The best of 2016

It’s that time again! I had fun recalling the last 12 months of coffee adventures, though I realized that my coffee consumption was down from this time last year. In 2015, I was generally aiming to write two bean reviews a week, but I found that schedule to be unsustainable; in 2016, I was pretty lucky to get one review a week done, not counting the periods of hiatus I took for travel and tea. Still, I count myself fortunate to have had some incredible coffees this past year, and here are my personal favorite selections from 2016.

Favorite espresso: James Coffee Company Night Owl Espresso Blend

This particular coffee was an unexpected surprise that I encountered on my travels to San Diego, and the flavor of the Americano that I had in that Lexus car dealership (of all places!!) will never leave me. Even though I couldn’t quite recreate that flavor at home, I got pretty close, and this espresso is an exceptionally delicious one both straight and in milk. I was impressed enough with James’ coffee that I went the extra mile and bought one of their T-shirts (which is rare for me)!

Favorite coffee: BeanFruit Coffee Co. Kenya Nyeri Chinga Peaberry

Unlike last year, I chose not to categorize my coffee selections into “everyday” and “splurge.” It just didn’t seem necessary to make that distinction this year. This probably made it even harder to choose a favorite, and I waffled quite a bit between my top two on my list, but ultimately BeanFruit’s coffee won out. BeanFruit was a new discovery for me this year, and I was pretty unprepared for the explosions of pleasure that hit my mouth on the first sip of their coffee, and I was REALLY unprepared for the fact that it just kept getting better and better. This is a roaster to watch, people.

Favorite coffee drink that I didn’t make myself: Flight Coffee flat white, made with their Ethiopia Gutiti single-origin espresso

A new category this year. I basically created this category solely to be able to talk about this particular flat white I had in New Zealand. This is terribly unfair to visitors of this blog, as 99.9% of you don’t live in New Zealand and will probably not have the joy of visiting Flight Coffee’s “hangar” (cafe) in Wellington to experience this drink, but it was a revelation. I love Ethiopian coffee (both washed and natural-process), but I don’t tend to make it as espresso because 1) I find it too intense and bright to consume straight, and 2) it’s often fruity (particularly the berry sweetness of the natural-process Ethiopians), and I thought that fruit + milk would taste weird. Well, I have been proven wrong. If I remember correctly, this particular coffee bean’s notes were purple grape, passionfruit, and Christmas cake, and I was astounded at just how good it was with the few ounces of milk of the flat white. It was sweet, lively but not off-putting, and incredibly interesting to the palate. I don’t know what Christmas cake is, but I definitely tasted a fruity flavor like raspberries mixed with the addicting aroma and taste of vanilla and butter cake. What an enchanting cup. I can still taste it. I talk about this flat white a bit more in my review of Flight Coffee’s Kenya Rutuma (with pictures).

These are the coffee beans (that I brewed myself) that gave me the most pleasure in 2016.

Full top ten list, 2016 (in reverse order):

10. The Missing Bean Unbirthday Blend (AeroPress)

9. Tweed Foxtrot Blend (V60)

8. Evocation Micro-Coffee Roasters Peru Cajamarca (french press)

7. Madcap Ecuador Pepe Azul (french press)

6. Batdorf and Bronson Dancing Goats Blend (espresso)

5. Roseline Kenya Othaya (AeroPress, Chemex)

4. James Coffee Company Night Owl Espresso Blend (espresso)

3. BeanFruit Ethiopia Sidama Guji (Chemex)

2. Roseline Coffee Ethiopia Gera (french press)

1. BeanFruit Kenya Nyeri Chinga Peaberry (AeroPress)

Review: Flight Coffee Kenya Rutuma (Wellington, New Zealand)

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to the North Island of New Zealand. What a heartbreakingly beautiful country (and I know I didn’t even come close to seeing even 10% of its beauty!). About half of my trip was spent in the capital city of Wellington. Wellington is an incredible city – it reminded me of all the best aspects of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Denver, along with a openness and friendliness that is uniquely Kiwi. This city is particularly known for its motion picture industry (Peter Jackson, of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame, has his Weta Workshop based here), its food scene, and its craft coffee scene. New Zealand’s craft coffee scene is comparatively young in the world, and unlike many other places, is centered around espresso and espresso-based drinks. I won’t get into the debate regarding whether it was the Kiwis or the Aussies who can lay claim to inventing the flat white, but rest assured that New Zealanders really know how to make an exceptional one. It’s actually rather difficult to find pourover coffee in New Zealand (compared to, say, Portland, Oregon), but you can find excellent espresso just about everywhere, from airports to food trucks to all kinds of restaurants.

