Here it is, mid-March in Portland, and I’m watching snow fall outside my window. This may be a passing snow shower, but the face remains that it’s one of several that we’ve gotten this week, and that’s just not right. We’re not supposed to get snow in March, especially out here in the PacificNorthwest.
It’s on afternoons like this that my mind most readily turn to thoughts of slow-roasted dinners and steaming carafes of french press coffee. Which, thankfully, are both occurring at this very moment. And the coffee in that carafe is from our local favorite, Coava Coffee.
Located in southeast Portland, we’ve developed a ritual of starting off every Friday by going to Coava for coffee and a pastry before making our way to work. Their space is perfect for this, and the coffee is always great. And nearly every Friday we finish up our visit by picking up a pound of coffee to last us through the weekend.
This week we opted for their current offering of Ethiopian coffee, sourced from the village of Rophi in southern Ethiopia. The village is located in the Borena Hagermariam District, in the Sidama region of Ethiopia, and entirely subsists on coffee farming. The beans are grown at altitudes of 1750-1800 meters and are all heirloom varietals. This is the same area from which Coava sourced the Kilenso coffee that they were roasting last year.
The coffee is naturally processed, meaning that the coffee cherries were left in the sun to dry for several weeks before they are sent to a mill to have the dried cherry pulp is removed via a process called hulling. This is the typical method for producing African coffee, and is a part of the reason for these coffees having a reputation for being deep-bodied, fruity and sweet coffees. Because the cherry pulp remains in contact with the bean during the long drying process, the idea is that flavors from the cherry influence the final flavor of the coffee beans themselves. This is in contrast to the wet process, whereby the cherry pulp is washed from the bean prior to drying, which produces a brighter and cleaner coffee.
We’ve had this coffee several times from Coava, and it is quite good, if somewhat different from the expectations you may have for an African coffee. Their tasting notes kind of say it all, “Taste Notes: Strawberry / Hibiscus / Carob”. These aren’t your typical descriptors for an Ethiopian coffee, which more often features more deeply fruity flavors. I attribute much of this to Coava’s roasting process, which favors a lighter roast for all of their coffees, and I suspect they look for coffees that work well with this approach. In this case, the Rophi works quite well, displaying a pleasing range of flavors and a harmonious cup of coffee.
Right after being ground, the distinct aroma of blueberries rises up out of the french press, and at first pour the coffee does too. This transitions to notes of almonds, raisins, and berries. The palate is lightly sweet and mouth-filling with soft acidity. Flavors of raisin, and cocoa nib are balanced by a smoky herbal element, something along the lines of smoked paprika and curry leaves. All in all, the coffee is delicate while still being full bodied, not heavy at all. The finish wraps up with more lingering sweetness, and flavors of cocoa and licorice.
We moved to Portland just over seven months ago. It’s hard to believe. Time has gone by very fast. All in all, it’s been a blur. New jobs. New place to live. Great new friends to get to know. And of course, new gastronomic destinations to check out.
High on the list of things we were looking forward to in Portland was all of the local coffee roasters. Everyone knows about Stumptown, but once you get past them there are several small roasters (sometimes referred to as “micro roasters”) plying their trade here in town, including Cellar Door Coffee, Heart Coffee Roasters, Spella Caffe, Water Avenue, Public Domain, and our favorite of them all Coava Coffee Roasters. Each of these produces good to very-good coffee in a storefront/roasting facility, and the settings are unique to them all.
For instance, Coava is located on Grand Ave. in Southeast Portland, in an area you wouldn’t expect to find a niche coffee roaster. But they’ve partnered with Bamboo Revolution – a producer of bamboo flooring, cabinets, and doors – to craft a really beautiful space for their cafe. The relationship is clearly a symbiotic one. Bamboo Revolution fabricated the cabinets, bar, and tables for the coffee shop part of the space, while using half of the overall interior space to display their bamboo wares. The bamboo gives the space a really warm feeling, and provides a perfect backdrop for the artisan approach that Coava takes with their coffee.
Coava has made their mark with coffee in two separate ways. Firstly, they engineered the Kone coffee filter, designed to replace the paper filters used for Chemex coffee makers. The Kone is a laser-welded steel filter with a series of microscopic holes that are designed to filter the coffee while letting a certain amount of oils and sediment through. Coava calls the resulting coffee a hybrid brew, part Chemex and part French press. We’ve been using one here since December, and it produces a bright, clean, expressive cup that really puts the coffee (and its roast) on display.
