Review: Porch Culture El Salvador Finca Santa Emilia (Tyler, Texas)

A recent work trip to East Texas introduced me to Porch Culture Coffee Roasters, which is a microroaster based in the city of Tyler. (Fun fact: for local subscribers, they deliver via bicycle!) I picked up this bag at The Foundry Coffee House, and also sampled a cup of Porch Culture’s Colombian beans brewed in a Kalita Wave (rich and full-bodied with a clean finish, with strong cocoa and orange zest notes. Delicious!). The only reason I didn’t get a bag of the Colombian beans was that they didn’t have any on the shelf, but I was more than happy to give these beans from El Salvador a try, especially since they were just two days post roast.

First impressions: These smelled eerily similar to the Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters El Salvadorean beans I reviewed a while ago. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering that both varieties are honey-processed and from the same country. There wasn’t any fruit aroma that I could detect; these coffee beans smelled like burnt sugar and tea leaves.

French press: The coffee tasted pretty plasticky right off the bat, so I let it cool for a couple of minutes. Once it did, I could taste other flavors, like black tea. It is not as sweet or fruity as the African coffees I’ve had recently. The finish had my mouth puckering like grapefruit would, but without the fruity flavor.

Chemex: Less acidity than the French press version. It felt medium-bodied with a caramelized sugar flavor on the finish. This was pretty pleasant to drink but I honestly think I would prefer it with just a bit of sugar added to mitigate the tannic quality. I didn’t try it with sugar, though.

AeroPress: This coffee had a nice body to it. The aroma was like clover honey, though the coffee itself wasn’t sweet. As it cooled, it got more complex. I kept drinking it trying to place all the flavors and before I knew it, my mug was empty. Always a good sign. ūüôā

V60: Clean, light mouthfeel. The honey aromas were more orange blossom vs. clover here.

Espresso: Just on a whim, I decided to try these beans as a single-origin espresso. I admit, I only pulled two doubleshots so I may not have unlocked the full potential of these beans, but I tasted candied orange peel, honey, and cocoa. Quite tasty! It had a nice refreshing finish to it that reminded me of my favorite espresso, Stumptown Hair Bender, but without quite the flavor complexity.

Summary: My favorite cup of this coffee was in the AeroPress, but it makes a pretty nice single-origin espresso as well. Less sweet and juicy/fruity than African coffees, but if you prefer less fruit and more toasty flavors in your coffee, this is a nice one indeed!

From the roaster: Toasted sugar, cocoa, graham cracker, medium acidity, full body.

Porch Culture Coffee El Salvador Santa Emilia

Review: Intelligentsia Burundi Bwayi (Chicago, Illinois)

This coffee looked so good in the Intelligentsia store that I didn’t even look at the price until the next day. $27/12oz. YIKES! Was it worth it? Read on.

I have never had a coffee from Burundi; most of the African coffees I have sampled to this point have been from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda. The whole beans smelled earthy and nutty. They actually smelled very similar to the Pergamino¬†Colombian beans I reviewed a while back, but in the cup they couldn’t be more different.

V60: Smooth and rich with a deep brown color. A bit of hazelnut flavor. Compared to later methods, this had the least fruit. I imagine that this would taste good with milk/sugar, but for this expensive of a coffee, I really would avoid that!

AeroPress: Light reddish brown in color. There was some grit in the cup, despite the filter. Much oilier than the V60 cup. It had a little citrusy/lemon finish. Bright and refreshing.

Chemex: Strong apple cider flavor. Nice light cup! As it cooled, the coffee took on a velvety texture and got really smooth and creamy, but not heavy. There was a very slight bit of tobacco on the finish.

French press: This had a great tangy flavor with a very rich mouthfeel. I definitely tasted apple cider on the finish. Dark chocolate notes come out as it cools. Delicious.

Summary: Since I only really drink apple cider during the cold winter months, this coffee reminds me a little of Christmas (though it’s in season now). I really really like it. Would I buy it again? Maybe. Depends on my budget!! But, I am not sorry I spent the money on it. The flavor lingered on my palate for many minutes after drinking. If not for the slight bit of tobacco on the finish, the Chemex iteration would have been my favorite. The french press cup was outstanding.¬†Both were¬†truly memorable cups.

From the roaster: This beautiful coffee from Burundi offers deep, satisfying flavors of dark chocolate and dried fig with a clean finish that reminds us of apple cider.

