Review: Case Coffee Roasters Guatemala Bella Carmona Antigua (Ashland, Oregon)

During my recent trip to Portland, I was sorely tempted to pick up a bag of coffee from Case Coffee Roasters when I spotted it at the Barista location I visited, but I had to exercise some restraint (if you can call 6 bags of coffee in 24 hours restraint). Ultimately, I decided to wait to try this roaster, because 1) the bags I saw were just over a week old and I wanted fresher beans, and 2) Case offers free shipping within the continental US.

The Case website tells us that Case is a small-batch roaster (no big surprise) and that they roast on a vintage Otto Swadlo (the forerunner to Probat) from the 1950s. They have “narrowed their focus” to coffee selections to their 4 favorite regions: Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, and Guatemala. However, a peek at their online store reveals they are currently offering a selection from Costa Rica as well.

The following part shouldn’t have surprised me, but when I got my shipping confirmation, I noticed that the confirmation came from a Mr. Tim Case. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that the company would be named after its founder, but I took it as a great sign that he is (literally) willing to put his name on the product.

Benji Walklet’s review of Case’s Kenya Gachatha AA also intrigued me when I read it. I didn’t get a bag in this shipment because I wanted to give myself a bit of a break from Kenyan coffee, but I hope to try it before it disappears!

Whole bean: Milk chocolate, sugary aroma, vanilla wafer, hint of blackberry.

V60: Dark chocolate flavor with a nice bite. The finish was like black tea. Light body. As the cup cooled, I tasted a bit of tart/sweet berry flavor.

AeroPress: I drank this as a concentrate. It was thick and syrupy, with a rich chocolaty flavor plus a hint of berry. Satisfying.

Chemex: A smooth cup that was like melted milk chocolate and cream (but with a lighter body). Ridiculously sweet tasting. However, it was a little bland for my taste compared to the AeroPress cup — I missed the bit of berry acidity.

French press: Rich chocolate flavor with blackberry on the finish. Medium-bodied cup. I felt this was the most interesting of the four cups.

Espresso: I experimented with pulling this coffee as a single-origin espresso, but ultimately gave up after about six doubleshots. Try as I might, the shot came out on the sour/unbalanced side no matter what I did with extraction time and temperature. I would stick to this as a coffee.

Summary: Nice sweet and chocolaty Guatemalan coffee that’s got a little something extra (blackberry) to pique your interest. The thicker the filter, the less berry flavor.

From the roaster: Blackberry, brown sugar, silky

Case Coffee Roasters Guatemala Bella Carmona Antigua

Review: Origen Coffee Roasters Tanzania Tarime (Escondido, California)

Thanks again to my friend Erin for these beans!

If you read my review of Origen’s Mexico Oaxaca beans, you’ll remember I noted that this roaster seems to roast on the darker side, as the beans were pretty dark and shiny. The roast level is definitely darker than what seems to be the norm amongst popular third-wave roasters like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture.

Regarding these coffee tastings, I have gotten comments from friends to the effect of, “Wow, I don’t think I could ever pick up on all the flavors you can in coffee! It all kind of tastes the same to me!” I have two theories on this. First, I don’t think that it’s impossible to develop one’s palate if you take the time and really think about what you’re eating/drinking. I certainly am no supertaster! Second, I think at a certain point, all coffees DO taste the same if they are roasted long enough. Once the beans get to a certain level of “doneness,” the origin flavors of the beans will get eclipsed by the roasting process. It’s not dissimilar to steak, and how it’ll be much more difficult to tell what cut of meat a steak is when it is well done vs. when it is rare or medium rare. Well-done steak will taste more of the cooking process, while medium-rare steak will retain more of the meat’s characteristic flavor/texture.

Whole bean: Oily, shiny beans. Ground, there is a slight hint of stone fruit and dark chocolate.

V60: Tastes like coffee. I really only taste the roast level and no characteristics of the bean’s origin. It is not bitter or burnt tasting, but I cannot distinguish any real difference between this Tanzanian and the Mexican coffee beans I had earlier in the week.

AeroPress: Dark and a little spicy. Fine to drink straight with no acidity issues; nice body to this cup.

Chemex: This cup had a little sweetness in it that the others thus far did not. Smelled a bit like Nilla wafers.

French press: Smooth cup that was reminiscent of dark chocolate. Rich body.