Flight Coffee was a frequent name on “best coffee in Wellington”/”best flat white in Wellington” lists, and there was no way that I could leave New Zealand without doing some flat white research. When I visited Flight Coffee’s cafe (also known as the Hangar), I couldn’t resist ordering their Flight of the Flat White (three flat whites all made with a different espresso) and the barista asked, “Are you sure you can handle drinking three of these?” I accepted the challenge… and I would say I drank about 2 1/4 of the 3 drinks. Pretty good effort from me, I think, especially considering that I hadn’t had any coffee in two weeks prior to this day!

From left to right: Flat whites made with Flight Coffee’s Bomber blend (their house espresso), Ethiopia Gutiti (my favorite of these three – tasted like raspberry vanilla cake!), and Colombia La Reforma. I don’t typically go for single-origin espresso with milk drinks but this may make me change my tune.

I wanted to pick up some of the Bomber blend to experiment with at home, but none of the beans available were quite in my freshness window. These Kenyan beans, however, were only 3 days post-roast, and I figured it would be nice to try these as pourover back at home.

Whole bean: Buttery aroma. The beans were quite light in color, and tasted much like red fruit, particularly cherries; tart and sweet.

V60: This cup practically glowed in my mouth. The flavor was like brown sugar and cherry pie filling. It was a lovely balance of tart and sweet tastes.

AeroPress: Nice bright tartness on the front that mellowed to a rich sweetness of berries and stone fruit (cherries, plum).

Chemex: Powdery texture on the finish. Not overly fruity, but sweet and light.

French press: A lot was going on in this cup… it was impossible to pinpoint any one flavor note that stood out, but it was a complex brew that kept me drinking until the very last drop was gone. I tasted pretty much everything that I had tasted in my other cups, though!

Summary: I didn’t get to do quite as much coffee research in New Zealand as I would have liked, but I can easily believe that Flight Coffee is among the very best roasters in the country. They’ve made me want to experiment more with single-origin espressos, and though NZ isn’t known for drip/pourover coffee, I really enjoyed this Kenya Rutuma in the V60 and AeroPress. If my travels ever take me back to Wellington, I’ll definitely be stopping in again.

From the roaster: Red currant, blackberry, and green apple.

Flight Coffee Kenya Rutuma

And, as a little bonus, here is a pic of Wellington at sunrise! My view on my first morning there, from the Te Ahumairangi Hill Lookout.

Review: Batdorf and Bronson Kenya AA Gatumbi (Atlanta, Georgia)

This is the second of two bags I picked up from the Batdorf and Bronson cafe in Atlanta (the first was their excellent Dancing Goats Blend). I’m always intrigued by Kenyan coffees as no two of them have ever been quite the same, so I was curious what awaited me in this bag.

Whole bean: The beans look to be a nice medium roast – a little darker than I’ve observed in the past from other roasters, but not “dark” by any means. The air was filled with a butterscotch sweetness when I broke the seal, and I was reminded of nougat from candy bars.

French press: The coffee smelled a bit plasticky right off the bat, but it faded after a minute. Upon my first sip, my tongue was flooded with the taste of chocolate truffles. Decadence in a mug!

Chemex: All I wrote here were the words “vanilla pudding.” Wow.

AeroPress: Vague flavor of toasted almond, but it was obscured by an unpleasant acidity. Adding a bit of water helped tame the acidity to manageable levels, but this wasn’t my favorite method for this coffee.

V60: This method had the most character, with flavors of peach and raw almond. Very nice!

Summary: If you like sweet chocolate and vanilla flavors, try this in a french press or a Chemex. If you like fruitier finishes, try this in a V60. I couldn’t choose a personal favorite – they are all so different but all very enjoyable!

From the roaster: Silky and sweet. Peach, molasses, butterscotch

This coffee is not currently available on their website, but here’s a link to Batdorf and Bronson’s online store

Review: Batdorf and Bronson Dancing Goats Blend (Atlanta, Georgia)

Before I started this blog, I had asked my Facebook friends to recommend some coffees to try out, and one of those coffees mentioned was this one – Batdorf and Bronson’s Dancing Goats Blend (thanks, Sara!). It took me close to two years to get around to trying it, but better late than never!

