Review: La Colombe Panama Ironman VI Geisha (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Earlier this summer, I visited the District of Columbia and while there, visited a La Colombe coffee shop for the first time. I’ve reviewed La Colombe coffees before (their Nizza espresso and their single-origin Colombia San Roque), and while neither were exactly to my personal taste, both were exactly what they said they were; their tasting notes don’t lie. So, at the cafe, when I saw this bag of Panama Ironman VI Geisha, I was curious to see if the tasting notes matched up as well as it has in the past with this brand. Plus, I hadn’t had much if any craft coffee for almost two weeks prior to this so it didn’t feel like too much of a splurge to pay the premium that I did for these Geisha beans.

Whole bean: Bright, sweet, fresh aromas. It reminded me of a light, refreshing white wine, like a pinot grigio.

V60: Strong notes of grapefruit in this with a nice (but sweet) complexity.

AeroPress: I had this as a concentrate – no need to dilute with additional water if you like the tart taste of grapefruit and nectarines. This was the most tart of the four cups.

Chemex: Creamy and complex cup that tasted of nectarine and citrus, but sweeter than the AeroPress result.

French press: By far, this was my favorite method for these beans. Layers upon layers of rich flavor here — creamy vanilla and sweet floral notes with nectarine and sugar. Very enjoyable!!

Summary: I really like Panamanian geisha coffee, and this bag is no exception. Try it in a french press and experience a vibrant, multi-layered flavor bomb.

From the roaster: White peach, blood orange, apricot

This coffee is not currently available on La Colombe’s website, but here is a link to their online store:

La Colombe Coffee Roasters Store

Review conducted 10-11 days post-roast.

Review: Driftaway Coffee Colombia Huila Finca el Tabor (Brooklyn, New York)

This review will be a both a usual and an unusual review, in that Driftaway Coffee operates as a coffee subscription company with constantly rotating offerings, so while you may not be able to get these exact beans, I wanted to do a full review of the beans I did receive to give an overview of what you might be able to expect from this company.

A recurring trend these days seems to be the personalized subscription… Stitch Fix comes to mind as an example, where you get clothes selected for you each month, you give the company feedback about what you do and do not like, and they adjust their future shipments to reflect your preferences. Driftaway Coffee works like that, where you first receive a tasting kit with four overall coffee profiles (fruity, classic, balanced, bold). Then, you choose your favorite of the four, tell Driftaway what you like or don’t like about the coffee via their website or iOS app, and Driftaway will send you freshly roasted coffees personally selected to reflect your preferences. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of going into a coffee shop and blindly picking out a bag, hoping you’ll like it. In addition, since it shows up at your door at the frequency you choose, you won’t run out of freshly roasted coffee. Great for busy folks!

In my case, rather than sending me the tasting kit, Driftaway simply contacted me to ask what I would like, and based on my answers, they sent me this bag from their “Balanced” taste profile – this Colombia Huila Finca el Tabor. Shipping was very quick, and I believe the coffee was in my mailbox 4-5 days post-roast. Having my name handwritten on the bag was an unexpected but very sweet touch; it really felt like this coffee was personally roasted just for me!

Whole bean: Peanut brittle, butterscotch.

French press: Very sweet. Toffee, nutty, rich flavor and mouthfeel. There’s nothing sharp or sour or off-putting about this coffee – it feels smooth and luxurious in the mouth. Delicious! If you usually take your coffee with cream, I challenge you to try this black and see if it doesn’t convince you that good coffee doesn’t need anything added.

Chemex: Tangy flavor, with a hint of blood orange. Mild citrus taste. Very different from the French press cup!! Sweet and tart at the same time.

AeroPress: Straight up Snickers bar (for anyone that doesn’t have Snickers candy bars where they live, it’s caramel, peanut and nougat, covered in milk chocolate).

V60: Like the Chemex cup in its citrusy character but with more of a toasty finish.

Summary: I was fascinated by how this particular Colombian coffee could have such different results; the immersion methods (French press/AeroPress) created a coffee that was decadent, sweet, and rich. The pourover methods (Chemex/Hario V60) resulted in a light, citrusy brew with a balanced finish. Both flavor profiles were fantastic but I have to say this coffee done in a French press was my personal favorite of the four methods I tried, and I think if I was introducing craft coffee to someone who had not had it before (especially if it was someone who was used to putting cream and sugar in their coffee), this would be a fantastic bean to give them to show what really great coffee can be like, unadulterated.

