How Does It Taste?
How a coffee tastes is up to the individual. What's bold and balanced to one might be a cup of motor oil to another. Here, I offer my take on various coffee products, with descriptions and my humble take on the result. These are only my opinions, worth no more than any other. However, it may offer you a preview before you put your money down.
Basic Steps to Better Coffee
While I am off roasting up special batches of Sumatran and Costa Rican for next week, it dawned on me that the basics of coffee making are really simple. There are a few easy steps that will nearly insure a good cup for anyone who wishes to follow them. These steps don't require hyper premium, single origin beans or three thousand dollar espresso machines. These are basic things that you can do today to have a better cup tomorrow. I will share them with you now.
Tip #1 - Something is in the water
The quality of the water is critical to how good a cup of coffee you can brew. If you have hard, nasty tasting water, your cup will taste similar to yak poop, no other way around it. Water in different areas come from underground sources like aquifers and wells, and that water soaks up a great deal of dissolved minerals. I've you've ever tasted really irony or limey water, you know what I mean: it is just terrible. These dissolved minerals don't go away when you heat your water.... they taint your coffee cup's flavor and aftertaste.
Tip #2 - Know where the water comes from
We've all seen the condemning news reports telling us how expensive bottled water is no better than ordinary city tap water. That may indeed be the case, but what's important is where that city tap comes from. If you have water that is drawn mainly from rain-fed lakes and streams, you have water that is most likely soft and free of the dissolved solids we're trying to avoid. If you have water that comes from wet, swampy areas (Southern Florida comes to mind) that is even better: this water has passed through a great deal of vegetation. The water takes on a bit of tannin from the wood and vegetation, which has a positive effect on the resulting cup of coffee. The water is very slightly acid, which works magic on the coffee. Don't ask me for the scientific explanation, I don't have one. If you call down to your city's water department and they tell you your water is drawn from wells or an aquifer, chances are good that the water will contain more dissolved solids and be slightly alkaline. This does NOT mean the water is unhealthy to drink. It just means the water might have more of an aftertaste than other sources. If you hear travelers or out-of-town guests comment about the taste of your water, you can be assured the water is having an effect on your coffee.
Tip #3 Filter your water before you brew
What about a "Brita" filter or something similar? It is possible to pull out the stuff that makes your water taste funny. Countertop/faucet mounted filters use a carbon filter to "scrub" your water and reduce aftertaste. These filters can't work magic on really bad tasting water. I once lived in an area where the drinking water came from limestone aquifers and limestone-lined manmade lakes. This water was absolutely horrid. I found that I had to go all the way and buy a real, multistage filter to get all the stuff out. The unit pictured makes chemically pure water. The filter goes for 130 dollars in December, 2022. The unit filters slowly, but the water it produces is absolutely pure. There will be no dissolved solids of any kind in the water.... much like distilled water. It has no flavor at all, and there's no "quench" from this water. Funny, but what it does do is yield a cup of coffee that is flavored purely by the bean. Nothing to color the taste, it is a case of what you brew is what you get. Is this preferred? If you could make your coffee with sanitized rainwater or treated water from surface lakes and streams, I'd say no. But if you have water with lots of dissolved solids and you don't want to buy water from the supermarket, a little filter system like this is worth the trouble. Click on the photo to be taken to the vendor who makes/sells these. I've dealt with them for many years and they are straight shooters. The relationship of water to your brew is very important. Where you get it, or more importantly how it comes to you is critical for getting the most from your brews. In upcoming tips, I'll talk about making a great drip ... with common coffee makers, and some no-so-common coffee makers.
Note: I have no affiliation with the filter vendor linked in this story. I purchased a unit outright several years ago and now provide a link for your information only.
Zabar's Blend - New York City in a Cup?
Zabar's Coffee has been a NYC staple since the 1960s. Considered by Zabar's as a special blend, we give it a taste to see if we can name it one of our favorites.
The Big Apple demands a whole lot from its cup of Joe.
