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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

Category Archives: Beans

mattbNathan and I had made a day of coffee tastings, and Brū Coffee was our afternoon destination. We lapped the neighborhood a couple times looking for parking since it was a street-cleaning day, until Nathan ran over something in the middle of the street. It could have been a downed palm-tree or a hipster on a fixed-gear, but we didn’t look back.

After ten minutes in a holding pattern, we found that Brū had parking behind their shop. I highly recommend parking in that lot should you like convenience and a close proximity to your destination.

Brū had an awesome vibe- vaulted ceilings, a lofted dining area, and plenty of tables highlighted the shop, as well as a beautiful patio that was chock full of people on laptops. The people were diverse, ranging from scarf-wearing hipsters to a girl with green hair. I even bumped into an old friend. Other than being a victim of the “no outlet” epidemic sweeping coffee shops, it would be the perfect place to study, write, or take a date.

Now to the coffee:

Brū had a beautiful La Marzocco espresso setup as well as a full station for pour-over. Nathan and I both made pour-over selections from Brū’s 4 coffee menu, which offered a variety from San Francisco roasters, Ritual. Our barista freshly ground each of our beans and did a great job with the pour, allowing time for it to blossom.

I opted for a strong Honduran roast, Las Manos. It had a thick body, and a great aroma that kept my nose in the cup for longer than normal. The defining characteristic was a mango aftertaste, preceded by a hint of chocolate. As the coffee cooled, the mango subsided as flavors of old honey pressed through. As a morning to midday coffee, I highly recommend it.

Nathan had the Los Chacones Boutique from Costa Rica. He noted it as having a light vanilla scone flavor, but having a stronger “coffee” taste than our earlier offerings of the day. The coffee cooled into some nice candy-orange tones, and provided a rich, healthy body throughout. His description of it tasting like “coffee” lead us into a conversation that I’m sure we will chat about here later.

At this point I sent the following texts to my girlfriend, leading me to believe that my caffeine intake had maxed for the day. I won’t go into details of the car throwing,  but I think you probably know what happened…

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NathanAbout a week and a half ago Matt B and I ventured over to Echo Park and Silverlake, two well-established über-hip neighborhoods in Los Angeles, to check out the neighborhood in general and Intelligentsia Coffee in particular.

(Incidentally, the Echo Park/Silver Lake boundary has never been clear to me. When we went adventuring, I thought we were in Echo Park, but the Intelligentsia Web site claims their shop is in Silver Lake. So, yeah. Still not clear to me.)

Matt and I set out to get a sense of the complete experience, including atmosphere in addition to the coffee. For my part, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the coffee, though the latter really challenged me to think about what espresso ought to taste like — more on that in moment.

First, the atmosphere. Compared with their Chicago shops and the Venice shop, this edition of Intelligentsia felt a lot more homey. We sat at the bar in back, but there was a nice covered seating area, and there was more of an arts-and-crafts feel to place. There was a sort of living sculpture piece on the wall, which featured some sort of evergreen sprig collage. I can’t really do it justice without a picture, but it was pretty. While the baristas were definitely hip and frequently tattooed, there was less of the suspenders and premium-but-vintagey denim uniform you see at the Venice shop. I found the baristas a bit friendlier, too, though that may have been just a matter of who we happened upon that day. Overall a pleasant place to be.

Matt ordered a cup of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. I neglected to pay attention to its preparation, but the default at Intelligentsia is the Hario pour-over, which produces a lighter-bodied and crisper coffee than some methods. We detected definite floral notes —  I think the first thing Matt said was, “it tastes like flowers,” and we detected bluebells, violets, and lavender. We agreed it had a sort of tea-like body and flavor, a conclusion that was no doubt influenced by all the flowery tastes. As it cooled, we noticed a decidedly different profile, with more acidity and spices such as coriander emerging.

I inquired about the Kenya Gichathiani espresso and was told that it tasted of tangerine, and the gentleman barista was not kidding around. In fact, a tangerine flavor completely dominated, to the point where it was not totally recognizable as espresso. It had a spicy, nutmeg sort of flavor as well. Initially I thought this would be terrible with any amount of milk, but I now think it might make a decent latte or mocha espresso. Too little milk, though, and you might have a hot, thin tangerine milkshake. It was that powerful.

In the days after I had the Gichathiani, I kept asking myself whether I actually wanted espresso to taste like that — to taste like tangerines rather than some sort of Platonic ideal of espresso. I struggle now to find the right words to describe how I feel, but I can put it this way: after drinking it, I almost immediately fell off the single-origin, light-roast bandwagon. My Northwest-born soul couldn’t help shouting, “it’s tasty, but it’s not really espresso!”

