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Four Barrel's Jeremy Tooker Defends Sour Coffee

Sara Deseran | November 28, 2013 | Story Ingredient

Coffee Gone Sour,” the article I wrote for San Francisco's December issue, has clearly touched a nerve. In it, I bemoan the so-called Third Wave’s propensity for bright, acidic coffees, made even more “interesting” by the love affair with light roasts. I actually thought I was going to be cyber-stoned by coffee connoisseurs for this story, but I’ve been surprised to see many people enthusiastically tweeting that they concur with my opinion. Readers have even emailed me to express their gratitude for finally saying what they’ve been thinking all along.

To give some of the accused coffee roasters a chance to respond, I called Jeremy Tooker, the outspoken founder and owner of Four Barrel coffee and one of the reigning kings of coffee's Third Wave. Here’s what he has to say.

So, to start with, do you agree with me on any level?
I do. Ritual and Sightglass both make it a point of pride to produce the lightest roast. At Four Barrel, our coffee is a little less polarizing, but still on the lighter side. But I’d agree that a lot of coffees today are underdeveloped, green tasting, and on the sour side.

Do you like this lighter style of coffee yourself?
I do. It’s a very fine line, though. I know it’s not for everybody. Our espresso is on the brighter side of the spectrum. There are tons of people that say it’s their idea of a perfect espresso. We’re going for something on the wilder side—espresso that pushes boundaries. It’s not meant to please everybody. It’s more like an experiment to see how we can drive the industry to be more conscious of things.

Conscious of what things exactly?
The traceability of things. The theory behind the lighters roasts is that we’re paying a lot for these beans and [we want people to be able to taste where they came from]. We print the variety on the [coffee] bag. These are the types of things that we geek out on. With blends and dark roasts—French roast—everything is obliterated. What most people do with blends and dark roasts is use a lower quality coffee. Often it’s damaged by mold and bugs and other things.

So you acquired De La Paz in January. What are you doing with it?
We want this to be a brand that’s marketed more broadly—marketed to more of a novice group in terms of coffee [ed’s note: I think Jeremy just called me a novice], but one that’s just as good as Four Barrel. It’s more accessible. I hate to use the “wave” terms. But it’s Third Wave coffee masquerading as second wave coffee.

De La Paz is made up of blends versus Four Barrel which sells almost exclusively single-bean coffee. What else is different?
Now that everyone’s got this bright espresso, we’re just cannibalizing ourselves. Linea Caffe has the basic profile that we’re going for with De La Paz’s Big City Blend. We’re using slightly lower elevation coffees with a darker roast. It’s chocolatey, simple, and approachable. The red one, Graceland is catered to a brighter espresso. The yellow one is made with very high acid, high quality coffee, just blended together. Something that more than just a sum of its parts. I can’t tell you what it just won, but it was the only blend to win a big award that will be revealed.

Are you going to open a retail space for De La Paz?
Definitely. We have something in the works.

Be honest. Do you drink coffee to experience pleasure or to experience something interesting?
Purely for pleasure. Before, it used to be interesting. I went through that phase. Without me there, my staff will steer towards the lighter stuff. That’s the trend. I have to pull them back. It’s a trend. It’s like this war of the most holier-than-thou coffee. Who can find the most obscure beans and put the lightest, most interesting roast on it. I totally did that in my Ritual days. But I was like 25.

So this wild, boundary-pushing espresso you say people love at Four Barrel. Do you think they might be deluded?
No. [laughs] People just absolutely love it. They think it’s the best espresso in the world. But they’re coffee folks. They know coffee.

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