I never understood Third Wave coffee’s War on Blends. Instead of advocating improved access to great coffees and all the flavors they have to offer us, it’s as if a coffee Taliban were telling us what tastes are heretical and forbidden. That if a flavor doesn’t occur in nature, it is an affront to both God’s will and our dogmatic coffee religion.
Today single origins are elevated as the ultimate expression of coffee, only to be surpassed by single microlot coffees. But here’s a major problem: there are good microlots and there are not-so-good microlots. Geographic specificity isn’t a measure of quality — as if the more “micro” the lot, the better the coffee. Nor is micro-geographic purity an actual flavor. But we all seem to act like these were true.
Thus there are many industry advocates for coffee’s version of racial hygiene and Jim Crow laws: worshipping at the altar of coffee’s genetic and geographic purity. This despite most of today’s prized microlot coffees being the result of deliberate genetic cross-breeding and geographic transplanting (e.g.: Kenyan SL-28s grown in El Salvador, Ethiopian Geisha grown in Panama, etc.).
Meanwhile, many of the same Third Wave segregationists are now fawning over uses of high-grade coffees in coffee cocktails, stout beers, flavored liqueurs, and shelf-stable iced coffee concoctions where brewed coffee strangely never goes bad… essentially the debasement of elite coffees as a flavoring ingredient. What does this say about respecting the coffee and how it is carefully procured, processed, and prepared? Would advocates of Grand Cru Échézeaux honor mixing it with fruit juice to make a refreshing summer sangria? Or putting it in a saucepan with honey, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise to make a crowd-pleasing spiced mulled wine for the winter holidays?
On the one hand, I don’t get the point of pineapple mango guava juice. But when it comes to the breadth and complexity of coffee flavor profiles, exclusively relying on microlot coffees is like following Olympic sport where the athletes can set world-record leg presses but lack the upper body strength to do more than three chin-ups and get winded on 200m jogs for lack of any cardio training. While not every sporting event has to be an epic of decathlete cross-training, a microlot espresso is woefully inadequate if you value that sort of balance and well-roundedness.
The vanguard of quality coffee standards today have often abandoned making coffee blends, and the few who still invest in making blends have not taken them seriously enough to do them well — at least in North America. This has created a quality coffee flavor profile vacuum. It’s a much bigger vacuum than the one for quality merlot wines that developed around the time of the 2004 movie Sideways, when public tastes faddishly swayed away from the grape.
Like a blast out of 1994, King’s Row Coffee (KRC) — through their CEO, Sam Sabky — approached me with their stated ideals about coffee that seemed both unfashionably dated and radically new & novel at the same time. They are committed to producing multiple high quality blends with flavor profiles targeted for specific environments and purposes, all roasted to order. Encountering such a counter-cultural approach to coffee was a breath of fresh air.
They begin with a James Beard award-winning master chef in Craig Shelton. That Craig also has legit sommelier chops helps with his role as KRC’s taste-maker and recipe man, approaching coffee much as you might a Bordeaux or Rhone blend.
For the roasting itself, KRC relies on the legendary Oren Bloostein of Oren’s Daily Roast fame (based in NY, but always coming to a CoffeeCON near you). Using beans sourced from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Sumatra, and Celebes, KRC applies a post-blending approach where the five or six varietals in a given blend are optimally roasted separately in small batches. (Other roasters sometimes favor a pre-blending approach — which often espouses the idea that component-based roasting loses some of the potential aggregate characteristics of the blend, as if making a pot of stew or spaghetti sauce.)
As for their recipes…
|Blend||Aroma [info]||Brightness [info]||Body [info]||Flavor [info]||Overall|
|The Espresso Blend||8.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.50|
|The Shelton Signature Blend||7.0||7.0||8.0||8.0||7.50|
|The Coastal Blend||6.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||6.75|
|The Bonbon Blend||7.0||7.0||6.0||7.0||6.75|
|The Mountain Blend||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.00|
I made this as an espresso in my usual Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine setup with a Mazzer Mini grinder. The marketing literature calls it “European Style”, which can be quite dubious if by “Europe” you mean France.
They cup it as a “full-bodied, crisp and balanced dark roast”, and there’s clearly some spots of second-crack oils. It’s not as full-bodied as we expected, but there’s a cohesion to it. “Toffee and toasted nuts”? Check. “Bright and clean with no burned aftertaste”? Check. “Great when used with milk”? Quite good.
