Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Gentle Brew Holiday Blend

Name: Holiday Blend
Origins: Brazil; Nicaragua
Roaster: The Gentle Brew
Roast: Dark Brown
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

The holiday season is quite over, with even the memory of it having faded; thoughts of the calendar are permanently directed ahead for the remainder of the year. The population is divided between those looking forward to Spring for the sake of the warm weather and those looking forward to Spring because it will mean that Valentine's Day will be done with and all sorts of bacchanalia from St. Patrick's Day to Spring Break will have taken its place on the popular agenda.

One might wonder, then, at presently publishing a review of something called the "Holiday Blend". Those who have tasted it, of course, do not wonder very much at all. Having tried some in The Gentle Brew's coffeehouse in Long Beach, NY, shortly after New Year's, I bought some freshly roasted whole beans on the spot, which supply lasted me over two weeks. The name may not currently be apt according to the calendar, but gastronomically and aesthetically speaking it is always certainly apropos.

The Holiday Blend brews into a darker brown than most coffees, a more serious brown, somewhere between a carob color and a deep, dark mahogany. The aroma contains a spark of earthiness, some vanilla, and sweet florals. The earthiness, just as soon as it ever arrives, vanishes suddenly. The sweet florals are more sweet than floral, but they are more reminiscent of flowers than of any other actual thing.

The first flavor note is earth, with florals (this time quite flowery, perhaps sunflower) and a lovely stroke of buttery smoothness in the front of the mouth right near the tip of the tongue. The coffee is bold and rich, yet also displays a balancing layer of spice and wininess as the earth, once again, slips away. The wininess is probably driven by tannins bulking up, but also, there is certainly some fruitiness, and it joins with the spiciness to ascend to the forefront, which the florals, theretofore dominating alone, must now share. The coffee finishes on notes of butter and florals.

Here is the kicker: despite the smoothness, boldness, and richness, the Holiday Blend has a light body. It is, in other words, a rare combination that truly frames the potential of an expert blend to offer qualities impossible in even the most sophisticated, delicately crafted single origin. An apt analogy involves musical instruments: exploring the possibilities of one instrument is always a treat, and indeed there is always more to learn. However, while combining two or more instruments into one piece requires expertise, and can much more easily lead to shared failure more than to any semblance of success, if the harmonizing is done right then the world of possibilities expands exponentially, and the potential of each individual instrument is augmented as well. So it is with coffee blending. Here we have a delicious brew that is at once dark, rich, and smooth; and spicy, floral, and light bodied. It is not that those two profiles line up side-by-side, you see, but rather that they are synthesized into one grand note, much like the simultaneous sounds of multiple instruments in a symphony. The Holiday Blend is not only a study in contradiction, but also a reconsideration of why those profiles should be so contradictory in the first place. It is an exercise in harmony, and an example of sophistication made approachable. It is, in short, an epicurean concerto par excellence.

My frequent readers are certainly aware that I hold no bias against the single origin. But blends do tend to get short shrift these days, taken for granted as dumping grounds for extra coffee and unworthy of the purity that comes from experiencing a terroir. But when a master craftsman takes fine single origin beans, and makes from them a new whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts, that too is purity, and worthiness, and beauty. I invite my kind readers to engage with blends even as you continue to engage with single origins as well. It is not a zero-sum game, after all, but rather more like a win-win. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cesari 2009 Valpolicella Classico

Producer: Gerardo Cesari
Name: Cesari Valpolicella Classico
Region: Valpolicella Classico D.O.C., Italy
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: January 20, 2013
ABV: 12.5%

Valpolicella is located in the Verona region, which in turn is nestled in the Veneto, historically the mainland province associated with the Most Serene Republic, Venice. But when asked what means more to their sense of place - a wealthy, dynamic city-state maintaining its own independent role in the center of European culture and history uninterruptedly from the time of the barbarian invasions until finally Napoleon Bonaparte successfully took over, or wine-making - most folks of the Veneto would say the latter. Because the latter not only has outlived the former, but predates it as well; ancient Romans and even ancient Greeks were making wine in the Veneto long before there ever was a city-state - or even a city - to lend its name to the province. Some experts even contend that the name "Valpolicella" was pieced together from Latin and Greek to signify "valley of many cellars". That would be apt; even today, Valpolicella is second only to Chianti in total Italian wine production among DOC regions.