Summary: These beans are great if you enjoy a smooth, dark cup of coffee. I think the French press version was the most enjoyable overall for its smoothness and chocolate flavor, but it doesn’t match the roaster’s notes at all in my opinion.

From the roaster: Complex, bright, red berries, apricot, sweet

Origen Coffee Roasters Online Store

Review: Origen Coffee Roasters Mexico Oaxaca Sierra Mixteca Organic (Escondido, California)

The next two coffee reviews come from bags courtesy of my good friend Erin, who apparently sweet-talked the roaster into roasting this order on an off day just for me. 🙂

Origen is a San Diego-area based artisan roaster who sells coffee both online and at the North San Diego Farmer’s Market. These beans were roasted on 10/15 and I received them from Erin on 10/16 – talk about fresh! I wasn’t able to brew either bag immediately, but I did open both to take a peek. I noticed that both the Mexican and Tanzanian beans I got were roasted to what I would consider somewhere between Full City+ and Vienna roast; the beans had a slight sheen of oil on them.

(Now, if you’ve only heard of coffee roasts described as light, medium, and dark, feel free to read this helpful guide from Sweet Maria’s regarding degrees of roast levels.)

Oil on coffee beans: good or bad? It’s good if you like darker roasts (and oil does start appearing on the beans the longer they are roasted), but I find that having visible oil on the surface of the beans seems to shorten their shelf life before the beans start smelling rancid. Best to drink this sort of coffee rather quickly. I also imagine that using this sort of bean regularly will require more frequent cleaning of your coffee grinder. Generally speaking, most of the light roasts you can buy from artisan roasters won’t be shiny; they’ll look dry, actually, as the trend is to roast at lighter levels before the oil inherent in the coffee beans starts coming to the surface. However, if you are a medium-dark to dark roast fan, your beans will likely be shiny, which will be a good visual cue for you about whether the beans will be to your taste.

These days, when I meet people and they find out I’m always game to talk about coffee, I often get one of the following comments:
“Ugh, I hate Starbucks! It tastes burnt! I like light roasts.”
“Ugh, I hate these hipster coffee shops and their light roasts! Way too sour. I like dark roasts.”

You know what’s great about coffee? You can find a roast level to suit your personal taste. It’s true that Starbucks and other second-wave shops roast on the darker side, and third-wave shops typically carry beans which are roasted on the lighter side, but I also think that roasters these days are trying to roast coffee to maximize the flavor potential of the individual beans, as opposed to just roasting “light”. Mexican coffee and coffees similar to it seem to benefit from a darker roast than Ethiopian coffees, for example.

Whole beans: These beans immediately reminded me of Peet’s Coffee in their color, size, and the sheen of oil coating the beans.

V60: Tastes dark to me. I couldn’t really pick up on any flavor notes other than “coffee” but it was pleasantly smooth – not bitter or burnt tasting.

AeroPress: Toasty and deeply flavored. Tastes like coffee. Great as a concentrate – I think this would be terrific with some milk and sugar added. For comparison’s sake, here’s a cup (on the right) side by side with the OCCR Geisha I reviewed recently (on the left), which is quite a light roast. Stunning color difference!

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Chemex: In both the V60 and Chemex brews, I noticed that even adjusting my usual grind settings to the fine end of normal was not enough, as the coffee extracted a bit faster than I would have liked. These beans are darker than I typically drink, and beans get less dense the longer they are roasted so I will need to adjust my grinder accordingly. This tasted about the same as the other cups.

French press: I had expected based on past experience with Mexican coffees that the french press version would be my favorite, but honestly, I really couldn’t taste a difference between the four cups other than in body (the filtered methods were a little thinner than the press pot). All of the cups had the same flavor notes. Very consistent coffee that tastes similar no matter the brew method.

Cold brew: I had a hunch when experimenting with this coffee that it would make an excellent cold brew. Boy, was I right!! After letting the grounds steep for a full day (okay, 23 hours… I cheated a tiny bit), I ended up with 16 ounces of some of the most rich, chocolaty, nutty, delicious cold brew I’ve ever had. This brew method really showed off the chocolate notes of these beans to great effect. Shutterbug nodded vigorously when I described it as a brownie in a cup (he couldn’t talk because he was drinking the cold brew at the time).