Batdorf and Bronson roasts beans in Atlanta, Georgia and in Olympia, Washington. They are a longtime part of the specialty coffee scene, having begun their business back in 1986 (30 years ago!). I had the pleasure of visiting their cafe in Atlanta (which is where I picked up their beans), and it truly is a gorgeous place – spacious and airy, with lots of comfortable chairs and sofas strewn about the sunroom-like outdoor area. I chose to pull up a stool to the only space left at the coffee bar, and happily sipped my way through a deliciously delicate Ethiopian pourover coffee. It happened to be my first cup of coffee in weeks, and it didn’t disappoint. I was very much looking forward to trying their beans at home, particularly since this roaster is famous for their Dancing Goats blend.

Whole bean: toasty aroma that smelled nutty and rich. Lots of nice depth to this coffee!

Espresso: The best shot I made of this roast tasted like chocolate-covered almonds, with amaretto on the finish. Decadent, with a pleasant bitterness on the finish. I found that these beans required a pretty high temperature – anything less than 205 degrees F made the espresso a bit sour!

Favorite parameters: 205 degrees F, 17 grams in, 21.6 grams out, 26 second extraction

AeroPress: This coffee made in an AeroPress tastes much like it does as espresso, just less intense. Still rather dark and toasty in flavor with a nutty bite to the finish. I don’t take cream or sugar in my coffee, but they would compliment this coffee very well if you choose to add them.

French press: Just for fun, I brewed these beans a couple of times as press-pot coffee, and while I didn’t think it was quite as special as the espresso, it was a satisfying cup of coffee if you’re looking for classic, comforting flavors.

Summary: I can see why this espresso blend has its fans, as it’s a crowd-pleasing mingling of flavors. This espresso is great on its own, and stands up well in milk drinks. It also does well brewed in methods like the AeroPress and a french press.

From the roaster: Our signature blend! Dark, smooth and sweet with a beautiful floral aroma, exceptionally clean acidity and a heavy, nutty body. Flavor nuances include fresh citrus fruits and fine chocolate. Caramelly and spicy, its complexity makes for both a flavorful espresso with rich, rusty reddish-brown crema as well an excellent drip coffee. This fabled blend is featured in espresso bars, cafes and restaurants across the United States that strive to create the “perfect cup”.

Batdorf and Bronson Dancing Goats Blend

Taste test: British teas

Coffee will always be my favorite pick-me-up, but I was inspired by my recent trip to the UK to learn more about tea. I’ve had a long history with coffee, but my experience with tea has been pretty minimal. I drank stuff like Chinese restaurant tea, oolong tea, and jasmine tea growing up, but it wasn’t on a regular basis. Asians don’t typically add milk to hot tea (bubble tea is another story!), so when I first visited England at the age of 20, I accepted tea when offered but turned down milk. I got a lot of puzzled looks and was repeatedly asked, “are you SURE you don’t want milk?” Knowing what I know now, that was probably the English way of saying, “what’s wrong with you?!”

For my most recent trip to England, I was determined not to offend the entire country like I apparently did last time, so I decided that this was a great time to drink more tea, with milk this time! I collected 9 brands of tea in an effort to determine which I like best. Most of these teas are classified as English Breakfast teas, but there are a few exceptions (as noted). For these tea comparisons, I am using the following system and parameters, which I know are subject to some debate.

Step 1: Put teabag in cup.
Step 2: Pour boiling water (212 degrees Fahrenheit) on teabag.
Step 3: Let steep for 4 minutes.
Step 4: Remove teabag.
Step 5: Add a splash of milk (between 1/4 and 1/2 fluid ounce – I generally used the lesser amount unless the tea itself called for more). No sugar.
(I used lactose-free milk. I’ve experimented with alternative milks like almond and soy, but I just don’t think they taste right with tea.)

Barry’s Tea Gold Blend  

The lone Irish tea in the lineup, this is a tea I picked up from the “international” aisle of my local American grocery store.

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Plain: Light bodied, with a pretty amber/golden color. Smells and tastes rather like Chinese restaurant tea. I could drink this all day.

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+ Milk: Touch of chestnut flavor, with a lovely dry finish. Very good cup! I enjoyed this tea equally with and without milk added.

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Musical analogy: Singer-songwriter (I’m choosing Damien Rice for this example). Delicate and special in its own way.

Score: 8/10

Darvilles of Windsor English Breakfast Tea

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Plain: Smooth, rich, and balanced in flavor. Quite easy to drink! In coffee terms, this was most akin to something like a medium/full city roast.

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+ Milk: Very smooth, with a touch of malt flavor in the finish. This cup of tea was less complex than some of the others in this lineup, but it was still very pleasant, and I think it would be particularly good served with sweets.

