Favorite Espresso Blends 2011

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#1: Post by HB »

Recognizing that coffee is the most important contributor to exceptional espresso, last year HB expanded the popular Second Look review format to include peer evaluations of espresso blends. We are revisiting the theme of 2010's inaugural review, "favorites" nominated by Team HB and the site membership (poll).

Over the course of a week, we'll review a coffee from this list. During this period, the thread will be locked so peer reviewers can post their comments together, then the thread will be opened for public comments. Those who wish to "follow along" are invited to order the coffee under review and post their results (e.g., we'll post our results the early part of the week so members can order on Sunday for their own home testing the following week when the review thread is open for public comments).

Consistent with the site's motto "Your guide to exceptional espresso", we'll include explanations of the effects of manipulating the brew parameters on a given espresso's taste profile. It's our hope that this focus on technique will shorten the dial-in time for those trying the reviewed coffees for the first time. For example, we will include:
  • Recommended brew parameters for straight espresso (dose, temperature, brew ratio)
  • Recommended brew parameters for other preparations, if applicable (e.g., lattes, macchiatos, Americanos)
  • Peak flavor window and fade time
  • More to be added as our review process develops.
Please note that the order of reviewing the "favorites" will be determined by the Nominees for "Favorite Espresso Blends 2011" thread.

DISCLAIMER: Unless otherwise noted, evaluation coffees were provided for review purposes by the roaster. Other than said samples, the reviewers receive no financial or material compensation of any kind from the roasters or Home-Barista.com for evaluating these coffees.
Dan Kehn

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#2: Post by HB (original poster) »

Redline Espresso by Metropolis Coffee Company

Redline Espresso was nominated last year, but we only made it halfway through the list. This year Metropolis' house blend was the blend garnering the most votes among returning nominations. They describe it as "a truly distinctive and rewarding blend. Its richness runs down the center like a racing stripe, leaving a trail of cocoa, honey, lavender, and a mild merlot-like fruit in the finish. The flavors translate perfectly in milk and are even amplified in sweetness making for a marvelous latte or cappuccino."
Dan Kehn

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#3: Post by RapidCoffee »

Metropolis Redline Espresso Blend (roasted April 25, tested May 2)

Brew parameters
Coffee dose: 15.0g (equivalent to 18g in a 58mm basket)
Espresso weight: 23-26g (shot volume ~50ml)
Brew ratio: 58-67%
Shot time: 25-30 sec after appearance of espresso droplets on bottom of basket
Temperature range: 88C-94C (190F-201F) in increments of 1C
Grinder: Mazzer Robur with doser and (full) mini-hopper
Espresso machine: La Spaziale S1 V1, no preinfusion, blind basket brew pressure 9.25bar, 53mm double basket, bottomless portafilter

Ground coffee into tared basket and adjusted dose to exactly 15.0g.
Brief WDT stir with needle, then tamped to ~30lb.
Pulled shots into tared prewarmed shot glass, stopping at blonding.
Noted extraction time, volume, and weight of all shots.
Visually, all pours were good to excellent.
For tasting, poured shot glass into prewarmed demitasse cup. Sampled straight, then with 1/2t sugar, then with small amounts (1-2oz) of microfoamed milk.

Tasting notes
Slightly bitter, but good with sugar. A rich, dark, and balanced shot.
Bittersweet chocolate, some almonds.
Stands up nicely to milk.

Still some bitterness, but otherwise a rich, nicely balanced shot. Liquor aromatics and hints of generic fruitiness (cherries? green melon?).
Dark chocolate, almond extract flavors.
Stands up nicely to milk.

Similar to 93C pour.
Some tobacco in aftertaste.

Bitterness is gone.
Dark chocolate and some walnut, with liquor aromatics and nice generic acidity.
More tobacco aftertaste.
Very enjoyable shot, both with and without milk.

Slight sourness emerging, less appealing as straight shot. Still nicely fruity (cherry?) with sugar.
Mostly chocolate and liquor aromatics, some almond.
Good with milk.

Similar to 90C pour.
Chocolate dominates flavor profile.
Still good with milk.

Similar to 90C pour.
More bass notes. Slightly less chocolate, more almond liquor.

I haven't had Metropolis Redline for years, and this test was a nice reminder of how much I enjoy it. Redline is an espresso blend dominated by dark chocolate, some nuts (almond, walnut), with a hint of generic fruitiness (cherry, melon). Temperature-wise, it's a forgiving blend, best IMHO at slightly higher temperatures (91-93C on my Spaz). It holds up well to reasonable amounts of milk.