If the idea of having the equivalent of a coffee sommelier appeals to you, check out Driftaway! I am really impressed by the sample I received — it’s one of the best coffees I’ve tasted so far this year!! — and they couldn’t be nicer people to connect with. Many thanks!

From the roaster: Toffee, turmeric, peanut

Driftaway Coffee

Review conducted 6-7 days post-roast.

Disclaimer: I received this product gratis in exchange for a fair and honest review. Even though I received this for free, I treat and test it the same way as if I had paid for it out of my own pocket.

Review: Has Bean Coffee Malawi Msese Wetmill (Stafford, England)

I had a whirlwind trip earlier this summer to the north of England, and I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Manchester. As a fan of bands like the Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, the Stone Roses, and James, the city of Manchester is a place I had long wanted to visit, and it surpassed all of my expectations. I hope to return someday to explore it further!

Now, coffee wasn’t the cornerstone of my visit by any means, but I knew I couldn’t leave without bringing home something from a local roaster. However, despite the fact that Manchester is not lacking for coffee shops (I found 5 or 6 independent cafes within an easy walk of each other in the city center, not even including “chain” coffee shops), the beans that were available for sale were largely not fresh enough for my liking… most were a month or more post-roast. This bag of Has Bean Coffee was dated 13 days post roast, I believe, so I snapped it up, knowing that it was the freshest I was likely to find! Stafford is not terribly close to Manchester (around 60 miles away), but considering where I had flown from (Dallas!), yes, I considered Stafford to be “locally roasted” relative to Manchester. I picked up these beans from North Tea Power, in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Whole bean: Even before I opened the bag, I had to giggle at the clever brand name. Plus, in all my years of drinking coffee, I had never tried a coffee from Malawi before! I liked this company already. Once I opened the bag, the beans smelled sugary and light.

French press: Thick, tangy, but not sour. Nice body to the brew, with a lovely smooth finish. Satisfying to drink. It gets more complex as it sits and cools, obtaining a note of tropical fruit.

Chemex: Nice spicy finish. Clean taste – not many layers to this cup, but it was pleasingly straightforward and simple. Very easy to drink, with a taste of brown sugar.

AeroPress: Similar in flavor to the French press cup. The kiwi flavor really comes out in this method.

V60: Sweetest of the four cups. Sugary and light-bodied coffee. There was a bit of a floral note on the finish.

Summary: This was a nice, complex, multi-dimensional coffee that is lovely brewed any way you can get it, but I think I liked it best in the Hario V60 for its sweetness. However, it has its merits in all four of my usual brewing methods.

From the roaster: Floral, kiwi, chocolate milk

Has Bean Coffee Malawi Msese Wetmill

Review conducted 18 days post-roast.

Review: Cuvée Coffee Guatemala Hunapu (Austin, Texas)

Cuvée Coffee is regularly featured at my local Whole Foods market, but I don’t buy it very often because the beans aren’t often on the shelf within two weeks of the roast date (which is a common situation when you buy coffee at retail outlets like markets). However, I lucked out recently when I spotted this bag of their Guatemala Hunapu, and I realized it had been a LONG time since I had reviewed any Cuvée (the last time was their Decaf Spicewood 71, back in May 2015!). So, into my basket went this bag.

Whole bean: White sugar, cherries.

V60: Strong and nutty. There was a bit of flavor like almond skin. A tad overwhelming taken black – I expected more sweetness, given the sweet aroma of the beans.

AeroPress: Very thick and smooth brew with a bit of floral character. Not very sweet.

Chemex: Much better in my view vs. the V60 cup. Something about this method took away the strong bite. Sugary and light-bodied coffee but very smooth flavor like marzipan. Bit of cherry on the finish.

French press: Best of the four in my view. Fudgy, sweet, floral, nutty. Tasted like almond butter with some complexity, and it only got better as it cooled.

