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

I hope you all enjoyed reading my friend David Cooper’s excellent guest post on Intelligentsia’s Black Cat Classic Espresso back in April. This espresso blend is a celebrity as far as espresso blends go, and for some reason I didn’t buy a bag of this for myself on that trip (oh yeah, now I remember why – I spent $27 on this bag of Intelligentsia’s Burundi Bwayi!). Reading David’s review made me want to experiment with this blend myself, so when I saw fresh bags at West Oak Coffee Bar in Denton, TX, I jumped at the chance.

My previous experience with Black Cat has been limited to a visit to one of Intelligentsia’s cafes in Chicago. On that trip, I had a doppio espresso and a latte to compare and contrast what I thought of it vs. the offerings at Metropolis Coffee. My impression of Intelligentsia’s espresso that day was that it tasted a bit one-dimensional; more akin to comfort food vs. the rather more complex and challenging Metropolis Redline blend. Both blends were a little bright for my taste, but both cafes served well-pulled shots with plenty of crema.

Whole beans: These smell AWESOME. I loved the buttery richness and the sweet toffee-like fragrance coming from the bag.

When I am experimenting with a new bag of espresso, I adjust the following parameters: temperature, grind size, dose (amount of beans in the portafilter), extraction time/volume. Here’s my log for Black Cat:

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(FYI – all of the 2-I, 2-K, 2-M codes refer to the grind setting on my Baratza Vario.)

As you can see, I played around with the parameters for 8 doubleshots. I may continue to play, but thus far the shot that I thought was the best was #7, at 200 degrees F, 19 gram dose, 27 sec extraction (which, probably not coincidentally, is quite close to Intelligentsia’s suggested parameters). It still only got a “hey! not bad!” comment from me, but that was definitely better than “lemon” or “WINCE.” This espresso is quite bright, verging on sour to my palate, even in its “best” rendition. I don’t think this blend can reach the sweetness of my current favorites (Stumptown or Vivace) no matter how I change the dose or temperature. #7 tasted much like the shots of Black Cat that I’ve had out at cafes, by baristas that presumably know how to work with this blend and get the best flavor out of it. Not bad, but it’s not the general flavor I personally prefer in an espresso.

However, does this mean I hate this coffee? No, and let me elaborate! I also opted to try this blend in the AeroPress and WHAT A DIFFERENCE. All those rich, toffee/caramel/buttery aromas from the whole beans definitely took center stage when I brewed this in the AeroPress. No sour/lemon notes here; my mouth was shocked by how much this tasted like english toffee + chocolate with just a little bit of cherry flavor on the finish. The AeroPress extraction made this coffee taste how it smells. If I could find a way to get THIS flavor in my espresso shots, I would be a very happy camper. Perhaps I don’t have a good enough grinder/machine combo at home to do it, but even the shots of Black Cat that I’ve had at coffee shops have been overly bright for my taste.

Summary: I have a hard time getting along with this espresso blend with my espresso equipment. However, it tastes terrific in an AeroPress!

From the roaster: This syrupy and sweet espresso blend has been the staple of our lineup since the very beginning. It is a product of intensive lot selection and close, direct work with the farmers who produce its components. The Black Cat Classic Espresso’s hallmark is its supreme balance and wonderful sweetness.

Dark chocolate. Ripe cherry. Brown sugar.

Intelligentsia Black Cat Classic Espresso

Review: Cultivar Colombia La Esperanza (Dallas, Texas)

During my last trip to Los Angeles, I had a little time to kill before returning my rental car, so I decided to try out Cognoscenti Coffee on my way to LAX. They had coffee from multiple roasters offered that day, none of which I had tried yet (Commonwealth and Four Barrel among them), and I opted to go with the featured pourover coffee from Ritual Roasters. Since I had to get to the airport, I got my coffee to go.

Let me tell you, I was walking to my rented silver Volkswagen Beetle and I took a sip of this coffee and stopped in my tracks (luckily for me, this wasn’t New York, so no one ran into me from behind while cursing me for being a stupid tourist!). I was so surprised by the flavor of the coffee… a little plummy, with semi-sweet chocolate and warm spice. Complex. Medium-bodied. Sweet and satisfying.

