Review: George Howell Coffee Nicaragua Las Colinas (Boston, Massachusetts)

This was the second bag I recently picked up from Astro Coffee in Detroit (the first being the Andytown Colombia). I had never heard of George Howell Coffee before, but I liked the packaging and the beans were very fresh, so I decided to take a chance.

Once I finished my tasting and I started writing up this review, I realized that I must have been living under a rock, because George Howell is no stranger to the specialty coffee world. It’s worth reading his full story on the roaster’s website, but suffice to say, you don’t get a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Specialty Coffee Association of America just for making cortados. Hats off to you, sir.

Whole bean: Cherry, black tea, bright and refreshing, with a buttery aroma once ground.

French press: Smells like roses and tastes like black tea. Ultra smooth, but kind of hollow in flavor. This doesn’t really taste like coffee at all! This has a thicker texture to it than tea but if I was blindfolded, I might be fooled. Just out of curiosity, I added a splash of milk, but this ended up bringing out different flavors than I was expecting – the milk made the coffee taste more juicy, with notes of lemon and butter.

Chemex: The rose scent and flavor were more on the forefront with this brewing method. Complex, sweet, layered cup.

AeroPress: This had a lovely light, reddish-brown caramel color to it. Much lighter in color than a typical cup of coffee – I think the last time I saw a cup this color might have been the Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters Panama La Milagrosa Geisha. Rich mouthfeel but unlike the OCCR Geisha, it wasn’t super flavorful, even as a concentrate.

V60: This was the best method for these beans, in my opinion. Rose, amaretto, chocolate. Smooth and sweet. This cup was a definite winner!

Summary: Lovely floral notes abound in this coffee. This is quite a light roast and may be strange for people that are used to their coffee tasting “like coffee,” but I really enjoyed it, particularly brewed in the Hario V60 due to the rich flavors and balanced nature of the cup.

From the roaster: Passionfruit, chocolate, black tea

George Howell Coffee Nicaragua Las Colinas

Review conducted at 7 days post-roast.

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: Caffe Vita East Timor Hatuhei (Seattle, Washington)

On my recent trip to New York City, I told myself that I needed to limit my coffee purchasing to just two bags of coffee, and they needed to both be roasters which were new to me. Birch Coffee’s Emma Espresso was the first, and this bag from Caffe Vita is the other. Now, I’ve actually had Caffe Vita before, so I feel like I am cheating just a tiny bit from my resolve. I had a cup from a storefront across the street from Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon, and I had another cup at a corner cafe on a different trip to Portland. Both cups struck me as being on the darker side than I usually drink, and darker than I typically get from ubiquitous roasters like Heart and Stumptown. Is this bad? Not necessarily. I decided it warranted further investigation.

Whole bean: The bag itself, once opened, has a pretty strong smell of plastic (perhaps it’s something to do with the inner coating?). However, the beans were rather fruity, like peaches and cherries.

V60: Toasty and milk chocolaty flavors at the start, but on the finish, this brew tasted like nail polish smells. Terribly astringent. I don’t know what it was about this, but it tasted like chemicals and rubbing alcohol. Not my favorite! Surprisingly though, when I came back to this cup after it had cooled down, it smelled JUST like french vanilla ice cream.

AeroPress: Slightly burnt tasting when consumed straight; I had to add water. Once the water was added, it was a pleasant, if slightly generic tasting coffee.

Chemex: Same notes as the V60 method, but even more objectionable. Something about the pourover method must just bring out notes in this coffee that overpower the cup and make it smell/taste strange.

French press: This was the best method for this coffee, in my opinion. The coffee had a nice deep toasty flavor that was accented by a slight hint of nectarine.

Summary: Coffee from this region of the world is not my personal favorite and I don’t drink much of it, so take my opinion for what it’s worth ($0.02?), but I think this particular bean is best suited to being brewed in a french press. Back when I used to drink Sumatran coffee more regularly, the french press was my favorite brewing method for that bean, and I do think it coaxes out the best flavors for beans similar to it. This coffee is fruitier than most Sumatrans, but it shares many of the same characteristics in the cup.

From the roaster: Maplewood, toffee, marionberry, black tea

Caffe Vita East Timor Hatuhei

Review: Octane Coffee Costa Rica El Higueron (Atlanta, Georgia)

A recent interview I heard on the Sound Opinions podcast was discussing the music listening habits of Spotify users, and the featured guest stated that their internal research indicated that most people who use the Spotify streaming service stopped listening to popular/current music at an average age of 33, and that people maintain a lifetime affection for music of their teens and early 20s. This made me think about my own music listening habits (at age 36), and while I still do seek out new releases, I don’t do it at nearly the frequency that I used to (it takes a lot of time and effort to stay current!). Do I maintain a love for music of my youth? Absolutely. In fact, I discovered my favorite band of all time, Ride, at the age of 12, and I just spent this past weekend crossing state lines to see them play two amazing shows. Would I love them as much as I do now if I had discovered them when I was 32 instead of 12? It’s an intriguing question.