Espresso: On a hunch, I tried these beans as a single-origin espresso. I only pulled four shots or so, but it produced a really promising result that convinced me that these beans would be great in this method. Even over 2 weeks post-roast, there was an outrageous amount of crema, and the espresso tasted sweet and smooth. Delicious stuff.

Summary: Taken as a coffee, I like this brewed in a French press best, with the Chemex a close second. Works arguably even better as a single-origin espresso!

From the roaster: Nutty, orange zest, dried cherry

Cuvée Coffee Guatemala Hunapu

Review conducted 12 days post-roast (coffee), 16 days post-roast (espresso).

Review: Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters Sunset Blend (Dallas, Texas)

Davis Street Espresso is the home cafe for Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters here in Dallas, but though I’ve gotten pretty familiar with OCCR over the past 2 years, I hadn’t visited Davis Street Espresso until quite recently because 1) I just don’t go out for espresso much and 2) I’m not typically in the area when they’re open. However, I finally had the chance to visit and enjoyed a lovely espresso while scouting out their bean selection. As typical for me, I looked for what was the freshest, and I ended up choosing the Sunset Blend.

The packaging describes the Sunset Blend as “Our most balanced offering, the Sunset Blend is specifically blended for wonderful sweetness and body. This coffee pairs well with a wide range of foods.” I was coming off of a run of drinking rather complex and challenging coffees, so the idea of drinking something balanced and simpler really appealed to me. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE complexity in my coffee, but some mornings, the last thing I want to be is confused about what I’m drinking. Not surprisingly, it is directly proportional to how much sleep I’ve had… 😉

Whole bean: Black pepper? The scent seemed to be coming more from the bag than the beans, though. Once I put the beans in a little glass bowl, however, they smelled “normal” – I couldn’t pick out anything specific.

French press: Super smooth and uncomplicated. A bit murky. Not getting a ton of flavor from this cup but it’s pleasant – it’s a cup you can drink and enjoy without having to think about it too much.

Chemex: Incredibly smooth and sweet. Delicious! Not murky at all – clear as a bell. Milk chocolate and orange flavors. This was highly enjoyable.

AeroPress: Similar to the Chemex cup but with the volume turned up. Bit more citrusy.

V60: Creamy and sweet, with a good balance of flavors.

Summary: I think the pourover methods (Chemex and V60) particularly suit this blend, but all four cups were enjoyable. There wasn’t a huge difference between any of the cups but if given the option, go with a pourover method for the cleanest and juiciest flavor.

From the roaster: Sweet milk chocolate and citrus.

Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters Sunset Blend

Review conducted 3-4 days post-roast.

Review: Brown Coffee Co. Cottonwood Espresso (San Antonio, Texas)

I ordered this bag of the Brown Cottonwood Espresso at the same time that I ordered their Candy Factory. The Candy Factory was roasted May 24, but the Cottonwood must have been roasted to order because it was roasted May 30 (I ordered May 29). There was a bit of delay in the shipping, but it was fine in this case since the beans showed up in plenty of time and I did this tasting on about day 10, which is right around where I like to be for espresso testing.

Whole bean: I forgot to write anything down for this… sorry! I don’t think anything stood out particularly, which is good. The beans must have looked and smelled fine.

Espresso: I had a hard time personally with this espresso, as I was hoping to get a balanced shot with sweetness and smoothness. Frustratingly, I never quite got what it was I was looking for, though I did get some interesting flavors… chocolate, spicy chiles, lemon. No matter how much I varied the temperature (and I tried shots from 197-206 degrees F), the shots all came out awfully bright for my taste.

With milk: I don’t drink milk anymore so Shutterbug has become my tester in this regard. He liked the latte I made him using the Cottonwood espresso, saying that there was a good amount of coffee flavor to it, so perhaps this is an espresso that is designed to be consumed with milk vs. straight.

AeroPress: Now THIS I really liked. The brew that resulted from this method was deliciously rich like chocolate and marshmallow, yet not boring. It tasted a lot like Nutella and s’mores. I wish I could have gotten this flavor in a straight espresso shot!

Summary: Good with milk, but I found this particular blend to be too bright as straight espresso. It does make a decadent cup in the AeroPress, though. I think this is worth investigating how it brews as coffee!