Summary: If you enjoy the coffee from places like Peet’s but are interested in supporting a small business, give this offering from Origen a try! It’s especially nice as a cold brew, and is also a crowd-pleaser brewed hot. This would be an particularly nice coffee for those that take milk and sugar in their coffee.

From the roaster: In the cup expect rustic chocolate and molasses with hints of cinnamon and clove.

Origen Coffee Roasters Online Store

Review: Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters Panama Geisha La Milagrosa (Dallas, Texas)

Buckle your seat belts, coffee lovers — here comes another Geisha tasting! When I attended Dallas Coffee Day last Sunday, I stopped at Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters’ booth first and my eye was immediately drawn to these beautiful canisters (there were three of them). Knowing that there were to be an insane amount of people attending the event, I basically went, “I WANT THAT” and snapped up a can before I lost my chance. Perhaps I freaked out for no reason, because when I passed by the booth again on my way out three hours later, they still had two cans on the table. Ah well. Better safe than sorry!

Coincidence: I paid $36 for 8 oz of this coffee and opened it on my 36th birthday. Happy birthday to me, indeed! 🙂

I don’t often get coffees in cans, so I had some funny moments while trying to figure out how to get into the can. I took off the top lid and puzzled over the black and white sticker. I thought I was supposed to peel it off and I almost did peel it off completely, but I then realized that it was just decorating a second lid I was supposed to pry off. Oops. Haha!

inner lid open

Whole bean: Milagroso/a in Spanish means miraculous or marvelous. This sounded like a good omen to me! The beans smelled like a fascinating dichotomy of Sara Lee Pound Cake and chinese restaurant tea. There was also a vague tropical fruit note that I couldn’t quite identify. However, when I ground the beans, the fragrance got super strong with lime, green apple, and sweet floral aromas emanating from the grinder bin!

V60: At 3:15 extraction, this cup had an overwhelming complexity. As is my custom, I was listening to music while brewing and I actually had to go shut it off so I could focus on what I was tasting. Granny Smith apples. Butter. Just a little tartness on the finish, with a lovely medium body. I did not want to stop drinking this cup, which made me write, “Uh oh. I’m in BIG trouble with this coffee!” in my notes.

AeroPress: This coffee is lightly roasted, and it was evident in this cup, as the finished concentrate had the color of caramel sauce. Not the deep brown that most people think of when they think of coffee!

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This concentrate was a bit tart, with lots of personality. It smoothed out as I sipped it. Definite notes of green apple and butter. I didn’t end up adding any water to this, because it was great as it was and I didn’t want to water down the big flavors.

Chemex: Sadly, this cup for me was underwhelming. It had the lightest body (which was not unexpected since the Chemex filter is the thickest of the filters), but the flavor was pretty muted. It was close to chinese restaurant tea in flavor; the fruit was barely present. This had the least amount of personality of the four cups.

French press: Jasmine tea aroma and flavor on the front. Green grapes with a toffee-like finish (sugary, buttery). Rich mouthfeel with a hint of vanilla. Deliciously complex.

Summary: A nice birthday treat. Would I pay $72/lb for this coffee again? I liked it a lot, but I don’t think this is a coffee I would regularly purchase, no. It’s hard to justify that sort of price when there are other lovely coffees out there with similar flavor notes without such a high price tag. However, it was a very, VERY enjoyable cup, and I would certainly drink this again if offered! I think the french press version was my personal favorite, but it was awesome in a Hario V60 and AeroPress as well (if you like more Granny Smith apple flavor).

From the roaster: On the slopes surrounding Volcan Baru, this vibrant, floral, tea-like varietal displays heirloom flavors of the best African coffees although it is grown halfway around the world. This special lot comes from the Alto Jaramillo region of Boquete.

This coffee is not currently available online.

Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters

Review: Eiland Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Sidamo Ardi (Richardson, Texas)

This past Sunday was the first annual Dallas Coffee Day, and by all accounts it was a smashing success. What a great event! Eight fantastic Dallas-area coffee roasters gathered to celebrate their shared collective passion for craft coffee and the steady elevation of coffee culture in Dallas/Fort Worth. There was such a friendly and welcoming vibe to the whole event. I suppose it’s not surprising that a large room of caffeinated people would be in a good mood, but there really was a terrific convivial feel to the whole day.

