Review: Brown Coffee Co. Cottonwood Espresso (San Antonio, Texas)

I ordered this bag of the Brown Cottonwood Espresso at the same time that I ordered their Candy Factory. The Candy Factory was roasted May 24, but the Cottonwood must have been roasted to order because it was roasted May 30 (I ordered May 29). There was a bit of delay in the shipping, but it was fine in this case since the beans showed up in plenty of time and I did this tasting on about day 10, which is right around where I like to be for espresso testing.

Whole bean: I forgot to write anything down for this… sorry! I don’t think anything stood out particularly, which is good. The beans must have looked and smelled fine.

Espresso: I had a hard time personally with this espresso, as I was hoping to get a balanced shot with sweetness and smoothness. Frustratingly, I never quite got what it was I was looking for, though I did get some interesting flavors… chocolate, spicy chiles, lemon. No matter how much I varied the temperature (and I tried shots from 197-206 degrees F), the shots all came out awfully bright for my taste.

With milk: I don’t drink milk anymore so Shutterbug has become my tester in this regard. He liked the latte I made him using the Cottonwood espresso, saying that there was a good amount of coffee flavor to it, so perhaps this is an espresso that is designed to be consumed with milk vs. straight.

AeroPress: Now THIS I really liked. The brew that resulted from this method was deliciously rich like chocolate and marshmallow, yet not boring. It tasted a lot like Nutella and s’mores. I wish I could have gotten this flavor in a straight espresso shot!

Summary: Good with milk, but I found this particular blend to be too bright as straight espresso. It does make a decadent cup in the AeroPress, though. I think this is worth investigating how it brews as coffee!

From the roaster: Cottonwood Espresso. Rich, sweet, deep and fruited with chocolate rasberry (sic) notes that explode in the mouth with succulent crema. It gives your palate what it’s looking for: a classic expression of espresso in the American style. At its best, Cottonwood represents the very best of the world’s major coffee growing regions (12oz/340g bag).

Brown Coffee Co. Cottonwood Espresso

Review conducted 10 days post-roast.

Earnestness, honesty, and Appalachian Spring

I spent the last couple of weeks following my favorite band (Ride) on tour through 8 shows in the UK and US. Anyone that has done this can tell you that far from being the same show every night, each show had a distinctly different vibe to it (at least in my opinion). Yes, many of the songs were the same, but there’s no such thing as two shows that are exactly the same. There was one show in particular that was full of so much frisson that I was convinced the band must have been arguing backstage before the concert! But for the most part, the concerts were full of joy and camaraderie, both from the band and from the audience. It was genuinely moving to see the energy flowing back and forth between those on stage and those in the hall – seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t attend live concerts, you’re missing out on something special!

I had a short chat with one of the band members after one of the shows. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing more about my work as a classical musician, and asked me some rather deep questions. The one that stuck in my mind most was the question of what I would play just for my own pleasure, without considering the obligation of upcoming gigs or things like that. I knew as a songwriter, he was approaching this question from his own perspective as a creator, and though I can’t know for sure, I am guessing that he generally feels more motivated to play his own songs and write original work versus doing covers. My perspective as a performer is pretty different, though.

Classical musicians (and actors, and dancers) occupy a strange role in that we are the conduit for someone else’s work. If you are a rock musician and you write a song, you generally perform it yourself. You are the primary source, and the listener can hear it directly from you (or through your records). If you are a sculptor or a painter, the public can see your vision directly as it comes from you. However, if you are a choreographer and you are envisioning a ballet, there’s no way you can perform the role of all the dancers yourself. If you are a composer writing a string quartet, or a percussion ensemble piece, or a symphony, you need players who can take what you have in your imagination and bring it to life. These creators are working with such a large palette of colors that they need to collaborate with performers (outsourcing at its finest!). Conversely, performers such as myself need composers in order to help us say what we don’t have the language to say on our own, and to reveal part of us in the process, both to ourselves and to the audience.

I do feel that musicians show themselves in their art, both in their writing and their performance. I won’t claim that I fully “know” anybody solely through their creative output (that would be silly), but of the composers I’ve met and worked with, the music they write really does tend to be reflective of their personalities. No naming names here, but the earnest, emotional, honest people write music that feels that way. The prickly, suspicious, veiled people that eat sarcasm for breakfast write that way. The performers who are egotistical and brag a lot offstage definitely perform that way, and for me, it mars what I have come to hear. I don’t blame performers for wanting to impress an audience, but I’m not attending concerts to hear amazing finger technique or to be wowed by rock histrionics. The music I’m most attracted to transcends the methods used to create it and it is a direct line from the creator to your soul. It’s probably one reason why I am so enamored of singer-songwriters… they lay themselves bare and are speaking directly to the listener, without hiding behind stage fireworks or other things meant to dazzle. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to be so real. With Ride, I feel like all four of the members of that band definitely show their true selves both in their writing and in their performance, and it’s one reason that I have had such respect for them for 25 years (and counting).

