Review: Cartel Coffee Lab Ethiopia Kochere (Phoenix, Arizona)

When you think of airport coffee, you probably think of Starbucks, right? Well, if you ever find yourself in the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, make your way over to Terminal 4 to visit Cartel Coffee Lab’s PHX location. As is typical when I travel somewhere new, when I arrived in Phoenix, I Googled “best coffee roasters in Phoenix” and Cartel was a name I saw come up more than once. It being the holidays, family time was the priority so I didn’t have time to run around all over town to seek out roasters, but I was thrilled to see that Cartel had this airport location and I was hopeful that their beans would be fresh. Happily, they were!

When I took this bag of their Ethiopia Kochere to the register, I asked for a bag to carry the coffee in, because at that point I had my bags of Stumptown Sleigh Ride and Ritual’s Day Drinker seasonal espresso in my purse and I was running out of room. The barista asked what other beans I got and when I mentioned Ritual in particular, I got this reaction:

Nothing like meeting a complete stranger and feeling understood. #kindredspirits

Whole bean: Blackberry, butterscotch, nougat. Incredibly fragrant cofffee.

V60: The first wave of scent that hit me was of dog. Not wet dog, and it wasn’t unpleasant, but it definitely smelled like I was holding a wriggly puppy in my arms! As the coffee sat a bit, I got notes of floral stem, grass, and caramel. I did unintentionally brew this coffee a bit on the long side (3:50 extraction). This is a pretty dense bean – adjust your grinders accordingly.

AeroPress: Quite sweet and sugary! No dog here. I didn’t need to add any additional water to this cup – it had a complex, dry finish that was very enjoyable.

Chemex: Bright, dry, puckery coffee. Caramel and blackberry in this cup. Tart.

French press: Richer and sweeter flavor than the other coffee methods, but still bright in taste. Hard to pinpoint flavors in this cup. I will say though that compared to the AeroPress cup, the french press coffee tasted oddly watered down.

Espresso: Since I liked this coffee so much in the AeroPress, I opted to experiment with making it as a single-origin espresso. I only pulled a few shots, but I got a lovely flavor of lemon and lilac with a sugary aroma.

Summary: Loved these beans brewed in an AeroPress. Also makes a nice single-origin espresso if you’re into bright, floral flavor!

From the roaster: Black tea with subtle tropical fruit and floral qualities

Cartel Coffee Lab Ethiopia Kochere

Review: Ritual Coffee Roasters Day Drinker Seasonal Espresso (San Francisco, California)

I had my first experience with Ritual Coffee Roasters while visiting Cognoscenti Coffee in the Los Angeles area, and I was really impressed with the quality of the beans and the flavor that I received in that cup (chocolate, plum, spice). However, I have yet to order online directly from Ritual because 1) their coffee is on the pricey side and 2) their shipping is also on the pricey side. I’m not averse to paying a premium for great-quality beans, but with so many great roasters out there (many of whom offer free or significantly lower shipping costs), ordering from Ritual had fallen lower on the priority list. No roasters local to me carry Ritual, but while in Scottsdale, Arizona, I happened to walk into Maverick Coffee and they were carrying Ritual’s Day Drinker seasonal espresso. When I asked about buying beans, they kindly broke open a 5 lb bag of this stuff and put it into an unmarked 12 oz bag for me. We had a nice chat about brewing methods and tasting notes. I think the staff was kidding, but thanks for the job offer…! 😉

Here’s the espresso I was served in their shop. It took me a little longer than I would have liked to get the photo taken, so you can see that the crema on the espresso is starting to dissipate. Still tasted lovely, like milk chocolate and oranges with a slightly spicy bite to it. I couldn’t wait to experiment more with it at home, as I had a hunch that there would be even more flavors awaiting me. I was right.

Whole bean: Fresh and sweet. I was reminded of the smell of clean laundry. Dryer sheets. Sunshine. Odd but pleasant scent for a coffee!

Espresso: Lots of brightness to this blend at lower temperatures – I got a lot of orange pith in the cup until I cranked my machine up to 204 degrees Fahrenheit. Once I did that, the flavor in the cup smoothed out but still remained wonderfully complex. Sweet, chocolaty, floral, with that same note of laundered freshness that filled up my nose when I smelled the whole beans. I’ve rarely experienced an espresso like this – it reminded me quite a bit actually of Klatch Coffee’s Golden Bean Espresso that was a winner in my “best of 2015” list. This isn’t a normal espresso – I’m actually pretty impressed that Maverick was pulling this as their espresso that day since it isn’t what I would consider to be a “workhorse” sort of espresso. It’s quite special!

Favorite parameters for this blend: 204 degrees F, 17 grams in, 32 grams out, 26 second extraction.

With milk: I don’t typically have espresso with milk anyway, but I was especially averse to adding milk to this espresso. Something this complex needs to be enjoyed on its own! But, I did make a couple of lattes for Shutterbug with this stuff. His comment was that it didn’t taste like coffee. Good flavor, but definitely not a “normal” latte.