The featured roasters were (in alphabetical order):
Ascension Coffee Roasters
Avoca Coffee Roasters
Cultivar Coffee
Eiland Coffee Roasters
Noble Coyote Coffee Roasters
Novel Coffee Roasters
Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters
Tweed Coffee Roasters

I’ve been lucky enough to sample coffee from all of these roasters in some capacity (and I’ve even reviewed a number of them on the blog), EXCEPT for Eiland (same pronounciation as “island”), which is ironic since of all the roasters on this list, they are the closest to my house. Eiland (like all of the other roasters present) had small bags (8 oz) available for sale, so I bought this one after asking the helpful associate which he would recommend if I was just buying ONE bag.

Whole bean: Notes of berry and cocoa. There was a nice depth to this aroma. Ground, I smelled buttery richness. I’m already liking this.

French press: Mostly cocoa flavors with some toasty characteristics. Smooths a bit as it cools. Bold, strong flavor. As it sat, I got a rich, buttery mouthfeel in the cup.

Chemex: Yum. Smooth as silk!! This brew had less cocoa and more berry character but it was not overly fruity or tart. I was surprised at the rich mouthfeel in the cup considering the rather thick Chemex filter. Again, as the coffee cooled, I tasted and felt butter on the palate. Decadently delicious.

AeroPress: I drank this as a concentrate and felt it was pretty strong but pleasant. There was a slight tannic presence but it had a nice cocoa note and brightness of strawberry. More butter on the finish! I’m sensing a theme here.

V60: Bright, sharp scent to this cup, with a toasty, nutty flavor. Very little fruit in this cup but once again, in time I tasted a beautifully buttery finish.

Summary: Of the natural-processed Ethiopians I’ve tried thus far, this particular crop has some of the most emphasis on cocoa/chocolate flavors that I’ve encountered. Since I like berry brightness, I enjoyed the Chemex version of this most, but even that batch wouldn’t be a coffee I would classify as fruity or heavy in berry flavor. This coffee is good for people that like deep chocolaty flavors and buttery richness in their brew. Approachable, comforting, and delicious, with just a little hint of interesting character that keeps you thinking about drinking more!

From the roaster: Jam, cinnamon, cocoa nibs, buttery, medium body, strawberry-like acidity, natural (dry) process

Eiland Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Sidamo Ardi Natural Process

Advice: Anatomy of a “good” espresso shot

A friend recently purchased an espresso machine and asked me to help teach him how to use it, as he does not know what “good” espresso is supposed to taste like. This got me thinking about how to describe the taste of a properly pulled shot of espresso to someone that has never had one.

Let’s talk about orange juice for a second. What does “good” orange juice taste like? Your answer will vary depending on 1) whether or not you even like orange juice and 2) what sort of orange juice you prefer. We figure this out over time and with experience. From concentrate? Not from concentrate? Pulp? No pulp? Specific store brands? Fresh-squeezed? I think most people would agree that fresh-squeezed orange juice tastes the best, but it is also the least convenient (and most cost-prohibitive) of the options, so many of us make do with other options.

I can definitely say that I had not had the pleasure of a “good” shot of espresso until relatively recently (within the last year or so), and it is the equivalent of fresh-squeezed orange juice: expensive when you have someone else make it for you, and labor-intensive when you make it at home! But, to me, it is so worth it. I am going to be talking about what espresso tastes like when it is “fresh-squeezed” – meaning, what it tastes like at peak flavor and under ideal circumstances. This is something that I learned from experience, both at coffee shops and at my home. I will be the first to admit that “fresh-squeezed” espresso is way more trouble (and expense) than most people are willing to endure, and I don’t judge people that make do with other espresso options, but if you’re curious about what espresso could be, keep reading.

What are the components of a “good” shot of espresso?

  1. Balanced flavor. A properly pulled shot should be sweet and smooth on the tongue, without any unpleasant sour, bitter, or ashy flavors. The flavor should also linger pleasantly on the palate.
  2. Texture. Espresso is thicker in texture than drip coffee. A shot should not be watery in flavor or texture.
  3. Crema. There should be a layer of crema on top of the shot (reddish-brown to dark tan in color).
  4. The ideal size of an espresso shot can vary but generally there are three standard pulls: ristretto (around 1:1 ratio of ground coffee to water), normale (1:1.5 to 1:2), and lungo (1:2+). Most coffee shops will pull normale shots but you sometimes will find the others as options.