Back in the twelfth century, a couple of bordering winemaking zones were unified to form the Valpolicella that we know today. Well, sort of what we know today: when Valpolicella was awarded Denominazione di origine controllata status in 1968, the Italian authorities included a large swath of previously unaffiliated surrounding territories in that charter. Wineries within the original Valpolicella borders naturally protested that their good name was being bastardized and their potential profits shrunk, but perhaps more importantly, many wine drinkers voiced concerns that the non-original territories had been excluded from the original for a reason. The wines grown in the surrounding territories are well and good, but wine from the original Valpolicella has a special quality and character all its own, and it does not always take an expert to discern the difference. So, the solution was that the expanded borders stand, but wines grown within the original borders get to denote themselves "Valpolicella Classico". Wine from the Classico area constitute about 40% of all Valpolicella wine today.

Valpolicella wines, including famous varieties of the region such as Amarone della Valpolicella and recioto dessert wine, are typically composed of three varietals: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara. The 2009 Classico from Cesari is a very deep red, much darker than most. One cannot see too far into the brick hue. Evidently, this Valpolicella Classico is not meant to be explored by the eyes; it insists that those who would know it have a sip and learn of it that way.

The aroma, upon opening the bottle, is strong and smooth, and rather lacking tannins. There are notes of cherry, strawberry, pomegranate, and other reds, but the undertones of vanilla, florals, tapioca, leather, and toffee are not very "under" at all. They make it exceptionally smooth and vibrant at quite the same time. Not that the reds are taking a back seat to anything. What a medley! Will the palate be so varied and powerful? Yes, actually. There are tasting notes of reds - cherry, redcurrant, strawberry - and the same vanillas, florals, and toffees as in the aroma, although those latter notes are now more subdued. In fact, now there is a bit of spice, but not too much, just barely enough to add a little dimension. The tannins have arrived, though not in force. The wine is medium bodied, and rather lax on the structure. The finish is of the familiar reds and vanilla.

The comment about lax structure begs some exploration here. Not qualification: what little structure there is to be found is not exactly the most sturdy example. But still, that may well be the whole point, a part of this wine rather than something that detracts from it. This Valpolicella Classico does not define itself by its flavors alone so much as by the method by which those notes interact. They flow seamlessly into and out of each other, and around each other as well, quite similar to the interaction of fluids in a lava lamp. They are dynamic not in that they morph into something else, but rather in that they shift in relative shape and size to one another - indeed, part of the miracle here is that they stay quite intact during this constant flux, which, though seemingly random, ends up painting a beautiful and intuitively keen picture of tasting notes about the tongue and palate.

After breathing for twenty minutes, though, there has been very observable change with the wine. The aroma is still comprised of reds such as pomegranate and strawberry, and now there is even an appropriate dab of spice - but where has everything else gone? Compared to most other wines the aroma would still seem exceptionally smooth, but compared to the aroma of twenty minutes beforehand it seems very spicy. The palate is of rich, dark red fruits, a conglomerate of notes quite befitting its color: blackberry, plum, cherry, and so on. The flavor is quite bold, though the texture has not changed from its medium body (which is something to be appreciated; had the wine thickened or coarsened any, it could only have ruined what thus far has been a wonderful thing). There is spice in the palate, manifesting not as a tweak of the other notes' dimensions, but rather as a separate layer, rather pine-like. The sweetness and spice are evened out by tannins, which have continued to grow, and by an underlayer of vanilla (which is, by now, plenty "under", though far from disappeared). The finish is of strawberry and cherry.