Intelligentsia Bwayi Burundi

Review: Blue Bottle Hayes Valley Espresso (Oakland, California)

I have my cousin Lynn to thank for introducing me to Blue Bottle Coffee Roasters. Headquartered in Oakland, CA, they’ve expanded to include locations in Los Angeles, New York City, and Japan. In recent years they’ve acquired both the Tonx and Handsome Coffee companies, and it was just announced that they are merging with San Francisco-based bakery Tartine. Clearly, this company is growing!

I’ve ordered online from Blue Bottle before (their Giant Steps and Bella Donovan blends). Those came in 12 oz bags, so I was surprised when I found that the bags at the shop I visited were 8 oz sizes. Now, it did make the price a little easier to swallow, but since it’s always a challenge to dial in an espresso grind, I was a bit concerned that I would run out of coffee before finding the sweet spot. I would have purchased 2 bags, but they only had one Hayes Valley left on the shelf. Thus, I crossed my fingers and decided to take my chances!

Why did I choose Hayes Valley over their other espresso offerings that day? This sentence jumped out at me: “This is the most Brahmsian espresso we have.” How could I resist??

Whole beans: Spicy dark chocolate. Heady aroma.

Brewing parameters: 20 g in a double basket, 1:2 normale ratio, 200 F, 30 sec shot.

I still feel like I can experiment a bit more with temperature, ratio, etc., but based on the shot I sampled at the shop (which was super smooth and delicious), I think this shot got closest to what I was served. There was a nice balance to the shot; it was very creamy and sweet, almost like a chocolate malt. This is one espresso I prefer straight vs. in milk; I steamed a bit of milk (maybe 3-4 oz) to add to my 2 oz shot, and I felt like the flavor of the espresso got lost. Still pleasant, but it didn’t stand up as well as I would have liked.

Summary: Very pleasant as a straight shot. Not the most complex of flavors, but nice and comforting to drink. Slightly lower temperatures (199 F) bring out more of the orange zest and less of the cocoa.

From the roaster: Cocoa, orange zest, smoky finish

This is probably our darkest espresso: lower-toned, minimal brightness, plenty of chocolate ‚Äď with an engaging complexity as a straight shot. The shots are gorgeous: achingly heavy with voluptuous red-brown crema, and the silky, somewhat dangerous-looking viscosity of a power-steering stop-leak product once used on our (now departed) heroically battered 1983 Peugeot. In milk, it tastes like chocolate ovaltine, and holds its own from the daintiest 3oz Macchiato to our towering 12oz caffe latte. This is the most Brahmsian espresso we have. Brooding and autumnal, it is a coffee to mourn the passing of time.

Blue Bottle Hayes Valley Espresso

How to make a delicious cappuccino at home on a budget

Cappuccinos (and lattes, and mochas, etc.) are delicious, but they are rather expensive. There’s a reason for that; they are all espresso-based drinks, and espresso machines are NOT CHEAP. Commercial espresso machines can easily run over $10,000. You’re also paying for (hopefully) top-quality beans and the time and expertise of your barista. But is there a way to get comparable quality drinks at home, without spending thousands of dollars? Let’s break down the components.

THE ESPRESSO

The most expensive part of the equation for home consumers is making the espresso. Whether you want the convenience of a superautomatic (that uses pods/capsules), or the control of using a semiautomatic (that uses fresh grounds and requires tamping), either method will set you back at least a few hundred dollars (not even counting the grinder!). However, there are a couple of cheaper options.

1) Moka pots. In the USA, I most often see Bialetti brand moka pots in stores. This is a stovetop “espresso” maker. I put espresso in quotes because unlike true espresso, it does not produce crema (the rich, reddish-brown layer on the top of an espresso shot where much of the sweetness resides). Rather, this makes a very strong coffee. These are pretty easy to use. You put ground coffee into the basket, water into the bottom compartment, and screw the whole contraption together and heat the device on the stove until the top compartment is full of your brewed coffee. Because it uses no paper filters, it holds much of the natural oils in a coffee (like a french press would). Because the water by definition has to be boiling or very close to it, some people (myself included) find the coffee this method produces to be on the bitter side. Cheaper versions of moka pots are often made of aluminum; more expensive ones can be found made with stainless steel.

2) AeroPress. This device has taken the specialty coffee world by storm over the past few years for its design, its affordability, and its ability to be customized to the user’s brewing preference. It is made of plastic (BPA-free), so if you want to avoid plastic, this is not the choice for you. However, I find the AeroPress to be preferable to the moka pot because you can brew with water at lower temperatures. The manufacturer recommends 175 F, but I usually brew between 190-200 F. It does come with paper filters so you will have less of the oils, but if it’s important to you to get all the natural oils in your cup, you can buy an Able Brewing Disk made of stainless steel. This will not produce crema either, but it will produce a lovely strong coffee concentrate, and you also have the ability to use it to brew closer in style to regular brewed coffee if you wish.

