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: 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: The Missing Bean Unbirthday Blend (Oxford, England)

This tasting is a direct result of me getting to spend a little over a week in a dream destination for me (England) so though I’m going to remain as objective as possible about the coffee, I can’t help but smile when I think about just about everything related to this journey. Rose-colored glasses alert ahead!

This trip was an opportunity to see family in London and to bask in the ephemeral beauty of live music. In between concerts, I got to spend a day and a half exploring the city of Oxford. What a stunning, gorgeous place. I am incredibly envious of all those who get to live in a city that is such a feast for the eyes! I won’t bore you all by recounting every jaw-droppingly beautiful sight I saw on my visit, but there were many. However, my favorite part of my time in Oxford was getting to spend time at a pub with my friends Mark and Katie. Katie had previously tipped me off that I needed to check out a particular coffee shop in Oxford called The Missing Bean, so that was one of my first stops the morning after I arrived. At their cafe, I enjoyed two double espressos that had a lingering, decadent flavor of toasted marshmallows and honey.

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That’s one happy coffee geek pictured. Good grief, my right hand looks HUGE! Am I a fiddler crab??

Later that same evening, Katie and Mark surprised me with a bag of this Unbirthday Blend, which made me so happy because I hadn’t purchased any beans at the shop and the roastery (on the other side of town) had closed before I had an opportunity to get there. I misread the label initially and thought it said Unhappy Birthday Blend, and I got rather excited until I re-read it and realized it wasn’t a Smiths reference. Oops.

(Just a thought to the Missing Bean: I’m sure there are probably copyright issues involved with doing this, but how cool would it be to name your blends after songs by Oxford bands/musicians? OX4. Morning Bell. Hot Fruit.)

When I did this tasting at home, I was a bit under the weather with a head cold, so I probably didn’t get to really experience the full flavor/aroma of this coffee.

(Spoiler alert: It was still massively enjoyable!)

Whole bean: I didn’t look to see what the blend consisted of before opening this bag, but I could pick out the scent of natural-processed Ethiopian beans with no problem. That berry brightness is so distinctive that there is no hiding it! I also smelled caramel, dark chocolate, and blackcurrants, particularly once the beans were ground. What a deliciously intense aroma!

V60: I made this twice, and at both a 2:40 and 3:10 extraction, the resulting brew was a bit less flavorful than I had hoped. The scent of the ground beans was quite sweet, but the coffee had a bit of a flavor like lemon pith (moreso with the shorter extraction time). However, the coffee did smooth out in flavor as it cooled.

AeroPress: This was my favorite method for these beans. I actually “ooooh”ed in the kitchen when I took my first sip of this brew! Beautiful caramel/butterscotch flavor in the cup, with a lovely touch of blackberry flavor to brighten up the brew and keep it multi-dimensional. This cup highlighted what I like about good blends – making a good coffee blend is like adjusting the treble/bass levels until you get just the right balance of sound out of your stereo. Don’t dilute this AeroPress concentrate with water, as the coffee was perfectly balanced and richly flavored straight out of the brewer. I tried this the way I always brew with the AeroPress (regular method) but I suspect if you use the inverted method, it would be even better.

Chemex: Clean, sweet aroma at a 4:00 extraction, but this method had the same issue for me as the Hario V60 – I think it’s just tricky using a pourover method in this case to extract all the full flavors this blend is capable of. I was left wishing for a bit more dimension.

French press: After tasting the AeroPress cup, I had high hopes for this brewing method, and it didn’t disappoint. It was a delicious blend of tastes – I couldn’t pick out any one predominant note but it was lively and kept me sipping to try and figure it out. Dangerously addictive, all these layers of flavor. It’s like one of those songs that you can listen to repeatedly without getting bored.

Summary: This blend shines beautifully in immersion methods. Caramel and berry flavors are the main highlights, and it’s an absolute stunner in the AeroPress. Thanks to The Missing Bean for adding to the list of things I adore about Oxford… the architecture, the history, the music scene, the people… and now, the artisan coffee. I hope to have a chance to return in the future to try some of your single-origin coffees!

