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.

Review: Klatch Golden Bean Espresso Blend (Upland, California)

TL;DR: If you love espresso, GET YOUR HANDS ON THIS ASAP!!!

I’m actually finding it a little hard to organize my thoughts on this espresso. How do you explain the beauty of a sunrise? How can you put into words what happens to you when you hear your musical soulmate? That’s what tasting this amazing roast from Klatch did to me.

This was the roast that prompted me to make my recent order from Klatch; I’ve already been a fan of their coffee for some time and I knew that anything worthy of the Klatch name would make me happy, but something that won top honors from the Compak Golden Bean was something I definitely had to try.

Whole bean: Fresh aroma! A little floral and creamy. Very inviting scent.

Espresso: I experimented with various grind settings and dosages, and I don’t think I pulled a single bad shot. This was a surprisingly forgiving blend to work with. The overall flavor of the straight shots to me was dark chocolate with lavender – absolutely alluring! Higher temperatures (203 F) brought out a little bitterness, and I found the best result to be at 201-202 F, 18.5 g in. This blend was delicious pulled both as a ristretto and as a normale shot – it had a gorgeous refreshing finish that just made me want to drink more. The rich chocolate notes combined with the lovely floral perfume really captured my attention right from the start, all the way until the last drop. I can only imagine what this would be like pulled with higher-end equipment.

With milk: I don’t drink milk drinks very often, but this blend did make a delicious latte. It had a subtle floral aroma that was so inviting. I did prefer this pulled as straight espresso, as I felt the milk muted some of the really special notes, but that could be just my personal preference speaking. I would be over the moon if I did order a milk drink and got this in the cup.

AeroPress: I was particularly curious about how this blend would fare in the AeroPress, and WOW. It was unimaginably complex. Brewing this revealed a wonderfully rich cup with layers and layers of flavors. I can’t even describe them all. I drank this as a concentrate. Don’t add water to this – it’s smooth as silk and it would be a crime to dilute this.

Summary: I don’t know how long this will be available, but I am definitely ordering more. This is a really special espresso and if your tastes run to the complex and layered, you will really like this. I looked at the blend information after finishing the tasting, and this is composed of coffee from Panama and Ethiopia – two of my favorite origins. I suppose it makes perfect sense why I love this so much. Thank you for sharing this amazing espresso with us, Klatch!

From the roaster: The judges comments were: Tons of sweetness, distinct but subdued stone fruit, plum, berry and honey notes, balanced acidity and a round, creamy body.

Klatch Golden Bean Espresso

Advice: Anatomy of a “good” espresso shot

A friend recently purchased an espresso machine and asked me to help teach him how to use it, as he does not know what “good” espresso is supposed to taste like. This got me thinking about how to describe the taste of a properly pulled shot of espresso to someone that has never had one.

Let’s talk about orange juice for a second. What does “good” orange juice taste like? Your answer will vary depending on 1) whether or not you even like orange juice and 2) what sort of orange juice you prefer. We figure this out over time and with experience. From concentrate? Not from concentrate? Pulp? No pulp? Specific store brands? Fresh-squeezed? I think most people would agree that fresh-squeezed orange juice tastes the best, but it is also the least convenient (and most cost-prohibitive) of the options, so many of us make do with other options.

I can definitely say that I had not had the pleasure of a “good” shot of espresso until relatively recently (within the last year or so), and it is the equivalent of fresh-squeezed orange juice: expensive when you have someone else make it for you, and labor-intensive when you make it at home! But, to me, it is so worth it. I am going to be talking about what espresso tastes like when it is “fresh-squeezed” – meaning, what it tastes like at peak flavor and under ideal circumstances. This is something that I learned from experience, both at coffee shops and at my home. I will be the first to admit that “fresh-squeezed” espresso is way more trouble (and expense) than most people are willing to endure, and I don’t judge people that make do with other espresso options, but if you’re curious about what espresso could be, keep reading.

What are the components of a “good” shot of espresso?