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Musical analogy: the lush textures and lyricism of the main theme from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, 4th movement.

Score: 7/10

Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend

I picked this up at duty free in Heathrow airport. In the US, this tea is available at Williams-Sonoma stores.

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Plain: Sweetest brew of the bunch – this tea had a lovely harmonious flavor with just a touch of brightness and sweetness on the finish.

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+ Milk: Mild, smooth, with a delicate flavor of honey. Kind of addicting. More milk = more sweetness, which isn’t surprising, but it really didn’t need much in the way of milk. I liked this tea equally black and with milk.

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Musical analogy: “Sirenes,” Claude Debussy.

Score: 9/10

PG Tips

Note that PG Tips is the sole company (in this group) to package their teas in pyramid-shaped bags. This presumably changes the flavor extraction? Personally, I found the shape of the teabag kind of creepy.

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Plain: Among the darker-colored teas in this lineup. Not much flavor to write home about — I felt it was rather bland.

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+ Milk: A disappointment in my view – no matter how much milk I added, there was no real flavor. This tea tasted oddly hollow and like dirty dishwater compared to the others. Nice color, though – but sadly, appearances only get you so far!

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Musical analogy: I refuse to link to anything, but just think of anything Phil Collins released as a solo artist in the mid-1980s.

Score: 3/10

Twinings English Breakfast

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Plain: This tea had an unusual scent of cardamom that stopped me in my tracks. I enjoyed how fragrant it was! The taste wasn’t quite as striking though – it tasted like cardboard.

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+ Milk: More tan/khaki in color vs. the reddish hue that some of these other teas are exhibiting. Not too bad with milk – very drinkable, with no notes of cardboard. 

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Musical analogy: U2, Joshua Tree-era. 

Score: 5/10

Typhoo

This was the one teabag I saw that was in a round shape, unlike the flat rectangular shape of most.

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Plain: What the heck is this tea made up of, shattered hopes and dreams?? I had this overwhelming feeling of depression while drinking this tea! This doesn’t happen often when I do tastings, but it was reminiscent of the “Eeyore coffee” I reviewed last year, where I just felt very, very sad while drinking it. I wonder if milk will help.

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+ Milk: Nope. Even with milk, this tea came out drab and depressing. I was hoping for something a little more peppy, comforting, or life-restoring, but the flavor in this cup just made me reflect on life’s disappointments. Maybe this would be a good cup for when I want to wallow and listen to The Cure’s “Disintegration” from start to finish.

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Musical analogy: “Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss. No matter how good of a day I’m having, if I hear this song, I’m immediately devastated.

Score: 2/10

Taylors of Harrogate English Breakfast Tea

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Plain: Deep golden brown color that reminded me of a pint of ale. A little toasty and pleasant in flavor.

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+ Milk: Not particularly filled with personality, though I will say it was perfectly drinkable. I found this a little bit dull on its own, but I bet it would be a lovely foil for a dessert or cookie/biscuit.

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Musical analogy: Pachelbel’s Canon.

Score: 6/10

Yorkshire Tea

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Plain: This tea had among the strongest flavor. Overwhelmingly tannic for my taste – I would not be able to drink this without milk. Perhaps 4 minutes brew time is just too long for this tea.

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+ Milk: Comforting flavor. Not particularly complex. I liked this tea best with a touch more milk than the other cups. In coffee terms, this reminded me of a dark/french roast coffee where adding milk tames some of the more intense flavors.

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Musical analogy: “Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns N’ Roses.

Score: 5/10

Yorkshire Gold Tea

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Plain: Gorgeous red color to the brewed tea. Very light-bodied, with intense high notes of flavor. Like the regular Yorkshire blend, this was hard to drink black, though where the regular Yorkshire reminded me of a dark roast coffee in character, the Gold was more like a light/city roast. Overwhelmingly bright flavors. My mouth was puckering like mad.

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+ Milk: Strong tannic flavor, even with dairy added. I had to add so much milk to tamp down those neon-bright flavors that by the time I was done, the cup tasted like milk.

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Musical analogy: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Wham!

Score: 4/10

Overall winner: Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend tea. A splurge, since it’s expensive and I would have to make a special trip to acquire it locally, but it really is delicious.

Best buy: Barry’s Tea Gold Blend. This particular tea is available at my local grocery store (in the international foods aisle), is reasonably priced, and makes a very good cup of tea both with and without milk. This is now my everyday go-to choice if I’m in the mood for tea!