Umamiventure #30 was indeed a memorable affair, and much more than what any of us expected. It was a night of Serious Coffee Schooling-- from the bean picking process, to roasting, to tasting-- all courtesy of Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco.
Since opening in 2008, Four Barrel has become a front runner in the specialty coffee scene here in the Bay Area, and is now on the menus of some of the most reputable restaurants (Slanted Door, Foreign Cinema, Bar Tartine, and on). Their beans have recently gone bicoastal, as NYC's Maialino now serves Four Barrel coffee as well. SF represent!
Jeremy Tooker, founder of Four Barrel, was recognized recently as one of Food & Wine magazine’s 40 Big Food Thinkers Under 40, as he is known to champion small single-farm beans, in accordance with their seasonality. He’s all about letting the beans work their magic, instead of manipulating them through the roasting process.
Pamela, the head trainer at Four Barrel helped me organize the event-- she is super knowledgeable about coffee, Four Barrel, and the industry in general. In a word, she is a STAR. She and the Four Barrel staff graciously invited us in, offered us coffee while we waited for everyone to arrive, then packed all 20 of us into their back roasting area.
Let Umamiventure #30 begin.
I drink coffee several times a week and I know how I like it: black. But that was the extent of my coffee knowledge. The 30th Umamiventure at Four Barrel changed all that. I arrived a bit early, but Pamela, our guide, greeted us as soon as we walked in and offered us coffee (whatever we wanted on the house if you mentioned Umamimart.)
The tour consisted of three parts 1) picking and selecting the beans; 2) roasting the beans; and 3) tasting coffee.
I was floored when Pamela told us she prepared a PowerPoint presentation for us, to go through the Four Barrel method of sourcing, selecting and processing the beans. At this moment I knew we were in for a true educational treat! She had our complete attention during the presentation.
Pamela's PowerPoint slideshow really proved how little I knew about coffee-- like for instance it was a red cherry. She also emphasized how important it is to choose the right coffee beans to get the desired taste.
Look at us-- we are absolutely captivated. GEEKOUT!
Pamela fully engaged us with her infectious energy and devotion to the subject. She spoke so eloquently and answered all of our questioned with the relaxed ease of a pro.
Pamela's professionalism and friendliness coupled with her wild enthusiasm and impeccable knowledge was a flood of joyous enlightenment-- I thought I knew about coffee but I really didn't, obviously. Her ability to convey the gist of coffee from A to Z so flawlessly was totally admirable.
We learned that Jeremy takes great lengths in working with each farm and coffee producer directly, to assure safe, fair and well-compensated practices. He really is committed to championing these unknown, under-recognized farmers who are often underpaid and live in poverty despite the fact that it's the THIRD most traded commodity in the WORLD! Crazy. Here's a great visual fact sheet by Mint.com, via Ido.
The heat picked up during part two when we were shown how the beans get roasted. Manning the 1957 steel/ cast iron German Probat roaster was Jackson who walked us through the whole process (about 10 minutes) of roasting.
We all had a crush on Jackson. Ok, I can't speak for everyone, but I know most of us did. He spoke with great confidence about his craft and we were all so mesmerized by his enthusiasm, knowledge and the physicality of what it takes to roast coffee.
In watching Jackson, we learned how patient you must be to roast coffee. He picked up a pail of beans (still pale green!), dumped them in the roaster:
Knelt down to several times to adjust the temperature:
There's a tube like part that you stick in and out of the roaster called a "trier" which allows the roaster to check on the beans:
Here's a great video of Jackson and the grand finale of the roasting process, by Yoko. I could seriously watch this over and over, it's so thrilling.
Like a Zen Master, Jackson was at one with the Probat roaster, as well as the beans. He just KNEW when those beans were ready, and unleash that "drop door". It was awesome to watch the entire roasting process, from the beans while they still green, to a toasty brown color. Et voila!
Jackson roasts about 500 lbs of coffee a day. The bean should be carmelized on the outside, and each bean will have expanded quite a bit (hence that lighter-color line you see running down the bean).
Four Barrel roasts all of their coffee at medium which disturbs less of the original characteristics of the bean.
Let me say that the roasting with Jackson was a highlight-- his passion for craft was obvious. And the fact that he's really cute didn't hurt either (ha ha). Pamela and Jackson both mentioned the fact that Four Barrel roasts to a medium roast which I thought was interesting.
Jackson, swoon: his easy charm juxtaposed with his martial arts-like roasting technique was a thrill.
The best part was seeing Jackson in action roasting the beans. I have never actually seen this before and I didn't know how sensitive a process it was. One second too long and the beans won't taste right!
What I admire most about Jackson is the great pride he took in his craft. You could tell by the way he spoke about coffee, and even in the way he picked up each bean-- with utter delight. For him, they are magical little pebbles that he nurses with great care, one by one, to extract the exact flavor he desires out of each bean. He's in a powerful position, and he doesn't take it for granted.
Pamela joined us again for part three, with Justin, barista extraordinaire, for the tasting of the coffee (called "cupping"). They prepared six types of coffee for our tasting pleasure.
