Continuation of My Coffee Education
Late 2012 marked my major coffee makeover, and I spent 2013 playing with my products. Then, in 2014, I brought some new equipment into the mix, spending some time roasting green beans with a popcorn popper, but gaining most satisfaction from a fantastic Baratza Vario-W grinder.
This year, my coffee education centered on trying to figure out what kind of coffee I like. Really.
I was a pourover guy with a sense of what I preferred, but was typically guessing when grabbing beans to buy, and was always having trouble articulating my desire to a barista.
So…at the very start of the year, the nice folks at Stumptown Coffee Roasters were kind to invite me in and “put me on the couch” to do a diagnosis of what I like. Actually, what this means is that we did cupping of 17 types of beans (plus more a few weeks later) and mapped out my preferences. We traveled the globe and talked terminology. In the end, I learned that I like beans from Central America (Colombia as well), mostly of the Bourbon and (secondarily) Caturra variety. Stumptown’s Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon and Costa Rica Montes de Oro were my favorite based on cupping alone.
Checking my charting, I discovered (or re-learned) that I prefer medium to full body, balanced/round flavors, maybe medium acidity at most, and developed sugars that produce some sweetness (but not “brightness”) at the finish. In that fuller body, I sometimes like butter or toffee notes (maybe molasses) and hints of chocolate. As with chocolate, I enjoy notes from plum, prune and raisin, but less so citrus and definitely not floral notes.
(That said, I do enjoy sampling a variety of coffees. Herbal, spicy and earthy notes from the likes of Sumatran beans are interesting but not my “cup of tea,” and the same with Ethiopian beans—which many seem to like best as a pourover bean—as they have a lightness that reminds me more of a tea experience.)
About the same time as I went to Stumptown, I stumbled into the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room just a short distance away in Capitol Hill. As others also describe it, the place is majestic, with a Willy Wonka feeling. The experience bar in the back is a great addition, though each time I’ve been there, the customers at the bar aren’t really interacting with the barista. It’s a great place to visit, but the beans are still roasted too dark for my taste. A tour guide told me that Howard Schultz prefers the darkest of beans, which seems to set the tone for the company.
With newfound knowledge of what I like (or at least with the ability to try to articulate it), I soon went to San Francisco—a city more appreciative of pourover coffee than Seattle. (We’re still a big espresso city.) I would geekily call ahead to coffee shops to find out what bean(s) they were roasting on particular days. It was fun to visit Blue Bottle, Ritual, and Sightglass (as well as the amazing Interval at Long Now, which serves Sightglass), but the best experience was at Four Barrel Coffee, which has a pourover station that’s completely separate from the espresso bar. Plus, you get a little cookie while waiting for your coffee.
Shortly after that, I visited the amazingly friendly folks at Onyx Coffee Bar in Bellingham. They’re open Saturdays only (10-6, with closure for a lunch hour!), but if you can make it in, Edwin Martinez and Blake Trafton will share their coffee world with you. Fantastic beans and great insights into brewing! They also have some equipment for sale, and some interesting books to peruse. Just go.
Further afield, I flew to Maui and made my first visit to a coffee farm. Hawaii is the only state in the United States with the ability to grow coffee beans (it’s got the right elevation, temperatures, etc.), and O’o Farm is quite special in offering a bean to cup (or, rather, a “seed to cup”) experience. Here I learned about the growing, harvesting, and roasting processes. While not a fan of Hawaiian coffees, it was still a great experience.
Back in Seattle, I paid a visit to Bean Box. As mentioned in my recent gift guide, Bean Box works with local, small-batch independent roasters and pulls together a variety of beans that you can order via subscription service to get them at their freshest. The service they offer is fantastic, and in spending some time with them doing a little cupping and then tasting, I learned a lot about local roasters (Columbian beans were big at the moment) and walked away with wisdom that coffee preferences can evolve over time. My favorites from the “Bean Box Sampler” they later send me: Broadcast’s Colombia Las Margaritas (rich chocolate balanced by the “sweetness” of cola and notes of anise) and Kuma’s Colombia Bruselas (full body and a sweet finish).
I also enjoyed an early introduction to Kalsada. This company was inspired by a 1909 photograph of Pike Place Market that showed “Filipino Coffee Co.” It now supports Filipino coffee growers in their efforts to bring high quality Philippine coffee to market. Last season, there were four types of beans available.
A weekend in Olympia afforded me the chance to explore the coffee scene there. Batdorf & Bronson has a tasting room where you can learn about coffee while sipping free sample brews of several beans. (The beans are stored in tidy drawers behind the counter!) Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. produces high quality beans that are popular in a number of Seattle coffee shops.
A return trip to Cleveland afforded me a quick stop at Rising Star Coffee. Last year I went to their Hingetown location and met some of the staff, so this time they were pleased to show off their new roastery. Rising Star has a wonderful mission of educating and training their workers—and that education will soon extend to the general public with tours and cupping at the roastery.
In Calgary I went to the Simmons Building (yes, a former mattress factory), site of the newest Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters café. It also happens to be the company headquarters and future location of the roastery. Here I met with Phil and Sebastian themselves, learning a lot about their history (it’s well worth a read of their “epic story”) and their commitment to nurturing relationships with coffee growers.
Finally, I took a trip to my previous home of Burlington (Vermont) and was happy to see a new roaster called Brio Coffeeworks. Locals are quickly learning about their location, dropping in to buy beans. No café there, but they did brew some samples as part of our meeting. Brio’s Guatemala Joya Grande was my favorite, reaffirming my draw to Guatemalan beans. But they also surprised me with their Rwanda Kabirizi, as it had some remarkable raisin notes. A great reminder that my coffee education will continue to continue…