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?

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