Before I visited the Four Barrel store on Valencia, I was already enthralled by their espresso and coffee served at other stores. I love the traditional flavor of their espresso, been impressed by the quality of their single origin roasting, and most importantly, and sold on their “don’t try too hard” mantra. Four Barrel is a great company that produces some of the best stuff in the Bay Area, but they don’t seem to market themselves quite as aggressively as others. Maybe that is just my perception; I base this partly on whom they source to and thus presuming their intentions. That being said, I have never been unimpressed by a shop that sourced FB.
Four Barrel was the first stop on my four-shop city coffee odyssey with the Companion guys. Right away, I was drawn to the design and layout of the store. Four Barrel feels very “San Francisco;” industrial, chic, faced-paced, cosmopolitan, and well-loved. I think many aesthetic qualities of the city are reflected adequately in both the architecture and atmosphere of the shop. In some ways, the wood and brick felt accents feel “dated” and old-city, but also extremely homey and inviting. Some could argue that the worn-in appearance coupled with the high volume of coffee/roasting production makes the shop look untidy or unkempt. I see the opposite; true, the two espresso machines do not match, the wood paneling is slowly peeling after years of good use, and the work space can be a bit messy, but this all stands as a testament to Four Barrel as a “work horse” of a company and a store. They are brazenly putting in 100% to give us 150% output and the physical defamation of the store shows so much character and love for the equipment and the bean, not to mention the tenacity of the staff. It is understated, high quality coffee production, not a pretty facade.
I really loved how the store is segmented into separate but equally highlighted sections. There is clear production, service, and roasting area that offers an experience that patrons are encouraged to be part of the entire process from bean to cup. First and foremost, they utilized a huge amount of space in the back to showcase their roaster and wholesale. It is such an integral (probably the most important) part of any high end coffee company. While some shops have a separate facility, Four Barrel prominently displays theirs in-house. The Probat, green beans, and finished products are all laid out in plain view from the bar. On the bar, Four Barrel features a beautiful La Marzocco Mistral and a Strada. So, they don’t match. But for those of us who are enthusists, these machines represent “top of the line” tech from two different eras; La Mistral was the Strada of 6 years ago. You can tell a lot of care was put into training when you watch the staff operate the separate work stations. The lay out was awesome; both are perpendicular to the front counter, two oasis in the middle of the square bar, facing each other as if they were about to have a coffee throw-down. I was almost hoping they would. While I love the idea of the independent Single Origin bar for espresso and pour overs, I thought having separate hours for it was a little silly. I was hoping to try a pour over, but we were told the S.O bar had already closed for the day and were only offering French Press. It was only 4:00, kind of strange to not serve pour over all day. But, the fact that FB has dedicated a space to showcase S.O. is awesome. Next time.
The “worn in” aesthetic and industrial layout reflects the “mechanical rhythm” of the busy store. The layout also showcases these various aspects in a way that puts equal emphasis on each; there are multiple centerpieces, all of which demonstrate Four Barrel’s quality and flow together almost seamlessly. Watching the process from start to finish is looking at a well oiled machine working at peak efficiency. Simply a marvel. Not to mention, it is easy to see where Sightglass got some of its decorative inspiration…
The staff are skilled professionals. Everyone I spoke to seemed really enthused to be part of FB. The baristas displayed incredible technique. Anyone who has time can sit and make a good cap, but these guys were incredibly fast, firing out amazing drinks at almost twice the speed of other stores I visited in the city. This ability to “flow” takes a lot of experience to develop to their caliber. While the “well-oiled machine” image may not be romantic, I actually admire hardcore attitude of the staff. Things at FB are done quickly, precisely, efficiently, and with great care.
The quality of each drink, no matter how great the beans, roasting, or machined are, is determined by a final integral factor; the barista and their steady hand. While the overall quality of a store should not be determined solely on this factor, having a well trained staff and consistency is key. That being said, the cap I got was outstanding; the flavor was great, the espresso was wonderful, but the milk was quite warm for everyone who ordered one. While the barista succeeded admirably with art and texture despite the high temperature, the milk definitely detracted from the final product. Basically, this was an anomaly. The next time I visit FB and have the milk done a little cooler, I will impressed, again.
While sipping my cap, I witnessed the limits of working in such a high volume environment. I have worked in stores with similar issues; no matter how skilled someone is, fatigue will get you at some point. One guy bagging coffee looked like he had had a long day. Filling bags with pounds and pounds of coffee for hours can get harsh. However, while the other staff member was operating in a fast but careful manner, this guy was jamming his scoop into the barrel of beans (forcefully), literally thrusting them into the bag, and then tossing the filled bags across the counter. I watched for about 5 minutes, his pattern didn’t stop. From a customer and a barista standpoint, it bums me out to see people treat the product in a less than respectful manner. FB should be very proud of their roasting and it felt like his rough treatment did not reflect a love for the bean. But then again, it was the end of the day.
I loved Four Barrel because it stands apart from the other big SF shops in it’s methodology, aesthetics, and outstanding espresso. FB has an incredible aura of experience and confidence that comes from people who are passionate about their work. These guys are like the mechanics with years of experience who will get down and dirty to overhaul your whole engine by hand… because they can. If you go to Four Barrel, expect their hard work to pay off.
- The “well-oiled machine”
- Lay out and “food competition” espresso set up
- The well loved equipment
(at 15th St)
San Francisco, CA 94103