Some months ago, I had gotten hired to perform Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (the original version for 13 instruments) at the end of July. When I realized that rehearsals would start just a few days after the end of my Ride tour, my first thought was that I hoped I’d get back into performing shape quickly (two weeks off is a lot for the embouchure!). But, given that I’d performed this piece many times before, I wasn’t too worried about being able to handle it… it was more about wanting to do this piece justice. If I could equate my personality to a particular composer’s output, I’d have to say I feel like I am closest to the music of Aaron Copland. What attracts me to Copland’s music is the sense of openness, and honesty, and lack of artifice. Any music that makes so much use of the “open” intervals (octaves, fifths) has a way of sounding really honest and pure. There’s nowhere to hide bad intonation in intervals like these! No way to fake it. Anyone that knows me knows that I have no poker face, and while I do use sarcasm and dark humor from time to time, I am generally a really earnest person and I don’t try and obscure my true self. Does this get me into trouble? Occasionally. It would be safer for sure to hide my true thoughts. But I’m not going to try and pretend to be more complex or layered than I really am – people can see right through that, and wearing a mask all the time is exhausting. If people are going to dislike me, I would rather they dislike the real me, and not the person I’m pretending to be.

Copland described the Duo for Flute and Piano (of which the first movement is one of my favorite things to play) as “a work… direct in expression and meant to be grateful for the performer.” I understood this instinctively when I first encountered this piece as a teenager, and it still moves me today when I perform it. I may not have written the notes, but I feel both Copland’s intention behind the notes, and the personal meaning that I could not have expressed without him giving me the language to do so. I am humbled to be able to help his music live on past his lifetime. While I sometimes wish I had the drive to compose (I greatly admire composers and anyone that creates new art), I do feel like I am meant to be exactly what I am – a vessel, a translator (which is meaningful to me, as my late father worked as a Korean-English translator!). I won’t be remembered past my lifetime, but I am not bothered by that. I am part of a bigger picture, a small fragment of a great and mysterious whole, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, to answer the question of what I would play for myself, just for my own pleasure, I would say the answer is anything that celebrates the soul within. Sunday’s concert is something I’m very much looking forward to – it is a gift and a privilege to be able to share my innermost feelings with an audience, and it’s something I look forward to every single time. And on that note, I’d best get practicing. 🙂

Live recording of me performing the first movement of the Copland Duo, 2009. It’s not flawless, but it’s authentic, which is my goal in life these days.

Review: Brown Coffee Co. Candy Factory (San Antonio, Texas)

I’m long overdue in checking out Brown Coffee Company, as they’re pretty well known in Texas and nationwide. Interesting name, isn’t it… I have no clue why the founder(s) chose the name Brown (perhaps it’s the last name of one of the people that started the company?), but in my head, I always think of the name choice as a slightly tongue-in-cheek choice. Imagine a home roaster serving a dinner guest coffee.

Guest: Wow, this coffee is so good! What kind of coffee is it?
Roaster: It’s brown.
Guest: Ha ha. Fine, then don’t tell me!

When I visited the website, I saw they had a particular blend called Candy Factory that changes seasonally, and it sounded delicious, so despite the high price tag ($25/12 oz), I went for it. This evidently is not a coffee they roast to order, as I placed my order on May 29 and I got a bag that was marked roasted May 24. Shipping took a bit longer than expected, so I wasn’t able to open the bag until June 6 (day 14 after roasting). This is a bit later than I’m used to, but I don’t think the coffee suffered for it.

Whole bean: Full of a really creamy, bright, fragrant scent. Wow. Lots of personality here!

V60: I made this with a 3:10 extraction time, and it was a really interesting cup. Deliciously sweet, with flavors of hibiscus and tangerine, with a lovely powdery finish.

AeroPress: Very bright, verging on sour. I was puckering my mouth drinking this. Strong like a lemon drop. Once I added a little additional water to the coffee, it tamed the flavor some, though it was still lively and bright. Who needs orange juice when you’ve got this eye-opener around?

Chemex: Super fragrant and juicy cup that tasted of orange and vanilla.

French press: This was an aberration – it was the most savory cup, almost to the point of being salty! Thick, full-bodied coffee that tasted juicy and rather plush, if that makes sense.

Summary: This coffee is expensive, but if you enjoy bright, fruit-forward, lively flavors, you’ll really love this coffee. I like it best in the pourover methods (V60 and Chemex), with the V60 winning my vote for the lovely complexity.

From the roaster: Dried fruits and boozy fruit jam.

Brown Coffee Co. Candy Factory

Review conducted 14 days post-roast.