AeroPress: This was a surprise. I had expected this cup to taste like a muted version of the espresso, but the main flavor I got in the cup was of toasted marshmallow. The finish was of sweet orange, but the overall taste took me to a campfire. Not what I expected at all but hugely enjoyable!

Summary: Lots of surprises in this cup for adventurous palates. If you’re used to nutty, dark, moody espresso, this brew will be perplexing to you, but don’t knock it ’til you try it! I don’t think this is an espresso you can quaff mindlessly – it’ll make you think. And I sure enjoy thinking. 🙂

From the roaster: Rum-soaked pears, candied ginger, star anise, chocolate covered oranges

(Damn, I need to up my game in the tasting department!! I can definitely see the pear and candied ginger now that they mention it.)

Ritual Coffee Roasters Day Drinker Seasonal Espresso

 

Review: Stumptown Coffee Roasters Sleigh Ride (Portland, Oregon)

I almost never buy “holiday blends,” but this bag was a nice surprise at a Whole Foods location in Phoenix during the Christmas holidays. Impressively, it was only 4 days off roast when I bought it! That’s exceptionally fresh coffee for retail, especially considering that the nearest Stumptown roasting facility is in Los Angeles. I had to laugh a little when I saw the name of this blend, because for a freelance orchestral musician, there’s just about no other piece that evokes December and holiday craziness better than Leroy Anderson’s classic. Shaq conducting the Boston Pops in this piece is traditional viewing for me every year – I dare you to not grin while watching.

Whole bean: Scent of bittersweet chocolate and a hint of orange filled the room when I opened this bag.

V60: Light-bodied cup that tasted of chocolate but with a pleasant bite to the finish (not overly sweet). I wrote in my notes, “really good with vanilla ice cream.” Take that as you will. 😉

AeroPress: Hint of black cherry along with chocolate. Overall flavor is a bit edgy, not very sweet.

Chemex: Sesame seeds?? This cup smelled like tahini paste. Weirdly savory and confounding flavor – what a left turn from the whole bean and the other methods. And yes, my Chemex was clean…

French press: Smooth scent and flavor of dark chocolate with a bit of powdery brightness on the finish. This was my favorite method for these beans.

Summary: For a blend, I was surprised at the flavor variation produced by the different methods. I think brewing it in a French press produces the best cup, as I like the comforting richness and fuller body of this method (it reminds me a little bit of hot cocoa!), and it seems to feel right for wintertime. However, if you like a “cleaner” cup, try it in a V60. And have a nice dessert with it!

From the roaster: Sleigh Ride will bring warmth and joy to your holidays. This cup will take you on a journey with rich notes of chocolate and cherry accented by a touch of marzipan and baking spice to evoke aromas that remind us of holiday celebrations.

I undoubtedly got this bag of Sleigh Ride at the tail end of its availability (right before Christmas), and it’s not on the Stumptown website. However, here’s a link to their current coffees for sale. I can personally vouch for their Hair Bender!

Stumptown Coffee Online Store

Review: Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground for Pour Over (Oakland, California)

When I bought Blue Bottle’s Kenya Embu Gikirima in whole bean format, I placed an order at the same time for the same coffee in Perfectly Ground, ground for pourover. Perfectly Ground is the name for Blue Bottle’s new line of coffee which has been ground and then directly sealed in individual oxygen-free bags so that the coffee will taste just as fresh as freshly ground coffee once you tear open each bag. On their website, Blue Bottle has a short video introducing the concept, featuring their founder James Freeman. In it, he claims that despite his own skepticism (he called pre-ground coffee an “abomination”), in multiple cuppings, he and his staff could not taste the difference between the Perfectly Ground and freshly ground coffee, and I was intrigued enough to give it a shot.

You can choose to buy Perfectly Ground pre-ground for AeroPress, French press, pourover, or auto drip machine (coffee maker). I chose to get Perfectly Ground in pourover since I find that pourover is the trickiest of the manual methods to get right, as both the grind size and freshness of the coffee really make a difference in how the coffee flavors are extracted. Immersion methods like the AeroPress and french press are more forgiving because the grind size isn’t quite as critical to the brewing process. If this pre-ground coffee gets good results as a pourover cup, that bodes quite well for all of the other grind sizes.

The Perfectly Ground coffee arrived a couple of days before my whole bean coffee, but unlike the whole bean coffee, I didn’t have to worry about consuming them within a two-week window; this pre-ground coffee will reportedly remain fresh until April 10, 2017. It came in an attractive box which housed 5 packets.

This booklet is the first thing you see when you open up the box.

I have to say, this box is quite sturdy. Yes, there was a bit of wasted space, as the five packets don’t take up the whole box and they had to add that light blue cardboard buffer to keep everything snug, but the packets arrived in perfect shape. Nothing is going to crush this box, especially since it was shipped inside another box!