Zabar's is a familiar store to many living in New York City. A gourmet food store and deli, Zabar's prides itself on being a pioneer in small batch roasting, starting the practice way back in 1966. I was recently given a gift of Zabar's house blend in whole bean, and had it described to me as "New York City in a coffee cup." I gave this coffee a spin to see what this blend is all about.
The bag and website isn't specific about the origin of the beans used in "Zabar's Blend", though it is commendable that they sell true 1-pound bags, not 14 or 12 oz. lookalikes. The roast is light to medium, which puts the task of characterizing the coffee on the beans themselves. They say the cup should be bold and bright with great body and aroma. The website certifies the coffee is Kosher. My bag had no roast date, but a code 12 22419. I've reached out to Zabar's to see if they will share what the code means and if the date is available there.
I ground the coffee to a drip grind in my KitchenAid ProLine grinder. I found that the characteristic "puff" of fresh coffee aroma during the grind wasn't as pronounced as I am accustomed, a sign that the coffee might have been on the shelf for a while. Zabar's bags do not have an airtight seal. It is a simple paper bag with a fold-over wire clasp at the top. There is no one-way vent in the bag. I guess the idea is to buy the coffee you need and get to drinking, which is okay. If you wish to extend the shelf life of this product, you might want to transfer to an airtight container and keep it refrigerated.
I made a 10 oz cup in my Bodum Pour Over Coffee Maker with mesh filter. I used 2 level tablespoons of coffee. Zabar's recommends 2 tablespoons to 6 oz. of water (as most roasters do) but I find this concentration to be TOO strong, with a lot of the more subtle bean characteristics overpowered by the oils a mesh filter will allow through.
I was pleased with the cup. I found the coffee to be robust and nutty with an aftertaste that hinted at smoke. The roast really let the beans do the talking here, with the result being very drinkable and satisfying. I drank mine black, but I suspect there's enough going on with flavor that it will hold up well to creamer and sweetener. Remember, I used a mesh filter. I would guess that a paper filter would draw away some of the character in the form of oils, so perhaps a 2 tbs to 6 oz. ratio might be a good approximation.
It is New York City in a cup? Not being a resident of that fine metropolis, I'm not sure I can answer that conclusively. It is a nice cup, fine for breakfast or a mid-day kickstarter. Zabar's is commended for offering a competent small batch roast at a reasonable price, though bean origin and roast date would be nice to provide on the bag. We'll be sampling more coffees from Zabar's in the near future, and I hope the result will be as satisfying as their house blend.
Keurig Works Up a Froth With Gevalia
Mocha Latte is the R rated version of chocolate milk.
I say that because Moca Latte has a smooth creamy favor. It has a yummy mouth-coating quality that lingers like a melting malt ball. It's a kid's dream, thick and luscious with a flavor so fat it hangs like a froth mustache on your upper lip. But moca has some forbidden qualities as well. It has the very grown up nip of a dark roasted espresso and a nutty fullness that wins out over the sheer sweet that children would prefer. Most kids I know would take a sip and then stick out a tongue in defeat. So close, but yet so far in children's terms. But a nice mocha can be just the ticket to the adult tongue. But what has all this frothiness have to do with Keurig? Drop in a cup and get a cup of coffee - no froth allowed. Or is that actually the case?
Gevalia's Mocha Latte "Kit" Keurig gets complex with Gevalia's Mocha Latte 2 part kit. Gevalia, who has entered the K-arena with some wonderful coffees, as introduced a 2 part kit for preparing a frothy cup of moca latte. The kit consists of a powder packet that is poured dry into the bottom of the coffee cup. Then a quite ordinary looking K cup is placed in the holster. With the machine set to a medium cup size, the hot water passes though the coffee .... and magic takes place.
As the hot coffee hits the powder, a reaction occurs. The powder in the cup begins to pop and sputter to life, creating a blanket of foam about a half inch thick. As a man who grew up in the United States, I am reminded of a popular candy called "Pop Rocks" that would sputter and crack once exposed to whatever corrosive qualities my saliva contained. You can give it a few stirs with a stick or a spoon to mix in all the powder, and you wind up with a cup of mocha latte that looks and smells pretty good. There's still a few pops and cracks, but that fades quickly leaving a nice cup of foamy drink. A little squirt of canned whipped cream makes this an impressive looking treat.
