Four Barrel Cupping

30 December 2023

I was sitting at Four Barrel, for the first time, finishing up Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” when a man in a blue flannel walked over to tell me that they were doing coffee tastings up at the pour over bar. “We’re doing it from 2-3, so no rush” he told me. I took that as a sign to take my time and finish up my book and cappuccino before sauntering over to check it out.

Twelve bags of coffee were on display on the wooden counter top. Each bag was joined by two cups of cupping style brewed coffee. As I arrived, he was finishing up his explanation to a young Chinese couple. “We brew them like this since it would take too long to make twelve pour overs just for a tasting.” When he saw me, he started over again, explaining how each cup contained “about 12 grams of ground coffee, and I just add hot water”.

He pointed me towards a cup full of spoons and a shot glass. “You get a spoonful like this”, he dipped a spoon into the brew, “and then put it in the glass before tasting. And these”, he pointed towards cups of water interspersed between the coffee, “are for rinsing the spoon”. I nodded along, perhaps more enthusiastically than I felt.

When I got to the end of the line of coffee, another man had come around and was tasting as well. I could tell he worked there from the way he slurped and his tight black shirt and frayed skinny jeans, it seemed like the unofficial uniform for these SF coffee hipsters.

”Do you work here?"

"Yeah, I do"

"Are you also a roaster?"

"No, but I work with Kevin on the coffee kegs, I also help out with education."

"Oh that’s cool, like when you say kegs do you mean like cold coffee?"

"Yeah, so all the cold drinks you see on the menu, we make them. We brew the coffee and tea, hot, and then nitro chill them."

"Oh, is that to like preserve the flavor?"

"Yeah”, he said hesitantly, “So with cold brews, you get some of the flavors from the barrel, kind of like whiskey, it’s not a bad thing, but it does change the flavor."

"I see, so like for consistency between the hot and cold coffees?"

"Well, hot things and cold things taste different too. Like a cold beer tastes different than a warm beer. Usually, coffee tastes better hot."

"You wouldn’t microwave a cup of coffee though would you?”, I said with a laugh.

”Actually, if it was a really bad cup of coffee I would. Like if you had a can of Coors Light, you’d want to drink it as cold as possible, so same thing with coffee."

"How do you guys come up with the flavor profiles?"

"Uh, we do tastings together, like this”, he gestured at the bar, “We all take notes and then come up with them."

"How do you like figure out what something tastes like?"

"With a lot of practice”, he smiled, “like for example ‘apricot, sour gummy worm’”, he pointed at one of the bags on the shelf, “it obviously won’t taste exactly like that but we do that to give customers and idea of what the coffee might taste like. That one”, he pointed at a label, “it’s ‘jasmine’ because has a lighter flavor."

"Oh, like acidic vs bitter?"

"Yeah, but there’s ranges, like if it’s on the sweeter side, we might say like a sweet citrus, but then there’s beans, like the Ethiopian, that are more complex and that might be more of a stone fruit"

"Or like a berry?"

"Yeah exactly… What’s your name?"

"Enoch"

"I’m Brett”, he stuck his hand out and I shook it, “Nice to meet you”.

”Yeah, you too”, I called after him as he walked away.

I turned back towards the bar. “What’s your name?” I asked the barista.

”I’m Kevin”, He stuck his hand out.

I shook his hand as well.

Kevin challenged me to find differences in taste between cups, which was hard. I’ve never thought too much about how coffee tastes, I know what I like, but the buck stops there. We chatted about coffee brewing methods but as other patrons trickled over, I stepped back to let him run his explanation again. Talking to Brett and Kevin reminded me of talking to Long and Duc at Dream Beans in Hanoi.

Long and Duc told me about how Dream Beans was trying to cultivate third generation coffee in Vietnam. They had partnered with farms from around Vietnam to produce Arabica beans, a step away from Vietnam’s traditional Robusta export. All of which was roasted on the third floor of their narrow shop. I’m hoping they’re able to change Vietnam’s status in coffee production into a renowned place of cultivation on the level of Colombia or Ethiopia.

I love talking to these people: people passionate about the art of crafting good coffee. People who work directly with farmers to bring specialty roasted coffee to us. My favorite question is “So how do you make coffee at home?” as it opens the door to talk shop about brew methods, grinders, and pour over cones, all to make their favorite cup of coffee.

Thanks y’all, it’s delicious.