One of the main reasons that I started this blog is so that I could have a record of my thoughts about particular coffees as I do these tastings. I wanted to learn everything I could about what’s out there and figure out which coffees I do like and which I don’t. As I’ve been doing this, my tastes have been evolving and I have learned to appreciate new things. For this reason, I’m reluctant to rule out drinking anything entirely, but I think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on my preferences for now. There’s music I appreciate on an intellectual level (but which doesn’t touch my soul), music I like, music I love, and music that makes me marvel that I exist in a world where that kind of beauty is even possible. I’m learning I am starting to feel this way about coffees as well.

Thus far, I’ve been less than thrilled with Costa Rican coffees. They haven’t necessarily been terrible coffees, but they have made me feel like I was on an awkward blind date, made me sob uncontrollably, and smelled like gasoline several days after opening the bag. On the one hand, I want to educate myself and learn everything I can about something before dismissing it as just “not my thing”… after all, not everything is love at first sight. It took me a while to get into cilantro but I love it now! On the other hand, life is short, and I question how much time I want to spend drinking coffee I’m not in love with, you know? Maybe that’s why people tend to just stick with the music they know they love as they get older.

Octane Coffee is an Atlanta-based company that has been in operation for 12 years, but has expanded into roasting and wholesale coffee in the last 4 years. They have cafes in three states: Georgia, Alabama, and West Virginia. Their website doesn’t feature their single-origin coffees, probably since they don’t even offer the option of online purchasing, but it does list coffees that are available wholesale. I only mention it since the names are amusing to me: Super Regular, White Lightning, and Gravy. I picked up this bag at their Homewood location in Birmingham, Alabama, and decided on this bag of Costa Rican coffee because it was in the optimal freshness window and the tasting notes sounded intriguing. Keeping an open mind as best as I can!

Whole bean: Smells like black tea leaves and bing cherry. Not a very sweet aroma. There is a slight hint of some sort of stone fruit (I wrote in my notes: plum??? Maybe??). Confounding.

V60: This is like tea + a splash of milk in texture and in flavor. It rings hollow in my mouth, like I’m getting just the outer edges of a sound and not the center. There is some bitterness on the finish, even with just a 2:47 extraction time.

AeroPress: The concentrate tasted like lemon pith. Adding water brought out a flavor like peanut shells. Not the peanut itself, but the sort of cardboard-esque flavor of the shells. I was suddenly taken to Texas Roadhouse in my head (and for those of you unfamiliar with this establishment, it’s the sort of place where people eat peanuts while waiting to be seated and they throw the shells all over the floor).

Chemex: Initial impression was that it had a chemical smell to it, but I think it was just that the top end was so strong. I can’t say it smelled like fruit or flowers or nuts or anything concrete, though – it just smelled astringent. It did seem to get better as I drank it. There was a slight tang to the aftertaste, like banana. Unfortunately for me, I hate bananas.

French press: This had the richest body of the four cups, and while the flavor was similar to the Chemex rendition, the thicker body seemed to make everything a little less objectionable by bringing more depth into the mix. If I had to pick a favorite preparation method for this coffee, it would be this one.

Summary: I’m close to dropping Costa Rican coffees from my playlist altogether, as I never really seem to be able to get into them. To me, they’re like a coffee version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (incidentally, a band quite popular in my teens, but one I never could get into!). I can’t fault Octane, as the beans do look beautifully roasted, and I can appreciate the work that went into this bag, but if I encounter another chance to buy Octane beans, I’m getting something else.

From the roaster: Floral, toffee, orange blossom, banana, lemon

This company does not appear to currently sell beans online, but you can purchase Octane Coffee at one of its retail locations in Alabama, Georgia, and West Virginia.

Octane Coffee Website

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: Lexington Coffee Roasters Guatemala Waykan (Lexington, Virginia)

Thanks again to my friend Sarah for these beans! 🙂

I consider my tasting skills to be decent, but I can’t hold a candle to the fine folks at Coffee Review. I purposely did not pay attention to the tasting notes on this coffee until after I was finished, and I’m always interested to see where I agree with others and where I diverge. More details in the summary.

This particular coffee features top-quality beans from 55 communities in Guatemala.

Whole bean: In the whole bean format, I didn’t detect any particular fragrance that stood out, but once ground, they had a beautiful fragrance of bittersweet chocolate.

V60: My extraction time was a bit on the short side (2:30), and this particular cup tasted mostly like black tea with a bit of bittersweet cocoa and lemon.

AeroPress: In its concentrate form, this cup was pretty sour – it tasted like a combination of lemon juice and pith. However, once I added water to the concentrate, it smoothed out and had a more iced tea-like quality (but hot, of course). Rich body.