From the roaster: No tasting notes on the bag or the website, but the bag does state that the Unbirthday Blend is a combination of Ethiopia Sidamo Guji, Guatemala Fedecocagua, and El Salvador El Engenio.

Sadly, The Missing Bean does not sell their beans online, so you’ll have to trek to Oxford to get their beans. I wish I didn’t live so far away!

The Missing Bean

Review: Novo Coffee Roasters Rwanda Bufcafe (Denver, Colorado)

After reviewing the Novo Ethiopia Guji, I was a little apprehensive about cracking open the next bag. I didn’t hate the Guji, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped. This bag from Rwanda promised to be pretty different, so I sliced it open and dove in.

Whole bean: The scent was earthy with notes of maple syrup, blackberry, and seaweed. Hmmmm…

French press: Smooth, a little bland but sweet with a medium body. I was starting to get concerned about this trend of “bland” that I was noticing but maybe I just didn’t steep the coffee long enough (I opted for my usual 4 minutes here).

Chemex: Though the coffee smelled syrupy sweet, the resulting brew was not quite as sweet in flavor and had a interesting bit of smokiness to it. It finished with a flavor like caramel.

AeroPress: Thick and rich cup – I didn’t add any water. It had a nice toffee flavor to it, with some brashness on the finish, but the brashness kept things interesting.

V60: Deep dark flavor of brown sugar, maple, and toffee. Simple but satisfying.

Summary: I think this coffee will please fans of flavors like toffee/caramel. Unlike the same roaster’s Ethiopia Guji, I think I liked this coffee brewed in the pourover methods best. Opt for a Chemex if you like a bit of smokiness; go with the V60 if you want just sweetness.

From the roaster: Grape, dark chocolate, almond butter

Novo Coffee Roasters Rwanda Bufcafe

Review: Commonwealth Ontology Espresso (Denver, Colorado)

Along with Houndstooth Coffee, Oak Lawn Coffee is one of my go-to places in Dallas for picking up high-quality, FRESH coffee beans. It’s a pity I live so far from both of these shops (30-40 minutes on a good day!). Thankfully, I was in the area for work and was able to pick up this bag from Commonwealth along with a bag of Tweed Foxtrot blend (review forthcoming).

Side note: The barista offered me a free drip coffee with the purchase of my beans, and even though it was 6:30 pm, I said yes. I mean, it’s free coffee! I got a to-go cup of their drip, and walked out of the shop. Before I even got to my car, I took a sip of the drip and turned around and walked right back into the shop, because I was delighted with the flavor in the cup (“What IS this??? This is DELICIOUS!!”). It was the Commonwealth Colombia Narino Carlos Munoz, and it was like creamy milk chocolate and tangerine and sweet fruit notes. So delicious… I hope they have it the next time I’m in the shop because this warrants further tasting.

Whole bean: Creamy, vaguely fruity aroma. Not much to talk about, actually… I have experienced beans that give off a lot more aroma than this, but I have also found that how coffee beans smell don’t necessarily equate to how they taste.

Espresso: I pulled these shots between 5-7 days post roast. Initially, I was unnerved by how light the streams were from my portafilter, because I was thinking the espresso was reaching its blonding point rather quickly! However, I soon realized that this espresso roast is a bit lighter than what I’m used to (especially after those Third Coast beans I pulled recently), so the lighter stream color was completely normal. This blend is a mix of the Colombia Carlos Munoz and an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere, and in the cup, you can REALLY taste what the Ethiopian beans bring to the table. At 201 F, there was an intoxicating berry scent to the espresso and it was full of blackberry and chocolate flavor. Not bad at all! I usually go for more straight chocolate/caramel/toffee notes in espresso, but found the blackberry in this one very interesting. When I pulled shots at higher temperatures, the blackberry note disappeared, and I found that I really missed it. Back to 201 F then!

Favorite parameters for this blend: 18 g in, normale shot @ 25 seconds, 201 degrees F.

With milk: I’m off dairy for a little while, so I made Shutterbug my guinea pig on this. Based on a hunch I had, I opted to make him a honey latte instead of a plain one, because the combination of honey and blackberries is to die for (especially served on top of Greek yogurt). This was a hit!

