Thursday, September 27, 2012

Toby's Estate Kenya

Name: Yara Estate
Origin: Kenya
Roaster: Toby's Estate
Varietals: SL 34, SL 28
Preparation 1: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black
Preparation 2: Freshly ground, 4 teaspoons combined with 1.4 cups water and 0.36 ounces (3 packets) of sugar, kept over medium-low flame until ready, sipped without further enhancement

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Toby's Estate's coffee is its character, which it undoubtedly gets from the fine ladies and gentlemen in the roasting house in Brooklyn. Your humble servant can say from personal experience that the various traits best associated with good character - cordiality, honesty, generosity, humor, sincerity, modesty, wit, approachability - positively exude from the splendid folks who run that shop. And, as it is well known that true artists and craftsmen pour their hearts and souls into their work along with their exceptional talent and expertise (which was also on full display), one can expect such character to be reflected in the coffee. Hence the remarkable personality of the Kenya.

When I asked their roaster, Deaton Pigot, how Toby's Estate roasts its coffees, he answered, "For the bean." That seems to be the hallmark of many serious gourmet roasters these days, but I was still hoping to get something out of him in the way of an actual shade.

"Perhaps, then, it ends up coming out sort of medium?" I ventured.

"Oh, I should think it comes out rather on the light side, really," Deaton said, interrupting (or, rather, accepting my interruption of) his detailed explanation-and-demonstration of how the temperature-responsive chemical breakdown of complex sugars within the coffee bean over a couple-minute period of the roasting process can affect the flavor enough to make-or-break the entire batch.

"But surely," I followed up, "some coffees might naturally be better suited to a dark roast?"

"There are definitely coffees that can hold the roast better than others," Deaton explained, "but even then you're going for the roasting flavor, not the coffee flavor."

Brilliant. Yes, the preference itself is a matter of taste and reasonable people may differ on which is better to drink, but the elucidation of the distinction in approaches to the roast is positively brilliant. And that quote, which is indeed a direct quote, was uttered as a simple answer to my question, made on the fly in conversation while we had been talking about something else and he was simultaneously roasting a batch of Brazilian in the machine. We are not talking about a committee-churned press statement sent over by e-mail a couple of days later. That is what I meant by exceptional talent and expertise.

Anyhow, at one point in our conversation he had just finished roasting a Kenya. As with all batches, he took a sample right as it was finished, ground it, and put it on the machine to get an Agtron reading. With this one, he handed me the cup of grinds and said, "Here, get a whiff of that." I actually uttered the word, "Sold." Some Kenya came home with me and went into the French press.

What brews is one of the lightest coffees I have ever seen. It is chestnut colored, as well as chestnut scented, though spiciness dominates the aroma with hints of citrus in tow. The palate is light, with dominant fruity notes, tannins, and acidity. There are hints of vanilla and white table grapes. The finish is a little more even, with less spice, and a little bit of smoke.

Talk about roasting for the bean! Everything about this coffee is what is right and good with light and bean-centered roasts. Each flavor of spice and fruit is alive and vibrant. I have never tasted so much of a terroir through a coffee.

I once had a Turkish coffee with cardamom mixed in. It was delicious, and what made it work was simple: the flavor of cardamom blends nicely with coffee, especially as prepared Turkish. Naturally, other flavors can also pair well, and the spice notes apparent in Toby's Estate's Kenya are most definitely among them.

This coffee, when prepared Turkish, results in a very light-colored beverage. It is spicy in the aroma, with a mere touch of citrus zest, and inherent scents strong enough to stand up to the sugar. The taste, too, is an excellent balance of sweet and spicy. That is perhaps a harmony better known in food preparation, but it works quite keenly with this coffee. The body is smooth, mid-level. And the finish offers a consistant smile on the way down.

Character. Conviction. Excellence. These are the things that we love in people, and also things that we love in what we drink. In the case of Toby's Estate, there is no need to distinguish when listing these attributes.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

2009 Ramon Cardova

Producer: Bodegas Ramon Bilbao

Name: Ramon Cardova
Varietal: Tempranillo
Region: Rioja D.O.C., Spain
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: September 19, 2012
ABV: 14%

I have never been to Bodegas Ramon Bilbao, and I have never seen pictures of their vineyards either. But I would be willing to bet that, just as Kermit Lynch tells us (in Adventures on the Wine Route) that René Loyau's grower in Gevrey-Chambertin had a patch of currants growing near his vines, Bodegas Ramon Bilbao has a few cherry trees growing near theirs. Or, at least they did back in 2009. Not that that is a complaint, mind you.