The best espresso is made with freshly roasted coffee beans, but if the bag is too fresh, the beans may be degassing too much to pull a controlled shot. I typically will start pulling shots with a bag of coffee around 5 days post-roast, and continue until the bag is gone or until the crema starts to suffer.

Flavor: If you are accustomed to sweet foods, adding sugar to your coffee, etc., an espresso shot may not taste “sweet” to you in the traditional sense, but coffee does have natural sugars in it, and espresso can have a very pleasant sweetness on the palate when pulled a certain way.

Sour shots: If your espresso makes your face screw up like you’ve sucked on a lemon, your extraction time might be too short, or your espresso might have been pulled at too low of a temperature.

Bitter shots: If your espresso is very bitter, your extraction time might be too long, or the shot was pulled at too high of a temperature.

Ashy shots: I most often get shots that taste like cigarette ash if I pull the shot for too long. I’ve unfortunately experienced this at shops as well, but at least now I know what causes that flavor that makes me feel like I’m licking an ashtray!

Texture: The pressure created in the machine combined with the small amount of water creates a much thicker brew than typical with drip coffee. Since espresso machines do not use paper filters, the oils are also retained in the shot (and in fact lead to crema production). Regarding texture, I’ve had ristretto shots that are like maple syrup, and normale shots that are closest to heavy cream.

Crema: Crema is the lovely layer of emulsified coffee oils that combine with microbubbles of air to create a layer on top of the rest of the espresso shot. Fresher beans have more potential for crema production, so having a nice layer of crema on the top of a shot is a good indication that your beans are likely to be fresh. The presence of crema does not necessarily guarantee a great shot of espresso, but a lack of crema is a guarantee that a shot will not be great.

Super-automatic espresso machines and some handheld espresso makers make use of a pressurized portafilter. This aerates the espresso and creates a light tan foam that isn’t real crema, but gives the illusion of crema in appearance, though not in flavor. It lacks the sweetness that is a hallmark of real crema. I also find that a lot of espresso produced from super-auto machines don’t have the same texture as shots from a semi-auto – they taste thinner.

Size: This comes down to personal preference, and I admit that I have not experimented much at all with lungos so I really can’t speak with any authority on that topic. However, I feel like most espresso blends are probably designed to work best pulled as normale shots, since that’s what is most commonly served in shops. This is not to say that they can’t work other ways, but when I’m evaluating a bean, I start with a normale ratio and experiment further if I feel like the bean would have potential pulled as a ristretto shot. It’s not as simple as using more or less water – I adjust the grind size so as not to get an over- or under-extracted shot.

My espresso equipment isn’t top of the line, but it’s sufficient to produce good (even pretty great) shots. Have I had better at shops? Yes, but I have also had MUCH worse – ashy, bitter, sour, terrible shots that still taste bad even when adding milk. Italians refer to the four Ms of espresso making:

  1. Mano dell’operatore (hand of the operator)
  2. Macinadosatore (grinder-doser)
  3. Miscela (blend)
  4. Macchina espresso (espresso machine)

You will sometimes see this list ranked in a different order of importance, but I cribbed this list from a post on the excellent Home Barista forum. It’s a surprise to many people that the espresso machine itself is ranked dead last in importance, as having a skilled hand, a great grinder and top-quality beans are all more important for a great espresso drink.

Here are some photos of me pulling an espresso shot made with Sterling Blendo Stupendo. I have found that I usually prefer blends when making espresso because I like the balance of flavors. Many third-wave coffee shops pull single-origin espressos, and while I do like single-origin coffee, the flavor characteristics that make them so individually interesting in a 8-ounce cup often are too much for me when concentrated into just 2 ounces of liquid.

The machine: Quick Mill Silvano.

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Weighing out my dose.

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Grinding the beans in my Baratza Vario immediately before pulling the shot.

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Tamping the grounds into an even layer.

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See?

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I really wish I could get a photo that didn’t reflect my hands in the grouphead, but such is life when you have a shiny machine! Note the thin streams of very dark liquid pouring at a steady rate from the double-spouted portafilter. I’ve seen these referred to as “rat tails” on coffee forums. This particular shot was destined to become a latte for Shutterbug.