THE MILK

Fancy espresso machines with steaming wands inject steam into milk to simultaneously heat and froth it. At home, you will have to do the steps separately. I recommend frothing and then heating. Cold milk froths much more readily than warm milk. The lower the fat percentage, the easier the frothing.

You can buy frothing wands, frothing carafes (plunger-style), and electric frother/milk warmer combos. However, especially if you’re wanting to keep this as cheap as possible, I would just grab a glass jar with a lid. A large mason jar or a clean spaghetti sauce jar will work great! Put cold milk in and shake it vigorously until the milk foams. Remove the lid and put the jar in the microwave to heat for a while. The foam will climb – don’t be alarmed.

THE ASSEMBLY

Brew the AeroPress coffee directly into your mug according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Once you’re done, froth and heat your milk. Grab a large spoon. Pour the milk into your waiting mug and watch the coffee turn a lovely camel color. Spoon off or pour as much foam as you want onto the top of the drink. Voila!

THE TASTE TEST

For this test, I used the same water (Nestle Pure Life), same beans (20 g Blue Bottle Hayes Valley Espresso), and same milk (Kroger brand lactose-free whole milk, 4 oz).

First, the AeroPress cappuccino.

IMG_0919

I brewed the coffee in the AeroPress the standard way (not inverted). While it was steeping, I poured 4 oz of milk into a clean 24 oz spaghetti sauce jar, put the lid on, and shook it for about 20-25 seconds. Then, I removed the lid and placed the jar in the microwave for 30 seconds. At that point I determined it needed more heating, so I put it in for another 25 seconds, but pulled it a little sooner because I saw the foam was filling up the whole jar and was about to overflow! So, if you plan to use more than 4 oz milk, use a bigger jar.

At this point, the foam was VERY frothy so I stirred the milk and foam a little bit to deflate things before assembling the drink. I ended up not really needing the spoon to spoon off foam because it slid right out of the jar, but you could of course adjust this to taste.

Next, the cappuccino made with my Silvano and its steam wand.

IMG_0920

You can see that this milk, while not quite microfoam, is less airy than the jar-frothed method. The espresso crema rose to the top as I was pouring the milk into the cup, which is why the surface has lovely tan coloring.

Tasting these back-to-back was interesting. The AeroPress cappuccino was smooth and quite easy to drink. If I got this drink in a to-go cup at a Starbucks, I would drink the whole thing with no complaints! It was delicious. The “real” cappuccino, by contrast, had a stronger and more complex coffee flavor. Between the two, if I had to pick one, I absolutely would pick the “real” cap. However, I have nothing bad at all to say about the AeroPress cap, especially considering the price differential.

AeroPress: $30

Silvano: ~$1,000

Can you get cheaper espresso machines? Yes, of course. However, they are harder to use because they have less (or no) temperature stability, the steam power for the wand is poor, and you have to wait between pulling the shot and steaming the milk so one element is deteriorating while you wait to do the other.

If you drink espresso shots straight (as I do), an espresso machine is a great thing to have at home. However, if you only really drink milk-based drinks and you want a “best buy” option that won’t break the bank, I have no reservations at all about recommending the AeroPress! It’s easy to use, easy to clean, and it’ll pay for itself after about a week’s worth of lattes. I was already impressed with this little device but even moreso now!

“Help! I need a grinder – what should I get?”

Yay, grinders!! As much as I geek out over hi-tech stuff like espresso machines with E61 groupheads, pre-infusion, PID and bottomless portafilters, any coffee geek will tell you the most expensive espresso or coffee machine is nothing without a quality grinder. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to spend MORE on the grinder than on the entry-level espresso machine. It’s not just about getting the coffee fine enough; it’s about getting the particle size as even and consistent as possible.

Now, if you aren’t making espresso and are just planning to make a pot of coffee at home, your grinder needs will not be as intense. I’ll do my best to cover all the bases!

If you are starting from scratch and this will be your FIRST coffee grinder, AND you have a small budget ($20 or less):

My first grinder was a Krups F203 electric blade grinder that I bought for around $20. I liked this grinder because it was very easy to use – just fill the compartment, fit on the lid, and hold the button down as long as needed for the grind size you want (3-5¬†seconds will do for most applications). When you are done, turn the grinder upside down (while holding the lid so it doesn’t fall off) and thump the side of the grinder a couple of times so that the grinds fall neatly into the lid. Remove and dump into your coffee machine. Easy peasy. Cleaning is a snap – you can grind white rice or bread in it to sop up the coffee oils, since you’re not supposed to immerse the grinder in water.