The 2009 Ramon Cardova has so many elements of cherry in it that if I did not know any better I would say that that is what gives it its color. The tint is a nice, deep red, neither on the purple side nor on the orange side – just a dark, cherry color. The wine opens with a pungent nose of cherry and rhubarb. The pungency is itself a think-piece; that which creates it is not readily apparent. It is not acidity, I find, but rather the tannins. The aroma also implies a degree of structure and angles that belies a rather roomy and comfortable palate. The taste has strong notes of cherry and tannins, with a minimal hint of plums embedded somewhere in there as well. The Rioja is light, with a pleasantly medium structure and a smooth, wide body. The flavors are given plenty of room to glide about the taste buds, and yet nothing is left unsupported or chaotic. The finish, comprised of the same elements of cherry and plum, is even smoother still. The wine goes down very easy, almost dangerously so.

After twenty minutes of breathing, the cherry has been exhausted. Perhaps it is only in comparison to the initial sipping, but the wine does not seem to have those notes any longer. The aroma, still pungent and tannic, is mostly of black plums now. The tasting notes are not very specific at all, vague even – some reds, including cherry and half the berries in Iberia, a touch of plum, and even a hint of balsamic. It is light, more smooth and mellow than earlier. The finishing notes are quite ambiguous, more so even than the palate, which is fine because it is still delicious and that counts a whole lot more than the ability to point to something else and say "it tastes like that."

They say that any wine worth writing about will have a personality featured in the discussion. Is the wine sensual? Is it wild? Is it affectionate? Quirky? Steadfast? Silly? Playful? My readers know that I hold no aversion to such angles in describing a wine, but I cannot fathom that a good wine has to make sense in such a discussion. This Rioja simply does not fit into that paradigm. It does not bother with personality; the Ramon Cardova is just an excellent glass of wine. It does not remind me of this or that kind of pal. If I really had to anthropomorphize it, I suppose it would be as a Master Craftsman; while it delivers with businesslike simplicity, it is more approachable than the businessman, and the attention to quality is little higher than one would think economical. It is professional, and not ashamed of greatness, but with plenty of heart to deliver into its craft; indeed it is that, and not facts or figures or marketing material, that makes the Ramon Cardova professional. True, quality craft.

Alright, so I found a fitting entry for this wine into that paradigm after all.

Friday, September 21, 2012

China Keemun Tea

Origin: Anhui, China
Type: Black Tea
Purveyor: McNulty's
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for three minutes, sipped plain

Of the various tales surrounding the origin of Keemun tea, the most ubiquitous is also, perhaps, the most likely. A failed government bureaucrat set out to earn his fortune in the private sector (alright, that part is unlikely) with tea. He learned to make black tea in Fujian province and brought the skill back home to Anhui province, where only green tea had been made up to that point. Having quite the knack for his craft, out hero found a great degree of success, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Indeed, Keemun is often an ingredient in English Breakfast Tea, with those blends that do include it being generally more expensive. So successful is this tea, in fact, that it virtually always appears in those omnipresent lists of "Ten Famous China Teas" (no single list is definitive), even though it just came about less than a century and a half ago in a large country renowned since ancient times for dozens of different high-quality teas.

I set out to solve the riddle of its success. This was expressly not difficult - one cup, and the mystery vanished.

The dry leaves I picked up from McNulty's are the color of carob seeds. They are small, mostly straight, and twisted so tight that if I did not know any better I would assume that they were solid twigs instead of flat leaves rolled up. Their aroma is mainly vanilla, with some florals - sweet, sweet florals.

