I guess it’s time for a true confession. I’m a coffee snob. And when I travel, I have a passion for supporting local roasters and coffee houses. Let’s just say I’ve BEAN Around the World and I’m feeling like now is the time to start sharing the love… and caffeine, one city at a time. You may recall, I started this series with San Diego. When I wrote about the coffee scene in Hawaii, the topic of coffee in San Francisco came up. Readers gave me a bunch of places to check out the next time I was in the Bay Area and I had a chance recently to do that. And I’ve got a LATTE to share! So let’s open the TWG cafe society doors and talk coffee.
First a few parameters. Readers gave me coffee places to try all over the Bay Area, but this time I only visited places within San Francisco. Next time I’ll explore places outside the city. Secondly, I’m going to talk about the cafes in the order I tried them. You’ll know by my comments which ones were my favorites :) As you might recall, I’m judging more than the coffee. I’m also taking into account the ambiance, service, and general vibe.
The first place I went to is Andytown Coffee Roasters. They have two locations, both of which are in the Outer Sunset. They turned out to be one of my favorites, so besides the fact that their beverages are 50-75 cents less than the other coffee places, the whole experience is worth heading out to the beach for!
They came on the scene about 3 years ago and Lauren, one of the owners, worked for Blue Bottle. They also bake all their own goodies, and the corn muffin I had was enough for two people and quite yummy. Just like all the coffee places I’ll talk about, they do their own roasting and change their blends seasonally.
The day I was there for my cortado they were using a Brazilian Ethiopian blend. Let me say something about cortados in San Francisco. They are called GIBRALTARS. The reason is that the glass it’s served in is called a Gibraltar. Yet even when the cortado wasn’t served in this type of glass, it was still called a Gibraltar. So just a heads up for you other cortado drinkers out there!
I found the staff really nice, helpful, and easy to talk with. They lived in the area around Andytown, so it felt like a really local community place. I do always tell people who I am and what I’m doing when I go on my coffee tasting/reviewing days. Otherwise they’d think I was some weird nosey talkative person :)
The shop on Lawton is only a few blocks from the beach and lucky me, I was there on a beautiful day and was able to enjoy the outdoor seating on their quiet corner. I really liked that Andytown set up shop NOT in the Valencia corridor. A nice change of pace and space!
Oh yeah, the coffee! My cortado was excellent and my friend’s latte was perfect too. I look for the espresso to speak for itself and not be overshadowed by the milk. I want a smooth but robust taste. Even in my friend’s latte, a beverage that can often be too milky so you lose the espresso taste, the espresso came through.
When I visit cafes, especially in a big coffee town like San Francisco, I always ask the staff, “If you couldn’t drink coffee from the place you work at, whose coffee would you drink?” In this case, one of the staff people would drink Four Barrel and one would drink Ritual.
I’ll show my reviewer’s hand a bit and tell you that these two staff people are very lucky to be drinking Andytown coffee and hanging out in this cafe as well. Do make the trip out to Andytown. It’s well worth it and I was sorry I didn’t have the chance to go there again. It’s got the perfect combo of great coffee, homemade goodies, wonderful space, and fun staff.
The next place I sampled was Linea Caffe which is in the Mission District. It was opened by Andrew Barnett in 2013. Having worked for decades in the coffee business and with ties to Espresso Vivace in Seattle, he has quite a pedigree. The staff at Linea told me people come here because of Andrew’s reputation. Linea is a small space on a funky corner and they have a “to-go” window. We did manage to snag one of the few seats outside, so we could hang out for a bit and watch the scene.
Two really fun cool guys were working when I was there and we shared a lot of information and opinions. Coffee snobs/drinkers have opinions… no way :) San Franciscans having opinions… no way :) That’s my cheeky way of saying I enjoyed hanging out there.
They’re using a Brazilian Ethiopian blend. Notice a trend here? They pull what they called a ristretto style shot, which produces a low acidic style of espresso. Andytown did this as well, so I started to see some trends emerging with the bean blends and the shots produced.
They do a decaf but have almost no requests for decaf. All the coffee shops I visited did roast a decaf blend but it differed wildly as to whether there was any interest in decaf. I don’t drink decaf, so in general in my reviews I’ll never talk about decaf.
Linea prides itself on using a La Marzocco espresso machine, which is thought to be the best Italian machine for commercial coffee shops. Many shops use them. I understand this kind of pride because at home for my own espresso I use a small stove top pot that was made in Italy.
My latte was okay, a bit too weak for me because I couldn’t really distinguish the espresso taste. It was also served warm rather than hot. I’ll get to this point more as I work my way through the reviews. Espresso drinks are their signature drinks and they charge at least 50 cents more per beverage than Andytown.
The most fun part of my visit there was talking with the two guys. They told me about the Bay Area shared roasting spaces that have cropped up in the East Bay so that coffee house owners can roast what and how they want but without the expense of having their own roasting equipment and space rental. Sounds like a great concept.