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As it continues to extract, you’ll notice the flow of liquid gets lighter in color. Baristas take care to cut the extraction just before or at the point of “blonding,” where the best flavor compounds have already been extracted and the color of the liquid turns a very light tan or almost white.

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I repeated this same process in my little Rattleware measuring cup so that you could see the layers of the espresso shot. The lighting level was different here because the sides of the latte cup weren’t in the way, so everything looks paler in color (though it wasn’t in real life).

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Final product: A normale shot with a nice layer of crema, 10 days post-roast. The lighting makes the crema look rather lighter than it was in real life, but trust me when I say it was delicious.

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So, how can you experience a “good” shot of espresso?

  • If you’re local to Dallas, come to my house. Seriously. I will make you a shot! The idea of doing an espresso cupping actually sounds like a lot of fun. Hmmmm.
  • Seek out highly regarded coffee shops in your area. I would start with Yelp and also search forums such as CoffeeGeek.

For more information on shopping for an espresso machine (and grinder!!) to fit your needs, read up on my posts Espresso machines: the basics and Help! I need a grinder – what should I get? Once you get your hands on some great espresso beans, the only thing left is to practice, practice, practice.

Enjoy conducting your research!

Review: Sterling Coffee Roasters Guatemala Los Carillos (Portland, Oregon)

I had expected that I would have a streak of five reviews concentrating on Portland-area coffee roasters, but that expanded to seven once I decided to get two additional bags of Sterling Coffee Roasters’ beans. This is the last in the series; the next bag will likely be something local as I plan to attend the sold-out Dallas Coffee Day this Sunday!

Whole beans: These beans gave off a milk chocolate, vanilla bean, and chocolate milkshake aroma. Very inviting.

V60: Nope. This cup was astringent and dry – not pleasant, especially considering the sweet aroma of the beans. Plain water tasted super sweet after drinking this.

AeroPress: There was a bit of marshmallow and some lemon flavor in this concentrate. Adding water made me think of s’mores, and made it a very smooth cup.

Chemex: Clean, light, marshmallow scent and flavor on the finish.

French press: Sweet and full-bodied! This cup was most like a chocolate milkshake.

Espresso: Sterling’s website stated that they pull this as a single-origin espresso in their shops, and that it is best consumed as a straight espresso because the flavor has a tendency to get lost in milk. I only pulled a few shots before I ran out of beans, but I managed to hit their suggested parameters, and the shot was decently tasty but not as good as their Blendo Stupendo in my opinion. As a straight shot, the Guatemala Los Carillos has a somewhat generic chocolate flavor with a note of lemon. Not my favorite flavor combination. Even with a small amount of milk (about 4 oz of milk added to my 2 oz of espresso), the coffee flavor really was muted.

Summary: Based on my previous experience with Guatemalan beans, I had expected that I would enjoy this brewed in a Chemex the most, but while it was delicious in a Chemex, I actually think I preferred this particular bag of beans in the French press, as it brought out the chocolate/vanilla flavor the most. I had limited experience with this as an espresso but from what I did experience, I think this is best served as a coffee. I will say that Sterling is 3 for 3 in impressing me with their beans!

From the roaster: Look for a delicate vanilla bean fragrance when ground, and a cup that smacks of dried Mediterranean fruit, marzipan, and that sublime cocoa flavor so characteristic of Guatemala coffee. Light roasted for drip and press.

Sterling Coffee Roasters Guatemala Los Carillos

Review: Sterling Coffee Roasters Blendo Stupendo Espresso Blend (Portland, Oregon)

If you read my Sterling Coffee Roasters Kenya Gachatha AA review, you’ll recall that I was a babbling neurotic mess at the coffee shop and the roaster himself took pity on me and gave me a bag for free, with the suggestion that if I liked what I tasted, I could order from the website in the future as a thank-you. Well, since the Gachatha AA definitely lived up to my expectations, I fulfilled my promise and purchased bags of their Guatemala Los Carillos (which will be my next review) and this bag of their house espresso blend, named Blendo Stupendo.

Blendo Stupendo?!

I admit, I think this name is rather silly, but I rather enjoy silly things.