  1. Balanced flavor. A properly pulled shot should be sweet and smooth on the tongue, without any unpleasant sour, bitter, or ashy flavors. The flavor should also linger pleasantly on the palate.
  2. Texture. Espresso is thicker in texture than drip coffee. A shot should not be watery in flavor or texture.
  3. Crema. There should be a layer of crema on top of the shot (reddish-brown to dark tan in color).
  4. The ideal size of an espresso shot can vary but generally there are three standard pulls: ristretto (around 1:1 ratio of ground coffee to water), normale (1:1.5 to 1:2), and lungo (1:2+). Most coffee shops will pull normale shots but you sometimes will find the others as options.

The best espresso is made with freshly roasted coffee beans, but if the bag is too fresh, the beans may be degassing too much to pull a controlled shot. I typically will start pulling shots with a bag of coffee around 5 days post-roast, and continue until the bag is gone or until the crema starts to suffer.

Flavor: If you are accustomed to sweet foods, adding sugar to your coffee, etc., an espresso shot may not taste “sweet” to you in the traditional sense, but coffee does have natural sugars in it, and espresso can have a very pleasant sweetness on the palate when pulled a certain way.

Sour shots: If your espresso makes your face screw up like you’ve sucked on a lemon, your extraction time might be too short, or your espresso might have been pulled at too low of a temperature.

Bitter shots: If your espresso is very bitter, your extraction time might be too long, or the shot was pulled at too high of a temperature.

Ashy shots: I most often get shots that taste like cigarette ash if I pull the shot for too long. I’ve unfortunately experienced this at shops as well, but at least now I know what causes that flavor that makes me feel like I’m licking an ashtray!

Texture: The pressure created in the machine combined with the small amount of water creates a much thicker brew than typical with drip coffee. Since espresso machines do not use paper filters, the oils are also retained in the shot (and in fact lead to crema production). Regarding texture, I’ve had ristretto shots that are like maple syrup, and normale shots that are closest to heavy cream.

Crema: Crema is the lovely layer of emulsified coffee oils that combine with microbubbles of air to create a layer on top of the rest of the espresso shot. Fresher beans have more potential for crema production, so having a nice layer of crema on the top of a shot is a good indication that your beans are likely to be fresh. The presence of crema does not necessarily guarantee a great shot of espresso, but a lack of crema is a guarantee that a shot will not be great.

Super-automatic espresso machines and some handheld espresso makers make use of a pressurized portafilter. This aerates the espresso and creates a light tan foam that isn’t real crema, but gives the illusion of crema in appearance, though not in flavor. It lacks the sweetness that is a hallmark of real crema. I also find that a lot of espresso produced from super-auto machines don’t have the same texture as shots from a semi-auto – they taste thinner.

Size: This comes down to personal preference, and I admit that I have not experimented much at all with lungos so I really can’t speak with any authority on that topic. However, I feel like most espresso blends are probably designed to work best pulled as normale shots, since that’s what is most commonly served in shops. This is not to say that they can’t work other ways, but when I’m evaluating a bean, I start with a normale ratio and experiment further if I feel like the bean would have potential pulled as a ristretto shot. It’s not as simple as using more or less water – I adjust the grind size so as not to get an over- or under-extracted shot.

My espresso equipment isn’t top of the line, but it’s sufficient to produce good (even pretty great) shots. Have I had better at shops? Yes, but I have also had MUCH worse – ashy, bitter, sour, terrible shots that still taste bad even when adding milk. Italians refer to the four Ms of espresso making:

  1. Mano dell’operatore (hand of the operator)
  2. Macinadosatore (grinder-doser)
  3. Miscela (blend)
  4. Macchina espresso (espresso machine)

You will sometimes see this list ranked in a different order of importance, but I cribbed this list from a post on the excellent Home Barista forum. It’s a surprise to many people that the espresso machine itself is ranked dead last in importance, as having a skilled hand, a great grinder and top-quality beans are all more important for a great espresso drink.

Here are some photos of me pulling an espresso shot made with Sterling Blendo Stupendo. I have found that I usually prefer blends when making espresso because I like the balance of flavors. Many third-wave coffee shops pull single-origin espressos, and while I do like single-origin coffee, the flavor characteristics that make them so individually interesting in a 8-ounce cup often are too much for me when concentrated into just 2 ounces of liquid.

The machine: Quick Mill Silvano.

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Weighing out my dose.

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Grinding the beans in my Baratza Vario immediately before pulling the shot.

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Tamping the grounds into an even layer.

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See?