The impressive fireworks aside, how does this powdered "latte" foam actually taste? The best way is to tell you what it is NOT:
The impressive fireworks aside, how does this powdered "latte" foam actually taste? The best way is to tell you what it is NOT:
1. It is NOT truly frothed whole milk with lots of fat and all the things that make a latte like this stick to your ribs, among other places.
2. It is NOT Cremora on steroids. It has a true coating quality that offers the impression of something containing significant milkfat. There's mocha flavoring in the powder as well, and while it isn't overhelmingly "malted" it is a pleasant taste that works well with the brewed coffee.
3. It is NOT an uncompromising replacement for a coffee house mocha latte. You want the real deal, you've got to put on your coat and go get it or invest in a whole lot more equipment than a Keurig.
4. It is NOT expensive in calories. Gevalia clams 80 calories per serving. You have to stay away from any extra sugar or whipped cream to stay on that target. 5. It is NOT expensive in money, relatively speaking. At the time of this writing, Amazon.com was selling in bulk (36 cups) for 1.22 a cup. compare this to 4-6 dollars for a store made beverage and it's a good deal. Compare it to a nice, simple cup of really good Joe and yeah ... it's a bit of extra change. Gevalia did very well with this tricked out powder and K-cup combination. It is a worthy, quick and easy cup that you can offer a guest or whip up for yourself. It is a great way to avoid a fattening desert and it will leave you feeling quite happy that you've had something naughty to drink. The Coffee Whisperer recommends Gevalia's Mocha Latte for Keurig!
A K-Cup That Calls Canada Home
I spied a new coffee offering in my supermarket K-cup display. This one is marked with a logo familiar to many who call Canada home. "Tim Horton's" is very similar to Duncan Donuts here in the US, a nice little store that can be found pretty much everywhere. They serve lots of good coffee along with some of the most decadent pastries I have ever seen. Yes, they are mostly donuts and their variants, but I've personally never seen a collection of colors, frostings, sprinkles and fillings like I did at a Tim Horton's in Ontario some years back. They are everywhere, and they are always, always occupied with hordes of locals tossing back coffee and packing away calories to fight off the cold.
I had a cup of the standard drip, prepared "regular" which means sugar and cream. It tasted quite satisfying, a dark, full bodied roast that stood up to the add ins. Maybe it was the cool air, but I recall the smell of the brew to be particularly attractive. It was full and fresh, just a few minutes old. I had it with a glazed donut of some design and called it breakfast. A happy memory which always leaves me wondering why "Timmy's" as the locals sometime call their stores haven't tried a legitimate expansion into the United States. There's always room for good coffee and donuts in my opinion. I was brought back to this experience when I saw Tim Horton's cups in the supermarket. I was only able to snag a decaf box, as all the regular seemed snapped up. (Hmmm.... maybe people DO know about Horton goodness here in the Southern United States). While I would have preferred the regular for a test drive, I've been sampling the decaf over the past few days. I was wondering if this K version of this memorable cup could live up to my expectations. Rarely does popular coffee outlets make the jump to the Keurig Universe without bumps and jolts. Horton's was not an exception. The actual cup is a rigid side version, not one with the expanding folds that are filtering into the market. It worked without issue in my machine, and when set to the large mug size offered a slightly weak looking cup of decaf coffee. The flavor of the coffee was a bit on the bright side, more of a medium roast than anything taking on a lot of roast characteristics. It was by no means bold. This particular K-cup yields better when set to a medium mug setting, and there's no way to steal a second brew. I want to say that the decaffeination process steals a good bit of personality from these beans and what you get is a cup that tastes ... just okay. Not horrible and I will finish the box, but not something you make a special trip for. And it is certainly not in agreement with the robust and heat-giving cups that the real Horton's serve north of the border. This is not complete thumbs down. It is a satisfactory cup of decaf, just nothing to write home about. Especially if your home is in Canada. I will keep an eye open for the caffeinated version at my local store and see if that fares any better.