Metropolis recommends brew ratios of about 100% (1:1 ratio of coffee:beverage weight) for Redline, with short (21-23s) extraction times. You can pull good shots at these settings - but I prefer a 2:3 brew ratio (about 67%), straddling the line between normale and ristretto. Redline is very enjoyable at moderate brew ratios, so do not feel compelled to dose 23g (!) and pull a short 1.25oz extraction.

This blend was ready to drink after one week of rest.


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#4: Post by RapidCoffee »

Bottomless pour using Metropolis Redline

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#5: Post by malachi »

Metropolis Redline

I remember, back in 2003 or 2004, tasting Intelligentsia Black Cat for the first time and saying, "now this is an American espresso!" Intelli had taken the traditional northern Italian model and revised it for American palates and American drinking habits. I spent a little over a year serving shots of the Black Cat for customers - and found it to be a serious crowd pleaser of an espresso.

As the years went by, the Black Cat changed - and espresso in the US in general changed. This change has accelerated (IMHO) over the past 18 months.

There was a part of me that missed the old Black Cat - and I really couldn't name a logical replacement. I couldn't find an espresso that was that mix of "amped up" flavor dominated by chocolates and malt flavours that was still complete and balanced, which was also easy to work with -- and which could serve well in both straight shots and in milk.

Redline to me is the logical and perhaps spiritual successor to the old Black Cat as I remember it so fondly.

When pulled well (which involves simply avoiding a few problematic areas), the Redline is a truly classic American espresso. It's dominated by various chocolate flavours, has a nice malty sweetness, and depending on how you choose to extract it has great complimentary flavours.

There are two key rules that seem to me to be "hard and fast."
First... it doesn't do well with higher brew temps. I found that any brew temp (even temporary during the extraction time) above 201f caused the coffee to develop strong bitter notes that were undesirable. The coffee is actually reasonably tolerant of any brew temp between roughly 198f and 201f. But above that top limit it struggles.
Second... it does poorly with longer extraction times. Depending on dose and brew temp, I found optimal extraction times that ranged from 22s to 27s - but with any parameters, extraction times longer than 27s became noticeably astringent, "stewed" tasting and again showed strong bitters.

Volume and extraction ratios are quite flexible. To me the simple model I developed with this coffee was as follows:
- want more fruit and acidity in your complementary flavours? Pull a little faster, longer and lower ratio. This brings out some nice wine-y acidity and some simple fruit juice punch notes.
- want more nut and spice in your complementary flavours? Pull a little slower, shorter and higher ratio. This gives a shot with tons of pecan and walnut with a slight oak-cask dry finish.

In both cases, the dominant flavours are still chocolates. These chocolate notes can include (in the same shot in many cases) everything from bittersweet chocolate to dutch processed cocoa to sweet milk chocolate.

I found the optimal "trick" for dialing in the espresso was to focus on two desirable flavour characteristics and then tune from there. I focused on getting the shots to have a dominant mid-palate malt sugar note - and show a long, rich dark chocolate aftertaste. Once I got those two balanced, I tuned to get the secondary (complimentary) notes that I prefer.

To my taste, this ended up with a shot that was as follows:
- 18.5g (17g LM Strada basket)
- 26s
- 67% extraction
- 200f

This set-up for me yielded a shot that had an initial strong bittersweet chocolate note that opened up into a mix of malt sweetness and a strong spine of slightly tannic red wine flavours. A sweet fruit note that was similar to persimmon and some nice Amaretto flavour led into a dutch processed cocoa finish. The aftertaste was heavy dark chocolate and malt with hints of alcohol heat.

This extraction works well as a straight shot - and in short milk drinks. If you're going to use this espresso in milk drinks that are greater than 5oz, I would suggest going with a higher extraction ratio to get even more chocolate and nut tones.

So... who would like this espresso?
Honestly, I think the only people who would not like this espresso are those who want the sort of "wild fruit and acidity" coffees that we've seen become popular of late. If you like the "sweet and sour" flavour profile of those coffees - the Redline is probably going to seem flat and boring to you.
Now... to be fair, I'm guessing that many people would in fact find the Redline boring over time. It's definitely not an exciting espresso. But it's a good tasting one.

I'll put it this way... If I walked into a coffee bar and they were serving well prepared shots of this espresso I'd be perfectly happy. And as I'm a picky, demanding and opinionated PITA... that is high praise indeed.