One thing I forgot to mention in my previous review is that Sterling ships their coffee in 10-ounce bags, which is a bit smaller than the usual 12- or 16-ounce bags from most roasters. I’m not generally picky about my bag sizing, but when it comes to espresso, bags smaller than 12 ounces make me a little nervous because it can take me a while to dial in the proper parameters for an espresso shot, especially if I’ve never worked with that particular bean before. What do I mean by “dialing in a shot”? When I am making espresso, I make note of the following factors:

Input (how many grams of coffee I grind into the portafilter)
Grind setting
Water temperature at the start of extraction
Output (weight of the espresso yield)
Extraction time

As I experiment, I note results in the cup and change one item at a time so I can pinpoint what parameters I think will lead to the ideal shot. This all can change as the beans age, and if the weather/humidity changes substantially! It’s quite a dance. I don’t typically do an espresso tasting on a morning where I have to be someplace because fine-tuning these shots can take quite a while. Luckily, once I find the “right” parameters, I don’t have to change them too much for the remainder of the bag. I started with the 10-ounce bag, and it took me about 4 ounces of beans before I felt I had figured out the right parameters, so I luckily had 6 ounces of beans left to enjoy.

Whole beans: Lots of sweet and nutty chocolate notes in the aroma!

I found that pulling shots timed between 23-27 seconds from first drip yielded the best-tasting shots. According to their website, Sterling pulls their shots at 19g in, 30g out, 24-28 seconds (no note on temperature). I tried this at 201 F, and it was pretty good – extremely smooth and sweet, creamy, very easy to drink. However, I must be a ristretto kind of person because 19g in, 15g out, 201 F at 27 seconds yielded a shot that was like sweet chocolate syrup with just a hint of plum. So delicious. The normale shot tasted bland in comparison.

Adding milk: To replicate as closely as possible what Sterling does in their cafes, I pulled a normale shot and added 10 oz steamed milk to make a latte. Creamy, sweet, mild, and delicious. It smelled like milk chocolate and tasted like love. Friendly, uncomplicated, gentle, and comforting. What a nice way to wake up!

I also pulled a ristretto shot and added around 4 oz of steamed milk. This was even better than the previous drink to me; I liked how the ristretto shot + less milk = a more assertive (but still super smooth and creamy) coffee flavor.

AeroPress: Even though these beans are a medium roast, when brewed in the AeroPress they came out tasting like a dark roast to my palate. There were no chocolate flavors – just a very strong and slightly harsh taste. When I added water to the concentrate, it was better but still one-dimensional.

Summary: Delicious blend for espresso, both straight and in milk. Underwhelming to me in an AeroPress, but if you like the taste of dark-roasted coffee, this might float your boat. I would love if Sterling would sell Blendo Stupendo in slightly larger bags so that I didn’t feel like I was wasting such a large proportion of my coffee dialing in the shot (the next size up is in 3 lb bags, which is just too much for me!).

From the roaster:

(website) Blendo Stupendo is carefully crafted to balance smooth taste and premium drinkability.  We use it in our shops as our primary espresso for all milk drinks and those customers who want a consistent, Italian-style coffee without a lot of brightness. Currently the Stupendo is 75% Cauca Colombia and 25% Sao Silvestre Brazil.  The Colombia is rich and smooth, and the Brazil adds a peanut brittle sweetness.  Medium roasted for every preparation.

(printed on bag) Blendo Stupendo is the George Washington of coffee. Composed of top quality Central and South American beans, the Stupendo is sourced and roasted to taste like the coffee our country grew up drinking. With classic flavors like rich chocolate, caramel, and a hint of toasted nuts, Stupendo will get you across the Delaware (or at least it’ll get you to work).

Sterling Coffee Roasters Blendo Stupendo

Review: Water Avenue Coffee Company Pinot Noir Barrel Aged El Salvador (Portland, Oregon)

This coffee is going to likely be the closest I ever get to reviewing a flavored coffee on the blog. Water Avenue was on my “must try” list while I was in Portland, and it was the very last bag that I picked up. At that point, I had acquired two Kenyans, a blend, and an El Salvadorian coffee, so I thought I would pick up something from another country to round things out. However, once I saw and smelled this Pinot Noir aged El Salvador, it was game over. I had to try this.

This particular coffee is made by taking the green (unroasted) beans and aging them in oak barrels from the Sokol Blosser winery (based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley), that once housed the winery’s Pinot Noir. This made me pretty excited, as the Willamette Valley is famous for producing exceptional Pinot Noir grapes. The perfume emanating from the bagged coffee was like no other coffee I had ever smelled — all I could think about was red grapes and cherries and sweet honeysuckle blossoms. Extremely sweet aroma that was full of promise.

