewalk across the alley.
Yet for all the ridiculously stripped-down surroundings, they serve espresso from a three-group La Marzocco Mistral — which is like buying a Bentley and driving it in a tractor pull. The last time we encountered a Mistral up close was at the Honolulu Coffee Company in Waikiki four years ago. And even inside the luxurious Sheraton Moana Surfrider Hotel, we had to wonder if the Mistral’s owner went out of his mind with the expense.
Serving an 8-day-old roast of Stumptown’s Hairbender blend (which still runs quite well into 12 days), barista Chris (a former Ritual barista and genuinely friendly guy) performed a lot of deliberate prep work — unburdened by the long lines and crowds common to his previous employer. After pulling the shot, he spent a few moments to tap it down and release some gas even with an 8-day-old roast — rapidly thinning out the crema from an overly bubbly froth to a surprisingly scant medium brown, textured coat.
Flavorwise, the shot is supremely bright: mostly a sharp pungency of spices and some herbal elements, but there are traces of honey, nuts, and even orange peel. Served in classic brown Nuova Point or ACF cups.
Milk-frothing is where things seem to break down a little, however. The microfoam texture and consistency is just better than average, despite the touch of a latte art heart. (This is reflected in the correction score, which is also buffered by a correction for an abnormally soft crema rating.) Because of the low retail sales volume, they even get by with small metal kitchen pitchers that are typically reserved for home use.
Read the review of Four Barrel Coffee.