Once I got through LAX security, I called up Cognoscenti and demanded (nicely) to know exactly what it was that I was served that morning. They told me that it was Ritual’s La Esperanza microlot from Colombia. I thanked them and resolved to order a bag online once I got home. However, I soon discovered that it was not available online. Coffee is a seasonal product and my timing was both lucky (because I was able to try it at the shop) and unlucky (because I couldn’t buy more).

Dismayed, I’ve been checking Ritual’s website regularly ever since April to see if I could get my hands on some. No luck yet.

THEN….

On a recent trip to Denton, TX I remembered that Cultivar Coffee has a shop there, so I went to grab a bag. Cultivar is a regular on “best of” Dallas lists for their superb coffee, but their two locations (East Dallas and Denton) are both pretty far from my home, so I rarely have a chance to get to their shops. I got very excited when I saw this bag of Cultivar coffee with the words: Colombia, La Esperanza. It’s a pretty appropriate name for the coffee farm, really — I’ve been waiting for this coffee for what feels like a long time! Obviously, Cultivar may not roast in exactly the same manner that Ritual does, but I hoped that the fact that these beans originated from the same farm would lead to a similar cup.

Whole beans: Rich aroma. Buttery and spicy (like baking spices).

V60: From the first swallow, I was hooked. THIS is what I’ve been missing! It was perhaps a touch less flavorful than I remembered from my cup in Los Angeles, but the flavor profile was all there: semi-sweet chocolate. Dark stone fruit. Spicy and satisfying. Delicious!!! I brewed this at a 2:45 extraction time. When I adjusted the setting one notch finer on my grinder, it made it a 3:15 extraction time which happened to result in less fruit flavor and more bitterness. I’ll stick with 2:45.

AeroPress: Very dark and smooth. No fruit flavor. Somehow, this method makes the beans taste like a very dark roast coffee as opposed to the medium roast that it is. Rich, buttery body that coats the inside of the mouth. I mostly got a flavor of bittersweet cocoa here. I did not try it with milk and sugar, but it seems like it would be delicious.

Chemex: Brighter yet less interesting to me than the V60 or AeroPress versions. There was not as much sweetness and this cup had a powdery finish to it.

French press: More fruity/plummy than any other method. Delicious intensity of flavor, along with a thick, syrupy body. This had the flavor that I was missing (just slightly) in the V60.

Summary: At long last, I found the coffee I had been looking for. Thank you, Cultivar! The flavor of the french press was exactly what I wanted, but I also want it with the cleaner finish from the V60. Maybe a Clever Coffee Dripper will get me the result I want? I will continue experimenting to find my perfect balance. In the meantime, I think it’s very safe to say La Esperanza was worth the wait. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another cup to brew!

From the roaster: Syrupy. Baking spices. Berries.

Cultivar Coffee Colombia La Esperanza

Freezing coffee beans

There are plenty of coffee snobs that will gasp and avert their eyes from this post. I won’t argue that fresh coffee is best (I don’t think anyone thinks frozen coffee is BETTER than fresh), but I wanted to see for myself if freezing whole coffee beans is a terrible idea, or if it is a viable way to store beans you physically cannot drink in the small window of time before they go stale. After all, there are plenty of reasons why someone might want to freeze their beans. Buying beans in bulk (such as 5-pound bags) and breaking them down into smaller portions is cheaper than buying 12-oz bags, especially if shipping is a factor. Someone might be lucky enough to have received a bunch of roasted coffee as gifts. You might have to give up coffee temporarily for one reason or another. Let’s go through several ways of freezing the beans to see if any give us an acceptable (or even GREAT) result!

For this experiment, I chose to use the remainder of my Tweed Colombia Los Naranjos. My favorite preparation for this coffee was in the Chemex, so I divided the coffee into 44 gram portions and froze it in the following ways:

A) In a Ziploc quart-size freezer bag. I didn’t take special care to press air out of the bag.

B) In a FoodSaver vacuum sealed bag, with all the air removed.

C) In a glass jar, full to the brim (there was NO room between the top of the coffee and the lid).