The brewed tea is of a caramel hue and has such visual texture that one would think that a few spoons of honey were already mixed in. The aroma is similar to that of the dry leaves. Some malt also appears, but sweet florals predominate. The taste, much like the sight, is enough to perpetuate the illusion that a plain cup of tea includes a great amount of honey. But now, though the sweetness is so strong, it is joined by other strong elements as well: acidity, tannins, briskness. There is a moderate degree of malt, at least enough to support the other notes, which is important because the body is medium - not weak or thin by any means, but still dwarfed by all of the flavor elements.

And yet this Keemun is not a grab-you-by-the-mouth-and-kick-you-around kind of beverage. It shows its strength but uses it gently. Next time I intent to brew it for only 2:45, and am confident that that will even it out the right amount. Three minutes just let the flavor get a little too big; we are left with gentle giants that occasionally bump shoulders by mistake. But they are still beautiful, playful, even thoughtful, with plenty of instinct for grace (if not quite plenty of room, in my particular cup). They are good for either waking up or calming down; drink it in the morning or afternoon.

On the way down, the Keemun settles back to sweet florals, releasing them with a full body at the back of the mouth. We are brought to the classic question that accompanies all finishes: is it goodbye or a forecast of hello? In this case, definitely both.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Stumptown's Hair Bender: French and Turkish

Name: Hair Bender

Origins: Latin America, East Africa, Indonesia
Roaster: Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Varietals: (varying)
Preparation 1: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black
Preparation 2: Freshly ground, 4 teaspoons combined with 1.4 cups water and 0.36 ounces (3 packets) of sugar, kept over medium-low flame until ready, sipped without further enhancement

When I was turned on to Stumptown's Hair Bender blend last week and looked it up, I saw that it is an espresso blend. The timing was excellent: I have recently been given a household grinder that actually gets the coffee into a fine enough powder to make Turkish coffee. (As Turkish coffee fans know, those are not easy to find.) Certainly, that is not the same thing as espresso, but the profile requirements are sufficiently similar that I thought I would give the grinder its first taste of action with Hair Bender.

Before going quite there, I prepared it in the French press just to get my bearings on the tasting notes. What emerges from that is a coffee the color of red cedar, or of a fox's fur; the kind of brown that reminds one that brown is actually just a shade of orange. The aroma includes almost everything: fruits, nuts, spices. The flavor is a strong, rich, robust earthiness. Acidity is medium, and there is no maltiness. The finish includes florals and spices, and the texture remains medium-light throughout.

One can tell right away that Hair Bender is a blend from the plethora of characteristics that it exhibits, and even for a blend it is remarkably dynamic. This is hardly surprising given the multitude of coffees used. Stumptown's website explains that Hair Bender "can have five to eight different coffees at any given time. We hand select these coffees to provide clarity along with the sweetness and complexity we are seeking. We continually taste this blend and each of its components (on the cupping table as well as espresso) to maintain the balance of flavors." Perhaps my cherished readers are way ahead of me, but I still was not entirely clear on why the ingredients would vary. Fortunately, Stumptown continues to show saintly patience with my impertinent inquiries, and has elaborated: "The coffees in our blends generally reflect the growing seasons in each part of the coffee world. The contents of our Hair Bender change throughout the seasons in order to ensure that the taste of our Hair Bender does not change with the seasons. The coffees in the blend are chosen to achieve a certain flavor profile." Aha! So, though dear Mother Nature would, over the course of a year, alter the nature of the coffee that a given piece of land produces (e.g. different seasons yield different quality crops), Stumptown skirts that roadblock by sourcing coffees from different parts of the globe at different times of the year to keep things uninterrupted. This is great news; I would hate for the rich dynamism of Hair Bender to be available for only a few months of the year.

Alright then, time to see how this baby fares prepared Turkish. The liquid comes out a dark, deep, rich brown, as Turkish coffee should be. There is, naturally, less dynamism with this preparation. Sweetness is everywhere. The aroma is sweet and earthy; the palate is sweet almost like a carob, with medium acidity; and the finish is sweet, and rather rich. Mentally separating the coffee profile from the sugar, we have essentially the same coffee as we had in the press if it had been roasted darker.

