Thursday, July 31, 2008

Esmeralda again

So have been brewing it at home and the office. This coffee just continually amazes me. Sniffing the grinds after brewing revealed scents of oranges, and a fragrant sweetness. As it cools, the slight bitterness fades, and a crisp berry flavor emerges.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Blue Bottle Giant Steps

Went to San Francisco's Ferry Building for its farmers' market today for some coffee. Blue Bottle has a stand there, and serves a blend called Giants Steps for drip coffee. They make each cup individually, but grind the beans in the morning (their kiosk in Hayes Valley and cafe in Mint Plaza grind the beans fresh, I was told).

I prefer to drink specialty coffee black, because if it's roasted right and the beans are quality, you don't need to put anything in it (You wouldn't pour Coke into a $100 bottle of wine to make it taste better, would you?)

Blue Bottle calls this blend of Sumatran and Ugandan coffees ``quite dark and chocolaty.'' It certainly is dark, and tastes slightly over roasted. The only chocolate flavors I get is the super dark kind, almost like baking chocolate. Has the same bitterness.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Charamba 2005 Douro (Portugal)

When I first opened this wine, I noticed the cork was stained red almost to the top. In the glass, it smelled like blue cheese -- the really funky moldy kind. Didn't taste like much right away.

The next day, the funk was gone from the nose, and instead I got anise, berries and a metallic scent. A sip revealed strawberry flavors and copper, almost like as if you had coins in your mouth. Yes, very weird.

Bought this wine for about $6 at Nob Hill. I really like Portuguese wines, they are some of the best values out there, and can really have some great depth. Whenever I go home on the east coast, I raid the wine stores there because you can find tons of good bottles for less than $10. Some of the package stores in my hometown have aisles and aisles of Portuguese wines, larger than the French or Italian sections. Some of these are made with the same grapes as port - Touriga Nacional, as well as Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz, and while you can taste the similarities, they are vastly different.

I haven't found as many Portuguese wines on the west coast, but I always buy them when I do.

...Adding milk....

Made a cappuccino with the kenyan coffee today. the tart berry flavor that appeared in the small cup (espresso) mellowed. Tasted like a cross between blueberry pie with whipped cream and blueberry flavored creamer (if there is such a thing).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Single Origin Espresso

I have been shooting Terroir Coffee's Grand Cru Kenya: Mamuto, Kirinyaga. Really nice flavors in the mouth. There's a bright acidity, and berry flavors, but I don't find it to be too much. It makes your cheeks pucker a bit, sort of like eating sour patch kids, but not in the front of your mouth, more toward the back of your tongue. Because it's so lightly roasted, there's no burnt rubber taste you'd normally associate with offerings from Starbucks or Peet's.

Single origin espresso is not for everyone. Coffee Review's Ken Davids, who is the closest the coffee industry has to the wine industry's Robert Parker, said in his review of single origin espressos last month: "The results clearly suggest that there may indeed be a trade-off with single-origin espressos: Most of those we tested clearly displayed less balance and depth of sensation than a good blend. In compensation, however, they also offered opportunities for recognition, for sensory exploration, for surprise, for the very kind of dialogue with nature and culture that blends with their usually secretive formulas tend to obscure."

I like them because it's so radically different from what "normal" espresso tastes like, and I enjoy making it for friends to see their reaction. Again, you typically get lighter roasts from single origin coffees, and when you shoot them, the acidity shines through the cup, as well as some interesting flavors you don't expect in coffee. If single origin coffee has clear hints of citrus or floral flavors, making an espresso with the same coffee beans turns the dial up. Instead of thinking to yourself, "hmm, I think I taste lemon in this coffee," as an espresso you feel like the lemon is smeared all over your tongue.

So while this may not be of interest to everyone, and when you combine that with milk, may be a little weird, I think it's just exciting to take these beans and see what shows up in the espresso cup.

Cameron Hughes 2005 Napa Valley Meritage

Bought this wine on sale at Safeway for around $12, IIRC. Thought it was recommended by a local newspaper as a good value, and I've been seeking out more meritages, or blended wines, as they tend to be a lot cheaper than single varital California wines (and can be pretty tasty as well). I've been drinking it for the past three days, and while at first I liked the red fruit flavors that came through, I've increasingly noticed how heavy it is on oak and vanilla. There's also a little alcohol heat on the finish, and it started to taste a little fake by last night, three days after opening it. Not a bad wine, and I'm sure it would impress some people, but nothing too compelling about it either. If you were having a dinner party with friends, this would be the third or fourth bottle you'd serve - people would enjoy it without noticing it. I'd rate it an 86 on the Parker scale.