Now, the drawback to blade grinders for serious coffee folk is that they chop up the coffee with their spinning blades, and the particle size is bound to be uneven. Some pieces may be large, and some pieces may be small, which will negatively affect the flavor in the cup (similarly to how you don’t want to chop onions into unevenly sized pieces for cooking – they won’t cook at the same rate and the taste and texture of your dish can be affected). You will also get some coffee dust (known as “fines”), which can impart a bitter taste to your cup and clog up a¬†french press filter.

Why then, am I still recommending this grinder? I’m recommending it because it does a good job at its price point, and because it is a multitasker. You can also use a blade¬†grinder for grinding spices like cinnamon sticks and peppercorns, making your own rice flour, etc. I still have mine and use it for grinding chia seed to use in baked goods. For¬†people that aren’t fanatical about their coffee and just want a decent cup in the morning, this might be the only grinder they ever need.

If you have a small budget ($35) but want something better than a blade grinder and are not afraid of a little manual labor:

Disclaimer: I do not own a manual grinder, but these have excellent reputations!

The Hario Skerton is a crank-style grinder with ceramic burrs that won’t heat up your coffee as you grind. Made of glass, plastic, and rubber.

The Hario Mini Mill has less capacity than the Skerton, but¬†also has quality ceramic burrs. It is all-plastic, so if you travel a lot, this is a good choice because it’s practically indestructible.

It seems like it takes around 30-60 seconds to grind beans for one cup of coffee. This may not be practical if you make a full pot each morning.

If you have a budget between $50-150:

This budget will get you a decent electric burr grinder. Burr grinders are superior to blade grinders because the burrs crush the coffee into more evenly sized particles. I’ve only owned one grinder in this price range; I jumped from my Krups to a Capresso Infinity (I purchased it for $80, but they retail around $100 nowadays). Electric grinders in this range will generally have steel conical burrs, which stay sharp but can heat up the coffee as it grinds (which is not great for the coffee). The Baratza Encore ($129) is generally considered to be “best in class” at this price point, and from what I have seen, the particle size is more even than on my old Capresso, but there are also other good grinders in this price range. Regardless of what you choose, there will be some grind retention; some coffee will be left in the machine once all the beans are fed through the hopper. You will have to get used to smacking the side of the machine to loosen out these grinds so that you are not drinking stale coffee. The Capresso retained SO MUCH coffee, it was kind of horrifying. You will also sometimes deal with static when sliding the compartment out to dump the ground beans into your coffee machine. I recommend keeping your grinder on a cookie sheet in the kitchen to make cleanup easier.

If you have a budget up to $200-250:

Now it sounds like you’re getting really serious about your coffee. The two electric grinders I have read about as being “best in class” at this price point are the Baratza Virtuoso (which I own) and the Breville Smart Grinder (as well as the new Breville Smart Grinder Pro). Expect to pay around $200-230. I like my Baratza Virtuoso a lot. It effortlessly goes between fine settings for my Hario V60 and coarse settings for my french press, as well as everything in between. The grind retention is much less than with my previous grinder (though I still smack it), and the bin has an anti-static coating which greatly limits the grounds flying all over the kitchen counters.

If you’re interested in a high quality manual grinder, I hear excellent things about the grinders from Orphan Espresso, particularly the Pharos and Lido 2 (both just under $200).

If you need a grinder for an espresso machine:

Don’t be fooled into thinking you can use a cheap grinder for espresso. With the possible exception of the manual grinders, NOTHING I have listed up to this point is capable of grinding properly for a semi-automatic espresso machine.

One exception: If your espresso machine comes with pressurized baskets, you can get away with a cheap grinder, but it won’t produce real crema, nor will the flavor be as good as “real” espresso. For that, you will need a semi-automatic machine, a quality¬†tamper, and non-pressurized baskets.

Even though the Baratza Virtuoso SAYS it can grind for espresso, the level of control was sadly lacking. The settings on the Virtuoso (and Encore) range from 1-40 from finest to coarsest. When I used to use it for espresso, I usually started the grinder on 7, and sometimes it would be okay but most of the time, espresso¬†would gush out of the machine. When it gushed, I would go to 6 to make the grounds finer, but that almost always choked the machine (where no liquid was coming through). The proper setting was somewhere in between 6 and 7 but the machine didn’t have it available. Proper espresso machines have many many more settings (steps), or are even what we refer to as stepless, for maximum control over the size of your grind.