Hair Bender really does work well prepared as Turkish coffee. This is not just as per its strength - with its name being "Hair Bender" one might think of the strength first, but actually it was named after the hair salon that had previously occupied the storefront which eventually became Stumptown's first cafe in Portland, Oregon - but as per its profile. One needs a coffee that can simultaneously carry, balance, and complement the sugar. This would usually be a medium-light roast, as bitterness is counterproductive, while body and flavor are important. Hair Bender is an espresso blend, but not a dark roast. We have already seen that Stumptown does not do usual roast measurements; they roast for the bean. With these beans here, the goal of the roasting is to make good espresso. That it would, and it makes great pressed coffee and Turkish coffee as well.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Moobuzz 2011 Pinot Noir

Producer: The Other Guys
Name: Moobuzz Pinot Noir
Varietals: Pinot Noir 86%; Sangiovese 10%; Syrah 1%; Tempranillo 3%
Region: California, USA
Vintage: 2011
Tasted: September 8, 2012
ABV: 13.5%

Did you know that when it comes to the use of sensual terminology in wine reviews - you know, that sometimes sappy, sometimes wildly inappropriate vocabulary that wine people use and that non-wine people make fun of wine people for using - Pinot Noir is the varietal most frequently being described? I did not know that until after I finished taking notes on the Moobuzz 2011 Pinot Noir by The Other Guys, as I browsed The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. Indeed, if my own reaction to the Moobuzz is any indication, that little tidbit of trivia sure does make sense.

For example, here is what I had written when trying to sort out how the acid in the taste does not have the usual concomitant bite or harshness along with it: "It is like a very beautiful person you see lying on the beach; she looks like an intense, wild-and-crazy sort of person, but really she is just lying there, taking it easy, looking hotter than all Hades." (Sometimes I write these things down as they come to me, lest I forget them later.)

So yeah, I really did not need much convincing from Ms. MacNeil on that one.

The 2011 Moobuzz Pinot Noir has a dark, ruby red color, quite seductive in itself. The aroma is intense, predominantly spicy with some red-fruity notes scattered about. The flavor, though, is smooth, even, mellow. While the tasting notes are of acidic things - citrus, mainly, and apples - there is no actual acidity to bombard the tongue. Again, think of the comely sun-bather: all the spunk and pizazz and craziness that the imagination pleases, none of the bother of having to deal with what all of that would actually entail. The texture is round, full-bodied, easy to enjoy. The finish is blackberry.

But a beach-goer who in fact just lies there all day would not be very much fun at all, now, would she? No, and our Pinot Noir has no interest in such doldrums. After aerating for twenty minutes, she has caught her breath and is ready for some action. The nose is as pungent as ever, and more fruits seem to have joined the party - it really is quite the medley. The palate is still smooth but less mellow. Some of the spice from the aroma has trickled on down to the mouth now, and the acidity is starting to feel like what one would expect from a bite of fresh fruit. For those who do not like fluctuating extremes there is good news: the wine, in her texture, remains as tender to the touch as ever, providing a nice level of balance, of sanity - we can feel comfortable enjoying the developments because the world still makes sense. And what kind of person would our Pinot Noir be if she left without dropping us a sweet surprise on her way out? The finish is strawberry, and ne'er could even the most alluring young lass so entice with a wink and a smile and a delicate wave as she slips past the threshold.

Here's to next time; soon may it come.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Single Origins and Blends

There is a lot of focus lately, within the craft roasting community, on an individual coffee's origins. A given bean is explored in all aspects relating to its varietal and its provenance, sometimes even down to the individual lot on which it was farmed.

The benefits of this are as obvious as they are gainful. The world of coffee learns as much as there is to know about each and every permutation of coffee that there is. For each varietal, we learn what a given climate and soil combination does to its characteristics and flavor profile; for each place of origin, we learn what bean varietal grows into the best coffee, what grows most prodigiously, what each bean does to the soil, and so on. The result is a global portfolio of the best coffees that mother earth has to offer.

Furthermore, when sipping a coffee brewed from a single origin, one experiences the true essence of that locale. Just as one can get a mouthful of everything that constitutes a terroir and all that it has to offer from just one sip of wine, a sip of coffee can transport one to any corner of the globe and give one a real feel for the place, its land, its climate, its scent – its entirety.