Meritage (sounds like heritage) is the official name California wine makers use to describe their Bordeaux-like red blends, or blends of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Typically you'd expect to see complexity in these wines that a wine made from a single grape might not. Some small producers sell their Meritages lots of money, while others just combine grapes that didn't make it into their higher quality, more expensive single varital offerings. They're worth seeking out because, again, they can be a good value and show layers of complex flavors that might be missing from cheaper single grape

Friday, July 25, 2008

The famed Esmeralda

I had the privilege of tasting Price Peterson's La Esmeralda coffee from Panama with George Howell of Terroir Coffee Co. last week. If none of these names mean anything to you, well, then this is as good of an introduction to the world of micro-roasted specialty coffee as you're going to get.

I was on my way to Portland, Maine, for a weekend away with the girlfriend and made a detour to Terroir Coffee in Action, Massachusetts, to pick up some beans I had ordered. Specifically, a bag of La Esmeralda from Panama, and a coffee called Mamuto from Kenya.

The Esmeralda is well known among coffee aficionados for setting a record at auction the past few years. Last year, it went for an astounding $130 a pound to roasters, and consumers could purchase it at retail for $200. People were lining up at a cafe in Vancouver to pay $15 a cup. The coffee itself is the geisha variety, a type of bean that traveled to Panama from Ethiopia hundreds of years ago and just recently reappeared at Price Peterson's farm. While the auction lot went for a ton of money, other beans from the same estate could be had for much more reasonable prices, between $20-$40 a pound.

When I arrived at the company, someone at the front desk told me the coffee was being roasted right then, and that it needed to be brewed and tested it before the company would package it and send it out. I was told I'd have to wait about 30 minutes to get it. My girlfriend gave me a look that said "do you seriously want to wait? Can't we just continue with our vacation?" I ignored this look, and asked the woman if George himself was around.

"Um, sure, let me see if he's free."

I looked kind of sloppy that day, wearing just a t-shirt, khakis and flip flops, since we were driving for three hours, so I'm sure people there were wondering who I was. Fortunately, I've talked to George several times during the past year for articles I was working on (that never got published), so when George came out and I introduced myself, he recognized me.

"Hey, want to come back with me and taste the Esmeralda? We're testing it right now."

I almost fainted with excitement. This is like taking a trip to your favorite winery, and the winemaker happens to be around and invites you to taste barrel samples with him to determine which ones go into their super premium meritage blend. My girlfriend sighed, resigning herself into a further delay of our trip.

The office itself is modest, a brick building on a back road in Action, Mass., or about 25 miles northeast of Boston. When you walk in, you see some cubicles with workers making calls. On the walls are various coffee bean posters, with one, I think, detailing types of diseases that affect coffee beans (couldn't tell for sure, it was in Spanish).

But through a white door, you enter the tasting/storage area of the building, where all the fun happens. There's a long table in the middle of the first part of the room where samples are sniffed, slurped and savored, and off to the side are several Technivorm Brewers - a special machine that supposedly heats water to its proper temperature to fully extract the flavor from the grinds. Blocking the path to the back part of the office, where the beans are stored in various types of large sacks and special vacuum-sealed packages, is another table with a La Marzocco espresso machine, in all its glory.

George's daughter, who works for him, brought over the first batch of coffee to the long testing table, pouring it into short glass cups. It was very light in color, and looked tea-like in its transparency. That comparison was apt because the smell and taste reminded me of Darjeeling tea. That was followed by a striking citrus flavor that mellowed out to a buttery richness in the finish. Beautiful.

George decided the coffee was roasted too light, so we tasted the next batch. This version seemed heavier in the mouth, a little more syrupy. Some of the tea flavor was muted, but the citrus still came through. George decided this was better, and had the batch bagged. I walked out of there a happy, happy man. (note - I got a call from George a day later, saying in re-tasting the coffee, he thought it was too light, so he was reshipping new bags to customers).

If you drink starbucks, dunkin' donuts, or any other major coffee brand and want to see what all the fuss over micro-roasted, artisan coffee, try the Esmeralda if you have a chance. You'll never think about coffee the same again.