Warning:¬†once you start looking into getting a grinder that is truly capable of grinding for espresso, you’re probably going to experience some sticker shock. The cheapest grinders that I have heard of (again, outside of the manual grinders) which are capable of the range needed for espresso are the Baratza Preciso, at around $300, and the Le’lit PL53 around $260-300. The Baratza Vario, at around $470, is a¬†better choice¬†with its flat ceramic burrs¬†(compared to the Preciso’s conical steel burrs) and is generally considered to be the most “bang for your buck” espresso grinder out there. It’s what I own. It fits nicely underneath most kitchen cabinets and is really user-friendly for home use.

One criticism of Baratza products is that they are mostly made of plastic and look flimsy compared to the huge metal titans that you see at coffee shops.¬†If you have your heart set on getting one of the huge grinders that you see at your local shop, those will be things like the Mazzer Super Jolly, Mazzer Majors, Ceados and Quamars. Then again, if you know about those brands, what are you doing reading this? ūüėČ If you have $1,000 or more to spend on a grinder, you’re a lucky duck indeed.

If you’re looking for one electric grinder capable of everything from espresso to french press:

Coffee bars and many coffee enthusiasts tend to keep a grinder specifically for espresso (in the case of coffee shops, sometimes multiple grinders: one each for an espresso blend, a single-origin, a decaf…). Finding that perfect grind for a particular espresso bean can be challenging, and if you are forcing the burrs in your grinder to make wide changes, it’s very difficult to find that sweet spot again. I do keep two separate grinders, but my research indicates that if you are planning to get an all-in-one grinder, the Baratza Fort√© is a great choice (around $900).

I know it sounds like I’m a paid spokesperson for Baratza. I wish! But seriously, I think they make very very good products for home use and their customer service is legendary. I have yet to have a problem with either of the Baratza grinders I own, but based on my knowledge of how they take care of their customers (even when the grinders are outside of their warranty period), I have full confidence that they stand behind their product and go the extra mile to make sure their customers are happy. They also offer refurbished machines at a discount with the same warranty as their new machines.

Got a grinder question that I didn’t cover here? Comment or contact me at the link at the top of the page!

Review: Intelligentsia Black Cat Classic Espresso (Chicago, Illinois)

(Guest post from David Cooper, principal horn of the Dallas Symphony!)

There is nothing better than a good friend showing up at your door at 10 pm with freshly roasted Intelligentsia coffee! Saturday night after my concert I had just made it home and was sitting on the couch when my good friend Margaret Fischer came by with a gift from her trip to Los Angeles. She stopped by the Intelligentsia shop in Venice Beach and brought me back a treat! I love coffee but none more than Intelligentsia! I have found very few close to perfect coffees that are balanced and bring a smile to my face every time I take a sip! That coffee that is so good that time stops and it’s just you in moment with the coffee. That is Intelligentsia for me. They only have locations in 3 cities in the United States so you have to stock up on one of your visits to Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, which makes it that much more precious. They do mail order as well but the shipping is as much as one bag of coffee, which is actually the only thing I don’t like about Intelligentsia. They use UPS for some reason and two bags of coffee shipping actually comes out to 13 dollars and some change. I love coffee probably more than the average person but even for me, 13 dollars is a little steep for the shipping and handling which brings us back to last night! Margaret brought me a bag of Intelligentsia to my door! Hand DELIVERED and FRESH!!!!

This is my first review for Coffee Cantata but I thought that I would happily review my all time favorite espresso, Black Cat Classic, which is the standard house blend espresso for Intelligentsia. Their motto is the pursuit of perfect coffee. They aren’t far off in my book. This espresso is right down the middle awesome. It‚Äôs like the Goldilocks of espresso. It isn’t too bright, it isn’t too dark, it has enough flavor, but not overpowering and with a dash of milk in your espresso, your shot turns into pure candy for sipping pleasure! For me most times espresso gets too bitter or too tangy or bright and to find an espresso that isn’t either one of these two is truly remarkable!

Upon opening the bag of Black Cat I got a fragrant caramel and butterscotch aroma! It smells exactly how you want your coffee to smell, close your eyes and get lost in the bouquet! One of the many reasons I drink coffee is that I am in love with the smell.

I decided to make my first cup of Black Cat with an AeroPress which is made by the same company that brought your that Frisbee with the hole in the middle that you bought at the science museum when you were a kid and flew for miles! I like to use the AeroPress simply because you can taste the bean without any other interference. I know I love this bean with my espresso maker but for reviewing purposes I wanted to be able to describe my coffee experience in great depth and flavor.