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I really wish I could get a photo that didn’t reflect my hands in the grouphead, but such is life when you have a shiny machine! Note the thin streams of very dark liquid pouring at a steady rate from the double-spouted portafilter. I’ve seen these referred to as “rat tails” on coffee forums. This particular shot was destined to become a latte for Shutterbug.

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As it continues to extract, you’ll notice the flow of liquid gets lighter in color. Baristas take care to cut the extraction just before or at the point of “blonding,” where the best flavor compounds have already been extracted and the color of the liquid turns a very light tan or almost white.

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I repeated this same process in my little Rattleware measuring cup so that you could see the layers of the espresso shot. The lighting level was different here because the sides of the latte cup weren’t in the way, so everything looks paler in color (though it wasn’t in real life).

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Final product: A normale shot with a nice layer of crema, 10 days post-roast. The lighting makes the crema look rather lighter than it was in real life, but trust me when I say it was delicious.

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So, how can you experience a “good” shot of espresso?

  • If you’re local to Dallas, come to my house. Seriously. I will make you a shot! The idea of doing an espresso cupping actually sounds like a lot of fun. Hmmmm.
  • Seek out highly regarded coffee shops in your area. I would start with Yelp and also search forums such as CoffeeGeek.

For more information on shopping for an espresso machine (and grinder!!) to fit your needs, read up on my posts Espresso machines: the basics and Help! I need a grinder – what should I get? Once you get your hands on some great espresso beans, the only thing left is to practice, practice, practice.

Enjoy conducting your research!

Review: Sterling Coffee Roasters Blendo Stupendo Espresso Blend (Portland, Oregon)

If you read my Sterling Coffee Roasters Kenya Gachatha AA review, you’ll recall that I was a babbling neurotic mess at the coffee shop and the roaster himself took pity on me and gave me a bag for free, with the suggestion that if I liked what I tasted, I could order from the website in the future as a thank-you. Well, since the Gachatha AA definitely lived up to my expectations, I fulfilled my promise and purchased bags of their Guatemala Los Carillos (which will be my next review) and this bag of their house espresso blend, named Blendo Stupendo.

Blendo Stupendo?!

I admit, I think this name is rather silly, but I rather enjoy silly things.

One thing I forgot to mention in my previous review is that Sterling ships their coffee in 10-ounce bags, which is a bit smaller than the usual 12- or 16-ounce bags from most roasters. I’m not generally picky about my bag sizing, but when it comes to espresso, bags smaller than 12 ounces make me a little nervous because it can take me a while to dial in the proper parameters for an espresso shot, especially if I’ve never worked with that particular bean before. What do I mean by “dialing in a shot”? When I am making espresso, I make note of the following factors:

Input (how many grams of coffee I grind into the portafilter)
Grind setting
Water temperature at the start of extraction
Output (weight of the espresso yield)
Extraction time

As I experiment, I note results in the cup and change one item at a time so I can pinpoint what parameters I think will lead to the ideal shot. This all can change as the beans age, and if the weather/humidity changes substantially! It’s quite a dance. I don’t typically do an espresso tasting on a morning where I have to be someplace because fine-tuning these shots can take quite a while. Luckily, once I find the “right” parameters, I don’t have to change them too much for the remainder of the bag. I started with the 10-ounce bag, and it took me about 4 ounces of beans before I felt I had figured out the right parameters, so I luckily had 6 ounces of beans left to enjoy.

Whole beans: Lots of sweet and nutty chocolate notes in the aroma!

I found that pulling shots timed between 23-27 seconds from first drip yielded the best-tasting shots. According to their website, Sterling pulls their shots at 19g in, 30g out, 24-28 seconds (no note on temperature). I tried this at 201 F, and it was pretty good – extremely smooth and sweet, creamy, very easy to drink. However, I must be a ristretto kind of person because 19g in, 15g out, 201 F at 27 seconds yielded a shot that was like sweet chocolate syrup with just a hint of plum. So delicious. The normale shot tasted bland in comparison.

Adding milk: To replicate as closely as possible what Sterling does in their cafes, I pulled a normale shot and added 10 oz steamed milk to make a latte. Creamy, sweet, mild, and delicious. It smelled like milk chocolate and tasted like love. Friendly, uncomplicated, gentle, and comforting. What a nice way to wake up!