D) In the original bag from Tweed, with as much air pressed out as possible.

The coffee was roasted on April 27. I froze the beans on April 29 and did this experiment on June 23. Each batch was allowed to come to room temperature before grinding (left out at room temperature overnight). All batches of coffee were ground and brewed exactly the same, in my Chemex with 700 grams of 200 degree F water at 4:00 minutes extraction time.

In all of the samples, there was a very impressive amount of bloom when the hot water hit the ground beans, especially considering the beans were two months old. Freezing really did seem to arrest/slow the aging process.

A) Ziploc: The whole beans smelled slightly like frozen vegetables, but the brewed coffee was not bad. It was sweet with a rich buttery body. There was the very slightest hint of a funky aftertaste but on the whole it was quite close to fresh.

B) FoodSaver vacuum bag: Sweet with no funky aftertaste. Honestly, this tasted indistinguishable from fresh to my palate.

C) Glass jar: This was confounding to me – my initial reaction was that this coffee was more sour than the previous two. However, after the coffee sat for a bit and I tried it again, it smoothed out and I actually enjoyed it more than the previous cups. It had a really creamy mouthfeel.

D) Original bag: Quite sweet and creamy. A bit more tart than the glass jar sample but I like the liveliness.

Someone with a more developed palate than mine might be able to taste more flaws, but I don’t think that any of the cups were totally terrible (though I wouldn’t choose to drink the Ziploc/frozen vegetable coffee again). In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to tell the difference in a blind taste test between most of these four. How do they compare to fresh? I didn’t have a fresh bag of this particular coffee to sample alongside these four cups but I honestly think they compare quite well. The coffee frozen in the FoodSaver bag tasted just as good to me as the coffee I had fresh on April 28.

I expected there to be much more of a stark difference between the four methods but they all made good cups from coffee that was frozen very shortly (3 days) after roasting. This experiment has proved to me that freezing the coffee won’t necessarily result in a terrible result in the cup if the coffee is fresh upon freezing. I do think that removing as much of the air as possible is a good idea, though.

My ranking:

1st place: Tie – Vacuum bag (hot)/glass jar (after it cooled a little)

3rd place: original bag with air pressed out

4th place: Ziploc bag with air left in the bag

Summary: I still plan to buy and consume fresh coffee as much as possible, but if you are lucky enough to have an abundance of freshly roasted whole bean coffee around and you want to save some for later consumption, freezing it can allow you to enjoy it at a later date without ill-effect. I would freeze the beans in either a vacuum bag or glass jar (full to the brim, so there is as little air as possible in with the beans) in about the quantity I could drink in one week, and thaw as needed.

Review: Stumptown Ecuador Cariamanga Organic (Portland, Oregon)

This bag of Stumptown beans was an impulse buy; it ended up being the final bag of coffee beans I purchased while in Seattle. I had never tried beans from Ecuador before but the description on the bag sounded good, and the beans were extremely fresh.

Incidentally, almost all of the cafes I bought beans from on this trip offered me a free drink with purchase of a bag of beans. Great… except I bought 4 bags in the same day. Even I can’t stomach that much coffee in 8 hours! Stumptown did let me have a small sample (about 2 oz) of their nitro cold brew on tap as my freebie, since I told them I couldn’t handle a full drink. Refreshing stuff. I’m not big on cold brew, but this was nice on a sunny, warm day. It reminded me of a craft beer in texture.

Anyway, back to the Ecuador Cariamanga…

Whole beans: Tannic like tea… my throat tightened up once I smelled the beans. However, there was also a light, sweet note to these beans. You know those orange-slice jellied candies that are covered in granulated sugar and sold in bags at drugstores for 2/$1? These beans smelled like those candies.

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French press: Sweet but tart brew with plenty of tannins. Light golden color, even after 4 minutes of brewing. I was most reminded of orange juice with just a touch of honey, along with black tea. Pretty refreshing, actually! The tannins were bothering me enough that I wondered if adding just a bit of sugar would mitigate them. It did – but even just 1/4 tsp of sugar made this brew much too cloyingly sweet for my taste. Blech.