I prefer the inverted AeroPress for a little more extraction time. I ground my coffee on fine and measured it out with the black screw on filter holder full to the top. I boiled my water and let it cool off for a few seconds then I did an initial bloom of 45 seconds, I filled the AeroPress the rest of the way and let it steep for 1:30 and then did a 30 second plunge. I am still experimenting with steep and bloom times and grind. I might recommend a little more of a coarse grind because the coffee was almost a little too rich.

As I brought my nose to the rim of my cup and took a deep sniff and then had my first sip, I was again in heaven! My first sip my whole mouth was filled full of flavor. I tasted Cherry and a little light fruity flavor at the beginning and then ended with a smooth caramel butterscotch finish that I smelled when opening the bag. As I finished the cup the brightness was only slightly more intense and I was tasting a little less mellow sweet cherry, and a little bit of light orange. Overall, this coffee is not an AeroPress coffee but it still has the hints of what it will become with the Espresso maker. This is the most perfect espresso I have ever found and I will love to continue to put this up against any espresso that I come across. Time and time again I am reminded of why Intelligentsia is such a staple in the gourmet coffee world and what I love about their consistency that every time I get Black Cat it tastes like I remembered. You might find different espressos but you won’t find better.

David Cooper is guest writer for Coffee Cantata. He lived in Port Townsend, WA where he fell in love with coffee. David Cooper is Principal horn of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He is enjoying the elevation of coffee culture to Dallas, TX, his new home.

Intelligentsia Black Cat Classic Espresso

Review: Counter Culture Hologram Espresso (Durham, North Carolina)

I’m excited to check another roaster off of my coffee bucket list. Counter Culture is a major player in the specialty coffee world. Unlike Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, etc., they do not seem to run their own cafes;¬†they instead seem to focus their efforts on the roasting and on their training centers (sprinkled across the country). If you want a drink made with Counter Culture beans but don’t want to order the beans to make it yourself, you’ll have to find an independent coffee shop that brews¬†it.

Hologram is their signature espresso blend, formerly known as Rustico. It touts itself as fruity, milk chocolate, and syrupy, and the blend of beans includes Peruvian and natural-processed Ethiopians so I expected a fair bit of blueberry flavor. The scent from the whole beans proved me right – strong blueberry notes.

Dialing in a new espresso bean on a grinder is always an adventure. I tried my first shots 6 days post roast. For the first two shots, my grind was too coarse, and the shots poured much too fast… but they were still decently drinkable, if rather fruity. It wasn’t until I started updosing the amount of grounds more and tightening the grind that the pour rate started looking better and I got a bit of tiger striping.

Best shot (this time around): 21 grams at 201 degrees F. At 200, the shot was very fruity, but as I raised the temperature, I got more bittersweet cocoa flavors and less blueberry. There was a slightly funky/earthy note to the end of the cup. This shot REALLY stood up well in milk – the cocoa and fruit flavors really cut through the drink.

Interesting note about water:

I typically use Nestle Pure Life, but I ran out between the first and second espresso tasting and I had to pick up a bottle of Ozarka. Now, if you’re wondering why I don’t just use tap water, it’s because our tap water is quite hard, and espresso machines are susceptible to a lot of damage from hard water scale. My particular machine does not lend itself well to descaling at home, so I am opting to use the softest water I can buy that still tastes good in the machine.

I’ve tested the water softness and pH of Nestle Pure Life, Ozarka, Crystal Geyser, and the Brita water we keep around for drinking. The Nestle Pure Life was my top choice because the water is¬†at¬†3 grains hardness. Ozarka is at nearly 0 grains hardness, but having water that is too soft and low in minerals can actually taste worse in espresso.

Anyway, I pulled a shot of espresso on day 8 with the Ozarka in the boiler, same weight and temperature as the best shot from day 6. The pour rate looked right, the colors looked great… but then I tasted it. It tasted like cherry cough syrup. I couldn’t spit it out fast enough! What was pleasantly chocolaty and fruity¬†two days back was this time full of artificial cherry flavor and a medicinal aftertaste. Yuck. I raised the temperature up to 203 in hopes of getting chocolate back in the shot, and it was a little better, but still undrinkable in my opinion. It’s possible that something else changed in the interim, but my guess is that our local version of Ozarka just isn’t going to cut it in my machine for flavor.

I next tried the beans in an AeroPress in the inverted method. It was fruity with a bit more depth than a single-origin natural Ethiopian, but I still got a predominantly blueberry flavor from these beans.

