Review: Counter Culture Hologram Espresso (Durham, North Carolina)

I’m excited to check another roaster off of my coffee bucket list. Counter Culture is a major player in the specialty coffee world. Unlike Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, etc., they do not seem to run their own cafes; they instead seem to focus their efforts on the roasting and on their training centers (sprinkled across the country). If you want a drink made with Counter Culture beans but don’t want to order the beans to make it yourself, you’ll have to find an independent coffee shop that brews it.

Hologram is their signature espresso blend, formerly known as Rustico. It touts itself as fruity, milk chocolate, and syrupy, and the blend of beans includes Peruvian and natural-processed Ethiopians so I expected a fair bit of blueberry flavor. The scent from the whole beans proved me right – strong blueberry notes.

Dialing in a new espresso bean on a grinder is always an adventure. I tried my first shots 6 days post roast. For the first two shots, my grind was too coarse, and the shots poured much too fast… but they were still decently drinkable, if rather fruity. It wasn’t until I started updosing the amount of grounds more and tightening the grind that the pour rate started looking better and I got a bit of tiger striping.

Best shot (this time around): 21 grams at 201 degrees F. At 200, the shot was very fruity, but as I raised the temperature, I got more bittersweet cocoa flavors and less blueberry. There was a slightly funky/earthy note to the end of the cup. This shot REALLY stood up well in milk – the cocoa and fruit flavors really cut through the drink.

Interesting note about water:

I typically use Nestle Pure Life, but I ran out between the first and second espresso tasting and I had to pick up a bottle of Ozarka. Now, if you’re wondering why I don’t just use tap water, it’s because our tap water is quite hard, and espresso machines are susceptible to a lot of damage from hard water scale. My particular machine does not lend itself well to descaling at home, so I am opting to use the softest water I can buy that still tastes good in the machine.

I’ve tested the water softness and pH of Nestle Pure Life, Ozarka, Crystal Geyser, and the Brita water we keep around for drinking. The Nestle Pure Life was my top choice because the water is at 3 grains hardness. Ozarka is at nearly 0 grains hardness, but having water that is too soft and low in minerals can actually taste worse in espresso.

Anyway, I pulled a shot of espresso on day 8 with the Ozarka in the boiler, same weight and temperature as the best shot from day 6. The pour rate looked right, the colors looked great… but then I tasted it. It tasted like cherry cough syrup. I couldn’t spit it out fast enough! What was pleasantly chocolaty and fruity two days back was this time full of artificial cherry flavor and a medicinal aftertaste. Yuck. I raised the temperature up to 203 in hopes of getting chocolate back in the shot, and it was a little better, but still undrinkable in my opinion. It’s possible that something else changed in the interim, but my guess is that our local version of Ozarka just isn’t going to cut it in my machine for flavor.

I next tried the beans in an AeroPress in the inverted method. It was fruity with a bit more depth than a single-origin natural Ethiopian, but I still got a predominantly blueberry flavor from these beans.

Summary: As an espresso, this is a little more fruit-forward than I prefer, but it was complex and interesting. Stands up really well in milk drinks! If you like natural-processed Ethiopian coffees, this will suit you perfectly brewed as coffee.

From the roaster: Fruity, milk chocolate, syrupy

Counter Culture Hologram Espresso

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