From the roaster: Cottonwood Espresso. Rich, sweet, deep and fruited with chocolate rasberry (sic) notes that explode in the mouth with succulent crema. It gives your palate what it’s looking for: a classic expression of espresso in the American style. At its best, Cottonwood represents the very best of the world’s major coffee growing regions (12oz/340g bag).

Brown Coffee Co. Cottonwood Espresso

Review conducted 10 days post-roast.

Earnestness, honesty, and Appalachian Spring

I spent the last couple of weeks following my favorite band (Ride) on tour through 8 shows in the UK and US. Anyone that has done this can tell you that far from being the same show every night, each show had a distinctly different vibe to it (at least in my opinion). Yes, many of the songs were the same, but there’s no such thing as two shows that are exactly the same. There was one show in particular that was full of so much frisson that I was convinced the band must have been arguing backstage before the concert! But for the most part, the concerts were full of joy and camaraderie, both from the band and from the audience. It was genuinely moving to see the energy flowing back and forth between those on stage and those in the hall – seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t attend live concerts, you’re missing out on something special!

I had a short chat with one of the band members after one of the shows. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing more about my work as a classical musician, and asked me some rather deep questions. The one that stuck in my mind most was the question of what I would play just for my own pleasure, without considering the obligation of upcoming gigs or things like that. I knew as a songwriter, he was approaching this question from his own perspective as a creator, and though I can’t know for sure, I am guessing that he generally feels more motivated to play his own songs and write original work versus doing covers. My perspective as a performer is pretty different, though.

Classical musicians (and actors, and dancers) occupy a strange role in that we are the conduit for someone else’s work. If you are a rock musician and you write a song, you generally perform it yourself. You are the primary source, and the listener can hear it directly from you (or through your records). If you are a sculptor or a painter, the public can see your vision directly as it comes from you. However, if you are a choreographer and you are envisioning a ballet, there’s no way you can perform the role of all the dancers yourself. If you are a composer writing a string quartet, or a percussion ensemble piece, or a symphony, you need players who can take what you have in your imagination and bring it to life. These creators are working with such a large palette of colors that they need to collaborate with performers (outsourcing at its finest!). Conversely, performers such as myself need composers in order to help us say what we don’t have the language to say on our own, and to reveal part of us in the process, both to ourselves and to the audience.

I do feel that musicians show themselves in their art, both in their writing and their performance. I won’t claim that I fully “know” anybody solely through their creative output (that would be silly), but of the composers I’ve met and worked with, the music they write really does tend to be reflective of their personalities. No naming names here, but the earnest, emotional, honest people write music that feels that way. The prickly, suspicious, veiled people that eat sarcasm for breakfast write that way. The performers who are egotistical and brag a lot offstage definitely perform that way, and for me, it mars what I have come to hear. I don’t blame performers for wanting to impress an audience, but I’m not attending concerts to hear amazing finger technique or to be wowed by rock histrionics. The music I’m most attracted to transcends the methods used to create it and it is a direct line from the creator to your soul. It’s probably one reason why I am so enamored of singer-songwriters… they lay themselves bare and are speaking directly to the listener, without hiding behind stage fireworks or other things meant to dazzle. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to be so real. With Ride, I feel like all four of the members of that band definitely show their true selves both in their writing and in their performance, and it’s one reason that I have had such respect for them for 25 years (and counting).

Some months ago, I had gotten hired to perform Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (the original version for 13 instruments) at the end of July. When I realized that rehearsals would start just a few days after the end of my Ride tour, my first thought was that I hoped I’d get back into performing shape quickly (two weeks off is a lot for the embouchure!). But, given that I’d performed this piece many times before, I wasn’t too worried about being able to handle it… it was more about wanting to do this piece justice. If I could equate my personality to a particular composer’s output, I’d have to say I feel like I am closest to the music of Aaron Copland. What attracts me to Copland’s music is the sense of openness, and honesty, and lack of artifice. Any music that makes so much use of the “open” intervals (octaves, fifths) has a way of sounding really honest and pure. There’s nowhere to hide bad intonation in intervals like these! No way to fake it. Anyone that knows me knows that I have no poker face, and while I do use sarcasm and dark humor from time to time, I am generally a really earnest person and I don’t try and obscure my true self. Does this get me into trouble? Occasionally. It would be safer for sure to hide my true thoughts. But I’m not going to try and pretend to be more complex or layered than I really am – people can see right through that, and wearing a mask all the time is exhausting. If people are going to dislike me, I would rather they dislike the real me, and not the person I’m pretending to be.

