Coffee Wars and Locavores

(Above: Lemon-pistachio donuts and coffee at Four Barrel)

Three’s a war, right?

It seems that the coffee wars have officially come to San Francisco. The last few years have seen the arrival of Blue Bottle, Ritual and now, Four Barrel (no website yet; tel: 415-252-0800). Blue Bottle began as a roaster based in the East Bay, with two kiosks here in the city, one at the Ferry Plaza farmers market theme-park, and the other tacked on to the front end of a wood shop in Hayes Valley. They’ve since opened their first café-laboratory off Mint Plaza downtown.

Ritual opened deep on Valencia Street in the Mission District in 2005; it’s both a roaster and a popular airy café filled with so many laptops that you could mistake it for someone’s idea of the perfect hi-tech start up (indeed, Flickr got started here).

And then there’s Four Barrel, which is sort of a midway stop between Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley kiosk and the Ritual HQ at the end of Valencia. Stylistically speaking too, it’s somewhere in between. A big space made warm by the hum of conversation, coffee and vinyl LPs affixed to the fall (check the Mad Max soundtrack, natch), there’s a roaster in the back and places to sit up front, as well as a retail counter to take a sack of beans home. There’s food too, and I’d be guilty of Wall Street level greed if I didn’t say it’s worth a trip to Four Barrel just for the lemon-pistachio donut from the new Dynamo Donut.

So San Francisco is developing a local coffee industry that may just rival Seattle’s someday. Or maybe not. In any case, all this talk of localism brings to mind a short article that my friend David Tamarkin wrote over at Time Out Chicago about the ultimate futility of the locavore/localvore movement. (Although I wish he’d taken that stupid name to task.) I get the impression that David wanted to write much more than what he had space for, but it’s a thought-provoking piece all the same.

(Above: Internationally sourced coffee beans for sale at local roaster Four Barrel. Maybe there’s a happy medium for locally and internationally sourced produce? Also, dig that Megadeth typeface!)

As a dedicated lover of things vinous and seeker of delicious things to eat, I’m not about to commit myself to eating and drinking only those items which are sourced in a 50- or 100-mile radius (and I live in a place where such a lifestyle is actually possible). Sorry, generally speaking I prefer cru Beaujolais to California Pinot Noir. And I couldn’t live without a little La Tur in my life. That said, I believe a consciousness of the local bounty and how that produce gets to market is important, to say nothing of what’s in and out of season in your particular region; indeed, eating seasonally might be even more important and effective than eating locally. But wouldn’t the energies and passions of people committed to maintaining a locally-based diet be better devoted elsewhere? Like developing school gardening programs, for instance, or guaranteeing the rights of immigrant farm workers at both artisan and industrial farms?

4 thoughts on “Coffee Wars and Locavores

  1. I’m all for eating locally when you can (the freshest ingredients make the best meals), but I’m with you as in I can’t limit myself in that manner.

    Am I never to drink a Canadian ice wine or eat Roquefort cheese?

    Grainger County (TN) tomatoes are famous, but I like Michigan apples, too. (And I wouldn’t turn away one of those lemon-pistachio donuts either.)

  2. Sustainability and quality require a more complex worldview than can be described in a single word. One of the first questions my wife asked when I suggested that I wanted to import wines was something like, “How can you do that when you care so much about local eating?” I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this question. There are a few answers. I believe in the pleasures of the table. I know wine as connected to the land. This is different from “terroir,” I view vinaroons as having an intimate conversation with the earth. This conversation continues when the wines are shared at a table. Wine at is core is a social catalyst and an agricultural good, not a commodity. So, I don’t necessarily eat local because I am a tree hugger.

    Some ingredients like oils, spices and travel well. At least compared to a tomato.

    Preserving local economies sometimes requires working beyond your own local economy. I strive to buy foods from local farmers. Some farmers who grow grapes can’t sell enough wine in their local market to put food on the table. Globalization is not going away- even if you don’t completely agree with Thomas Friedman, market forces and international trade are here to stay. So, let’s harness some of those forces to help small family farms. They have to compete against huge wine factories that can sell wine for less than the glass bottle itself costs a small farmer.

    As 100 Mile Diet authors put it, you should work to sustain your own local economy and when you go outside of it, you should only buy things at the very highest level of quality. Fair trade, environmentally friendly, handmade, and it better be delicious. To quote James MacKinnon: “as far as I’m aware, no one in the local foods movement is suggesting that we all need to get all of our food from our local food systems: trade has always been a part of human culture. It’s a question of balance. Over the past few decades we’ve swung toward getting most of our food from increasingly distant sources, and as a result we’re eating worse food at a higher environmental and social cost, and have also lost a critical connection to the landscapes and communities we live in. Local eating is about correcting that imbalance – we eat first and foremost from the places we live in, and then look outward for certain fairly traded, environmentally sustainable goodies.”

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