Perhaps the biggest change over twenty minutes was in the structure, namely that it exists now. And quite as its absence gave us a glimpse into the inner personality behind this Valpolicella Classico's character, its presence now gives us some keen food for thought not only as applies to the wine, but also as applies to ourselves. For much as the children who enjoyed lava lamps (and other, less savory iconic diversions) many decades ago have since grown up to enjoy maturity and the fulfillments of families and careers that come with it, so too this wine matured after breathing into a hearty, meaningful spirit, not at all devoid of flavor or character compared to earlier, but now with direction, purpose, a confident sense of self. There are two lessons to be derived from this. One is that no matter how far we stray from childhood, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the aesthetic effects of a lava lamp. Lava lamps look pretty neat; dynamic wines taste pretty good. And that is quite alright. But the other lesson, equally important, is that a time to grow up will come, and that is to be taken as an opportunity, not as a setback or frustration. This Valpolicella Classico could have tried to stick with dynamic fluctuation in spite of its continued exposure to air, but that would have been disastrous. Instead, it gathered its assets and focused them in a new, appropriate direction. Now, more than a wine that just tastes good and is spunky (the "before"), we have a wine that tastes good, that commands respect, that can easily hold its own against strong dishes and yet be well tolerated by more mild ones, and that the people of historic Valpolicella, and really of the entire Veneto, can hold up with pride (the "after").

Now, the label recommends letting the wine air for an hour before serving. First of all, having tasted it after twenty minutes and again after an hour, I can claim with confidence that twenty minutes will suffice just fine to achieve the recommended effect. But second of all, surely those of us who are looking for more in a wine than just an inebriating concoction to put in a fancy glass on the dinner table should be sure not to pay heed to that suggestion. Is not the appreciation of a wine based on the personality it assumes? Is not the magic of the spirit, more than just what tasting notes it has, how they interact and give us so many more dimensions than just simple flavor? To truly appreciate all that Cesari's 2009 Valpolicella Classico has to offer, please, do not aerate, and let settle, and let transform, and then sip. There will be plenty of time to taste the mature spirit post-aeration in just a little while. For now, partake of the newly opened, the young, the spunky, the dynamic, the idealistic, the unfettered, the wild and crazy. It is well, well worth it.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Organic Tamayokucha

Origin: China
Type: Green Tea
Style: Tamayokucha
Purveyor: Two Leaves and a Bud
Preparation: One bag steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 3:00 (as recommended), sipped plain

Here is an interesting specimen: Chinese-grown leaves prepared in a traditional Japanese style. Tamayokucha (also known as tamaryokucha, which altered syllable one would think would alter the entire word) can be processed either via pan-firing or via steaming, and Two Leaves and a Bud made a good choice in the latter. Pan-firing brings out a more vegetal essence in the tea, and while this example certainly has some of those characteristics, it also, because of the steaming, was able to keep plenty of space for sweetness, tannins, and just plain roominess.

The color of the brewed tea is light yellow, rich, translucent, and full of character, not unlike a pigment that might be used in a stained glass window. The aroma is sweet - not honey-like, nor sugary, nor fruity, but sweet. There is also an undertone to the aroma, more of a texture than a scent, really, which gives it a sort of earthy feel, in the same way that one can feel the air in a woodland before and after a rain differently than one can feel it in other settings. (This is surely magnified many times over in pan-fired varieties.) Perhaps the best approximation - and it is only that - of this unique combination of sweetness and texture in the aroma is a steaming-hot mug of green tea ice cream.

This tamayokucha tastes delicate, light, flavorful, pure, with a touch of briskness (surprisingly), and nice tannins (which are at optimal levels). Sweetness is there but not overpowering. The fine-tuned combination of all of those factors yields a delicious brew that really tastes like green tea ought to taste; truly an excellent example of the category.

As per its dynamic character, this tea can serve equally well as a morning get-me-going potion, an object around which to unwind in the afternoon, or (for those unaffected by caffeine) something to make one cozy of an evening. Enjoy.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Stumptown Organic Ethiopia Mordecofe

Name: Organic Ethiopia Mordecofe
Origin: Mora Mora River Valley, Guji Zone, Ethiopia
Roaster: Stumptown
Roast: (unknown)
Varietal: Ethiopia Heirloom
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

It is always a pleasure to experience a fusion of old world and new, especially when it puts into focus a continuous, live tradition. Coffee has many traditions, from Western coffeehouses to Latin American coffee plantations to Turkish style coffee being passed around a souk to farms dotting the numerous famous hotspots throughout Southeast Asia. It is for good reason that we continue to cherish these traditions, but where did they come from? Where did they all begin?

