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Some Of My Favourite Coffee Beans

14Oct09

In no particular order (except that in which I remembered them), here are some of my favourite beans from the plethora that we’ve roasted in the last 2 years:

  • Ethiopia Harar – I’ve tried four different Harars and when you get the roast right they can be a delightfully complex, fruity coffee that has enough of those “mainstay” flavours (chocolate, caramel, etc.) to leave it nicely balanced. Further, at its best the sweetness goes beyond mere “chocolate” and into a complex, grainy, caramel richness – layered enough to be really moreish and satisfying. The best Harar I’ve had was MAO Blue Horse (bought mid-2008). With others it has been harder to hit that sweet spot where the acidity and fruit are “tamed” but still prominent. A good Harar seems to be hard to find!
  • Ethiopia Sidamo – a large origin and probably hugely inconsistent. Offers dry- and wet-processed beans. The former will be intense and fruity (Sidamo Koratie would be the best fruity blender I’ve tried; strawberry, cranberry, blueberry…) while the latter will be more acidic and floral (think Yirgacheffe), hopefully with that juiciness and powerful vanilla aroma I once found (Rayan Highlands – also some Limus). Dry-processed Sidamos will be in good supply but the best ones will probably be hard to find! Wet-processed Sidamos (and other smaller origins) might be more reliable but offer less in the cup.
  • Papua New Guinea Kimel Estate – the descriptions I read of PNG beans were unfortunately disappointed by my first encounter with one. (This was early in our roasting days so the fault was probably mine.) However, the Kimel Peaberry (bought late 2008) did more than restore my faith in this origin! The Kimel PB, roasted about 20 seconds beyond the start of second crack (surprising for a peaberry), may be one of the most well-rounded single origins I’ve tasted. Hugely aromatic, with vanilla, cocoa and sweet spices, and just the right amount of jammy, fruity acidity to round it out.
  • Uganda Bugisu – only got a small sample of this, but one roast in particular was excellent. It fit my “ideal single origin” profile to a tee: full bodied; rich, rounded sweetness with chocolate and/or caramel; balanced by a touch of jammy, fruity acidity. Bugisu is a specific region in the Mt Elgon area, so some Mt Elgon beans could easily have these characteristics. Given the huge amount of low-quality robusta produced in Uganda, sourcing beans from there will probably be hit-and-miss – but that’s just a guess.
  • India, various Arabicas – Mysore Nuggets, Tiger Mountain and Madikeri are the three origins we’ve tried from India (not counting Monsooned beans – which I only kinda like). All were wet-processed, I think, and all were quite similar in profile – hugely sweet caramel notes with low acidity and a nice buttery body. Essentially, these make a great base bean – or a rich single origin if you don’t mind something low acid and a bit one-dimensional (sometimes pure sweetness is just what I want!).
  • Guatemala SHG – I’ve had two Huehuetenangos and one estate bean (Nueva Grenada). Being SHG (strictly high grown), these hard beans tend to handle a darker roast (compared to many Centrals) while still maintaining a firm acidity – sometimes but not always articulated as a zesty fruitiness. At this level of roast – say, 20-30 seconds into second crack – you get a really oily-smelling bean, darker than other beans at this level, with great dark cocoa flavours and sweetness. The acidy aromatics really get spicy and pungent at this roast level which adds a great deal to a blend. If pulled around second crack you’ll get a more balanced flavour for single origin use, though more acidic than some. I’d be looking for a SHG with some good fruit characteristics and smooth acids – this would be a great blend element.
  • Peru, various Arabicas – Grace Villa Estate, closely followed by Ceja de Selva Estate, yield heaps of smooth, buttery body and a clean caramel sweetness. Almost sugary! We didn’t think much of this before second crack; best taken 20-30 seconds in. Right on second crack would probably leave some acid in the mix. This bean could be one of those “comfort food”-type single origins (if all you want is beautiful sweetness), but wouldn’t offer much interest. It is, however, one of the best base beans for blending.
  • Sulawesi Toraja – my first few encounters with Sumatran coffees didn’t excite me as much as their descriptions made me anticipate; too often I’d find a “savoury” note in these Sumatrans. A couple of Sulawesis quickly restored my faith in Indonesians! Taken just into second crack, there was a huge, rounded choc/caramel flavour. Occasionally, this articulates more as dark chocolate, cocoa or even molasses – these are really great “interest” elements in a blend. We also tried a lighter roast and were rewarded with a range of fruity flavours including (of all things) lychee. Sulawesis should make a good single origin bean if pulled at or just before second crack – though not all of them will cup cleanly at this level. For blending, I’d push a little into second crack and enjoy the dark sweetness.

My ideal blend would have three layers:

  1. A smooth, rounded sweetness to underpin everything.
  2. Some acid. I prefer a citrussy or otherwise fruity acidity rather than just tartness or wineyness.
  3. A “hook” – this can be a unique flavour like molasses or aniseed, or an alluring aroma like vanilla or sweet spices, or an intriguing, moreish texture like that dusty cocoa feel or a pleasant woody dryness.

[Some people might get annoyed at me for describing sweetness (a flavour) as being smooth and rounded (textures). My explanation is that a great many coffees exhibit these characteristics in unison – smooth, rounded body/mouthfeel and those caramel/choc/nutty-type flavours very often go together. Thus, I associate them! Of course you can have either without the other, as well.]

This isn’t much of a recipe – it could take a huge variety of forms – but it describes the best combination of my favourite coffee flavours. Some beans have a lot in common with my ideal blend as single origins: Yemen, PNG Kimel peaberry, Uganda Bugisu AA, Ethiopia Harar MAO Blue Horse, Ethiopia Rayan Highlands, Guatemala Nueva Grenada Estate… and more to come!

As for actual blend suggestions to fit this ideal:

  1. Body and sweetness: Peru Grace Villa Estate, India Madikeri etc. A dry-processed Brazil would be a more typical choice for this aspect of the blend but I haven’t found one with enough “richness” or character. Keep the roast to around second crack to provide a less intrusive base. 40-60% of the blend.
  2. Fruit bomb: Ethiopian Harar can be good, but a fruity, dry-processed Sidamo would be better. Could also use any number of Central American beans, but fruity ones aren’t all that common. 20-30% of the blend.
  3. Interest: a good Sulawesi would give that rich cocoa element; Guatemalan for candied orange peel; dark-roasted wet-processed Ethiopian for the dusty moutfeel; PNG Kimel for spiciness; Sumatran for a woody, earthy kick… Endless choices, but not all will “play nicely” with your other blend elements, so cup carefully. 10-30% of the blend.

NB. Some beans might straddle two categories here. Harar gives a nice chocolate base as well as fruit (1 & 2); Guatemalan is fruity and has a great zesty hit for interest (2 & 3); Sulawesi has everything but the fruit (1 & 3). Some, as I said, have all three characteristics.

There you go – plenty of beans I haven’t tried yet, but those are some of my favourites so far.

Cheers,

Stu.

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