Chemex: Light body. Kind of bland. Where’s the orange character? This coffee was much subtler overall with almost no citrus. It smelled like almond shortbread.

AeroPress: Ahhhh, here’s the orange flavor. Quite tart and brash. Full-bodied and assertive. I made this the traditional way as a concentrated coffee, and ended up not adding any hot water at all.

V60: Super smooth and balanced in the cup. Sweet and citrusy and a little buttery. Much less tart than any of the other methods.

Summary: Not bad at all! This is a very bright, lively coffee. It actually made 4 very different cups of coffee to my taste: French press – tea; Chemex – almond cookie; AeroPress: orange juice; V60: marmalade. Which is best? I liked the AeroPress and V60 versions best; I would probably opt for the V60 most days because I liked its balanced nature but the AeroPress kind of knocked me over with its intense flavors.

From the roaster: Tangerine, butterscotch, almond

This coffee does not appear to be sold online at the moment.

Stumptown Coffee

Review: Espresso Vivace Roasteria Dolce blend (Seattle, Washington)

As a musician, I’m a sucker for any coffee company that uses music references (the “Brahmsian” characteristics of Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Espresso comes to mind). Naturally, Seattle’s Espresso Vivace Roasteria was a must on my list of my cafes to visit. This cafe is a bit different than most in that they only serve espresso and espresso-based drinks; no drip/pourover coffee. Vivace roasts two blends, the Dolce (meant for drinking straight) and the Vita (for use in milk drinks). I chose to try both straight up when I visited the cafe, and the barista obligingly pulled me two shots to compare and contrast the blends.

(The latte was Shutterbug’s. I couldn’t get very good lighting but you can see that my espresso shots are quite concentrated.)

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Unlike most cafes, where a doubleshot (1.5-2 oz) of espresso is the standard serving, Vivace’s standard for espresso is a ristretto shot (looked to be around 0.75-1 oz each, pulled from a portafilter with a double basket). Ristretto is Italian for “restricted,” and while there are multiple ways of preparing a ristretto shot, basically the shots are more concentrated in flavor, thicker, and sweeter than a normale shot.

Generally speaking, my only problem with drinking espresso is that it’s gone so quickly. At just 2 oz, I don’t get a chance to savor the drink like I do with 8 oz pourovers, so I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough time to enjoy espresso shots. I think it’s just me wanting to hold on to the beautiful flavors… but I am learning to appreciate them like a strong piano chord; explosive and rich at the start, and spinning throughout the mouth until all I’m left with is the memory of what I just experienced. There’s something so lovely but heartbreaking about loving such ephemeral things!!

When I found out Vivace pulls ristrettos, I was intrigued but also thinking, “Great, so now I have even LESS espresso to drink before my experience is over!” I should have known better than to be concerned about quantity. This was my first time having a straight ristretto shot of any sort, and I was unprepared for the explosion of joy that attacked my taste buds. The Dolce was first, and it was so sweet and syrupy that I was taken aback. The Vita was stronger and harsher in flavor to me; I could see how it would work well in a latte as I bet the flavors could cut through the milk quite easily. It wasn’t bad, but to me it was no contest; I had to get my hands on more of the Dolce. Major props to the two baristas that helped me that day; the first for pulling such an incredible shot for me, and the second for going out of her way to find the freshest bag of Dolce possible (roasted earlier that morning!!).

I started pulling shots 7 days post roast. Since Vivace has designed these beans to work best as ristretto shots, I set about trying to learn how to pull my first ristrettos ever. The first two shots were in the normale range as I was still dialing in the grind (and they tasted fine), but the third was incredible. Vivace recommends the following parameters for their beans: 17 g in a double basket, 203.5 degrees F, 30-40 pounds tamping pressure. My machine will only let me adjust in whole degrees, so I experimented between 200 and 204 degrees. 204 was too bitter to my taste; I actually liked the shots best on my machine at 200! Even my best shot at home didn’t really compare to what I was served at the cafe, but they were still among the better espresso shots I’ve made at home.

This shot, pulled at 203 degrees, had a texture like maple syrup, and was beautifully chocolaty with just a hint of red fruit (raspberry) on the finish.