Summary: As an espresso, this is a little more fruit-forward than I prefer, but it was complex and interesting. Stands up really well in milk drinks! If you like natural-processed Ethiopian coffees, this will suit you perfectly brewed as coffee.

From the roaster: Fruity, milk chocolate, syrupy

Counter Culture Hologram Espresso

Review: Coffee del Rey Guatemala Huehuetenango (Plano, Texas)

Coffee del Rey is a VERY local roaster to me, located less than 10 miles from my house. It is a company that operates on a similar business model to TOMS. For every pound of coffee sold, they provide a pack of non-GMO heritage fruit/vegetable seeds in partnership with training from other organizations to start community gardens in developing countries, to help the people there grow their own food for consumption and as a way to support themselves.

I admire Coffee del Rey’s drive to make the world a better place, but honestly, the main reason I like buying from them is because I like their coffee! I have personally purchased probably about 15¬†pounds of coffee from this company so far. Most of that has been their Ethiopia Harrar, a natural-processed bean that smells like blueberries. I’ve also enjoyed their Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (citrusy and floral) and their Bolivia Organic (butterscotch and toast). This Guatemala Huehuetenango is new to me.

Upon opening the bag, I sniffed the whole beans (3 days post roast), and they had a subtle scent like cherry and almond. Nothing overwhelming, but pleasant. Once I ground up the beans and started brewing, it was very clear that these beans were extremely fresh because they started degassing like crazy. I should have taken a video… the grounds bubbled up and moved violently up and down like lava. (IT’S ALIVE!!)

V60: This took me 3 tries to get the extraction rate right because my normal grind setting wouldn’t cut it for some reason. I had to go much finer than usual on my Baratza Virtuoso (usually 14, for this: 9). The eventual result smelled like liquefied rose petals with a bit of toffee on the finish as it cooled. Kind of shocking!

Aeropress: Oooh. This still smelled and tasted like roses, but there was a definite note of toasted marshmallow here. Very sweet. Rich and not bitter. I ended up drinking the whole cup!

Chemex: I took a deep breath of¬†the aroma from the Chemex before I poured a cup, and it had a warm glow that for some reason reminded me of matches… the way that matches smell when they are lit? Not like smoke, exactly, just the glow. The taste was a bit bitter right off the bat, but I let it cool for about one minute and the bitterness dissipated. It was sweet, with a scent of graham crackers and toasted marshmallow. As I let it cool, there was bit of milk chocolate in the finish. I enjoyed it as is, but just for fun, I did put a little bit of chocolate syrup in the coffee (no milk). S’mores, intensified!!!

French press: Syrupy body but not that flavorful. Kind of sour. Perhaps I needed to steep it longer than 4 minutes, or change the grind size, but I wasn’t as impressed with this method.

Summary: The finer the grind, the more this coffee smells like roses. But in a relatively coarse method like a Chemex, you can get s’mores. Both the Aeropress and the Chemex made delicious cups but I probably would go for this in a Chemex most often.

Coffee del Rey typically roasts on Tuesdays, but they have also started roasting other days of the week as needed. If you have something specific you want to try, I would recommend contacting them so that you can buy it as freshly as possible. I enjoy trying new things though, so I usually just go in and ask what’s freshest that day.

From the roaster: This Guatemala has subtle nuanced flavors of a syrupy, carmelly cocoa with hints of tobacco and lemony citrus. The lingering finish is pleasant and light.

Coffee del Rey Guatemala Huehuetenango

Edited to add: After I published this review, I got a tip to try these beans as a single-origin espresso. CHOCOLATE BOMB!!! If you like chocolaty espressos (and I do), this makes a delicious shot.

Some general rules to follow to get GREAT coffee at home

Coffee is a daily ritual for many of us, myself included (obviously!). It might surprise some people to know that I typically don’t drink very much coffee each day; each morning I’ll have 8-12 oz of a brewed coffee or a double espresso if I’m pulling espresso shots. That’s about it. If I’m drinking such a small quantity, I want it to be GREAT. Life is too short for bad coffee!

For anyone that is a beginner at home coffee and would like to know some general rules to follow for maximum coffee quality, I present the following:

1) For optimum flavor, you must buy whole beans and grind them directly before brewing.

Coffee loses its best flavor and aromas within 15 minutes of grinding. Yes, that quickly! It’s certainly tempting to buy pre-ground coffee at the store, but the difference between pre-ground and freshly ground is astonishing. Do yourself a favor and get a grinder.

