Located in the Mission District (Valencia Street between 14th and 15th), Four Barrel Coffee is a place that takes its artisanal coffee to a level of seriousness that you might expect from a master sommelier. Their attention to detail, bordering on the obsessive, would be ripe for parody if the results weren’t so impressive. The coffee is amazing, the pastries are fantastic, and the atmosphere is communal in the best sense of the word.
The space is a large warehouse. From the front, you could breeze by (as I almost did) without realizing that there is a coffee house inside. If in doubt, look for the funky bicycle racks and outdoor seating (above).
Immediately on your left as you walk in is a pour-over coffee bar. This “next thing” in coffee is all about the slow brew of coffee through a cone shape filter. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s the way most home coffee machines brew coffee. It seems, though, that you can get really particular about the details.
Anyhow, the person working at the bar can also answer questions about their coffees (sourced from micro-regions all over the world and brewed at the back of the shop) and other coffee making paraphernalia. In fact, one lady spent twenty minutes demonstrating the various Japanese made ceramic coffee grinders to me.
The counter and espresso machines are in the center of the room. The baristas have their own personality and flair, demonstrating a level of artistry that your average Starbucks barista will not. Of course, your average Starbucks barista is also now using a fully automated machine that requires no more skill to use than the average coffee vending machine minus the coins.
The coffee roasting takes place in the back half of the warehouse. You can sit at a counter watching the action take place and it gives the space an especially industrial feel, which may explain what attracts the huge number of hipsters.
Besides the coffee, Four Barrel offers really amazing pastries, sources from three different bakeries.
One that caught my heart (and caused me to make two return trips) was the kouign amann, a butter pastry from Brittany that seems to be the new cupcake on the west coast. These are provided by Starter Bakery in Oakland.
Layers of buttery, sugary goodness that caramelize as they bake. You are not allowed to think about diets while you eat this. Just don’t.
Another wonderful treat (not sure what bakery it was from but possibly Dynamo Donuts on 24th Street) was a lemon-thyme donut. I’m not generally a huge donut fan, but this was a spectacularly light, pleasant, and surprising donut. The lemon-thyme flavor is refreshing and much more complex than you might expect.
And then there is the coffee. You can order any of Four Barrel’s single-origin coffees as an espresso. Not sure what the default espresso is, but I found it nicely balanced, not too acidic, and just what I needed to start the day.