It was pretty easy on the eyes as well.

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I also tried the Dolce in a cortado, just for kicks. Tasted great to me, but I’m not much for milk drinks nowadays… I miss the intensity of straight shots! However, Shutterbug confirmed for me that the Dolce stands up very well in a latte, even if it wasn’t designed for this use.

One oddity about these beans: They made a MESS of my kitchen. My Baratza Vario grinder has a portafilter holder which allows me to grind directly into the basket for brewing. Normally, the grinds fall pretty neatly straight down into the basket, but for some reason, these beans threw the grounds all over the place. I ended up grinding into the grinder’s plastic bin instead and then pouring it into my double basket. An extra step, but I didn’t mind too much when the espresso was of this quality.

Summary: This blend is meant to be pulled as a ristretto shot with pretty specific brew parameters. My machine won’t allow for 0.1 degree temperature changes, so I may not be getting the ultimate out of this bean, but even so, I really liked what I was able to produce. The shot I had at the Espresso Vivace location I visited on Capitol Hill will still stand out as one of the most memorable I’ve ever had, though.

Notes from the roaster:
Our gold cup espresso blend has been created to offer the most complex and balanced flavor possible in an espresso ristretto. Espresso Dolce features a heavy red-gold crema with a sweet floral presence, balanced with a rich note of chocolate, and a complex, sweet aftertaste that lingers on the palate. Espresso Dolce is also available as a green blend for roasting at home or in your shop.

Espresso Vivace Roasteria Dolce Blend

Review: Victrola Ethiopia Yirgacheffe “YIRGZ” (Seattle, Washington)

My first experience with Victrola’s beans was their Kenya Nyeri Tambaya Peaberry, which was NOT a favorite of mine, but I have heard enough good things about this roaster that I decided that I needed to pick up a different bag of theirs while in Seattle. I am fond of washed Ethiopian coffees, so I decided to give their YIRGZ a try.

This is a little different than a typical Ethiopia Yirgacheffe due to the YIRGZ classification; the “Z” stands for zero defect. The beans are sorted three times for color, size, and density to separate the most exceptional beans from the rest of the crop. Washed (or wet-process) Ethiopian beans have a reputation for being very floral and sweet.

The scent of the whole beans reminded me of ground almonds and amaretto syrup. Ground, it brought out a slight cherry aroma.

V60: Definitely floral (jasmine?) and fragrant. Had a little sour note on the aftertaste, but not unpleasant. Tangy and bright.

AeroPress: Smooth and full-bodied with a little bit of floral character. This was my favorite for its personality – sweet but not shy!

Chemex: The coffee smelled like iced tea. The flavor was very clean, but all of the subtle fruity notes were stripped away in this method. As it cooled, it started to smell like asian pears, but the taste seemed almost watered down to me compared to the richness of the AeroPress cup.

French press: This cup had more tannins and was less sweet than the previous cups. It was okay, but I got too much tea-like flavor and not enough fruit/floral notes.

Summary: I like this much better than the last coffee I tried from Victrola. The AeroPress cup was my favorite for the lovely balance between the rich mouthfeel and the bright, flowery flavors.

From the roaster: Ginger, cherry, hibiscus, lemongrass.

Victrola Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Yirgacheffe YIRGZ

Review: Kaladi Brothers Coffee Costa Rica San Pablo (Anchorage, Alaska)

When I visited Seattle, my intention was to pick up as many locally-roasted Pacific Northwest coffees as I could feasibly drink in the next few weeks. This bag of Kaladi Brothers was the sole exception I made, mostly because I didn’t think I’d ever get another chance to try coffee from an Alaskan roaster without paying for shipping from Alaska, and because the coffee promised to be unlike anything I had ever tried before based on the processing description on the packaging.

(Maybe Alaska can be considered FAR Pacific Northwest?)

Walking into the Kaladi Brothers cafe reminded me a bit of the old TV show Northern Exposure. It felt pretty rustic, with lots of wood. Hardly the sterile, gleaming, glass/metal facade that you see at so many modern cafes. I didn’t see any bags of beans for sale, so I asked a barista and she went in the back and got me some. Here is where I broke one of my cardinal rules of coffee bean shopping. There was no roast date on the bag, but the barista assured me that the beans were very fresh (roasted within the past week), and she also said that this Costa Rica was her favorite. Ordinarily, I don’t buy beans without a roast date clearly labeled, but again, this was probably my one chance to try this brand, so I decided to go for it.