- all shots pulled on a rebuilt La Marzocco GS
- grinder used was a Mazzer Robur
- baskets used were a 17g Strada double, a v2 prototype VST double and an Espresso Parts laser etched double.
- all shots were pulled using a bottomless portafilter
- coffee was cupped as well using standard cupping protocol
- coffee was pulled on days 4 through 6 (post roast)
- all weighing was done using a 500g digital scale
- GS was temp calibrated using a Scace and Fluke
- brew pressure on the GS was slightly below 9 BAR
"Taste is the only morality." -- John Ruskin

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#6: Post by cannonfodder »

Metropolis RedLine

I have known Metropolis almost since the company's start years ago. I happen to be in Chicago about 4 days after the shop opened and stopped by for a lot of espresso and coffee while I was up there. As with anything agricultural, the blend changes year to year but I still have fond memories of that peach nectar first incarnation of RedLine.

Today's iteration of the RedLine is much removed from that peach bomb, much tamer and milder blend but also more complex with more background flavors versus one in your face dominate flavor. Metropolis includes a nice brew suggestion card to help you dial in the espresso.

I had one hard rule with RedLine, keep it cool. The extraction recommendation card suggested 200.5 across all 3 of their extraction parameters. I moved up and down the temperature scale and found 198-201 to be the working range of the coffee. I pulled most of my shots between 199-200. At 201 some bitters start to work into the cup and anything above that goes bitter fast. I also preferred the shots pulled fast with most shots ending at 22 seconds. My kit has a rotary pump with a very short preinfusion time so if you are using a vibe pump E61 machine you may want to add another few seconds due to the slower preinfusion. At longer extractions I got a medicinal, bitter note that I do not care for. The flavors do shift as you work up and down the dose/extraction variables. At lower doses and a lower brew percentage you get more fruit, a lighter body and less chocolate notes with a sweeter finish. At higher doses and higher brew percentages I get more nut, less acidity, a hint of tobacco and some chocolate flavors.

I settled in on 19 grams pulled in 22 seconds at 199-200F for 22 grams extracted. That gave me a slightly chocolate, nutty, slightly fruited with a dry wine finish espresso. In milk the lower doses and lower extraction ratio's got lost while the higher brew percentage shots and warmer extraction temperatures held up better in milk with a notable chocolate flavor. It also makes a nice press pot coffee, I am finishing off a pot right now. Redline is not a one trick pony, it performs well across a wide range of doses and temperatures as well as preparation methods.
Dave Stephens

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#7: Post by another_jim »

Metropolis Red Line

INTRODUCTION: Metropolis is my local cafe, a few blocks from where I live. So I drink Red Line often, and I have a soft spot for them. Over the years, it's been popping up in other Chicago sites: little cafe stands at El stations, French pastry shops selling espresso, and more recently as a mainstay or frequent guest coffee at third wave cafes,including Buzz Kill and Wormhole in Wicker Park. This is in line with its reputation of allowing for great shots, but is also being forgiving enough to make it tough to pull bad shots. This combination of forgiveness and possible greatness has also has made it popular with home users.

So does Red Line live up to its reputation?

CUPPING: I cup (fancy word for brewing and tasting) all my coffees, even those I will do as espresso. In an espresso, the intensity and balance of flavors will change, but their sum is fixed, a property of the coffee itself. This sum of flavors is easiest to get complete by properly brewing it first. In any case, it gives me something to do in the first few days after roasting, when the coffees are too young for espresso.

Red Line was well balanced and lively for brewing; not the flat, boring brew many acidophobic roasters produce in their espresso blends. To me, it screamed Colombia (although I do not know what is in the coffee), with prominent cherry, chocolate, cola, and roasted nut flavors.

ESPRESSO RECIPES: Regardless of dose or flow, I preferred low to medium shot temperatures, since this kept the flavors well defined. I found that I enjoyed shots at all doses from low to high, but that I preferred to keep the brew rations higher at low doses (more ristretto) and lower at high doses (more normal/lungo).

Done according to this recipe, the low dose shots tasted dense and sweet, like a chocolate-cherry truffle, while the high dose shots were like the classic Kinks song, tasting effervescent and like cherry-Coke, with a hint of toasted, salted peanuts thrown in for good measure. The medium dose, medium flow shot was also nice, but not really very describable, being halfway between truffles and Lola.