I understand of course that it is, by definition, espresso, and I understand that as a single-origin espresso, it is meant to be idiosyncratic. And it tasted good. And I believe in coffee pluralism. Perhaps it’s good to have once in a while. Day to day, maybe, if it’s right for you.

For me…well, like I said, I struggle to understand. I suppose that’s okay. That way, the quest continues.

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NathanFive days, three cities, six-plus shops: Thursday through Monday; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland; Intelligentsia, Ritual, Four Barrel, Stumptown, and Oblique. In that time, some of the best espresso I’ve had, of the very worst I’ve ever had, and a few really disappointing cups from supposedly reputable cafes. Let’s go!

Warning: I get a bit snarky. Probably a byproduct of the fact I’m reviewing from memory six coffee shops sampled over the course of five days and three (so far) flights up and down the West Coast. Just so you know.

LA and San Francisco, Round One The quest began Thursday with Black Cat latte at Intelligentsia — while some of their offerings aren’t so great in lattes, Black Cat is generally robust enough to satisfy me — and continued with another latte the next morning at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. Both were competent, but then things took a turn. I had loaned a laptop charger to someone in need, who later bought me a cup of coffee. She didn’t ask what I wanted, but whatever it was, it was awfully light-bodied, to the point of being thin. Early on it had a pleasant-enough, citrusy taste that I sometimes like, but it went bitter so fast that I had to get rid of it. Not a good sign, Ritual.

Still, the coffee banshees didn’t start screaming until my friend Jim and I went to “it” roaster Four Barrel, residing just blocks from Ritual in San Francisco’s Mission District. Jim and I were horrified to find our macchiatos sour and flat, without any real flavor at all. Four Barrel, you blew it. Badly. I have to actively prevent myself from writing expletives. I’ve had to delete some that I did write down.

Also, your decor. You’re really trying too hard. Mounted boars’ heads? Really?

San Francisco redeemed itself with a late-night trip to Philz, an older-school kind of place with something like 19 coffees on the menu. It being late night, I had their Swiss water decaf: medium bodied, slightly chocolatey sweet, just how I like it. The opposite of the vibe at Four Barrel, too, though perhaps I could do without the 90s-coffee-shop broken furniture thing.

Other San Francisco shops worth considering: Caffe Trieste, the West Coast’s first espresso and famous Beat hangout; Bernie’s; Java Beach.

Portland Things tapered off somewhat by the time we got to my hometown. Theresa and I had Stumptown first at Besaw’s in Northwest and again at the Ace Hotel. Theresa had their chai, which she enjoyed. I had a cup of their Panama single-origin coffee, which like the Ritual cup started well-enough but got bitter. Especially odd considering that it was made via the Chemex method, which in past experience has somehow managed to prevent long-run bitterness. (The earlier cup at Besaw’s faired better, though I found it overly light-bodied.)

Fortunately, this was Coffee Land, and on the way to airport we had a different experience: Oblique Coffee Roasters. We talked to the owner about their Derailleur Blend espresso, and I have to say it was the way to go. Sharp without being bitter, rich, chocolatey, citrusy, a bit sweet, massively full bodied. I’m revealing my Northwest coffee roots (and bias), but it was delicious. A wonderful way to leave Portland. On top of that, Oblique is in a neat old building in Southwest Portland that used to be a grocery store or some such. Neat furniture, too.

Other Portland places worth considering: Urban Grind, Public Domain (great downtown espresso).

San Francisco, Round Two This morning I’m back at Ritual, sampling their Sweet Tooth La Piñona espresso in a macchiato. I find lately that these sorts of lighter-roast espressos actually require a bit of milk to achieve their potential. Without boring you with more chocolatey-ness, it was really quite good.

Later in the day, I’m going to try to get to Blue Bottle, and should that happen, I’ll update you. My previous least-favorite espresso was here, but in fairness I had been warned in advance that it was an odd one. I’ve had decent lattes made from their house blend.

Lessons learned? Coffee variety is good, and even as a fan of darker, fuller-bodied coffees, I like me some light roast. But no amount of tattoos and fancy espresso machines make up for excessively fragile coffees and poorly-monitored espresso shots. I’m on the quest for great coffee and espresso, and I take no prisoners.

Oblique, I’ll be back. You’re up there with the Three Vs of Seattle.

Four Barrel, you’ve got one more shot, and then only if I can get over the hokey decor.

Intelligentsia, you make light roast worthwhile, which is saying a lot from a guy who once declared the approach weak and pointless.

The rest of you, you have my respect, even if you’re not my favorite.

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