What makes this coffee different from other roasters? Their website has more information, but the major difference between this brand and other specialty coffee roasters is that Kaladi FREEZES all of their roasted coffee within 18 hours of roasting, which “ensures our coffee is absolutely ‘roaster fresh’ when you purchase it” (quote taken from the packaging). Freezing coffee is a hot (sorry, couldn’t resist!) topic in the coffee world, as some people swear it ruins the flavor and others claim there is no difference. I plan to be conducting my own experiment this month regarding freezing and brewing roasted beans, to see if there is a degradation of flavor. From a practical standpoint, shipping from Anchorage takes such a long time that I’m not surprised they freeze their beans to try and extend its shelf life.

Before I started my tasting, I accidentally knocked the bag over and some beans spilled onto my counter. Check out these whole beans (a truly random sample – these four beans were the ones that spilled out):

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Notice the varying bean sizes and degrees of roast? The entire bag was like this. According to the packaging, Kaladi uses a hot air roaster vs. a traditional barrel roaster, which “results in a clean, uniform roast, that’s free of the bitter-tasting tars left behind in traditional roasters.” I will concede that the final product was not bitter, but the bag was full of different sized beans (some of which I swear are peaberries!), which would make it impossible to achieve a truly uniform roast.

The aroma of the whole beans had a smokiness to it, with buttery shortbread and just a hint of bittersweet chocolate. A few days after I opened the bag, the beans started smelling like gasoline. (!)

French press: This produced a cup that tasted like toffee and cocoa powder. Very dark and rich coffee.

Chemex: This coffee was quite sweet with a butterscotch flavor.

AeroPress: Extremely smooth with a chocolate fudge flavor.

V60: Nothing memorable in this method. I wrote “meh” in my notes.

I typically gravitate toward lighter roasts than this; this Kaladi coffee seemed like it was roasted a notch below Starbucks in roast level; fairly dark, but not burnt or oily. This particular coffee is one-dimensional to my palate, but if you like butterscotch/chocolate flavor, you might want to try this out. I have no way of comparing this coffee of course to an unfrozen batch, so I can’t say if the freezing hurt the flavor at all, but I was a little unnerved by the gasoline scent after the bag had been opened for about 3-4 days.

Summary: Filtered methods seem to bring out the best in this coffee: AeroPress for chocolate fudginess; Chemex for butterscotch sweetness. The inconsistent bean size and roast level, as well as the lack of transparency about how fresh the coffee truly is, makes it unlikely that I’ll choose to purchase this particular brand again.

From the roaster: No tasting notes provided

Kaladi Brothers Coffee

Review: Square One Panama La Esmerelda Gesha (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

I picked up this bag of Square One at a Gregorys Coffee location in New York City, and I have been impatiently looking forward to tasting it. Now, for those who are not aware, Gesha (or Geisha – it’s spelled both ways and no one seems to know which way is “right”) coffees have a reputation for being extra-special compared to “regular” coffees. The La Esmerelda farm in Panama produces some of the most sought-after Gesha beans in the world, with prices for the top-grade beans (Esmerelda Special) sometimes topping $100/lb roasted. This particular bag, which was identified on the Square One website as an Esmerelda Boquete, is from the “second-tier” of the Esmerelda Farm. These beans, while still expensive at $20/12 oz, are a relative bargain as they exhibit many of the same qualities as the top-tier Esmerelda Special but didn’t quite meet the criteria for that classification.

This actually is the second Gesha I’ve had the opportunity to try. The first was at the first coffee cupping I ever attended years ago, and I remember thinking that coffee was extremely delicate, more akin to tea than coffee. I was underwhelmed then because I was a fan of thick, dark, assertive brews at the time, but my tastes have changed and I was very curious to see what I would think of this coffee.