I also pulled a ristretto shot and added around 4 oz of steamed milk. This was even better than the previous drink to me; I liked how the ristretto shot + less milk = a more assertive (but still super smooth and creamy) coffee flavor.

AeroPress: Even though these beans are a medium roast, when brewed in the AeroPress they came out tasting like a dark roast to my palate. There were no chocolate flavors – just a very strong and slightly harsh taste. When I added water to the concentrate, it was better but still one-dimensional.

Summary: Delicious blend for espresso, both straight and in milk. Underwhelming to me in an AeroPress, but if you like the taste of dark-roasted coffee, this might float your boat. I would love if Sterling would sell Blendo Stupendo in slightly larger bags so that I didn’t feel like I was wasting such a large proportion of my coffee dialing in the shot (the next size up is in 3 lb bags, which is just too much for me!).

From the roaster:

(website) Blendo Stupendo is carefully crafted to balance smooth taste and premium drinkability.  We use it in our shops as our primary espresso for all milk drinks and those customers who want a consistent, Italian-style coffee without a lot of brightness. Currently the Stupendo is 75% Cauca Colombia and 25% Sao Silvestre Brazil.  The Colombia is rich and smooth, and the Brazil adds a peanut brittle sweetness.  Medium roasted for every preparation.

(printed on bag) Blendo Stupendo is the George Washington of coffee. Composed of top quality Central and South American beans, the Stupendo is sourced and roasted to taste like the coffee our country grew up drinking. With classic flavors like rich chocolate, caramel, and a hint of toasted nuts, Stupendo will get you across the Delaware (or at least it’ll get you to work).

Sterling Coffee Roasters Blendo Stupendo

Review: Roseline Coffee Roasters Catapult Blend (Portland, Oregon)

I picked up this bag of Roseline Coffee from the downtown location of Portland’s Barista. Barista regularly features multiple roasters, and though I desperately wanted to buy a bag of everything (roasters featured on my visit also included Case and Olympia), I allowed myself to only purchase this bag of Roseline and a limited edition bag of Coava (review forthcoming).

Most of Roseline’s coffees are single-origin, and they come in 12 oz bags, but this bag of Catapult Blend came in a 1 lb bag. That wasn’t a factor in my choosing to purchase it, but it’s good info for anyone that has strong feelings about the size of their coffee bags.

Whole bean: Mild scent; nothing particular really stood out. After I ground the beans, there was a hint of raspberry jam.

French press: Really full-bodied brew that was dominated by the flavor of cocoa powder. Sweet but not fruity; this is a smooth, pleasant blend where there are no jarring flavors. Crowd pleasing.

Chemex: Slight raspberry jam flavor with a dry finish. Refreshing. The smell of this coffee reminded me of the Temple Costa Rica Los Lajas Golden Honey that I reviewed earlier in the summer; though thankfully not one of the iterations that made me cry.

AeroPress: As a concentrate, it was acidic and perky. Adding water smooths out the sharp notes and mutes the fruity bite to make it more accessible for most people.

V60: Smooth, clean flavors that were very easy to drink. This was my favorite of the pourover/immersion methods.

Espresso: I almost didn’t try Catapult as an espresso, because nowhere on the bag was there an indication that this was an espresso blend. However, I was finishing up this review and I found the link to the product page, where there it was: Catapult Seasonal Espresso. Up to this point, I was ho-hum about this coffee, but then I pulled a shot. Luckily, I got really close to what I feel like were the right parameters the first time (202 degrees F, 20 g in a double basket, 25 second pull, normale shot). Rich dark chocolate flavor flooded my tongue and gradually morphed into cherry pie as it lingered. My goodness. I was shocked at how excited I suddenly got about this blend! It reminded me of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

I only pulled two shots before writing this review because they were pretty close to perfect in my view. 201 F degrees brought out more cherry; 202 F was more chocolaty. I made the 202 F shot into a latte, and the flavor stood up beautifully to create a wonderful drink. I would happily make this anytime.

Summary: In general, I prefer blends for my espresso and single-origins for my coffee. As coffee, I found this blend to be fairly unassuming and easy to drink, but it really shines pulled as espresso! Chocolate cherry goodness.

From the roaster: A great chef knows how to utilize seasonal ingredients to maximize potential flavor profiles. This is the driving inspiration behind Catapult Seasonal Espresso. We seek fresh ingredients that are specifically chosen to harmonize beautifully together. Combined with a roast profile that is optimized for espresso extraction, Catapult will launch you up and over the castle wall to victory.

