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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

Tag Archives: tasting

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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NathanIn my previous post, I commented that I might visit Blue Bottle and might also return to Four Barrel to see what was going on. I did both, so here are the results.

Blue Bottle I may have mentioned that one of the worst espressos I ever had was at Blue Bottle, but that, in fairness, I had been warned it was a weird one. Rather syrupy, as in cough-syrupy. No biggie; it was an experiment. This time I had their house espresso roast in a macchiato and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Four Barrel Here’s the real story. Thinking I really should investigate, I went back shortly after writing about the awfulness I experienced here.

The weirdness, if not awfulness, continued. I watched the barista this time and learned a few things. One issue may have been that he seemed to be leaving grinds out for a while, including taking the excess from his portafilter and putting it back in with fresher grinds from the grinder. It did not seem to me that the turnover rate was so high that this was a good idea.

Odder was that the barista did not seem to tamp with much force at all, which may explain what appeared to be a fast-pouring shot, an odd crema, and the strongest espresso I can recall. The stuff really punched me. It tasted kind of over extracted — less sour than last time, but hard to discern any flavors other than ka-pow.

It may be that you go there and find this a pleasant experience. Perhaps it would be for me as well in a latte. The funny thing is, I like strong espresso, but while not exactly bitter or sour, I couldn’t really taste any pleasant flavors at all.

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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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I love coffeeJaKe and have since I was a wee lad. “Yeah, so?” I can hear you thinking. But I have a terrible confession to make: I did not order a proper coffee drink until my 28th year of existence.

Despite my fervent desire for good coffee, it had always been a complete mystery to me. As a child I survived on the dregs of mass produced church coffee and the occasional cup of Folgers home brew. (What sort of asteroid do they have to mine to find flavor crystals anyway?!) But every once in a while I would stumble upon a cup that would truly tantalize my mind with the coffee possibilities.

After setting off to see the world outside of the small town where I had grown up and learned my adoration for coffee, I found myself in the coffee capital of the world, Seattle. Not wishing to appear to be an ignorant fool or, even worse, a poser, I shied away from the delights of any coffee based drink and really who could blame me? This was something far too important. The ordering of even the most basic of coffee drinks was a thing of reverence spoken in the Not-Quite-Italian Not-Quite-French language of the almighty Barista. For years I toiled in that city watching the coffee priests work their arcane coffee magicks. I watched as legions of my friends fell to the sway of the coffee bean. Some legitimately found coffee knowledge. Far too many others dabbled and became addicted to the source, craving it without the power to really understand why it was such a delicious wonderful thing.

How is one supposed to navigate these treacherous waters when it seems like everyone else has sailed so far ahead?

The best thing to do is to keep in mind that you are not the only person out there who is trying to figure it all out. I have just recently begun working my way through the twisting ins and outs of the coffee world and there are countless others. The goal is to keep things simple and build from the grounds up. For as with all journeys it is the first step that is the most important. Luckily for us, it is also probably the easiest.

Go into a cafe where the wait staff is personable. This attitude is almost always linked with someone who is willing to help you grow in your coffee knowledge. Ask what they have on ‘drip’ (this is a fancy way of saying basic brewed coffee).  If they have multiple choices ask the staff which they would prefer. Asking questions is the basis for gaining knowledge and critical thinking is the basis for gaining wisdom. Order a ‘small’ cup of the coffee they suggest. They might look at you oddly when you call it a ‘small’ but they will almost always follow the look up by telling you what they call the small size. With your newly acquired information in hand, respond confidently with “Yes, one of those, please.” Next, make a note of the name of the coffee and find a space with few distractions. (Caution: If you have followed the delineated steps, you have ordered a hot cup of coffee. It will, unless by some terrible disaster, be hot). Take a small sniff of the steam coming off the cup, then follow this up by inhaling a small bit of steam into your mouth. You can get a good idea of the flavor of the coffee with this tiny little breath. For now let the questions of where the beans are from, what kind of roast it is, or whether you can taste all the underlying tones escape from your mind. Lastly, take a small sip and merely decide whether you like or dislike the flavors. If you don’t enjoy the flavor of this first cup you are not required to finish it. After all, good coffee is about nothing more than enjoyment.

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