This was not a typical tasting for me as I chose to open this bag at a coffee cupping I hosted at my home, so I did not brew this in multiple methods. During the cupping, we brewed the coffee closest in style to French press, as I ground the coffee coarsely and let it steep for 4 minutes before we tasted. However, prior to brewing, we all smelled the freshly ground coffee and I think my fellow cuppers can attest to the fact that I had a huge, silly grin on my face. This coffee smells DELICIOUS. It had such a sweet, candy-esque fragrance to it that I remarked that I don’t think I would have been able to identify it as coffee if blindfolded. Very striking aromas – a little bit tropical with warm spice.

This was such a complex coffee that was unlike almost anything I had ever tasted so it was very difficult to pin down the flavors. After steeping the coffee, I tasted the brew and wrote: Incredibly sweet. Cherry? Cardamom.

Other observations from the other tasters: Nutty, sweet aroma. Baked goods. Sweet, fruity. Brighter, increased fruit flavor as it cools. Raspberry and vanilla cake.

We may not have matched the tasting notes from the roaster at all, but I think this just says more about the complexity of this coffee vs. our palates (at least, that’s what I’d like to think, haha).

I was the only one of the four of us to know what we were drinking, since we cupped the coffees “blind” and I only revealed what they were after we finished. Of the four coffees we cupped that day, this was the favorite of three out of the four tasters. We proceeded to brew a Chemex full of this Gesha, and it was stunning. I like to order and purchase a wide variety of coffee and I rarely buy the same coffee twice within a few months, but this coffee blew me away enough that I placed an online order for another bag right after we finished our cupping. It is THAT good. If you have always wanted to try a Gesha but have been scared away by the $50-65/8 oz price, try this one!!

Edited to add: Over the span of a week or so, I tried this coffee in all my usual methods (V60, AeroPress, Chemex, french press). It was good all ways, but shone most in the french press. What a beauty.

From the roaster: Honeysuckle, almond, plum

Square One La Esmerelda Panama Gesha

Coffee Destination: Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room (Seattle, Washington)

I’m back from my hiatus! And trust me when I say I will definitely be making up for lost time. I picked up 5 different coffees from 5 different roasters during my time in New York and Seattle and I can’t wait to review them all.

BUT FIRST….

I have not talked about Starbucks very much on this blog, but while I was in Seattle, I thought it only proper to pay a visit to the enormous building that houses the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room (opened December 2014). This isn’t simply a big Starbucks coffee house. Read more about it here.

Whether you love or hate Starbucks, I think every java drinker in the United States owes Starbucks a debt of gratitude for helping to elevate the coffee culture in this country. Yes, I know that Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee was the guy that taught the Starbucks founders how to roast, but do you remember what the coffee scene was like before Starbucks infiltrated its way into our collective consciousness? (I am too young to really remember a time before Starbucks, so please, comment and enlighten me!) My guess is that most “to-go” coffee was purchased from places like gas stations which had glass pots on hot plates for hours on end, or perhaps consumed at diners and cafeterias and McDonald’s and anywhere else that served brown liquid, probably from pre-ground wholesale foodservice coffee beans (maybe arabica, maybe robusta) that hadn’t been fresh since the Nixon administration. True, you probably could get decent coffee back in the 1980s if you lived in Seattle or San Francisco, but what about if you lived in Kansas City? Ocala? Fargo? On long road trips, you were at the mercy of whatever greasy spoon diner you came across if you needed a cup of joe to keep you awake.

Starbucks changed all of that.

Though I don’t regularly frequent Starbucks coffee shops, it is for the appreciation of the role they have played in the evolution of coffee culture in the USA that I decided to visit this Willy Wonka-esque laboratory of coffee. I knew it would be big, but I wasn’t really prepared for the scope of the place until I saw it take up practically a whole city block:

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Walking into the building was sensory overload — I couldn’t figure out where to look as there was SO much to see. My pictures aren’t the greatest, but I’m hoping they’ll be able to show at least a little bit of the scope of the place.

This panorama is courtesy of Shutterbug. Thanks, sweetie!

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Here’s my view immediately upon walking in:

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You could order coffee in pretty much any format you wanted. There were siphon pots. There were Clover machines. There were Chemexes. There were single-serve pourovers. (I don’t think Frappuccinos were an option, though.)