Review: BeanFruit Old Route 4 Dark Roast (Jackson, Mississippi)

Hey there, dark roast fans… this one’s for you. I am personally not a fan of dark roasts, but I know a lot of you out there are so I’m taking one for the team! I find that people that have a strong opinion about the roast level of their coffee seem to be generally in one of two camps:

Light-roasted coffee:
Fan: “Delicious! You can really taste the origin of the bean and all the subtle flavors.”
Foe: “Gross! It’s sour and tastes like drinking acid! I want my coffee to taste like coffee, damnit!”

Dark-roasted coffee:
Fan: “It’s so rich and smooth and strong! This is what coffee is supposed to taste like.”
Foe: “Ack, it’s burnt! Charred! It has no character whatsoever! Overroasted!”

Now, I do think there can be a happy medium between these two styles, but even “medium” roast coffee can be too light (meaning, “weird-tasting”) for many dark-roast drinkers, so I wondered if there was a dark roast out there that even fans of lighter roasts could still enjoy. BeanFruit is such a great coffee roaster that I figured if anyone could do this, they could.

Whole bean: Nothing stood out to me other than just a rich aroma of coffee beans. The beans were dark to my eye, but not oily, which is a definite bonus. One thing I really dislike about very dark roasts is all the surface oil and how it gets all over everything, and I feel like it makes the coffee taste rancid. No matter what roast level you like, kids, just say no to oily beans!

French press: Rich and robust cup that tasted a bit like wood and smelled of cedar chips. Smooth.

Chemex: I really wasn’t pleased with the result from this brewing method. The beans are just too darkly roasted for my taste and the coffee came out bitter to my palate. I chased the coffee with a cup of water and the water tasted amazingly sweet to me in comparison!

AeroPress: This is more like it. Consumed straight, I found this brew to be a bit strong but nicely balanced, with flavors of dark chocolate and a hint of cedar. Caramel on the finish. Quite smooth once I added a bit of additional water. As this coffee sits and cools, more chocolate notes come out.

V60: With a 2:40 extraction, this had a really clean “coffee” flavor. No distractions. Less chocolate in the taste but still quite approachable. I would gladly drink this if it was served at a dinner party.

Summary: Perhaps I did something wrong when making this coffee in my Chemex, but I don’t think that brewing method does these beans any favors (which is odd, because Chemexes are known for producing smooth cups of coffee!). However, I do think this coffee is rather nice in a V60 or in an AeroPress. I still prefer lighter roasts, but this is one dark roast I can get behind.

From the roaster: Dark chocolate, cinnamon, dried fruit, cedar

BeanFruit Coffee Company Old Route 4 Dark Roast

Review conducted 6 days post-roast.

Review: BeanFruit Coffee Company Ethiopia Kochere (Jackson, Mississippi)

BeanFruit Coffee Company wasn’t even on my radar until the middle of 2016, but I was so impressed with their coffee that two of their roasts took 1st and 3rd place in my Best of 2016 list. I had to wait some months before I had time to order from them as a normal customer, but I finally got my chance in May. May? Isn’t it July now? Yeah… I got a bit behind on the review-writing, but this is why I jot down copious notes!

Fun fact: Apparently I was order #4000! That felt good. 🙂

I ordered two bags, and this Ethiopia Kochere was the first that I opened.

Whole bean: Sweet, delicate aroma of black tea.

V60: Complex, sweet, floral notes. Much more complex than the smell of the whole beans would have indicated. I got honeydew in this cup!

AeroPress: BRIGHT (I wrote this in all caps in my notes) and sweet. I did add a little additional water to this after brewing to smooth out the flavor a little, and it brought out some floral notes.

Chemex: The perfume to this cup was super sweet, and had a sugary taste. Not much fruit or floral character to this – I mostly tasted the caramelized sugar top of a creme brulee.

French press: Not as sweet as the Chemex cup but it had a lot of richness. This cup also had notes of honeydew but seemed less balanced in flavor than the V60 cup.

Summary: I enjoy really complex coffees that make you stop and ponder what it is that you’re tasting, and this coffee is definitely one that does that! I liked it best in the pourover methods (V60, Chemex), with the V60 edging out the Chemex for the sheer range of flavor. But, if you’re a sweetness addict, this coffee in a Chemex is a stunner.

From the roaster: Sweet, white peach, melon, floral

I procrastinated on publishing this review for so long that this particular coffee is no longer being sold, but try any of BeanFruit’s African coffees. You won’t regret it; they are all delicious!!

BeanFruit Coffee Company Online Store

Review conducted 3 days post-roast.