Roseline Coffee Roasters Catapult Seasonal Blend

Review: Ascension Brazil Rainha Farms (Dallas, Texas)

Sometimes, when I talk to people about the flavors in coffee, they get confused and think that I drink flavored coffees… you know, stuff like Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Peppermint Mochas, Red Velvet Frappuccinos. I admit that I enjoyed some vanilla lattes in my youth, but I haven’t had a “flavored” coffee in quite some time. You won’t find any flavored syrups in my house! What I’m referring to are the different flavor characteristics inherent in the different bean varietals, grown in various parts of the world. This post on single-origin coffees gets into this topic in more detail.

I’ve been drinking a lot of African and Central American coffee lately, and I’ve been awash in flavors of berry, citrus, flowers, honey… lots of bright, interesting tastes. But you know how sometimes all you want is something simple and comforting? I love being challenged musically as much as the next musician, and I find complexity to be irresistible… but sometimes you just want uncomplicated pop or stadium rock. Sometimes, after months of listening to Joy Division, John Adams, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sufjan Stevens, Shostakovich, of Montreal, Steve Reich, and Radiohead, nothing else will do except for some Journey, preferably while driving with the windows down and singing along at the top of your lungs.

(I can’t believe I just admitted this.)

(And for anyone out there making fun of me right now, would you be comfortable with me opening up your iTunes collection and letting me see EVERYTHING you have in it? I am guessing I’m not the only one with musical guilty pleasures out there!)

Brazilian drip coffee is not something I seek out on a regular basis, because to me it’s like a coffee version of stadium-rock; big, crowd-pleasing flavor that has mass appeal. I generally prefer more complex, layered coffees. But, for those days where you don’t want to be pushed or stretched, it’s comfort food in a cup. I stopped at Ascension Coffee’s Dallas location the other day for lunch, and this bag was among the freshest coffee (at 3 days old), so I opted to give it a try.

Whole bean: Creamy, malty, milk chocolate aromas.

V60: At a 2:50 extraction, this cup was a bit bitter and it “smelled like coffee.” In my book, because I typically look for layers of flavor, it struck me as a bit boring. However, drinking it was like a throwback to a different, less complicated time. Adding a splash of cream took away the bitterness and made this cup taste like Nestle Quik. Hello, childhood!

AeroPress: Rich, nutty flavor that had a fair bit of acidic bite to keep things awake. Just for fun, I added a glug of heavy cream and a bit of sugar. This cup became a chocolate milkshake. Holy cannoli, it was rich.

Chemex: Light-bodied but smoother in flavor overall than the V60 and AeroPress cups. This was pretty easy to drink black. 

French press:  As I expected, this cup was smooth, full-bodied, and the richest in nut/chocolate flavor. Comforting. It enveloped me like a fleece blanket. Uncomplicated and soothing.

Espresso: Out of curiosity, I chose to pull this as a single-origin espresso. I actually think I liked it the best in this preparation! Though I didn’t experiment much, the shots that my Silvano produced were complex, a little brash in their acidity, but sweet. Very drinkable!

Summary: Get this if you like chocolate milkshakes, or if you want a coffee that will hold you and tell you everything will be all right. It’s not a coffee that will make you question things, or that will push you out of your comfort zone. Rather, it is mac and cheese. It is Journey’s “Faithfully.” It is a hug from an old friend.

From the roaster: Brazil nuts, toffee

Ascension Coffee Roastery Online Store

Review: Chromatic Coffee Gamut Espresso (San Jose, California)

I have a new favorite espresso blend!!!

With a name like Chromatic, this is clearly an espresso blend after my own heart. This coffee company has been on my list of must-try roasters for some time now. I was very much hoping to get my hands on a bag of Chromatic Coffee during my recent trip to San Jose, but when I found out that their flat rate shipping is only $2.00, I decided that I could wait since the shipping is so affordable. Props to Chromatic for getting the beans to me in just two days (roasted on a Tuesday, received on Thursday!).