My shots pulled with a dark to medium brown textured crema — a good sign — with a slightly thin body. The crema was strong enough (we’d rate it an 8.0) to bump the score as our favorite of the lot. Pungent, some spice, some limited sweetness, but no smoke nor ashiness for sure. And some bittersweet chocolate in the base, of which we’re always a fan.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. KRC recommends #4 filters for the V60, and I used Hario’s own #2 filters for all the examples here.
This is Craig’s original coffee and the KRC benchmark, which they call “The World’s Most Sophisticated Coffee”. Talk about a serious billing to live up to.
As described, it’s “an all-day blend for the connoisseur or everyday drinker who takes his coffee black”…”racy, sophisticated and powerful, this coffee is in perfect balance with a lively acidity”… “A ‘Broadband’ medium roast with a remarkable sweetness, large creamy body and smooth finish. Massive complexity and mouthfeel.”
For the most part, the blend delivered on many of its promises. It appears as a slightly dark roast with some second-crack surface oil: few in today’s lightness-obsessed coffee world would call this a medium roast. But the cocoa is there, as is the broadband flavor and balance. However, any acidity is very subdued, but there is a great aftertaste as it truly coats the tongue with sweeter oils. Can we say it?: an excellent blend.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They call this, “A Robust Taste for Marine Environments” — so brewing in the fog of San Francisco seemed a rather appropriate challenge.
In their words, “The brine in the salty ocean air deadens the palate, resulting in a flat, dull tasting experience, no matter the quality of the coffee” and call this blend “a darker roast and bold, in your face coffee that rises above ambient smells in salty air while preserving a refined and balanced taste”.
It is a more traditional darker roast style with minimal fruit, some smoke, more pungency, but also a pleasant — albeit not great — mouthfeel. Perhaps a touch harsher than the Shelton Signature Blend, but it is still enjoyable. However, I’m not sure I got out as much of its optimization for the ambient marine air.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder, KRC labels this “The Ultimate Coffee for Foodies”. Why? They say “we designed the Bonbon Blend to reach peak taste profile when paired with sweet and savory delights, making it an ideal accompaniment to any meal, especially breakfast and dessert.” Sweet and savory covers pretty much all types of food, so we’ll call it a coffee for food pairing.
We’ve never bought into the more recent coffee pairing with food gimmick — suggesting that it is mostly wishful thinking by those attempting to graft wine tasting experiences onto coffee. Food and wine pairings go back centuries if not millennia with the old “if it grows together, it goes together” adage. As for a coffee equivalent, it was originally balled up with animal fats as a trail snack — a kind of Paleo energy bar. Hardly the historical stuff of gourmands.
Now some might make the case that coffee previously had only “one flavor” (their words, not mine) and thus there historically wasn’t a diversity of food pairings to draw from. But we have yet to experience coffee as any more magical or practical for food pairing than, say, cigars.
The KRC Bonbon blend is a lighter roast than the others, but it is still on the edges of second-crack oil. Otherwise it’s more of a medium brown.
Their cupping notes call it “a bold coffee, characterized by a balanced body, a vibrant acidity and a smooth and crisp finish to keep the palate refreshed.” The story is you should try it before and after eating something sweet for a comparison, demonstrating how its acidity balances with your “tainted” flavor palate after eating a chocolate bonbon (hence the name).
Before my chocolate croissant, it seemed rather light-bodied with some acidity and salt. But it was balanced and lacked any harsher elements. After the croissant the acidity was more subdued, the body was enhanced, but the flavor profile of the coffee seemed to flatten out. The difference was subtle, and it turned out to be a good coffee before and after eating something.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They define it as “Designed for High Altitude Brewing”, noting that “brewing at higher altitudes over-extracts bitter alkaloids and under-extracts desirable oils.” To compensate, KRC blended in a bean with oils that extract at a lower than normal brewing temperature.
Their cupping notes call it “a medium roast with a creamy body and remarkable sweetness. Bright, balanced and smooth at altitude.” I found it to be a medium to dark roast with clear edges of second-crack oils. It has a somewhat thicker body and a little of that felt-like mouthfeel that’s almost part particulate, part oils. And there’s a sweeter finish to the cup.
Brewing this at 90m/300-ft, I didn’t stand to benefit from how the blend was tailored for high-altitude brewing. But it was a good cup of coffee in any case.
Targeting specific environments for coffee enjoyment is an interesting and rather unique approach. I enjoyed all of the coffees, and in particular their flagship Shelton Signature Blend — which is the foundation for all their varieties. And IMO, a good blend is a rare find among newer North American roasters these days.