Mini review: Slightly Coffee Roasters Guatemala Chochajau (Eugene, Oregon)

When Slightly Coffee’s head roaster, Joe (yes, that really is his name! How appropriate, right?), sent me the sample of his excellent Ethiopia Torea Village, he also included a small bag of this Guatemala Chochajau. It was a bit too small of a quantity for me to do a full battery of tests in my usual brewing methods (Hario V60, AeroPress, Chemex, French press) so I opted to skip the Chemex and to just try the coffee in the other three methods.

Whole bean: There was just the barest hint of oil on these lovely medium-roast beans. The beans smelled nutty with a hint of cocoa. I was reminded of Nutella.

French press: Tangy, rich, delicious cup that had a great balance of tangerine complexity and milk chocolate sweetness.

AeroPress: A really sweet, thick, fudgy cup of coffee. Decadent!

V60: A much more mild cup than the other methods. Clean, light-bodied brew that tasted of semi-sweet chocolate with walnut on the finish.

Summary: This is a really pleasing Guatemalan coffee that should appeal to just about everybody! The rich sweetness of nutty chocolate with the hint of complexity and brightness from the tangerine really tastes great straight out of the French press. However, if citrus isn’t really your thing (but chocolate and nuts are), try this coffee in one of the other brewing methods.

From the roaster: Flowers and spice, everything nice

Slightly Coffee Roasters Guatemala Chochajau

Review conducted 4 days post-roast.

Disclaimer: I received this product gratis in exchange for a fair and honest review. Even though I received this for free, I treat and test it the same way as if I had paid for it out of my own pocket.

 

Review: Slightly Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Torea Village (Eugene, Oregon)

The craft coffee market is saturated these days with excellent small roasters, so it can be difficult to get noticed, even if your product is top-notch. It’s trendy these days to see coffee roasters using modern and minimalist designs for their bags and logos, so Slightly Coffee Roasters’ packaging definitely stands out from the pack with their decidedly retro, psychedelic font. It’s fun and approachable looking. I’m not sure exactly who they’re looking to appeal to with this, but people who were around in the 1970s weren’t drinking great coffee… are they speaking to that crowd when imploring them with their slogan to “drink slightly better coffee”? I sometimes hear people saying they want to try “better” coffee than Starbucks and such, but find craft coffee intimidating. This lettering doesn’t seem intimidating to me, it screams fun. It actually screams “ice cream” and “roller disco” to me, but that’s beside the point! I applaud the vibe this logo is giving me.

The slogan “drink slightly better coffee” fits in with this feel-good vibe if you ask me… they’re not looking to admonish anyone for drinking Folgers or make them feel like a bad person if this is the first bag of craft coffee they’ve ever purchased. They’re just encouraging people to give their coffee a try! I did question before I began this tasting if this slogan would apply to me as well… I usually drink pretty damn good coffee at my house, if I do say so myself. Let’s get started!

Whole bean: Cranberry and vanilla.

French press: Well, this was unexpected! This cup was a creamy treat that tasted of green tea. There was a bit of pineapple on the finish but it wasn’t what I would call a sweet cup. I was really floored by this cup and I kept drinking it again and again… I swear that if I was blindfolded, I am not sure that I would have been able to tell it was coffee. It had a lot of delicate flavor notes and a rich complexity.

Chemex: Really smooth — less vibrant in flavor than the French press cup, but the taste was similar. Again, not a coffee that tastes like “coffee.” This is quite a light roast.

AeroPress: Grapefruit and pineapple dominated this cup. It’s pretty bright and zingy straight out of the AeroPress so I chose to add a little additional water than what I used for brewing. Adding water tamed the flavors a bit but it was still tangy and very interesting!

V60: At a 3:07 extraction, this cup was beautifully balanced and lovely. I couldn’t pick out specific flavor notes in this, but it definitely tasted like a light roast with a lot of juiciness and sweetness. It is the most approachable cup of the four that I made with these beans.

Summary: Well, blow me down. This really IS slightly better coffee than I drink most days! If I had to compare it to other roasters, the coffee reminded me quite a lot of Heart Roasters, which is very high praise from me as Heart is probably one of my top 3 favorite coffee roasters out there. The French press cup was my personal favorite, but it was great in all four methods. Try it in an AeroPress if you want more vibrant, fruity flavors, a V60 or Chemex for more balanced flavors, or the press pot if green tea with a fruity twist sounds appealing to you.

I suspect that if I was a Folgers drinker and I had THIS, it would take me a while to wrap my brain around what I was drinking (because it really doesn’t taste like “coffee”), but in time, I would come to think that this company’s vow to provide “slightly better” coffee was quite an understatement! I enjoyed the heck out of this bag!

From the roaster: Cherry cobbler, peaches, and cream

Slightly Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Torea Village

Review conducted 5 days post-roast.

Disclaimer: I received this product gratis in exchange for a fair and honest review. Even though I received this for free, I treat and test it the same way as if I had paid for it out of my own pocket.