Chemex: Smelled a bit like the smoke from blown-out matches, but it tasted like milk chocolate. This also had a little bite of acidity at the end to keep things interesting, but overall it was markedly smoother than either the V60 or AeroPress cups.

French press: Dominant flavor was one of marshmallows, followed by hot cocoa. This is a nice cup for cold winter mornings when looking for a comforting way to start the day. Too bad it’s currently August in Texas! 😉

Summary: I liked this coffee. It reminded me a fair bit of the Coffee del Rey Guatemala Huehuetenango without the graham cracker flavor. Most of the flavors I noticed in this coffee were chocolate, marshmallow, black tea, and lemon. However, the reviewers at Coffee Review had this to say:

“Gently crisp, cedary, complex. Tobacco-toned cedar (think cigar humidor), vanilla, raw sugar, narcissus-like flowers in aroma and cup. Brisk, dry acidity; lightly syrupy mouthfeel. Vanilla, flowers and cedar carry into a resonant finish.”

Yeesh, I need to work on my tasting game!

From the roaster:

Aroma: Candied Fruit & Chocolate

Flavor: Apricot, Pecan, & Milk Chocolate

Acidity: Brisk

Body: Silky

Aftertaste: Tangy Fruit, Nut, & Cocoa

Lexington Coffee Roasters Guatemala Waykan

Review: Boxcar Coffee Roasters Burundi Rugoma Lot 5 (Boulder, Colorado)

This bag comes to me courtesy of my awesome friend Ebonee. Thanks, homeslice. 🙂

Boxcar was founded in Boulder, Colorado and now has a second cafe location in Denver. Since they are located at such high elevation, water has a lower boiling temperature, and Boxcar has developed an intriguing brewing technique they call the Boilermakr to brew coffee effectively and deliciously given the peculiar needs of their environment. There is more information and a picture of the Boilermakr contraption here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Whole bean: A bit nutty, with an aroma of rich warm spice and raisins.

V60: Sour orange dominated this cup with a nice medium body. There was a hint of spearmint on the finish.

AeroPress: I drank this coffee as a concentrate, and it had a lovely mix of orange peel and cinnamon. Once I added a bit of water, the brew smoothed out and tasted more like a generic black tea.

Chemex: This coffee reminded me quite strongly of visiting England and having English breakfast tea + milk (though I added no milk at all). This cup also had just a hint of orange to it, which was a pleasant fruity note at the end of a rich, comforting cup.

French press: Everything was strong and outspoken. More sour orange!

Summary: I’m not sure why a coffee grown in Burundi and roasted in Colorado would make me think of the English countryside and the hustle and bustle of London, but there you go… coffee is one way to travel the world and visit unexpected places.

From the roaster: Orange, clove, black tea, brown sugar.

Boxcar Coffee Roasters Burundi Rugoma Lot 5

Review: Verve Coffee Roasters Guatemala Los Santos (Santa Cruz, California)

Verve. This might not be a word I associate strictly with music, but it’s the name of a once-legendary record label, as well as a pretty good now-defunct band from the UK (who later had to change their name to “The Verve,” which still sounds odd in my head… it’s like saying “The Vivacity” or “The Happiness”).

Verve Coffee Roasters is one of the most respected coffee roasters in the United States; they regularly make “best of” lists like this one from Thrillist of the 10 best coffee roasters in America. They offer free shipping with no minimum purchase, which is definitely a plus! I spotted this bag at B2 Coffee during a recent trip to San Jose and did a little happy dance; my friend who was with me died laughing. I’m not apologizing, though!

Whole beans: Hints of mango, tea, and rose petals.

V60: This cup had sweet citrus flavor with a tropical note. I tasted tea-like tannins on the finish, as well as the richness of nougat.

AeroPress: Juicier brew with a smoother feel. Flowery aromas dominated, with less fruit flavor/aroma.

Chemex: Marshmallow and nougat flavor, with orange on the finish.

French press: Overwhelming nougat flavor and aroma. Richest texture. No fruit/flowers.

Summary: A light, delicate cup that has a lot of natural sweetness. The immersion methods had more nougat flavor while the pourover methods had more fruity flavor. All were tasty!

From the roaster: Zesty and tropical in nature with flavors of navel orange, mango and chewy nougat. Los Santos delivers a punch and has a lengthy finish of caramel sweetness.

Verve Coffee Roasters Guatemala Los Santos

Review: Stumptown Ecuador Cariamanga Organic (Portland, Oregon)

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

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

Anyway, back to the Ecuador Cariamanga…

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

orange_slice

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

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

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

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

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

From the roaster: Tangerine, butterscotch, almond

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

Stumptown Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victrola Coffee Roasters Ethiopia Yirgacheffe YIRGZ