However, I did not notice major differences in the different blends overall: they were all good, all somewhat similar in roasting style and flavor profile, but not radically that different from each other.
The environmental benefits of one blend versus another seemed incremental, but perhaps not enough to convince a coffee lover in Denver, for example, to forgo their Espresso Novo habit for the KRC Mountain Blend. Not all palates are that sensitive. Still, I have to give them credit for trying something new and not following the herd of Third Wave sheep.
Through King’s Row Coffee, I can also pass along a 20% off discount code of theshot20 if you’d like to try something yourself.
Earlier this year I attended Illy‘s Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone in St. Helena, CA for a course titled Coffee Expert: From Plant to the Cup. Effectively it was a slightly updated and “Americanized” version of the introductory Illy course I first wrote about eight years ago when the famed food writer, David Lebovitz, attended it at their headquarters in Trieste, Italy. (Following a few mutual-admiration-society-type exchanges with David, I later wrote a guest post on David’s blog the following month.)
Flash forward to April of this year (if you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to post this, I really have no excuse), and I finally had the opportunity to attend this two-day course myself in the Napa Valley.
Despite what many Third Wave fanboys might consider an “establishment” coffee company, I’ve long admired the detailed science, style, ethics, and quality controls behind illycaffè. I’ve also been a fan of their coffee — particularly in Europe more than in any other continent for yet-to-be-explained reasons. In more recent times I’ve also come to know a few members of the illy caffè North America team and have become a real fan. Connecting with them opened a door to attend one of their professional courses — held at one of two Culinary Institute of America locations in the U.S., typically a couple times each year.
Held at CIA Greystone’s Rudd Wine Center, it’s a facility and environment designed expressly for educating the sensory evaluation of wine… or also, as it turns out, coffee. Students sit at curved, lab-like tables surrounding an instructor equipped with various A/V controls. Each student station has access to a sink, running water, and multiple counters for performing sensory evaluations and comparisons.
Key illy caffè North America instructors included Mark Romano, their Senior Director of Education, Quality and Sustainability. There was also Giorgio Milos, their Master Barista & Instructor and famed coffee blogger. I learned his mother was an Illy employee for 35 years and his father was a dairyman: how’s that for barista pedigree? And there was also the Seattle-based Heidi Rasmussen, their Senior Manager Education and Quality … and chief wise-cracker. Also on-site to both serve attendees excellent espresso drinks and assist with the hands-on training was Carlos Chavez, 22-year veteran of SF’s Caffè Greco.
Student attendees included a number of coffee industry professionals, including a contingent from Seattle’s Caffè Umbria (such as Stefano Bizzari, son of Caffè Umbria founder, Emanuele Bizzari, and grandson of Umberto Bizzari of Torrefazione Italia fame). Other students — there was a total of about 25-30 — were either in the food or restaurant industry but typically humbly called themselves “coffee enthusiasts”.
The course covered the usual suspects of coffee history, processing, brewing, demand issues, trends, sustainability and supply chain concerns. Much of the material was already familiar to me, but even so it was worth experiencing it in a cohesive course. Even if you’re not a complete novice, there are always details that add something — such as learning a lot more of the nuances that go into making a proper Moka pot. (Or, what Heidi exemplified: “Bad Moka vs. Good Moka”)
Interspersed among the more textbook lessons were various sensory evaluations of coffee: blind tastings of different preparation methods (including blind triangular studies), arabicas vs. robustas, different geographies, decaffeination comparisons, different roasting levels, and different extraction levels. Or even just noticing the flaws in espresso as it cools.
After a couple of days of all that great coffee — for both enjoyment and evaluation — the absurdity of the term “coffee addict” came clearly to mind. The classic definition of addiction requires ever more of a substance to achieve the same desired physical effects after building up a tolerance. However, there was not a single coffee lover attending the course who could reach the late afternoon without saying, “no more, please” to the continual onslaught of more coffee.
On the final day I probably learned the most with a bit of hands-on labwork among three coffee stations:
The high level of hands-on feedback provided in this format was of particular benefit — something where the educational format of a Chef Steps falls flat.
In summary, the course probably won’t revolutionize how you think about coffee. However, it’s a methodical approach towards ensuring that you have the basics covered, from bean to cup. I found the hands-on aspects of the course particularly beneficial, and you’ll also get to hang out with some pretty cool fellow coffee fans. The price tag is quite steep unless it’s a business expense, but it is in line with other layman culinary courses offered at the CIA. All said, I really enjoyed the entire experience.