One can only imagine that part of the motivation behind developing the Kone filter was to provide the perfect stage for their coffee to express itself. All of Coava’s coffees are small-batch, light-to-medium roasts, and typically represent what is seasonally available from farms and suppliers. In the shop, they always offer two coffees on Kone/Chemex drip, and two on espresso. Oftentimes, the same coffees are offered in both formats, giving you the chance to taste two different expressions of the same bean and roast. Across the board, we’ve found their coffees to consistently be really intriguing, often veering towards a tea-like style. They don’t always make good coffees for a weekday morning (when coffee is your stimulant of choice to wake a foggy brain), but they are excellent for a quiet start to a weekend morning.
Right out of the grinder, notes of blueberry and black raspberry fill the air. In the cup, the most prominent note is blueberry pie, underscored by spice and oak notes. The palate has a creamy texture with minimal acidity supporting flavors of blueberry, melon, and toast. The lingering finish has lingering notes of berries and mint.
Very tasty, with the classic blueberry notes of Ethiopian coffees. If you happen to be in town and haven’t checked out Coava yet, you owe it to yourself to stop by.
Here in Portland we’re very gastronomically blessed. Within a couple miles of where we’re living now, there are several breweries, three distilleries, a couple of restaurants specializing in house-made charcuterie, one specializing in selling and serving incredible local cheeses, and a chocolate maker. Not to mention the slew of good restaurants and food carts. Phew! Oh, and a couple of coffee roasters.
Actually, a plethora of coffee roasters is more like it. The number of coffee roasters is right up there with the number of breweries in town, and their range in terms of size can be just as dramatic. There are small micro-roasters who are roasting a pound at a time, just as there are small nano-breweries brewing 1-barrel (31-gallons) at a time. And the quality can be just as variable as well. Let’s face it, not all of the breweries brew good beer, and not all of the coffee roasters are roasting great coffee. But on the whole, the quality is quite good, and often outstanding.
So it’s really a wealth of riches here in this regards. Which makes it tough each Saturday morning, when I make coffee and realize, “Oh crap! That’s the last of the coffee!!” (and for some reason, this seems to happen only on weekend mornings), to decide where to go to pick up a pound of coffee or two for the week. Literally, within walking distance are 5 good roasters.
In this landscape, a roaster such as Stumptown gets shunted to the side on many occasions. With roasters such as Coava, Water Avenue, and Cellar Door so close by, it’s easy to dismiss Stumptown as the corporate behemoth of the lot. Whether or not that’s true, I have to admit that the reality is that they do appear to go to great lengths to source their coffee and to work directly with farmers as much as possible. Their current offerings include fourteen “direct trade” coffees, of the total of eighteen that they have on offer. This includes three of their four blends, the components of which are all directly sourced.
And the coffees are typically quite good, and they range the spectrum of the world’s coffee-growing region. Stop by the Stumptown Annex, and you can get a single cup or a pound of any coffee they’re offering, including Central American, African, and Indonesian coffees. The coffees are all light-to-medium roasted, and do a good job of letting the flavor of the bean come through.
I don’t mean to write a post glorifying Stumptown. But, as I brewed a cup of coffee this morning and mulled over where to go pick up a pound later today, I found myself reflexively dismissing Stumptown. For no other good reason than they have 9 locations, sell Panama Esmerelda coffee at crazy prices, and are a verifiable hipster scene.
During a recent coffee-resupplying trip to the Annex, we had picked up two 1/2 pounds of the Burundi coffees they were offering, Bwayi and Kinyovu. I didn’t get around to writing up anything about the Bwayi, but really enjoyed the Kinyovu and so jotted down some notes.
The Kinyovu washing station is located in the Kayanza Province of Burundi. It’s a group of farmers that Stumptown has worked with for a couple of years, and their notes indicate that new and changed practices at the station have gradually improved the quality of the coffee. The coffee is grown at an elevation of 1700-1900 meters, and includes the Bourbon, Jackson, and SL varietals.
I tasted this after brewing the coffee using Coava’s Kone drip filter.
The coffee’s aroma is earthy, with spices and cocoa. The palate is supple with a gentle mouthfeel and very balanced acidity. The flavors are subtle, with a subdued presence harboring flavors of cocoa dust, oak, plums, and peppery spices. The finish is reminiscent of the aroma with notes of carob and nuts.
This was an enjoyable coffee. Not one that really spoke to me, and likely not one I’d get again. Both this and the Bwayi were very understated coffees with an earthy, somewhat spicy palate. Good, clean coffees, but not a flavor spectrum that calls out to me.
Panama La Esmeralda. No other words in the world of coffee convey as much excitement or allure as these. Since it first took the coffee world by storm in 2004, the renown of the La Esmeralda coffee has steadily grown, and today it easily generates more excitement than any other coffee out there.