This is a lively espresso, but the added sweetness, and the cherry rather than citrus acidity makes it appealing even for those who usually avoid brighter blends. The flavors are more candy bars and Coke than belgian chocolates and champagne; but don't let the pop flavors fool you, this blend has excellent balance, liveliness and complexity.
Jim Schulman

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#8: Post by shadowfax »

Metropolis Red Line Espresso

Red Line Espresso was a first for me. I've been reading about it (indeed, good things!) for years; if I recall right, since my earliest interest in espresso. Somehow I never managed to branch out and try it. So I certainly approached this review not sure what to expect.

When you open the coffee bag, you get your first hint that Red Line is no acid-free bar blend. Fruited sweetness outlines its deep chocolatey roast aromas. On the cupping table, a similar story unfolds. It punches right up front with a very sweet, pleasing brightness of lightly sour cherry and perhaps a hint of low-acid orange or peach, grounded by chocolate and a variety of pleasant low tones that escape my descriptive wit. After a nice hit of this chocolate-covered cherry, it dries out to a finish with definite ashiness to it. It's interesting and satisfying how closely you can trace this cup profile in an espresso shot.

My bag of Red Line indicated a recipe of 21 grams at 201°F for a yield of 1.6 ounces in 23-26 seconds. I personally found this recipe to be a bit unpalatable, emphasizing the harsher sours and bitters. On the contrary, the coffee is much sweeter, tamer and more interesting at ~17-18 grams, 199-200°F, and a 50-70% brew ratio with a short (22-24 seconds) pull. In this range a classic, complex espresso emerges with a satisfying mild cherry acidity, low tones of sweet chocolate and slight nuttiness. My experience strongly confirmed the need to pull Red Line short (no more than 25 seconds in general) or risk adding a dose of that slightly ashy finish from the cupping table. Most of the other parameters seemed forgiving except for that one: I didn't have any shots pulled for longer than that which weren't marred by that defect.

Red Line is an espresso blend that to me captures the notion of espresso as a broad, balanced flavor experience. The best shots have a lot going on, yet are very approachable and pretty forgiving. This makes it a nice choice for a beginner looking to explore espresso and a seasoned home barista looking for a classic espresso with a unique character.
Nicholas Lundgaard

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HB (original poster)

#9: Post by HB (original poster) »

Metropolis Red Line Espresso

This is Redline's second nomination to the Favorites list, but the first time it's been reviewed. Although I've heard about Metropolis over the years, I hadn't tried Redline until last week at the SCAA and this week for the review. I wish that I had tried it sooner, as it's proven to be a versatile, enjoyable blend.

Included with the coffee is this card documenting their recommended brew parameters:

Home baristas often complain that roasters don't provide brew guidance or they provide parameters that are only meaningful on equipment pros use (e.g., "201°F, 21 grams, 1.5 ounces" with no brew ratio, no mention of basket type, etc). Metropolis' brew parameters above are succinct, transferable with minor mental gyrations to other equipment, and accompanied by taste notes. Note that they correlate the taste and dose while keeping the temperature/pour time the same. I find that curious; just a few years ago, all the advice invariably revolved around the recommended brew temperature.

A half-dozen fellow baristas and I sampled Redline this past Friday at our regular get-together. The taste comments reflected the blend's easy-going, low acid nature: Sweet, buttery, chocolates and nuts as a ristretto, some fruits like apple and cherry at lower brew ratios. Below are representative comments from the attendees:
Bob wrote:I enjoyed the ristretto shots you pulled of the Redline. They were full bodied, sweet with chocolate, burnt sugar and roasted nut flavors. The aftertaste was pleasant with a buttery mouth feel. My guess is that it would do well with milk. Again, I enjoyed it, but fans of bright espresso would probably find it boring.
Mike wrote:I think Bob pretty much hit it on the dot with the addition of some smokiness/tobacco at the end. I also welcomed some of the fruit at the front end.
Lem wrote:The Redline was delicious. Chocolatey, nutty and solid very rounded body, overall great shot. The first shot (not sure who pulled it) was a lot brighter but still held some of the heavier bodied notes like chocolate and nuts.
We used brew ranges from 100% (ristretto) to 60% (near double) and doses from 15 to 17 grams, not the 23 (!) grams noted above for the "TDS off the chart". As the dose/grind setting was changed, the flavor profile changed in predictable, easy steps. Those new to espresso looking for a blend to sharpen their barista skills will have good results with this blend from Metropolis.

Dan Kehn

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#10: Post by HB (original poster) »

This concludes the formal review of Metropolis Redline Espresso. Public comments/questions are welcome!

PS: To see what reviews are planned, see Nominees for "Favorite Espresso Blends 2011".
Dan Kehn