Coffee Review

“Rarity” is a virtue. It is often a valuable virtue.

This is especially true with coffee. For better or for worse, coffee connoisseurs have always searched for that magical bean, that “umph,” that something extra that they’ve never tasted before in previous cups. “Commonality” is often ridiculed, deemed “low-quality,” or simply boring.

Praise of rarity, and placing additional value for the sake of rarity, with a lack of exceptional quality and expertise, is just snobbish, exactly what this video portrays in this Huffington Post article. However, when a marketing point for rarity is backed by impeccable attention to detail (in all stages of coffee growing and processing), and meshed with beautiful design, rarity is worth the price tag.

Intelligentsia’s Café Inmaculada is such an example.

The limited edition Café Inmaculada collection (sorry, it’s no longer available) featured three cultivars grown and harvested in the Santuario farm in Colombia. The rich soils and abundance of sun and rainfall, coupled with an elevation that ranges from 1,740 – 2,040 meters above sea level, presents perfect growing conditions. The picked beans are fermented in stainless steel tanks with agitation and temperature control, and are dried on-site on shaded beds with fans that moderate airflow.

Intelligentsia describes the three cultivars as follows:

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Sudan Rume

A legendary coffee variety that originated on the Boma Plateau, located in southeastern Sudan near to the Ethiopian border. This area belongs to a region considered to be the birthplace of the Arabica species. Sudan Rume has long been used by plant breeders as a source of “quality” genes, but is rarely planted because it doesn’t produce large yields.


Laurina, a.k.a. Bourbon Pointu, comes from Reunion Island just off the coast of Madagascar. It is the direct descendant of the trees responsible for seeding most of Latin America, and was all but forgotten for most of the 20th century. Laurina is thought to be an early mutation from the Typica variety and is now considered the “original” Bourbon. It has the distinction of being extremely low in caffeine.


This is a spontaneous wild cross of Maragogype and Geisha that occurred in the Santuario farm outside of Popayán, where trees of the two varieties were growing next to one another. It does not exist anywhere else, and this lot is the first to have ever been harvested.

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Here are some tasting notes for each. The Sudan Rume was smooth, with hints of caramel and maybe even butter. The Laurina had hints of cocoa and citrus. And the rare hybrid, Maragesha, was very nutty; I swear I tasted pistachios.

All three cultivars had great flavor. But the real question is whether that excellence in taste is from their rarity, from the expertise of Camilo Merizalde the farmer, or from the high quality of Colombian coffee as a whole. I prefer to place greater credit on the last two.

The rarity of the cultivars (come on, when one uses words like “birthplace,” “original,” and “does not exist elsewhere,” there’s a greater chance your wallet will open) certainly added to the experience. Perhaps it acted like a placebo effect of sorts. But that should not take anything away from Camilo’s work in growing, harvesting, and processing excellent beans, or from Intelligentsia’s roasting abilities.

An already immaculate set of three cultivars was only enhanced by the fact that I will probably never taste them again (or at least for a while).

Along with growing, harvesting, processing, and roasting excellence, the package design and branding efforts of this project are equally delicious. The geometric details were printed by Chicago’s Rohner Letterpress, and the stylish metal box is unlike anything I’ve seen before, a keeper in its own sake.

Once again, this reiterates the importance of design in coffee. We not only taste what’s in the cup, but also what we see. We drink with our eyes first. The rarity of the cultivars is exponentially highlighted by equally rare packaging and design. It screams “I AM THE ONE AND ONLY.” Intelligentsia didn’t have to hire Rohner to design the details, and its certainly didn’t have to come up with a shiny, metallic box. But it did, and for good reason.

Rarity in coffee is a beautiful thing. It’s a delicious thing.

To me, Kenya AA coffee represents a New World, a new Symphony, a New World Symphony.

Along with my first cup of coffee from the Yirgacheffe region, Kenya AA – particularly the beautiful SL-28, SL-34 cultivars – introduced me to the immense flavor possibilities of hand-drip coffee. Powerful, playful, dynamic, bursting – all words to describe some of the Kenya AAs I’ve tried thus far (which includes coffees from Verve and PT’s).

Kenyan AA in a K-Cup. Who knew.

For the past two months or so, I have had my share of K-Cup coffee (audible gasp). Purchased by the firm as part of new office space furnishings, the Keurig has been, by far, the most popular piece of equipment in the office. Thus began my objective experimentation to find out what exactly draws people to press that “Brew” button on the Evil Empire’s facade every morning. Here are my three conclusions to date.

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1. Consistency

A thumbs-up for Keurig, as consistency is key to brewing good coffee. The only problem is, consistently brewing bad coffee is just as negligible as having no consistency at all. K-Cup coffee, I find, has a distinct “machine flavor” to it; a K-Cup flavor, might I say. Consistently tastes like machine.