The farm was founded by Daniel and Price Peterson in the Boquete region of Panama, and for many years functioned as most coffee farms do – blending its various coffee varietals. But in 2004, the Petersons decided to take an alternate course, and separated out the Geisha varietal to submit to the annual Panama coffee competition. That year their coffee won the Best of Panama, and essentially the rest is history. They’ve since increased the number of acres devoted to the Geisha varietal, and continue to win awards.
This particular lot of coffee is from trees planted only four years ago in the Canas Verdes region. According to Terroir, this growing area, situated on the south-facing slopes of Volcan Baru at an altitude of 4900-5400 meters, has a notably different microclimate than the areas where Esmeralda grows the rest of their Geisha coffee, with more sun and less rain throughout the year.
Prior to tasting this coffee, I’d had the chance to try an Esmeralda coffee roasted by Portland roaster Public Domain. It was a good coffee, but one that I found difficult to think about objectively. I’d read and heard too much about Esmeralda before being able to actually drink it. So while I enjoyed the cup, my expectations were totally out of whack.
I’m really glad I had that cup of Esmeralda, because it paved the way for me to be able to fully appreciate this batch from Terroir (it’s also worth noting that the two coffees were not from the same lot). I was also totally excited to be able to brew this using our new Kone+Chemex combo from Coava Coffee, as I’m fully convinced that this is the optimal way of brewing up more delicate coffees such as Esmeralda.
So 26 grams of finely ground (#12) Esmeralda, 400 grams of boiled water, Kone, and Chemex, later, I sat down and thoroughly enjoyed a cup of Panama La Esmeralda.
The aroma has notes of orange peel, apricot marmalade, and cinnamon. The palate has a soft texture, with just enough brightening acidity to keep things interesting. Flavors of almonds, lemon, orange, apricot, and white wine – lots of complex layers of fruit that gradually unfold as the coffee cools. The finish winds down with notes of fruits and a white wine.
All in a all, a very complex, delicate coffee. I found that the brewing and temperature I was drinking it at was critical for really getting the most out of this coffee. French press was too coarse, and the flavors weren’t bright enough or as well-defined as when brewed with the Kone+Chemex. And even with the Kone+Chemex, a difference of 4-5 grams of coffee produced a notably different cup. In any of these cases, the coffee was splendid, but it really peaked when I got the amounts, grind, and method down right.
No doubt, if you love coffee, you owe it to yourself to try La Esmeralda at some point. In some sense, I suppose this may be like saying if you love Sauternes, you owe it to yourself to try Chateau d’Yquem. But then, Chateau d’Yquem is several hundred dollars a bottle, whereas La Esmeralda is a much more reasonable indulgence!
We discovered Verve Coffee Roasters during our recent trip to San Francisco. We had one day to spend in town, and decided to conduct our own little gastronomic tour. First stop on our itinerary was breakfast at farm:table, a great little coffee shop/breakfast spot just outside of the downtown area. We ordered up some excellent pastries and quiche, and a carafe of coffee.
Right away, the coffee came across as significant. Instead of a french press, farm:table made our coffee in an Eva Solo coffee maker. This was our first time having coffee made this way, and I’m in love! It was great how the coffee was somewhere between a melitta filter and a french press, well-balanced between body, texture, and light, fresh flavors from the beans. After we finished our breakfast, I inquired about the coffee, and learned a few things about Verve. They’re located in Santa Cruz, CA and were founded in 2007 by friends Ryan O’Donovan and Colby Barr. They say all the “right” things about their approach to sourcing and roasting coffee, but just taking a look at their offerings, and having gotten to taste a couple of them, I’d say they’re backing up their words with very good coffees.
They offer a range of coffees from Latin America, Africa, and Indonesia, and after some hemming and hawing I chose to go with the Kenya Karumandi Peaberry. After a string of Latin American coffees recently, I was hankering to have a Kenyan coffee at home once again. This Karumandi coffee is produced by the Baragwi Farmers Cooperative Society, in the Kirinyaga district. The coop numbers 1200 members, and all of the coffee is grown between 1700-2100 meters. This specific coffee was harvested in April and May of 2010, and includes the SL28 and SL34 varietals. This is washed coffee, so you can expect some bright, sweet flavors.
The coffee pours a deep, dark black with crimson highlights. The nose is smoky, sweet, and earthy, leading to a palate rich with dark fruit flavors, plums, black cherries, carob, turbinado sugar, mint. The texture is deft, supple, and mouth-filling. The coffee finishes with notes of sweet syrup and soft fruits.
All in all, a nice coffee that displays the classic Kenyan character in a soft, supple frame. I’d gladly give some other Verve coffees a whirl, and have heard that they’re even served at a spot or two in Portland. So I’ll have to keep my eyes open. Of course, there’s no dearth of good/great coffee places in Portland (OR), so the challenge may be to not let a good roaster like Verve get lost in the shuffle!