When I asked these guys, “If you couldn’t drink coffee from Linea, whose coffee would you drink?” they both took some time to think about this. BOTH of them said they would roast their own beans! They said that it’s not that complicated to do and that you can get everything you need at Sweet Maria’s (a coffee supply company that’s been around in West Oakland for a VERY long time) to roast your own coffee. Something to consider if I ever stop traveling so much and settle down :)
So while I really enjoyed the company of the baristas at Linea, the coffee and the space (both inside and out) didn’t really suit me. If it’s your go-to place let me know why, I’m curious!
My adventure with Four Barrel turned out to be quite interesting, mostly good. The Valencia corridor seems to be THE PLACE for coffee shops, whether they are one-off shops or part of smaller chains. I passed by Four Barrel a few times and the line was always long, like out the door long. That just doesn’t work for me and I didn’t want to prejudice my review by having to first wait in such a long line. I know you’ll tell me, as others who are Four Barrel fans did, that the lines go fast, but I had to trust my instincts on this so… early on Sunday morning I headed to Four Barrel. Good idea!
The specialty coffee shop/local roasters (or whatever YOU call it) scene gained steam in San Francisco about 10 years ago. Four Barrel was early on the scene, opening 8 years ago. I left the Bay Area just before this started happening, so it was still a Peet’s Coffee town back then and I was a long time Peetnik. Ritual was another early-to-the-scene coffee house and one of the owners of Four Barrel sold their shares in Ritual and opened Four Barrel.
I was lucky enough to have Lauren Brown, who has been the manager for 6 years, as my Four Barrel guide! She said that the Four Barrel owners were great people to work for. It showed in the longevity of all the staff I talked with.
Let’s start with the space. It’s a big noisy space with the roasting facility in the back and a pour over bar in the front. The music is from a record player and record collection, so that’s a novel idea which I liked. The music in a cafe can be an important part of the experience, so I tend to notice what kind of music is playing when I’m there. I wondered if I brought some of my own LPs if they’d play them :))
There’s plenty of indoor seating of various sized tables and even though the space was noisy it was still fine for talking… at least early in the morning. As luck would have it, or because it was Sunday morning in a late rising city, I got a great table for two right where I had an excellent view of the barista. He has a wonderful energy and I enjoyed talking with him and watching his focus as he produced each beverage.
Four Barrel does their own roasting in the back of their Valencia location, and also just got a new facility and much larger roasting capacity facility in the East Bay. True of all the larger roasters in the city, the wholesale business is what they’re pursuing and that requires larger roasting capacities.
Pour over coffee seems to be popular in San Francisco, so much so that a few of the cafes are dedicating space to a pour over bar concept. Four Barrel has one just to the left as you entered the space. Lauren told me that the pour over crowd is a very loyal one. This area is also where people are encouraged to go if they want to hang out and talk coffee with the pour over barista.
Ah, their beans! That’s an interesting story. The day I was there the blend was two Ethiopian beans and a Rwandan bean. They won’t use Brazilian beans! How could I not ask why? A few of the roasters won’t use Brazilian beans. Lauren, though she’s not a roaster herself, told me that Four Barrel felt it’s an inferior and less expensive bean. The less expensive part made it a go-to bean for a lot of roasters. Beans are seasonal so like the better roasters, Four Barrel is constantly changing blends. It always makes sense if you know your preferred tastes to ask what’s in the blend from season to season.
So how was the coffee?? I decided to order a latte. It was a bit weak but very smooth. Four Barrel uses ceramic cups. Different cups definitely create a different taste, and while the ceramic cups were pretty, they’re not my favorite. Also, for you coffee drinkers who usually take away your coffee, try using a porcelain cup. Your beverage tastes much better! See, I am a coffee snob, after all!
I was telling Lauren my take on the latte and she mentioned that she didn’t think their espresso showed up well in a latte; she felt it got lost. She offered to pull me a shot so I could truly taste the espresso. I couldn’t say no, now could I? And she was 100% right. The espresso was delicious, very fruity and sweet, even. So depending on how present you want your espresso to be in your beverage, make sure at Four Barrel to order the best one for your taste.
Four Barrel is super popular. The staff is great, no doubt about that. The space is unique and a fun place to people watch. If you mind the crowds, go at an off hour. Surely worth a try. As I found out, ordering the right beverage may take a bit of experimenting. After all, you’re paying top dollar for the coffee, so why not enjoy it the way you like it.
Yowza, three coffee places down and three to go. Plus I’ve got a huge espresso drinking tip for you and actually one of my top choices still to come. It turned out to be the last one I sampled! Watch for Bean Around The World-San Francisco part 2 and do let me know in the comments what you think of these three reviews. Am I right on the money or way off the mark?
If you enjoyed this post, please check out Shelli’s World Coffee Tour – San Francisco (Part 2).
If you liked this post, please check out all the other cities I reviewed in Shelli’s World Coffee Tour.