2. Flavorama

My office underling affectionately ordered box loads of “flavored” K-Cup pods. Take any wild guess, and surely you will find a flavor for you: spicy eggnog, wild mountain blueberry, Cayman coconut, butter toffee, creme caramel, pumpkin spice, and my personal favorite, “Breakfast in Bed” with/by Wolfgang Puck. Had enough yet? I am beginning to think the vile shots of peppermint syrup I used to add to my law school 6th floor detergent coffee had better flavor than some of these concoctions. But oh, for the adventurous soul seeking new boundaries in coffee, flavored K-Cups give them the mojo to make it through their otherwise monotonous day.

3. Convenience

In a gallant effort to guide my office underling to world of quality-brewed specialty coffee, I offered him an excellent cup from my Aeropress brewer. Alas, while he acknowledged the superb quality and mind-blowing taste, he cites to “convenience” as he gleefully returned to Mother Flavorload in K-Cup Land.

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Out of the three reasons discussed above, it seems to me that “convenience” is the biggest reason people use the Keurig. This bothers me. Nothing good can come from a society that prefers “convenience” over “quality.” Convenience is inherently rooted in the need for efficiency and speed; the need to get things done, and to get them done now. Convenience, speed, and efficiency are good for the office – for copying, scanning, shredding, reading, writing, editing, yelling, screaming. It becomes an issue when we “convenienize” other aspects of life.

Brewing your cup of coffee should not be a matter of convenience. I am not advocating for a culture that requires you to process, dry, and roast your own beans (thankfully, we have masterful sourcers and roasters who do that professionally, and, beautifully). I am advocating for a culture that understands the need (and want) to slow down, to skillfully craft something for one’s own serenity. A culture that whips you constantly with a carrot on the end of a stick is at risk of “losing” so many things, which is ironic because a go-go-go culture is that way only to “gain” things, not lose them.

If Keurig’s “convenience” brought equal or almost equal quality to a cup of coffee, then I would have less of a reason to object. However, as evidenced by Green Mountain Coffee’s “Kenyan AA” in a pod, convenience has failed to bring about quality, flavor, or respect. If anyone has ever tried masterfully roasted, “real” SL-28, SL-34 coffee, one would share my utter disgust at the stale grinds buried in that pod. (On a different note, what is “Medium Roast, Extra Bold”? I would like to think coffee is one or the other, either medium roast, or bold roast, but I guess this is a new paradigm in coffee culture, curated by none other than Keurig and Green Mountain.)

So we have come to this. Kenyan AA in a pod.

I shall shed a tear or two, for if this doesn’t signal a society in demise, nothing will.

In his beloved novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera talks about a lot of things.

For one, he talks about “shit,” calling it a “more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.”

In relation to this revelation on shit, and perhaps more famously, Kundera elaborates on the true meaning of “kitsch,” a critical theme of his book.

“‘Kitsch’ is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

That is some heavy duty manure to digest in one sitting. But in re-reading Kundera’s classic, I’d like to sum his ramblings into two words: “transitory nature.”

“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing . . . Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Coffee from the Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia is why I first fell in love with specialty coffee. I vaguely remember where I had that cup – perhaps somewhere on the West Coast, perhaps some douchey cafe in Shinsa-dong in Seoul. I do remember flowers, an entire, radiant bouquet, perfuming my mouth. I do remember bright acidity, not enough to wince, but just enough to acknowledge its existence.

I do remember, most of all, its “transitory nature.” The flowers, the acidity, the brightness, all of it was fleeting, gone before I could ask anyone what I just put in my mouth.

There is no reason for good coffee to stick to your tongue like caramel. That is the beauty Verve’s Yirgacheffe coffee from the Konga Cooperative.

Verve describes the washing process as “a single washing station member of Konga was isolated for employing stringent attention to detail and extremely ripe coffee cherry delivery. As an experiment, this station was isolated and milled separately to see if the production would be heightened. The result is a coffee that is filled with concentrated flavors and extremely electric citric tones.”

No doubt, the wet-process for this batch was a success. In addition to the intense tropical fruit flavors and floral tones that I am accustomed to from coffees from this region, the wet-process adds a creamy, velvety feel that I was not aware of. The descriptor “graceful” on Verve’s beautifully designed packaging is accurate. When brewed just right, flowers burst up-front, followed by a mellow wrapping of lavender, which leads to a creamy finish.

Verve’s logo is simple yet brilliant, using a bold yet elegant typeface to etch a permanent image of the “V” for Verve in your retina. The scorpion-leaf-vine-like pattern, repeated endlessly on the black packaging, stays true to the roaster’s roots in Santa Cruz, while the color combination of olive green, brown, and orange (used sparingly, once towards the top of the bag, and once more on the side) breathes air into a potentially dark and heavy exterior, perhaps as a prelude to the brightness tucked within.