2) For optimum flavor, your coffee beans need to have a ROAST date (not a BEST BY date) within 15 days.

Go to the supermarket and look for a bag of whole bean coffee (that in itself is hard to do at some stores!). Look for a date on the bag. Most mass-market coffees will have a “best by” date of several months to a year out. These are lies. Coffee is food, and the clock starts ticking the moment it is roasted. I’ve seen roasters printed a “best by” date anywhere from two months to a year after the day it was roasted. Recently I spotted coffee that had a “best by” date of January 11, 2015 (this was in April¬†2015). This means that bag of coffee could have been up to 15 months old!!!

For most coffees, you’ll get the best flavor within the first two weeks after it’s been roasted, with a drop off in flavor in the third week. This still applies whether you keep the coffee in the original bag, move it into an airtight container, etc. NEVER keep coffee in the refrigerator. Freezing coffee is a controversial topic which I discuss more in depth here.

Let’s say that the grocery store is your only option and all the beans on the shelf are months old. Does this mean they won’t have any flavor? No. Grinding whole beans at home directly before brewing will still be much¬†better than pre-ground bags, even if the whole beans are several months old. But for the best possible flavor, try and buy beans that are as fresh as possible.

Here in North Texas, I’ve had decent luck finding fresh (<2 week old) coffee at Whole Foods. I typically mail-order beans directly from roasters or visit local coffee shops to get beans, though.

3) Is your coffee bitter? ¬†Make sure you aren’t using boiling water. Coffee likes water between 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you use an automatic drip machine, this might be hard if not impossible to change, since the machine is preset. If you use a manual method, though (like a french press), don’t use your water from a rolling boil – let it cool for about 30 seconds before starting to brew.

4) Is your coffee too strong? Don’t be tempted to use a smaller quantity of grounds when brewing.

This will lead to bitter coffee because the grounds will get overextracted. Use the “right” amount of coffee (usually 2 tbsps per 6-8 oz of water) and add water at the end if you want to dilute it.

5) Keep your equipment clean.

Coffee has oils and oils go rancid. Does your coffeepot smell like fish? Wash that sucker.

You don’t have to spend a lot in order to get a great cup of coffee. A simple grinder, fresh beans, and a little attention to detail will yield a great start to your morning (or afternoon, or whenever you’re enjoying your java)!

Review: Cuvée Decaf Spicewood 71 (Spicewood, Texas)

Is there a decaf coffee out there worth drinking? My search has just begun, but I am pretty confident I’ve found one. I love being surprised by a coffee!

Cuv√©e Coffee is a craft coffee company based out of Spicewood, TX (also known as the home of Willie Nelson), about 40 minutes northwest of Austin. Their decaf appears to be a blend of Colombian beans. I couldn’t find information on how Cuv√©e decaffeinates these beans (water process? methyl chloride?).  The whole beans smelled to me like chocolate-covered cherry cordials and pistachios. Lots of pistachios.

French press: This was my first tasting of this coffee. It brewed up a bit pale in color with a red tint. Extremely smooth, but hollow tasting. Loved the texture of the coffee but it was missing a core to its flavor. At this point, I decided to add just a tiny pinch of salt to my cup (probably about 1/16 tsp of kosher salt to a 12 oz cup) and it really improved the coffee! I don’t make a habit of salting my coffee, but it makes sense that if a coffee is a bit bland, a little salt can bring out the flavors, just like it does with food. The addition brought out some of the acidity and the cup was much better balanced in flavor. Very nice if you’re looking for a rich cup.

V60: Deep, dark brown color – not really red. Gentle aroma. No real flavor to report. I added a pinch of salt to this too, but it didn’t really make a difference – I thought this cup was too thin and bland. Next!

Chemex: WOW. This surprised the heck out of me. This method knocked my socks off!! A lovely, bright acidity with some sweetness. It tasted like lemon meringue pie filling with toasted marshmallow. Considering how relatively flavorless the press and V60 were, I was floored at how flavorful this was. I couldn’t tell this was decaf.

AeroPress: This was a blend in flavors of sorts between the Chemex and french press. Nice balance of the rich depth and the bright notes, but for me there was not as much WOW factor as the Chemex. A very very pleasant cup to drink though.

Summary: Chemex makes this coffee into a rock star. It was also good (if more muted) in the AeroPress. If you make it in a french press, add a little salt. Don’t use a V60 unless you want no flavor.

From the roaster: Herbacious with hints of lemon. A cola-like body, and notes of tea as it cools.

Cuvée Coffee Decaf Spicewood 71