A nice touch: My coffee came packaged with a piece of Werther’s Original butterscotch candy. Thus far, Chromatic and Red Bird are the only roasters that I’ve ordered from who send candy (Red Bird sends hard candy during the summer months and chocolate in the winter). Not necessary, but a welcome treat. 🙂

Typically, I start pulling espresso shots around 6-7 days post-roast, but I broke into this bag 4 days post-roast because I couldn’t wait. I actually hadn’t pulled any espresso shots at home for a few weeks prior to this, so I figured I would need some practice to dust off my skills.

Whole beans: Mmm. Creamy fragrance that was mild but full of promise.

The first pass choked the machine due to too fine of a grind, so I adjusted the settings on my Vario. The second pass was still a bit slow (ristretto territory) but I started making noises in the kitchen of shock and delight. This espresso had a luxurious texture and a complex but eminently comforting flavor of chocolate and caramel with just a hint of red cherry. I was astounded at how good it was! I continued adjusting the grind and extraction time/volume to play with getting more/less fruit and more/less chocolate in the shot. All were tasty.

After six shots (and yes, I drank them ALL) I made a latte for Shutterbug to test how well this espresso stood up in milk. He added about 1/2 tsp of sugar before I had a chance to taste the drink. When I did have a sip of his drink, my jaw dropped because it tasted like I had put the best butterscotch sauce in the world into the cup. I have never had a latte that tasted as much like dessert as this one.

The next day, I made myself a latte (no sugar). Blissful. Obviously not as sweet as the sweetened version from the previous day, but the same butterscotch flavor notes were there. Very, VERY easy to drink!

I continued to experiment with temperature and extraction rate. My personal favorite was a ristretto shot pulled at 18.5 g in a double basket, 201 degrees F, 15 gram output. This espresso was equally enjoyable straight and in milk. Straight, it was smooth yet complex with beautiful layers of caramel and nougat flavor that lingered for a long time on the palate. In milk, it simply screams butterscotch.

I kept putting off trying this in the AeroPress because I loved it pulled as espresso SO MUCH, but I felt I needed to see how it fared without the 9 bars of pressure. It had a sweet, rich, smooth chocolate flavor. No particular fruity or floral notes. There was an earthiness to the aroma while I was brewing the cup, but it dissipated pretty quickly. Overall, it was less interesting in the AeroPress vs. as an espresso shot (which is to be expected, really) but it makes a really enjoyable cup in the AeroPress, especially for someone that doesn’t like bright flavors in their coffee. This would be something I would be comfortable serving to a dark roast drinker; it had delicious toasty flavors with a nice depth.

Obviously, my home is not a cafe and there’s really no such a thing as a “house” espresso around here, but if I was running a cafe, THIS would be my choice. For the first time in 6+ months and innumerable espressos and coffees, Shutterbug actually asked me to order more of a particular coffee. In fact, it was more like he implored me! I was quite happy to oblige.

Summary: Get your hands on this. Now. But leave some for me!

From the roaster: Chocolate, butterscotch, creamy

Chromatic Coffee Gamut Espresso

Review: Sightglass Owl’s Howl Espresso (San Francisco, California)

Sightglass Coffee is a family-owned roaster based in San Francisco. I have known this roaster by reputation for a while, but this is the first time I’ve ever gotten a chance to try their product. I picked up this bag from B2 Coffee at the same time that I picked up the Verve Guatemala Los Santos.

Whole beans: Honestly, I couldn’t smell anything. All I could smell was the paper bag the beans came in! However, once I ground the beans, they smelled like bing cherries.

I pulled these beans with a variety of parameters, but throughout, the beans displayed a bright, nutty flavor like lemon curd and cashews. Not my personal preference, but I was surprised by how well-balanced I found the shot, even though I don’t care for this flavor profile in espresso.

I tried this espresso in a 6 oz flat white, and the espresso flavor was overwhelmed and muted, even with just 4 oz or so of milk. I was surprised that the Owl’s Howl didn’t stand up better in a milk drink, considering its tart, bright flavor. However, maybe I am glad for that — the idea of lemony milk is not very appealing to me! If I had ordered this flat white while out and about, I would have considered it a little weak but plenty drinkable.

Brewed in the AeroPress, the Owl’s Howl was much smoother and darker tasting. I didn’t get any lemon flavor in this method; instead, I got brown sugar and a little almond, with a plasticky aftertaste.