The coffee from Konga is enriched by its “transitory nature.” A typical batch of coffee may have one of many flavor notes – caramel, fruits, floral, cocoa, lavender, you name it. But whatever the note, I think the beauty of specialty coffee (and the masterful picking, washing, drying, roasting process) is the ability to make the notes dance for a brilliant moment – then vanish. Linger, yes, but vanish. Just as the passion fruit note hits you, just as the lavender starts to peak, the “unbearable lightness” of the flavors swiftly lift them as if they were never there.

Verve does that. Gracefully.

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Verve Coffee Roasters – Konga, Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia
12 oz whole bean – $19.75
Santa Cruz, California

For those who have read Albert Camut’s “The Stranger,” warm graham crackers and hazelnut would be the last things that come to mind. While the classic novel takes place under the blistering sun of the Algiers, “warmth” is not often associated with it.

But there is a paragraph that lingers in my mind, one that paints an ordinary man, eating an ordinary lunch, followed by an ordinary nap. One that features the most unassuming cup of coffee, summed in three words – “had some coffee.”

We arrived at Celeste’s dripping with sweat. Celeste was there, as always, with his big belly, his apron, and his white moustache. He asked me if things were “all right now.” I told him yes they were and said I was hungry. I ate fast and had some coffee. Then I went home and slept for a while because I’d drunk too much wine, and when I woke up I felt like having a smoke. It was late and I ran to catch a streetcar. I worked all afternoon. It got very hot in the office, and that evening, when I left, I was glad to walk back slowly along the docks. The sky was green: I felt good. But I went straight home because I wanted to boil myself some potatoes.

I have wanted to try Café Grumpy’s coffee for some time, so when my Parsons student/future superstar designer sister-in-law visited with this bag in hand, I was delighted.

There is nothing ordinary about the coffee from La Esperanza farm in El Salvador. Owned by the Pacas family for generations, the El Carmen lot is 1600 meters above sea level and is 100% bourbon variety.

Bourbon – the variety named “2013 Sexiest Coffee Variety Alive” by Sprudge (read the article here). It was one more reason to try this coffee from Café Grumpy.

“Sexy” is not the word I would use to describe this batch. Graham cracker and hazelnut notes were prevalent, and overall the cup was smooth and balanced. (I missed the key lime note, as indicated on the packaging, but that could have been less than perfect brewing on my part.)

“Warm” is the word for this batch. An unassuming “had some coffee” may have been the phrase I uttered when I was brewing this in and around Christmas, but not out of indifference. Rather, it was a home coming from all the bright and fruity Ethiopian coffees I’ve had in previous weeks – back to balance, back to subtle sweetness, back to smooth cocoa.

The brown paper bag used for packaging adds a rustic, crafty feel. And the infamous Grumpy logo displayed on the label is eye-catching, prominently showcasing the roaster’s brand.

Whether it’s an evening in front of a crackling fire, or an afternoon on a beach under the piercing sun of Algiers, Café Grumpy’s bourbon variety will leave you with lasting traces of warmth.

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Café Grumpy – La Esperanza, El Salvador (bourbon)
12 oz whole bean – $16
Brooklyn, New York


I share with you an obvious epiphany regarding coffee – the “freshness” of the roast date largely determines the final taste.

Sure, brand name roasters are good. Stumptown, Intelligentsia, La Colombe, all good. Their sourcing is excellent, and their roasting is rarely less than superb. Regional, single-sourced beans are good too. Ethiopian beans seem to be the thing these days, along with Colombian and Guatemalan products. All good.

One critically overlooked component of great coffee, however, is the roast date. From my experience, coffee tastes best when the beans were roasted within two weeks of brewing. The aroma and the essential oils are still vibrantly in tact, showcasing a magnificent bloom and full, balanced flavor. The greater the gap between roasting and brewing, the greater lack in flavor. “Hot” beans from “hot” roasters do not escape this truth. The mere fact that you bought “designer” coffee does not guarantee designer-quality taste. Fresh, fresh, fresh.

To ensure freshness, and, in turn, great taste, I find myself turning to local roasters. Maryland, Virginia, and DC are home to a number of excellent roasters – Zeke’s, TBC, Orinoco, Rise Up, Ceremony Coffee, and M.E. Swing, to name a few. Even compared to the national giants listed above, these local gems feature impeccably sourced seasonal varieties, roasted to perfection. And, more importantly, the beans are fresh, sometimes within a day or two of the roast date. As a matter of simple logistics, local means close, and close usually means fresh.

Finding these local treasure bags of coffee may not be easy, but Mom’s Organic Market, a Maryland-based chain operation, has one of the more robust collections of local roasters (pictured above). Whole Foods has some, and Wegmans has some too, but in terms of freshness, Mom’s collection is the best by nine yards (I was rather disappointed with Whole Foods’ stash, as many bags were roasted three to four months. prior to the purchase date.)

If you want great coffee, go local, and check that roast date stamp on the bag.

Happy brewing.

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