Much like people, coffee originated in Africa before spreading around the globe. Unlike people, coffee has traditions that did not arise until well after history was being recorded, so we can trace it all with a comfortable degree of precision. Growing wild in Ethiopia, coffee was first made an object of agriculture around the year 850 C.E. Soon the Yemenites picked up the crop, and the brewing of coffee become popular in growing numbers of places around the world. The Yemenites would have loved to keep the monopoly over its production all to themselves, but sooner or later all secrets are set loose. Coffee was brought to Indonesia for planting, and after that to the New World. Consumption was already global by that point. The rest is history.

But there it was, in Ethiopia's former Kaffa region, that it all began. (Ethiopians call coffee "bun" - it was once thought that a misunderstanding of "Kaffa bun" is why English speakers call something unrelated to beans a "coffee bean", although that explanation has since been discredited.) And it still grows there today.

Along the eastern flank of this swath of land is the Guji zone where one Mr. Haile Gebre runs a couple of farms and a washing station. Gebre ought to know a thing or two about local agricultural traditions; he formerly held a government post in Ethiopia as director of cooperative business. Little wonder, then, that after returning to his family's land and growing coffee he embraced the direct trade movement. Direct trade seems more and more these days to be a common thread among serious roasters, at least among those with, shall we say, the wherewithal. The coffee is fresher and more choice, the business is more transparent, and usually everybody wins.

In one sense, perhaps, there is nothing new under the sun. Coffee is grown, traded, roasted, brewed, and enjoyed. Some headline. But in another sense, things are different. Gebre studied in Russia. He is a learned, traveled man. He knows where his coffee is going, and he knows how to do business in the modern world that can benefit farmers in Ethiopia, businesspeople in Oregon, and consumers in New York, all at the same time. How many Ethiopian coffee farmers a thousand years ago could have said such a thing? Some, maybe. But the context of coffee, much as the world itself, was very different. The details have changed; and yet, the important principles have remained largely the same. I suppose that is how traditions live on.

So what does it taste like, a millennium-plus-old tradition? Quite delightful, really. The press turns up a rich, dark, chocolate colored brew. The aroma is initially of a winey character with florals around the edges; as the coffee cools it becomes vice versa. The florals are predominantly honeysuckle, plus there is caramel in there. There is another element to it as well, a richness, and I cannot tell if it is a full-bodied textural quality that found its way into the aroma or else a slight earthiness that has spread out and given a smoothness to the rest of things. The palate is of fruit, wine, and figs. I do not taste the mint chip ice cream that Stumptown mentions in its tasting notes, but I do taste the brown sugar, as well as hints of carob and lychee to go beside what is by now indisputably earthiness. There is also a tad of spiciness which does not jump in and add another layer to the mix but rather appears as an extra dimension of the existing layers of fruits and earth, a little kick that makes each other flavor a little more interesting. (That must be what Stumptown means by "ginger".) The liquid is rich and full-bodied; it is not syrupy, but then again, there is not much farther to go. Fruits and spice characterize the finish.

Stumptown, of course, as part of its focus on roasting for the bean, does not label their expert roasts as light, medium, or dark. But if I had to guess how this coffee may be characterized, I would say that it is a medium roast. It has plenty of room for the terroir and its flavors to spread out and express themselves, but there is an undercurrent of earthiness and the acidity is under control.

Did Ethiopian coffee beans always have these characteristics? Were they always roasted quite this way? Has the Mora Mora River Valley always been home to this crop? Have people always enjoyed Ethiopia heirloom in this or a similar way? Some people know the answers to some of those questions. Most people have no clue. I would love one day to join the first group of people. Until then, I am enjoying my place among the second. There is nothing quite like a tasty mystery to add a pleasing edge to the experience of tradition.