Equally beneficial, but unfortunately not equally appreciated nowadays, is the coffee blend. If blending were not possible, then stripping down the identity of each individual bean to investigate the layers would indeed be the consummate endeavor of the coffee professional. But blending is possible, and in seemingly infinite ways at that. Therefore, we can conclude that mastery of coffee requires the twin disciplines of investigation and application – one must be familiar with all aspects of every varietal and origin, and also be able to deploy that intimacy in creating the ideal blend. There is an art to go with the science.

The upsides of the blend ought to be as obvious as those of the single-origin. The best blends are those that fuse disparate elements from the varietals into a coherent, vibrant personality; a brew that can play all of the instruments in the orchestra and still sound like one synchronized, harmonious symphony; a coffee that can embody the principle of e pluribus unum. The augmentation of the canon of masterpieces is itself a vital element in the world of coffee, just as vital as the mastery of the individual beans.

May the perfection of the single variety continue apace, and may the craft of blending do the same.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Organic Dark Roast Yerba Mate

Origins: Brazil
Type: Yerba Mate
Ingredients: Yerba Mate, Roasted Yerba Mate, Roasted Barley, Roasted Carob, Roasted Chicory
Purveyor: Mate Factor (all organic)
Preparation: One tablespoon put into an empty 10oz mug, rest of mug filled with approximately 150-degree water, sipped with bombilla

Now here is a keen angle. Mate Factor is branding its mate not as a tea, but as its own category of caffeinated coffee alternative. It really is a great job that they did. The package includes brewing instructions for a French press, a standard drip machine, even an espresso machine with a latte option. Very nice.

As for whether the product can actually work as an alternative to coffee, that depends. Someone looking for something that tastes like coffee will be disappointed; no tea or tisane will ever achieve that. But Mate Factor never sought to make something that tastes like coffee in the first place. They assembled a unique blend of ingredients, and what results is a rich, earthy brew with a flavor all its own.

The dry Dark Roast Yerba Mate, first of all, looks great. It is like looking at a fresh, prime, radiant example of pristine woodland earth in the springtime. Most of the mix is a bold, dark brown, and sprinkled about there are bright, deciduous greens and whites. The leaves smell sweet and chocolaty.

When brewed, the tisane switches gears and emits a strong scent of yerba mate. The other ingredients become quite peripheral to the aroma. The liquid is a dark brown, malty but translucent, rather like a black tea. There is nothing malty about the flavor though. The brew offers very smooth, even notes of yerba mate and chocolate. It is sweet but not so sweet that it starts to do a bad impression of chocolate milk. The barley gives it an extra dimension, a little depth and subtlety. But the principle flavor is definitely the yerba mate. This is good, because it lends credibility to the suggestion that it is meant to be brewed. Without the mate's presence, one would wonder if it would not be better just as a shake or something.

Fortunately, the yerba mate does indeed predominate, and it tastes quite ideal as a brewed beverage. I can definitely see making a latte or cappuccino out of this; the flavor and texture would integrate with the milk perfectly. Of course, I enjoyed it just fine prepared in the traditional way. All in all, Mate Factor did a splendid job creating, as they put it, a "healthy coffee alternative."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Agapao Dave's Organic Signature Blend

Type: Dave's Organic Signature Blend

Roaster: Agapao
Roast: Very Dark Roast
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

He is a bold man who puts his name right on the forefront of his work for all the world to see. It is appropriate, then, that the eponymous Dave at Agapao put his name on a bold cup of coffee. Well, sometimes bold. The dark, carob-colored beverage is a blend, after all, and all of the ingredients must be allowed to come out and play. The various components take turns strutting their stuff, and the result is a delightfully dynamic breakfast beverage.

Dave's Organic Signature Blend says "very dark roast" on the package. The beans appear, indeed are, rich and oily. When brewed, they have a nutty, earthy aroma quite on the strong side. The palate is surprised, then, when it finds itself tasting an extremely smooth, light (but not buttery) coffee of mid-level intensity with some smoke, some nut, a few florals around the edges, and no acid. It finishes rich, airy, with earthy tones: precisely the point of the undulation of characteristics at which the robust, nutty aroma is ready to pick up again on the next sip.