1. Coast Rica El Tajo
2. Guatemala Ojercaibal
3. Colombia Andino
4. Ethiopia Welena Suke Quto
5. Kenya Kirinyaga Karimikui
6. Sulawesi Toarco
To quote Pamela: "The coffees are placed in an order in which each coffee prepares your palate for the next coffee. For example, coffees with brighter acidity and lots of rich dark fruit (such as the Kenya Karimuki) will follow the nicely balanced, softer acidity found in most Latin coffee."
Again, totally enthralled with the Four Barrel staff as Justin stepped in and spoke about the coffees offered at the cupping. Knowledgeable, engaging, spirited.
He added water to the coffee grounds and scraped it off the top with exact precision. Pro.
Bending down to smell the coffee.
My favorites were the Costa Rica El Tajo, the Ethiopia Welena Suke Quto and the Kenya Kirinyaga Karimikui. Big differences in flavors. Some lighter (the Costa Rican), some fruity and even tea-like (the Ethiopian) and a robust, intense and very full flavor (the Kenyan). Cupping was a new experience for me and it was great to get a background and lesson from Pamela and Justin.
I have attended wine and sake tastings before but a coffee tasting was completely new to me. Tasting how Costa Rican beans were different from Kenyan beans really opened my eyes to how much coffee can differ by region (they are all roasted using the same method).
If I was disappointed at all that night, it was probably my lack of taste-- I could hardly tell the difference between any of them! Still, it tasted great, especially compared to the sad bitter crud I made the next morning.
Though I am not a big coffee drinker I really enjoyed the chance to have a cupping with some experts. It's interesting how different the types of coffee taste when you try them side by side.
Overall the entire visit was really informative and I learned a lot. I really connected with all of the wine references Pamela made throughout the night and started to realize that coffee has a lot of similar nuances and detail in flavor. I, for one, don't always stop to appreciate this as I slam down my first cup at 6am. I also took away an appreciation for the process that Four Barrel follows with their sourcing and roasting process. The work they do with the farms they work with and others who stand to benefit was something unexpected and I think a huge benefit for their business as a whole.
Well geez, the night was just far beyond perfect. I got way more than I bargained for: I literally imagined a straightforward cupping and no more.
Our visit to Four Barrel was just another example of the Bay Area's dedication to kick*ss gastronomy without pretentiousness. The staff were all super-friendly, bringing Umamimart into their world and getting folks excited about the things they're passionate about. I liked a good cup of coffee before this visit -- now I have a better sense of what goes into making it. Thanks Four Barrel!
I came home with 12 oz. of Ethiopian Welena Suke Quto beans and I know I am going back to Four Barrel when I start shopping for holiday gifts.
Big huge THANK YOU to Pamela, Jackson, and Justin for spending the evening with us and schooling us on the art of coffee, roasting and tasting. We all walked out more knowledgeable about the industry and flavor profiles of coffee. Here's to many years of success for Four Barrel! You all ROCK!
Fun fact: Four Barrel is named after this four barrel sample roaster for roasting samples of green coffee.
Lagunitas on tap for the staff, baby!
*Photos by Yoko Kumano and myself.
**Umamiventures are organized monthly, traveling far and wide to find good, cheap grub off the beaten path.
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Past Umamiventures include:
1.) Ocean Jewel Restaurant – Flushing, NYC; June 2007
2.) Red Hook Ball Fields - NYC; June 2007
3.) Taste of Jackson Heights – NYC; October, 2007
4.) Sripraphai Restaurant – Woodside, NYC; November 2007
5.) WINTERMARKET – South St. Seaport, NYC; December 2007
6.) Jackson Diner- Jackson Heights, NYC; January 2008
7.) Pacificana – Sunset Park, NYC; February 2008
8.) Puerto Alegre – The Mission, SF; March 2008
9.) Dinosaur BBQ – Harlem, NYC; April 2008
10.) Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden – Astoria, NYC; May 2008
11.) Brooklyn Banh Mi Crawl – Sunset Park, NYC; August 2008
12.) Sheapshead Bay Lobster Crawl – NYC; September 2008
13.) Flushing Food Circuit – NYC; October 2008
14.) Strong Beer Month – SF; March 2009
15.) Loisaida Throwback Crawl – NYC; April 2009
16.) Harley Farms Goat Dairy – Pescadero, CA; June 2009
17.) Tomales Bay Oyster Farm – Marshall, CA; August 2009
18.) Din Tai Fung – LA; September 2009
19.) Din Tai Fung – Tokyo; September 2009
20.) Schroeder’s Oktoberfest – SF; October 2009
21.) Fish Taco Crawl – San Diego; November 2009
22.) St. George Spirits & Hangar One Vodka - Alameda; January 2010
22.5) Everett & Jones – OAK; January 2010
23.) Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse – NYC; February 2010
24.) Guerilla Ramen Night – SF; April 2010
25.) Knife Sharpening Workshop at Hida Tool & Hardware – Berkeley, May 2010
26.) San Pedro Fish Market - LA, June 2010
26.5.) Candytown – LA, June 2010
27.) The Trappist – Oakland, July 2010
28.) San Tung Restaurant – SF, August 2010
29.) Bitters Tasting with A.B. Smeby - Brooklyn, NYC, September 2010