Is anyone else reminded of the hourglasses at Hogwarts?

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They have a library dedicated to the history of coffee!

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Big roaster.

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However, since I only had eyes for espresso during my visit, I eventually meandered to the back of the store at the low bar where they had 4 different espresso beans offered that day, each with its own Nuova Simonelli grinder. The friendly barista offered me a drink menu on a mini-clipboard (no chalkboard or suspended signs here for you to get a crick in your neck), and I opted for the espresso flight, which is a sampler of two espressos. Since I was uncertain about what I should choose, he recommended I try two espressos very different in character, so he suggested the Gravitas blend for a dark, moody espresso and the Tanzania for a bright, HAPPY! espresso. I had to put HAPPY! in all caps because it was how he said it.

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The espresso was ground to order, and tamped by hand. I’ve never seen anything like this espresso machine before; I thought it was a faucet. And I suppose in a way, it is… espresso machines are hot water delivery systems at heart, after all.

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Note the porcelain cups and the sparkling water, served as a palate cleanser. Nice touch, Starbucks!

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I went back and forth between the Gravitas and the Tanzania a number of times, with sparkling water in between tastings. They were definitely different; my barista was not wrong about the characters. I wanted to like them, and I went into this optimistically. However…, as much as I wanted to like both of these espressos, I really didn’t like either. The Gravitas was bitter to my taste and didn’t taste markedly different from the espressos served at normal Starbucks locations. The Tanzania was sour and brash. Neither cup had much in the way of crema, and the cups did not seem to be preheated, which does affect the flavor of the final product. If I had to guess, I would say the beans either weren’t as fresh as they needed to be, the grind was not dialed in quite right, or the extraction temperature was off for that particular bean.

Speaking of bean freshness…

There were lots of bags of Starbucks Reserve coffees for sale, from places like Brazil and Ethiopia and Papa New Guinea, purportedly roasted on the premises. I mean, that’s why they have that huge roaster there, right? I expected these bags to be very fresh. However, my heart sank when I picked up a bag of Ethiopia Kochere and saw the dreaded, “Best by” label.  Not a ROAST date but a BEST BY date.  The date was 11/28/15. Hmmm. That’s nearly 6 months from now. I flagged down an employee and asked him if there was any way to find out when exactly the bagged beans had been roasted, and he left to go inquire with management (not a great sign!). When he came back, he informed me that there was no way to know the precise date, but he was able to guarantee that the beans were fully finished degassing so that wouldn’t be a problem.

Um. What?!

Degassing is GOOD. It’s a sign of freshness. Hardly a problem!! Degassing is the most active within 48 hours after roast, but the coffee beans will continue degassing for almost two weeks or possibly more after roast, and the amount of degassing is proportional to the age of the beans; the older the beans get, the slower the degassing process gets until it stops altogether and the beans are no longer fresh. You know how fresh bags of coffee beans inflate and you squeeze them and release the air out of that one-way valve and it smells amazing? That’s what Starbucks is robbing from us by selling bags of beans that are “guaranteed to be fully degassed,” aka “stale.”

My personal rule is twofold: 1) Don’t buy beans older than 2 weeks post roast; preferably just a few days post roast, and 2) Don’t buy beans that don’t have a roast date on the bag. Starbucks failed to meet both of these criteria, so I left empty-handed, despite my intention to take some home!

So. Was it good? It was worth visiting. The sheer size and spectacle of the place was astonishing. Copper everywhere. It was a beautiful space. The employees were helpful and seemed happy. You could even get a gourmet pizza from Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie in the same space (just behind the retail area with all the mugs and french presses and such). Did I enjoy the espresso? No. Even though the shot was pulled by hand, I still don’t think it was pulled in a way to bring out the full potential of the (possibly less-than-fresh) beans. Perhaps I might have enjoyed a siphon pot of single-origin coffee more, but the fact that they couldn’t tell me when most of the coffee in the store was roasted was a huge red flag to me. Points for trying, though.

Goodbye, Seattle. We will meet again. <3

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Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room Official Site