Wormhole Coffee Guest Roaster [Sept. 2013] Four Barrel Coffee
When you ban “talking about annoying hipster topics” AND Instagram at your coffee shop, you’ve got our attention. Of course, Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco has had our attention since it opened in 2008.
Not sure how many people know this, but our now semi-legit Guest Roaster Program was started by our owner, Travis Schaffner, hitting up coffee shops on the West Coast, raking as many pounds of their bagged beans into a suitcase as possible, then heading home to Chicago to spread the cheer with all of us. These days, we order our beans like everyone else, and it’s a good thing. And, btw, you’re going to flipping love drinking Four Barrel this month at Wormhole.
And, yes, they did ban hipster speak and Instagram—kinda, but not really, far as you know.
Four Barrel: The Company and Its Customers
So, basically, a hyper-talented fellow by the name of Jeremy Tooker co-founded Ritual Coffee Roasters along with Eileen Hassi Rinaldi, then decided to do his own thing and begat Four Barrel. Now joined by co-owners Jodi Geren and Tal Mor, Four Barrel has the respect of the entire coffee industry for their principled stands on, well, the most important issues of the day.
Tooker and his coworkers together spend between six and nine months a year traveling to source coffees in Latin America and
East Africa. Four Barrel completes the circle by roasting right in their cafe space in San Francisco. “One of the things we’re always working on is to remind people where coffee comes from,” says Matthew Hein, a jack-of-all-trades at Four Barrel who’s worked there since 2009, a self-titled Coffee Helper. “It’s a cherry that comes from a plant. I just feel like we really tried to be transparent. Tasting shouldn’t be shoving something down someone’s throat, it should be doing what you do, allowing someone to watch you, and, if they ask you a question, you answer honestly and that’s how people learn.
“If somebody wants to stand at the back bar, they can get a pretty good view of the roasterie, or, they can stand in the corner and see us manually weighing out 12-oz. bags and stamping them with the date. Or, they can stand a couple feet behind a barista and see their machine, what temperature they draw at, how many seconds they’re pulling. I’ve seen people watching them do that work for an hour. The word transparency is thrown around a lot, but in this case it’s openness and if you want to ask a question, we’re not going to shove it down your throat.”
Longevity Is Key (And Timing)
One thing Four Barrel has always seemed to understand: in the specialty coffee business, the only way to survive is to keep both your staff and customers engaged and happy with the coffee-related aspects of their lives. Hein notes he has been at Four Barrel since less than a year after it opened and is still out-tenured by many of his colleagues. “It’s not common for baristas, roasters, or even the dudes who work in production and shipping, to work at a single coffee shop in an expensive and transient city like San Francisco for 4.5-5 years,” says Hein. “I think that speaks to a few things: what a pleasure it is to work at Four Barrel Cafe and another is that we do try to make it a place that you can afford to live in San Fran and work there and that includes healthcare.
“Another effect is that when you are competent at your job and have been dong it for a few years, you have a choice of turning off your brain and doing it or keeping your brain active and figuring out ways to keep it exciting for yourself and improving is, of course, one of the ways to keep it exciting for yourself,” says Hein. “Also, since we’re growing a little bit, we get new folks in working with the old folks and there’s a natural exchange of ideas when you get reasonable, creative and competent people together.”
Speaking of such, and as we all know, San Francisco these days is any coffee lovers’ dream and we wouldn’t denigrate what’s happening there by calling it a “scene.” It’s more the birthplace and fertile incubator of a nascent movement in our book. Hein agrees: “I think San Fran is proof that a rising tide lifts all ships. I think people who are wedded to a really boring and not robust version of supply-and-demand economics would look at the number of very good roasters and cafes in San Francisco and say it isn’t possible for them all to flourish, but we are flourishing and we’re doing a pretty good job for the most part.
“We all drink together. You can see us in each other’s cafes all the time. On weekends, we open up in our back alley which is where we first served coffee while doing the build-out inside and we don’t advertise that, it’s for people in the neighborhood who just want coffee and not the massive experience,” continues Hein. “It’s also for the coffee nerds who want to hang out and have a little experience and talk about a single origin espresso and don’t want to worry about holding up a line full of families with strollers. It’s a great little semi-secret we do almost especially for people like friends and family, neighbors, and baristas at other shops who maybe only get a couple days to get off work and go out and should be able to have a very cool, social experience.
“I think San Fran is just a great environment, everyone’s talking and sharing, it’s almost like a huge book club and we’re mostly aware that it’s still just coffee at the end.”
The “Slow” Bar
That social experience is also exemplified in the Slow Bar at Four Barrel Café. “It’s a separate little bar off to the side where you admit you’re going to take a bunch of time, going to hang out and talk to the barista, ask him/her questions about which coffee, select your pour over, pay a dollar or two extra for it, and have a different experience and not get in the way of people who just need to get their cappuccinos and go on with their life and I think it’s a brilliant idea, I love it.”
Another interesting aspect of the Slow Bar, every barista works a weekly shift there, giving them the chance to teach, learn and improve their personal coffee knowledge. “We offer 12 coffees at a time, so even though I come to cuppings and know what they taste like, I might not have had all 12 coffees in each format: as single origin, French Press, V60, etc. That’s 48 different coffees, plus cupping, so 60 different coffees every month, if you look at it that way. So, when you work that front bar, it’s your study hall, your chance to hang out and, if you want, get creative,” says Hein. “If not making it for a customer, can try some stuff out. Play with the grind and your thermometers and whatever other wacky stuff you have, so also a great chance to educate yourself. When you work the Slow Bar and are inundated with questions all day, it’s a great way to solidify your own knowledge. I love interacting with people there. It’s the difference between being a waiter and a bartender, you get to hang out with people.” You want this, right?
Latest & Greatest
In other ventures, Four Barrel co-opened The Mill in San Francisco, a collaboration between Four Barrel and Josey Baker Bread. This is connected on a basic level by the fact that both businesses use mills. Josey Baker is the baker and a former science teacher who makes ridiculously delectable bread. More important than other details, they have a toast bar with multiple butters from which to choose. Four Barrel is also working toward opening a “tiny little coffee stand” in the Portola neighborhood of San Francisco. More on Josey Baker Bread HERE.
What’s already come out of Four Barrel since 2008 is legendary; what we’ll see next, who knows. We can’t wait to find out. Come and get their beans all month here at Wormhole Coffee.
Also, HUGE PHOTO CREDIT goes out to Eric Wolfinger for the killer shots of Four Barrel Coffee and it’s environs. Check out more of his work RIGHT HERE.