Whole bean: Red grapes, red wine, chocolate, cherries, honeysuckle. Ground, all of these aromas were intensified.

V60: I had to make this three times to get what I felt was a proper extraction – my normal grind settings were rather too coarse so I had to go a lot finer than usual in order to get a decent extraction time. Regardless of how long I brewed it for, I felt that this coffee made in a V60 was fairly generic. It “tastes like coffee” – which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but I was hoping for a lot more flavor based on the smell of the beans! It was slightly tannic with a dry finish, so it did remind me of wine, but not because of its aroma or flavor.

AeroPress: This coffee consumed straight as a concentrate was surprisingly smooth and sweet with a delicious full-bodied character. There was a brief hint of black pepper on the finish, and it had a lovely red grape note to it. Even though it was still rather subtle, I’d say this method tasted the most like Pinot Noir. I added water just to see what would happen, and it didn’t improve it in my view – if you want wine-like flavor, stick to drinking this straight.

Chemex: Thin and astringent. Bright, almost too bright to be pleasurable. This does smooth out over time though as it cools and gets less shouty.

French press: Rich, thick brew that tastes like the polar opposite of the Chemex version. If the Chemex was a long extended electric guitar solo, this is a bass solo. This particular method smelled the most like the whole beans, though I was still hoping for more grape/wine flavor than I got.

Summary: This coffee tastes lovely, but I don’t actually get much of the Pinot Noir flavor – it’s very very subtle. In my opinion, it smells better than it tastes… not that it tastes bad, but I was left wanting considering the ambrosial aroma. If you are a fan of El Salvadorian coffee, this is a nice one and I did enjoy it in the immersion methods most (AeroPress, French press). However, if you want wine, just have a glass of wine.

From the roaster: We love to celebrate relationships, and this project brings together two great ones: The Menendez family who grow coffee in El Salvador, and Sokol Blosser Winery of Dayton, Oregon. We age the Menendez’s green coffee in oak barrels that once held Sokol Blosser’s famous Pinot Noir, infusing the rich, chocolaty Salvadoran coffee with the poignant grape notes of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

Water Avenue Coffee Pinot Noir Barrel Aged El Salvador

Review: Coava Coffee Roasters El Salvador La Esperanza, Limited Edition (Portland, Oregon)

Coava (pronounced KOH-vuh) has made quite a reputation for itself in the Portland coffee scene. The word “coava” refers to green (unroasted) coffee beans. This company offers only single-origin coffees; no blends. I had the pleasure of visiting one of their cafes while in Portland and had a memorable cup of Guatemalan coffee while sitting at a gleaming wooden table enjoying a bit of afternoon sunshine. Bliss!

This limited edition La Esperanza is one of the bags I picked up at Barista at the same time I picked up the Roseline Catapult Espresso Blend. Bless the employee that didn’t make fun for me for asking for more details about “koh-AH-vuh,” but instead very gently corrected me by saying how much he liked KOH-vuh. Compassion and coffee!

Whole bean: Light, bright aromas of white wine and green grapes. Ground, it brought out a chocolate bar scent.

V60: This tasted pretty much like the beans smelled – like a cup of cocoa with the tartness of green grapes. This might sound like a weird combination, but it was actually quite interesting to my palate! I like it.

AeroPress: Tart and bright as a concentrate. Adding a bit of water made it smoother and easier to drink but the brew kept some complex dimension to it. This had a pretty dry finish.

Chemex: This method brought out a better balance between the cocoa + green grape flavors – less interesting perhaps but more accessible. Sweeter overall with a finishing note of golden raisins.

French press: This had the most notes of all of the methods – it had a wider range of the depth (cocoa) and the top notes (fruit). In musical terms, the V60 might be a piccolo + tuba; AeroPress – saxophone duet; Chemex – string quartet, French press – full orchestra. The flavor spun in my mouth like the last chord of a symphony.

Summary: This limited edition coffee from Coava was a nice place to start as my introduction to this roaster. I look forward to trying some of their other offerings soon! My personal favorite this day was the French press because I enjoyed the epic character of the flavor.

This coffee is not currently sold online.

Coava Coffee Roasters Home Page