Jeremy Tooker of Four Barrel Coffee – Behind The Fades
Years ago, I found myself standing inside Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco while on a second date with a girl I had known in college. Coming here was her idea as my only experience with coffee was either instant canned coffee or a Frankenstein “coffee” drink that involved mostly milk, sugar, and whipped cream in a cup with a plastic domed lid. Unsure of what to order, I followed her lead, got the black house coffee, and we took our gray ceramic cups to a reclaimed wood table while Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run spun on vinyl through the speakers. Admittedly my focus was more on making sure she wouldn’t regret seeing me a second time and not so much on the coffee, but I did have one thought that kept popping into my head every time I took a sip: “Man, this is absolutely delicious”. (Spoiler alert: Date goes well. Fast Forward. We’re getting married in October.)
This was the catalyst that got me to interested in trying different coffees and attempt to learn the differences in brewing methods, bean origins, and roasting styles. With each experience, I became more and more immersed in the world of small independent coffee roasters and as I later learned, it was also during this time where the “Third Wave” movement was quickly growing with many of these roasters seeing a significant increase in attention from consumers who had grown tired of the dominating big coffee brands and wanted better alternatives. This is actually a familiar story seen by many independent brands across all industries including the denim industry which really isn’t all that surprising given that they all share the same very basic goal: Make better products.
It’s an obviously simple concept but one that has been the driving force behind Jeremy Tooker which prompted him to co-found his first roastery, Ritual Coffee, a decade ago and also what had him leaving a few years later to start Four Barrel which he still runs today. He wanted to make great coffee the way he thought it should be made and quickly people began to take notice. Now on any given day, the main location on Valencia Street has a steady stream of customers from opening to closing and on weekends, it’s become so popular that they’ve started to serve coffee from the back of the cafe to alleviate the growing lines that snake out the door.
Dressed in his usual outfit of a plain t-shirt, jeans and boots, Jeremy gives me a tour of Four Barrel’s compact but sizable roasting operation in the back. It consists of their four barrel sampling roaster from the 1800s for which Four Barrel is named after and a single vintage Probat roaster that pumps out a surprisingly huge amount of coffee for their 300+ wholesale accounts around the world. It’s a ongoing bet among the employees on exactly how much coffee they make a week. The current guess is at 10,000+ pounds and it’s growing year after year.
It’s an impressive output from a small roaster especially when considering that Jeremy himself still spends 4-6 months of the year traveling to the 80+ coffee farms and co-ops that he works with to produce the beans that are all exclusive to Four Barrel. While the roasting process itself isn’t a particularly lengthy process with each batch taking about 18-25 minutes from start to finish, the legwork of finding the right way to choose, grow, prepare the beans and then roast them is a much slower and involved process but it’s one that Jeremy is still passionate about even after all these years.
At any given time, he has dozens of different beans ready to be sampled so that he can choose the right one to go into production with. Each bag represents a huge amount of work from multiple people across the world and that notion is not lost on him at all. That’s why it’s so important for him to spend the time and effort to select the right beans and refine ways to get the best flavors from them.
Complementing his unwavering dedication to coffee is his equally unchanging uniform of Iron Heart jeans and boots regardless of whether he’s in San Francisco or in the hot African heat. He mentions that he reserves a set of clothes just for his trips to Africa because the soil there tends to stain everything red but it’s essentially another set of the same clothes he wears regularly since apparently the heat does not bother him much at all.
As I watch him work, I get the feeling that it’s his tendency to be hyper focused at the task at hand that allows him to forget about the heat but however he does it, if the wear and tear on jeans are supposed to tell a story, he’s got several that have many stories to tell.
“It’s about getting a balance.”
That’s his approach to the roasting style at Four Barrel which he describes as a lighter roast that allows the coffee bean’s natural good flavors to come through. At the same time, he’s conscious about not roasting too lightly which has become somewhat of a trend among Third Wave roasters. It’s just a few minutes and degrees that separate getting the coffee equivalent of a well done steak and getting undeveloped coffee that is too sour and green tasting. It’s a delicate process to find the sweet spot where the coffee will be memorable for the right reasons.
Balance as a theme seems to be incorporated in almost everything that Jeremy does. From the cafe with its two separate bars so that they can service both people looking get in and out and those looking for a more involved experience at the slow bar with its different varieties of single origin beans all the way to the utilitarian but modern fitting clothes he wears on a daily basis, it all seems to find a balance that checks multiple boxes while still staying true to the intended goal and purpose. It’s no wonder why the only jean he’s worn over the last 7 years has been the Iron Heart 301s which uses Iron Heart’s 21oz denim, a fabric that ages well over time and balances durability, breathability, and comfort.
As soon as we get on the topic of denim, he pulls out a tote bag with four of his jeans which are all the same jean in the same size but worn for different amounts of time. The way they’ve all broken in is a great reminder of what happens when you don’t obsess over how to wear the jeans and instead you just need to wear them a lot.
There’s no point in asking him about how many wears or washes each jean has gone through because it doesn’t matter to him and that’s really how it should be. He wears them until they’re dirty, washes them and continues wearing them. When they tear, he gets them fixed, continues wearing them and at some point, he’ll start a new pair and rotate them with the others and in the end, they all look good.
It’s this ability to focus only on what’s important that has helped him grow Four Barrel to where it is now. It’s also what will make his upcoming plans, which includes additional larger roasting facilities, more locations, and sights on expanding internationally, successful. With all he has going on right now and also in the near future, it’s hard to see how he has time for anything else but somehow he does.
Mid conversation while we’re discussing the big expansions that are about to happen, he pauses to check his phone. He’s been waiting for an email concerning a camper he’s trying rent so he can drive down the coast with his son for a week. When I ask him what the plan is for the trip, he answers that he’s got a few places he’s going to drive towards but playing most of it by ear so they can enjoy moments as they happen. He smiles as he confirms the rental, takes a sip of his coffee, and it’s right back to business. Balance.
All photos taken by Taylor Reyes of TylerShoot.