Copland described the Duo for Flute and Piano (of which the first movement is one of my favorite things to play) as “a work… direct in expression and meant to be grateful for the performer.” I understood this instinctively when I first encountered this piece as a teenager, and it still moves me today when I perform it. I may not have written the notes, but I feel both Copland’s intention behind the notes, and the personal meaning that I could not have expressed without him giving me the language to do so. I am humbled to be able to help his music live on past his lifetime. While I sometimes wish I had the drive to compose (I greatly admire composers and anyone that creates new art), I do feel like I am meant to be exactly what I am – a vessel, a translator (which is meaningful to me, as my late father worked as a Korean-English translator!). I won’t be remembered past my lifetime, but I am not bothered by that. I am part of a bigger picture, a small fragment of a great and mysterious whole, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, to answer the question of what I would play for myself, just for my own pleasure, I would say the answer is anything that celebrates the soul within. Sunday’s concert is something I’m very much looking forward to – it is a gift and a privilege to be able to share my innermost feelings with an audience, and it’s something I look forward to every single time. And on that note, I’d best get practicing. 🙂

Live recording of me performing the first movement of the Copland Duo, 2009. It’s not flawless, but it’s authentic, which is my goal in life these days.

Review: Brown Coffee Co. Candy Factory (San Antonio, Texas)

I’m long overdue in checking out Brown Coffee Company, as they’re pretty well known in Texas and nationwide. Interesting name, isn’t it… I have no clue why the founder(s) chose the name Brown (perhaps it’s the last name of one of the people that started the company?), but in my head, I always think of the name choice as a slightly tongue-in-cheek choice. Imagine a home roaster serving a dinner guest coffee.

Guest: Wow, this coffee is so good! What kind of coffee is it?
Roaster: It’s brown.
Guest: Ha ha. Fine, then don’t tell me!

When I visited the website, I saw they had a particular blend called Candy Factory that changes seasonally, and it sounded delicious, so despite the high price tag ($25/12 oz), I went for it. This evidently is not a coffee they roast to order, as I placed my order on May 29 and I got a bag that was marked roasted May 24. Shipping took a bit longer than expected, so I wasn’t able to open the bag until June 6 (day 14 after roasting). This is a bit later than I’m used to, but I don’t think the coffee suffered for it.

Whole bean: Full of a really creamy, bright, fragrant scent. Wow. Lots of personality here!

V60: I made this with a 3:10 extraction time, and it was a really interesting cup. Deliciously sweet, with flavors of hibiscus and tangerine, with a lovely powdery finish.

AeroPress: Very bright, verging on sour. I was puckering my mouth drinking this. Strong like a lemon drop. Once I added a little additional water to the coffee, it tamed the flavor some, though it was still lively and bright. Who needs orange juice when you’ve got this eye-opener around?

Chemex: Super fragrant and juicy cup that tasted of orange and vanilla.

French press: This was an aberration – it was the most savory cup, almost to the point of being salty! Thick, full-bodied coffee that tasted juicy and rather plush, if that makes sense.

Summary: This coffee is expensive, but if you enjoy bright, fruit-forward, lively flavors, you’ll really love this coffee. I like it best in the pourover methods (V60 and Chemex), with the V60 winning my vote for the lovely complexity.

From the roaster: Dried fruits and boozy fruit jam.

Brown Coffee Co. Candy Factory

Review conducted 14 days post-roast.

Review: BeanFruit Old Route 4 Dark Roast (Jackson, Mississippi)

Hey there, dark roast fans… this one’s for you. I am personally not a fan of dark roasts, but I know a lot of you out there are so I’m taking one for the team! I find that people that have a strong opinion about the roast level of their coffee seem to be generally in one of two camps:

Light-roasted coffee:
Fan: “Delicious! You can really taste the origin of the bean and all the subtle flavors.”
Foe: “Gross! It’s sour and tastes like drinking acid! I want my coffee to taste like coffee, damnit!”