The back of each envelope has step-by-step instructions on how to brew pourover coffee for anyone new to the process. For each packet (22g of coffee), they recommend 350g of water. My usual Hario V60 proportions are 25g coffee to 400g water so the ratio is the same (1:16).

During the brewing process, the first thing I noticed was that the bloom was notably absent compared to when I brewed fresh beans. Usually, the bloom will start to settle down around the 30 second mark, but with this cup of the Perfectly Ground, the bloom was poor and the bit of water I used for the bloom sifted right through the beans within 15 seconds. Visually speaking, this was not a great sign of freshness. But, the total brewing time, start to finish, took 3:10, which is right in the ballpark of where I usually end up with this method. A promising sign, as this means the grind size was correct.

How did it taste? Well, I was stunned by how complex the coffee was in the cup. I tasted sweet white wine, green grapes, and caramelized sugar. It was pleasantly tart and vibrant, with notes of lychee and kiwi on the finish. What a powerhouse of flavor!! I may not have been impressed with how the bloom looked, but I sure was impressed by the taste of this coffee. This is like no other pre-ground coffee I’ve ever encountered – I definitely think I would have been fooled in a blind tasting.

Interestingly, despite being the same varietal, the tasting notes for this bean differ on the Perfectly Ground box (Riesling, marmalade, candied ginger) vs. the bag of whole beans (cacao nibs, tea, citrus). I do think the notes on the box were a very fair representation of what was in the cup. I DID taste a difference between this and the whole bean version of this coffee in that the Perfectly Ground cup was more tart and the freshly ground cup I made in the V60 was more sweet/bitter, but both tasted fresh. If I was served the Perfectly Ground cup in a coffee shop, I would have no complaints.

This box of 5 single-serving packets of Blue Bottle’s Perfectly Ground coffee is $17.50 with free shipping, which averages out to $3.50 per bag. Is it worth it? Well, if you’re someone that enjoys craft coffee but doesn’t want to spend money/counter space on a grinder, this could be one way for you to get your Blue Bottle fix anywhere you like that has hot water (and a brewing device). It’s convenient, portable, and long-lasting (6 month shelf life). Now, if you consumed this particular coffee weekly (Monday-Friday at a packet a day, $17.50 a week), it would certainly add up quickly! I personally would recommend investing in a quality grinder before spending $70/month on pre-ground beans, even ones of this quality. But, for the right circumstance, this is a terrific option to have on hand. You can take great coffee on your travels without packing a hand grinder. You can keep really good quality decaf around for guests (or for those times when you might want an occasional cup yourself!). Perfectly Ground isn’t something I’d choose to have regularly, since I have two great grinders and I intend to use them, but I could easily see myself ordering another box of Perfectly Ground, this time for AeroPress, so that I can have fresh-tasting craft coffee with me anywhere I might travel. Hats off to you, Blue Bottle!

Summary: It defies all logic and just about everything I thought I knew about coffee, but this pre-ground coffee from Blue Bottle is not just good for pre-ground, it’s a coffee that’s worthy of the Blue Bottle name. This changes my whole perception on what pre-ground coffee can be!

The Story of Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground

Blue Bottle Perfectly Ground – Online Store

Review: Blue Bottle Kenya Embu Gikirima (Oakland, California)

Technically, I purchased this coffee at the end of 2016 and wrote up notes on it very soon after purchase, but I wanted to save the review to start the new year off with a bang, and Blue Bottle seemed like a good roaster to start this blog off on the right foot in 2017! This Blue Bottle review will actually be in two parts, as I bought this varietal both in whole bean form and pre-ground (gasp!). Yes, I broke the rule of just about every coffee geek and bought pre-ground coffee, but for a very good reason, as I wanted to see for myself if Blue Bottle’s Perfectly Ground really could live up to the taste of freshly ground coffee. More on that later, but for now, here are my notes on the whole bean version of this Kenya Embu Gikirima!

Whole bean: Honestly, I kind of forgot to observe this coffee’s notes, as it smelled great right out of the box and I was excited to start brewing. Oops! But it was quite fragrant, like caramelized sugar and tea and all sorts of good things.

V60: This brewing method made a cup that tasted like toasted marshmallows, with a slight “pithy” flavor like lemon pith. Not a very tart cup, but it had just a little bit of citrus bitterness to it. I did brew this on the long side (3:45) so perhaps a shorter brewing time would mitigate the pith.

AeroPress: A surprisingly smooth brew!! Caramel scent and flavor dominated this mug, with a tart finish like lemon candy to keep the taste buds interested.

Chemex: Grapefruit. Very tart and dry. My mouth was puckering.

French press: Very silky mouthfeel. Rich, sweet flavor with just a hint of brightness and tartness to keep things lively.

Summary: This coffee tasted best to me in the immersion methods, with the French press being my personal favorite, as I felt it had the best balance between sweet and tart.

Check back in a few hours for more on this coffee, this time made from Blue Bottle’s Perfectly Ground beans (their version of pre-ground coffee).

From the roaster: Cacao nibs, tea, citrus

Blue Bottle Kenya Embu Gikirima