Update: verdict on Horton's regular coffee k-cup I was able to find and sample Tim Horton's regular coffee in K-Cup. Again, it was satisfactory, but not a coffee that you would want to drive across town for. It is not the cup you'll get at a Tim Horton's Bake Shop. The brewed cup is overly bright and thin, with some grassy aftertastes that I did not find overly pleasing. Like the decaf version, this cup is simply "okay," but not a brand you would consider paying a premium for. Is it the exact same stuff they brew in the restaurants? Perhaps, but the translation to the Keurig system and the very short brew time may limit how well this brew can match the store brewed cup.
The upshot: If you have access to Timmy's, simply drive in and grab a cup, maybe some baked goods. You'll spend about the same money as you would on a 12 pack of these cups and have a much better time.
Lifeboost Lux: A taste of rare and exceptional coffee ... that's within your reach.
Life is filled with rare temptations. Events or items that because of location or expense we choose to do without. That doesn't mean we no longer want them, quite the opposite. Often those things that seemed reserved for the few or the entitled become the focus of our desires. Items we'd like to obtain ... at least once in our lives.
The work-around is to enjoy something rare and expensive for a *short* while. Maybe RENT a supercar for a few hours (and pray you don't get into an accident) or spend an afternoon shopping for the perfect 10-thousand-dollar handbag. This gives you a "taste" of the rare and expensive, without having to take out a second mortgage on your house.
Lifeboost Coffee offers a similar solution to sample what would otherwise be too expensive for most mortals. They offer a sampler of highly regarded single-origin coffees that will give you a taste of what is usually reserved for the very well heeled. It is their "Luxe" sampler of coffees.
Lifeboost Coffee calls this line a "Delicious, rare, exotic coffees for true connoisseurs" and it comes packaged in deluxe resealable bags holding 10 ounces (283.5 grams) of each coffee. The gift set that I received came with three different roasts, Java Blue from Indonesia, Pacamara from El Salvador and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. Each are delivered as whole bean.
Let me start by saying that all these coffees were delicious, flavorful and clearly very special. I prepared each type by applying a drip grind and preparing in a french press. Instructions provided with the purchase offers a starting ratio for brewing, but encourages experimentation to find a preferred strength. The resulting brews were very clean tasting, with strong, unmuddied characteristics of single-origin roast. They all offered very subtle fragrances and tastes that comes from the bean itself, with very little impact from the chosen roasts.
While Ethiopian varieties have never been my favorites, I did enjoy this one for its wide range of flavors, with hints of blueberry, peach and floral scents. I must congratulate the roaster for hitting this batch just right, the flavor is all in the bean with very little roasting characteristics taking over. The magic here is in the subtle characteristics of the cup, there's a ton going on and all of it is good.
The Java Blue from Indonesia makes good on the promise of a premium mountain-grown coffee. I found it very smooth and full of flowery hints. Again, it is all about the bean and the roast is perfect to bring out all the intricate flavors.
My favorite is the Pacamara, an El Salvador bean that is big in size and big in flavor. I am a fan of strong mouthfeel and flavor and this one has it by every measure. While the other two are coffees to be savored like an expensive wine, the Pacamara is strong enough to be gulped with gusto. The coffee is powerful and delicious and can be "manhandled" and not lose it's premium qualities. Great stuff by any metric.
Enjoying truly premium coffees like this comes with a premium cost. The Lux collection from Lifeboost is by no means a value purchase. Each of these ten-ounce bags sells in the $50 dollar range, or about $150 dollars for the gift selection of three. That works about to around $80 a pound for each of these single-origin roasts, making it the most expensive coffee I've ever reviewed. It is worth it? If you want to drive that supercar or handle that 10k handbag to say you had the experience, yes it is worth it. If you want to treat your coffee-crazy companion to a treat that will be remembered for a long time, this is it. This is some of the best coffee anywhere, and it is delivered at a roast perfect to bring out the best in the bean. I won't be ordering a continuing subscription on these coffees, as I like finding the best tasting coffee within a realistic budget. And $80 USD a pound is simply not realistic. But to say you've had what could be argued as the rarest, most sought-after coffee in the world - just this once - the price tag is worth it.