Dark-roasted coffee:
Fan: “It’s so rich and smooth and strong! This is what coffee is supposed to taste like.”
Foe: “Ack, it’s burnt! Charred! It has no character whatsoever! Overroasted!”

Now, I do think there can be a happy medium between these two styles, but even “medium” roast coffee can be too light (meaning, “weird-tasting”) for many dark-roast drinkers, so I wondered if there was a dark roast out there that even fans of lighter roasts could still enjoy. BeanFruit is such a great coffee roaster that I figured if anyone could do this, they could.

Whole bean: Nothing stood out to me other than just a rich aroma of coffee beans. The beans were dark to my eye, but not oily, which is a definite bonus. One thing I really dislike about very dark roasts is all the surface oil and how it gets all over everything, and I feel like it makes the coffee taste rancid. No matter what roast level you like, kids, just say no to oily beans!

French press: Rich and robust cup that tasted a bit like wood and smelled of cedar chips. Smooth.

Chemex: I really wasn’t pleased with the result from this brewing method. The beans are just too darkly roasted for my taste and the coffee came out bitter to my palate. I chased the coffee with a cup of water and the water tasted amazingly sweet to me in comparison!

AeroPress: This is more like it. Consumed straight, I found this brew to be a bit strong but nicely balanced, with flavors of dark chocolate and a hint of cedar. Caramel on the finish. Quite smooth once I added a bit of additional water. As this coffee sits and cools, more chocolate notes come out.

V60: With a 2:40 extraction, this had a really clean “coffee” flavor. No distractions. Less chocolate in the taste but still quite approachable. I would gladly drink this if it was served at a dinner party.

Summary: Perhaps I did something wrong when making this coffee in my Chemex, but I don’t think that brewing method does these beans any favors (which is odd, because Chemexes are known for producing smooth cups of coffee!). However, I do think this coffee is rather nice in a V60 or in an AeroPress. I still prefer lighter roasts, but this is one dark roast I can get behind.

From the roaster: Dark chocolate, cinnamon, dried fruit, cedar

BeanFruit Coffee Company Old Route 4 Dark Roast

Review conducted 6 days post-roast.

Review: BeanFruit Coffee Company Ethiopia Kochere (Jackson, Mississippi)

BeanFruit Coffee Company wasn’t even on my radar until the middle of 2016, but I was so impressed with their coffee that two of their roasts took 1st and 3rd place in my Best of 2016 list. I had to wait some months before I had time to order from them as a normal customer, but I finally got my chance in May. May? Isn’t it July now? Yeah… I got a bit behind on the review-writing, but this is why I jot down copious notes!

Fun fact: Apparently I was order #4000! That felt good. 🙂

I ordered two bags, and this Ethiopia Kochere was the first that I opened.

Whole bean: Sweet, delicate aroma of black tea.

V60: Complex, sweet, floral notes. Much more complex than the smell of the whole beans would have indicated. I got honeydew in this cup!

AeroPress: BRIGHT (I wrote this in all caps in my notes) and sweet. I did add a little additional water to this after brewing to smooth out the flavor a little, and it brought out some floral notes.

Chemex: The perfume to this cup was super sweet, and had a sugary taste. Not much fruit or floral character to this – I mostly tasted the caramelized sugar top of a creme brulee.

French press: Not as sweet as the Chemex cup but it had a lot of richness. This cup also had notes of honeydew but seemed less balanced in flavor than the V60 cup.

Summary: I enjoy really complex coffees that make you stop and ponder what it is that you’re tasting, and this coffee is definitely one that does that! I liked it best in the pourover methods (V60, Chemex), with the V60 edging out the Chemex for the sheer range of flavor. But, if you’re a sweetness addict, this coffee in a Chemex is a stunner.

From the roaster: Sweet, white peach, melon, floral

I procrastinated on publishing this review for so long that this particular coffee is no longer being sold, but try any of BeanFruit’s African coffees. You won’t regret it; they are all delicious!!

BeanFruit Coffee Company Online Store

Review conducted 3 days post-roast.