Summary: My personal preference in espresso leans toward more chocolate/caramel flavors, but if you like fruity, nutty espresso, this is a nice blend. It lost its personality in a small amount of milk, so I don’t think it’s the best choice for people that like strong coffee flavor in their milk drinks.

From the roaster: Composed of seasonally rotating coffees, this blend displays a deep, honey-like body, with notes of ripe berry, chocolate-covered cherry, and sweet candied lemon.

Sightglass Owl’s Howl

Follow-up Review: Intelligentsia Black Cat Classic Espresso (Chicago, Illinois)

I hope you all enjoyed reading my friend David Cooper’s excellent guest post on Intelligentsia’s Black Cat Classic Espresso back in April. This espresso blend is a celebrity as far as espresso blends go, and for some reason I didn’t buy a bag of this for myself on that trip (oh yeah, now I remember why – I spent $27 on this bag of Intelligentsia’s Burundi Bwayi!). Reading David’s review made me want to experiment with this blend myself, so when I saw fresh bags at West Oak Coffee Bar in Denton, TX, I jumped at the chance.

My previous experience with Black Cat has been limited to a visit to one of Intelligentsia’s cafes in Chicago. On that trip, I had a doppio espresso and a latte to compare and contrast what I thought of it vs. the offerings at Metropolis Coffee. My impression of Intelligentsia’s espresso that day was that it tasted a bit one-dimensional; more akin to comfort food vs. the rather more complex and challenging Metropolis Redline blend. Both blends were a little bright for my taste, but both cafes served well-pulled shots with plenty of crema.

Whole beans: These smell AWESOME. I loved the buttery richness and the sweet toffee-like fragrance coming from the bag.

When I am experimenting with a new bag of espresso, I adjust the following parameters: temperature, grind size, dose (amount of beans in the portafilter), extraction time/volume. Here’s my log for Black Cat:

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(FYI – all of the 2-I, 2-K, 2-M codes refer to the grind setting on my Baratza Vario.)

As you can see, I played around with the parameters for 8 doubleshots. I may continue to play, but thus far the shot that I thought was the best was #7, at 200 degrees F, 19 gram dose, 27 sec extraction (which, probably not coincidentally, is quite close to Intelligentsia’s suggested parameters). It still only got a “hey! not bad!” comment from me, but that was definitely better than “lemon” or “WINCE.” This espresso is quite bright, verging on sour to my palate, even in its “best” rendition. I don’t think this blend can reach the sweetness of my current favorites (Stumptown or Vivace) no matter how I change the dose or temperature. #7 tasted much like the shots of Black Cat that I’ve had out at cafes, by baristas that presumably know how to work with this blend and get the best flavor out of it. Not bad, but it’s not the general flavor I personally prefer in an espresso.

However, does this mean I hate this coffee? No, and let me elaborate! I also opted to try this blend in the AeroPress and WHAT A DIFFERENCE. All those rich, toffee/caramel/buttery aromas from the whole beans definitely took center stage when I brewed this in the AeroPress. No sour/lemon notes here; my mouth was shocked by how much this tasted like english toffee + chocolate with just a little bit of cherry flavor on the finish. The AeroPress extraction made this coffee taste how it smells. If I could find a way to get THIS flavor in my espresso shots, I would be a very happy camper. Perhaps I don’t have a good enough grinder/machine combo at home to do it, but even the shots of Black Cat that I’ve had at coffee shops have been overly bright for my taste.

Summary: I have a hard time getting along with this espresso blend with my espresso equipment. However, it tastes terrific in an AeroPress!

From the roaster: This syrupy and sweet espresso blend has been the staple of our lineup since the very beginning. It is a product of intensive lot selection and close, direct work with the farmers who produce its components. The Black Cat Classic Espresso’s hallmark is its supreme balance and wonderful sweetness.

Dark chocolate. Ripe cherry. Brown sugar.

Intelligentsia Black Cat Classic Espresso

Review: Espresso Vivace Roasteria Dolce blend (Seattle, Washington)

As a musician, I’m a sucker for any coffee company that uses music references (the “Brahmsian” characteristics of Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Espresso comes to mind). Naturally, Seattle’s Espresso Vivace Roasteria was a must on my list of my cafes to visit. This cafe is a bit different than most in that they only serve espresso and espresso-based drinks; no drip/pourover coffee. Vivace roasts two blends, the Dolce (meant for drinking straight) and the Vita (for use in milk drinks). I chose to try both straight up when I visited the cafe, and the barista obligingly pulled me two shots to compare and contrast the blends.