AeroPress: I was underwhelmed by this coffee in an AeroPress. Straight out of the brewer, the coffee had a great mouthfeel, but it was a little unbalanced tasting – it had some chocolate and blueberry flavor but it also tasted like the stems from a blueberry plant. I added just a touch of water and while it made the coffee smoother, it also made it blander. The lack of balance and complexity was disappointing. Stick to pulling this as true espresso.

Summary: Nice espresso blend that definitely leans toward the fruitier side in flavor. Try it with honey in a latte – it is delicious!

From the roaster: Jasmine, plum, caramel, baker’s chocolate

Commonwealth Ontology Espresso

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: Counter Culture Kenya Kamavindi (Durham, North Carolina)

In the 6 months thus far that this blog has been around, the coffee review with the most page views has been the Counter Culture Hologram Espresso. I figured it was high time I revisit Counter Culture’s offerings, but this time I opted to try a single-origin versus one of their blends.

Kenyan coffee has a reputation as being coffee for coffee connoisseurs. It’s not a coffee that has mass appeal, or one that people are likely to appreciate without a certain level of knowledge and experience with coffee. Obviously, there is no Billboard Top 40 chart for coffee, but if there was such a chart, it’s unlikely that any of the top sellers would have much cachet among “coffee snobs.” Music that is marketed toward a mass audience will have a wide appeal and will translate to lots of sales, but may not inspire the same kind of vocal, passionate, devoted following the way that “indie” artists might. There is a Brian Eno quote about the lackluster sales of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, saying that it only sold 30,000 copies in the first five years after its release, but “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Now, I’m not necessarily saying this coffee tastes like “Venus in Furs,” but it’s not easy listening/easy drinking compared to some other coffees!

My first experience with Kenyan coffee was this Victrola Kenya Nyeri Tambaya Peaberry, which, frankly, I really didn’t like. It was too swampy and savory and off-putting for my taste. I certainly am used to “sweeter” coffees, so tasting something that had so much funk/mushroom/seaweed in it was a shock. However, I did actually rather enjoy the Kenya Kirinyaga from thirty-thirty Coffee, and trying it made me resolved to research more Kenyans. I am not necessarily trying to make myself like Kenyan coffee because I should — I more want to expand my horizons and discover what others see in it.

I was a little surprised to find this Kenya Kamavindi sold in a box rather than a bag, but apparently Counter Culture recently started packaging their single-origin coffees this way. The bag inside the box still has a one-way valve to let air escape, but can’t be resealed; I ended up putting the remainder of the beans in an Airscape canister to keep them fresh.

Whole bean: heady, rich aroma that smelled like molasses and red wine. Ground, it smelled just like blackberry cobbler.

V60: Not too sweet – this cup had a savory, tangy character that reminded me of cherry tomatoes. The finish had some lovely meyer lemon notes.

AeroPress: Sipped as a concentrate, it tasted like straight lemon juice (but thicker-bodied). Once I added water, it added enough sweetness to make the cup pleasantly tart. The lemon-custard flavor and body lingered pleasantly on the tongue.

Chemex: Medium-bodied but surprisingly rich and sweet flavor of lemon and cream with a hint of berry. Delicious stuff! The finish tasted like brown sugar. This might be the “hit single” of the album – the most accessible track that hooks the new listener. Hey there, Sweet Jane.

French press: Raisin aromas in the cup. This particular cup was thick and not very sweet. It most reminded me of red wine (probably something like a Shiraz); complex flavors with a dry finish.

Summary: I am constantly evolving. If I revisit this coffee in a couple of years, maybe I’ll be all about cherry tomato and wine flavors! But at the moment, I like the Chemex itieration the best. I do appreciate the layers and the multi-dimensional character of this coffee. It’s a cup that reveals layers over time, for those who take the time to “peel slowly and see.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist! I’ll stop with the VU references now.)

From the roaster: Blackberry, currants, citrus fruits

Counter Culture Kenya Kamavindi