Coffees like this are just what the doctor ordered on those mornings that find one desiring to get up-and-at-'em, but unable to muster the will to make it past the nightstand. Never mind the caffeine – it is the vibrant personality of this coffee that will befriend any adventurous soul in need of a little jolting.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Château de Péna 2009 Cuvée de Peña Rouge

Producer: Château de Péna

Name: Cuvée de Peña Rouge
Varietals: Carignan 20%; Grenache 40%; Syrah 40%
Region: Vin de Pays des Pyrénées-Orientales, France
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: September 1, 2012
ABV: 14.3%

I have a confession to make. Anyone with even the slightest sense of taste and decency will have an immediate impulse to judge me, but please, allow me to explain, as I believe that I have atoned for the sin. The confession is this: until earlier this year, I almost always tended away from French wine. It just did not do it for me. Italian wines with their soft, fruity notes, or Spanish wines with their buttery sweetness - those were for me. French wines were venerable, yes, but compared to the their smooth, warm, friendly, outgoing-yet-relaxed Mediterranean counterparts they were cold, angular, unbending, stressed and stressful. At least, that is the impression that I let myself keep, for no reason other than that it was there.

All of that changed in February. The evening of February 18, 2012, to be specific. The inestimable Lettie Teague had a wonderful article in The Wall Street Journal that weekend entitled "Saying Oui and Si to France's Most Spanish Wines" in which she explored the offerings of France's Roussillon region.

We learn in the article how it came to be that there is, indeed, an entire region of French people who identify primarily as something other than French, we learn how such a relatively small sliver of land produces more wine than the rest of the country combined (indeed, it produces more wine than most entire countries), and we learn that Roussillon makes reds, whites, and even a fortified wine. Then comes the surprise: we learn that the wines do not taste like French wine. Ms. Teague explains:

In fact, Spain may a better reference point for Roussillon than France. Tim O'Rourke, manager of Weygandt-Metzler Wines in Washington, said that he sells Roussillon wines most easily to Spanish-wine lovers. "When I talk about the Roussillon, I talk about how the wines resemble those from Spain. It's not like I'm going to sell a Burgundy lover a bottle of wine from the Roussillon," he said.

I thought to myself, "Resembles Spanish wine, eh? I like Spanish wine. Sounds like a good place to open the door into French wines for myself." So I got myself a bottle of 2009 Cuvée de Peña Rouge, which is made by Château de Péna in the little Roussillon commune of Cases de Pene, took my first step into Gallic oenology, and have not looked back. One day I am eschewing anything north of the Pyrenees, and the next day I am reviewing a Bordeaux. It is wonderful to have that door open to me.

The Cuvée de Peña, by the way, is exquisite. It has a very robust red color; one cannot see through it, and the hue, ironically, is Burgundy. The aroma is a complexity of red table grapes, berries, and red apple. It is not pungent, but lively and sprightly, as though the scents are especially anxious to leap from the glass right away. The wine has fruity notes of red apple, purple plum, and a touch of berry, all balanced with a little acid and tannins. With its supple body, the Cuvée is almost sensual, caressing the mouth and gliding tenderly, tantalizingly down the throat, leaving finishing notes of pomegranate and strawberry to keep one company until the next sip.

After twenty minutes of breathing, the nose is much mellowed, with aromas of peach and fresh melon. The palate is the same, though a little relaxed in the tannin and acidity departments. It is smoother now, and the same peaches and melon reappear as the Cuvée takes the plunge.

The story gets even better, by the way. When I was first shopping for the Roussillon, one bottle said "Vin de Pays des Pyrénées-Orientales," another said "Vin de Pays d'Oc," still another said "Appellation Muscat de Rivesaltes Controlée," and there were a dozen more. I had no idea what any of that meant. Just find me the one that says "Roussillon"!! I felt a little silly surrounded by scores of different wines, with labels plastered in all sorts of text, not being able to pick out which are from an entire region. So after the shopkeeper helped me find this one, I went home, researched a little, got a couple of books, researched a little more, kept up with the material by doing plenty of product testing (in the interest of education, you see), and found myself so fascinated that there was no avoiding the inevitable: I must become part of the world of wine. The result has been my enthusiastic entry into just that world by way of this website that you are reading right now.

I believe that a thank you is due Ms. Teague for both introducing me to French wine and getting me interested in the larger world of wine. It is, and promises to forever continue being, an exhilarating experience.