(The latte was Shutterbug’s. I couldn’t get very good lighting but you can see that my espresso shots are quite concentrated.)

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Unlike most cafes, where a doubleshot (1.5-2 oz) of espresso is the standard serving, Vivace’s standard for espresso is a ristretto shot (looked to be around 0.75-1 oz each, pulled from a portafilter with a double basket). Ristretto is Italian for “restricted,” and while there are multiple ways of preparing a ristretto shot, basically the shots are more concentrated in flavor, thicker, and sweeter than a normale shot.

Generally speaking, my only problem with drinking espresso is that it’s gone so quickly. At just 2 oz, I don’t get a chance to savor the drink like I do with 8 oz pourovers, so I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough time to enjoy espresso shots. I think it’s just me wanting to hold on to the beautiful flavors… but I am learning to appreciate them like a strong piano chord; explosive and rich at the start, and spinning throughout the mouth until all I’m left with is the memory of what I just experienced. There’s something so lovely but heartbreaking about loving such ephemeral things!!

When I found out Vivace pulls ristrettos, I was intrigued but also thinking, “Great, so now I have even LESS espresso to drink before my experience is over!” I should have known better than to be concerned about quantity. This was my first time having a straight ristretto shot of any sort, and I was unprepared for the explosion of joy that attacked my taste buds. The Dolce was first, and it was so sweet and syrupy that I was taken aback. The Vita was stronger and harsher in flavor to me; I could see how it would work well in a latte as I bet the flavors could cut through the milk quite easily. It wasn’t bad, but to me it was no contest; I had to get my hands on more of the Dolce. Major props to the two baristas that helped me that day; the first for pulling such an incredible shot for me, and the second for going out of her way to find the freshest bag of Dolce possible (roasted earlier that morning!!).

I started pulling shots 7 days post roast. Since Vivace has designed these beans to work best as ristretto shots, I set about trying to learn how to pull my first ristrettos ever. The first two shots were in the normale range as I was still dialing in the grind (and they tasted fine), but the third was incredible. Vivace recommends the following parameters for their beans: 17 g in a double basket, 203.5 degrees F, 30-40 pounds tamping pressure. My machine will only let me adjust in whole degrees, so I experimented between 200 and 204 degrees. 204 was too bitter to my taste; I actually liked the shots best on my machine at 200! Even my best shot at home didn’t really compare to what I was served at the cafe, but they were still among the better espresso shots I’ve made at home.

This shot, pulled at 203 degrees, had a texture like maple syrup, and was beautifully chocolaty with just a hint of red fruit (raspberry) on the finish.

It was pretty easy on the eyes as well.

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I also tried the Dolce in a cortado, just for kicks. Tasted great to me, but I’m not much for milk drinks nowadays… I miss the intensity of straight shots! However, Shutterbug confirmed for me that the Dolce stands up very well in a latte, even if it wasn’t designed for this use.

One oddity about these beans: They made a MESS of my kitchen. My Baratza Vario grinder has a portafilter holder which allows me to grind directly into the basket for brewing. Normally, the grinds fall pretty neatly straight down into the basket, but for some reason, these beans threw the grounds all over the place. I ended up grinding into the grinder’s plastic bin instead and then pouring it into my double basket. An extra step, but I didn’t mind too much when the espresso was of this quality.

Summary: This blend is meant to be pulled as a ristretto shot with pretty specific brew parameters. My machine won’t allow for 0.1 degree temperature changes, so I may not be getting the ultimate out of this bean, but even so, I really liked what I was able to produce. The shot I had at the Espresso Vivace location I visited on Capitol Hill will still stand out as one of the most memorable I’ve ever had, though.

Notes from the roaster:
Our gold cup espresso blend has been created to offer the most complex and balanced flavor possible in an espresso ristretto. Espresso Dolce features a heavy red-gold crema with a sweet floral presence, balanced with a rich note of chocolate, and a complex, sweet aftertaste that lingers on the palate. Espresso Dolce is also available as a green blend for roasting at home or in your shop.

Espresso Vivace Roasteria Dolce Blend