Favorite Espresso Blends 2012

Behind the scenes of the site's upcoming equipment reviews.
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Postby HB » Mar 16, 2012, 9:17 pm

The Favorite Espresso Blends 2011 and 2010 reviews proved popular, so let's do it again! But to keep it interesting, we'll be changing the structure this year:

  • Evaluations will be blind: Reviewers will not know what espresso is being evaluated until they post their commentary.
  • To add an element of surprise, members will nominate a roaster, not a specific blend (suggested blends will be considered, but not voted on).
  • One "guest reviewer" will be invited from the site's membership to contribute to the review.
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.


The first review of 2012 begins this weekend; until the thread is unlocked, please see Nominees for "Favorite Espresso Blends 2012" review for questions/comments.

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.
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Postby HB » Mar 19, 2012, 9:02 am

Espresso Rustico by Counter Culture Coffee

UPDATED 03/26/2012: Revealed Favorite Espresso Blend #1 identity:

Counter Culture Coffee wrote:The miracle of espresso is that it is capable of a range of delicious flavors: brown sugar, toasted nuts, chocolate, stone fruit, even flowers. Often, espresso blends focus on only one or two of these characteristics, opting for simplicity. Rustico embraces the full spectrum of espresso flavor, and is almost kaleidoscopic in its flavor intensity - layers upon layers of flavors can be unlocked by the skilled barista. To create Rustico, we layer intensely delicious organic coffees artfully to create a complex, sometimes surprising coffee experience.


As noted in the introduction, this year the reviews will be done without the reviewers knowing the identity of the coffee. For the first few rounds, I will organize the purchase/delivery of coffee, so I'll know, but the others will receive a plain brown bag of coffee with no hints about recommended brew parameters. As another twist, the reviewers will include an invited guest. For this round, Tristan Cunha (TristanC) will join us. Welcome!

Since my evaluation isn't blind, I am holding off posting my thoughts until a few others post (I have notes for each day). For my take on it parameter-wise, I tried temperatures of 196°F, 199°F, and 200°F. I prefer the highest temperature (sometimes lower temperatures bring out nice fruits, which is why I dropped it 3 degrees). Dose has always been around 17.5 grams; the longer near-normale extractions are my preference for this round. I have a feeling that may change over the next couple days as it ages, but that's only a guess.
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Postby TrlstanC » Mar 19, 2012, 10:23 am

I've never tried to dial in a new coffee blind at home before, so this was certainly a new and interesting experience. On one hand I had no idea where to start off, or even what to expect. On the other hand that also meant I didn't have any pre-conceived notions, and could just follow whatever flavors I enjoyed most.

Initial impressions:
When I first opened the bag I immediately smelled dried cherries, which came through even clearer in the dry grounds. The beans look like a blend, some noticeable variation in size, and even in roast color, but it looked to be FC/FC+ to my inexperienced eye. I brewed a cup of french press to get an idea of what flavors to expect, and surprisingly didn't get the cherry I was expecting, instead it was a mixture of roast nuts - almonds, walnuts, ect. that dominated.

Dialing in:
I started off at 199f, 18g and a 'normal' flow for 2oz in about 25 seconds. This espresso was creamy and nutty, but had a sour flavor that lasted through the aftertaste. After trying a few different doses and grinds to try to turn that sour flavor in to the cherries I had smelled I ended up going in the other direction; just avoid it as much as possible - which meant higher temps and higher doses while keeping a normal flow. I also noticed that the cup improved with a couple days more rest, the flavors were a little more balanced and less 'edgy'.

My favorite shot: The biggest improvement for me however came when I let the first few drops fall in the drip tray before catching the rest in the demitasse. Even at this higher temp/dose the sour note was still there in first bit of the extraction, along with a little ashiness. Keeping that bit out of the cup cleaned it up a lot, and let the lighter flavors come through. After a couple days rest I'm really enjoying this lighter, nuttier espresso, and I could taste some more complicated flavors: roasted seeds (sunflower or pumpkin) and a dry oaky finish that reminded me of chardonnay. It worked well in a cappuccino even without any heavy chocolate or fruit notes to cut through the milk.

Extraction parameters:
21g in a triple basket, at 201f to get 2oz in 29 seconds (including pre-infusion on my machine). If you ignore the weight of the coffee I let fall in the drip tray this gives a brew ratio of about 120% (17g of espresso from 21g of coffee), which is misleading because it tastes (and with all the crema, looks) more like a normal shot, 50% brew ratio. I'm probably biased because I usually prefer my shots to be a little ristretto, although I couldn't taste a distinct change at the end of the shot, and letting it run a little longer seems fine.

Wild guesses: This reminded me of the house blends that are served at a few of the better local cafes, like Barrington's 'Gold' espresso blend, or Barismo's Zone 10, blends which include a lot of central American coffees, and get away from the heavy chocolate 'comfort food' tradition and are made to work well straight as well as in milk.

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Postby another_jim » Mar 19, 2012, 8:04 pm


INTRODUCTION Whenever you taste anything; what you actually perceive is based on a sort of compare and contrast operation with what you expect. So when tasting coffee or espresso that has a reputation, it is best to do it blind, so that this reputation does not affect what you taste. To this end, we are doing the 2012 espresso blend tasting blind. It will be instructive to see how well or how badly our impressions align with each blend's reputation

OVERALL TASTE Brewing the blend reveals a medium roasted, very mildly acidic coffee with good body, a great dry aroma of cherry brandy, nut flavors when hot, cherry and apricot cool, and only some astringency in the finish to detract from the good impression.

When making shots, all the brewing flavors showed up along with occasional shots that had a strong dark chocolate flavor. The blend is quite tunable for the different flavors; but there are also some out of bounds ranges. Overall, the cherry and apricot ranged from sweet and brandied to unripe and sour; the almond and chocolate flavors ranged from clean and juicy to dusty and bitter.

The dominant tastes in the blend suggest Central American Bourbon and Typicas; but the alcoholic aromatics also hint at some dry processed Brazil and Ethiopian constituents.

SHOT MAKING INSTRUCTIONS: At fine grinds and low doses, almond and apricot flavors predominate, and the impression is of a fairly light toned espresso. At this grind, the temperature has to be kept pretty tight in the medium band, around 198F -- too cool tasts raw, while too hot gets dusty and dry.

I liked the higher doses and coarser grinds more, which brought out the brandied cherry flavors in the fruit and the deeper chocolate tones in the roast. The workable range of temperatures was also wider at higher doses. On the Semiautomatics, a pump machine, the very coarse grinds were over the top, and medium grinds and doses worked best. On the Strega, a lever machine, the coarsest grinds and highest doses created the best shots, which tasted like a black forest cake of dark chocolate and brandied cherries.

The blend works best in milk at finer grinds and higher temperatures, where the almond flavors come through nicely.

WHO SHOULD BUY IT This blend bridges the gap between relatively unchallenging comfort food blends and very difficult SOs. It is a good skill building blend, since there is a choice of good tastes in the extraction space, but also a few spots to avoid.

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Postby RapidCoffee » Mar 22, 2012, 11:11 am

H-B Favorite Espresso Blends 2012 #1
Roast date: unknown
Test dates: March 18-20
Coffee dose: 15-16g
Espresso weight: 20-24g
Shot volumes: ~40-50ml
Brew ratios: 60-80%
Shot times: 25-30 sec after appearance of espresso droplets on bottom of basket
Brew temperatures: 88C-92C in increments of 1C

Grinder: 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 weighed dose to nearest 0.1g.
Brief WDT stir with needle, then tamped to ~30#.
Pulled shots into prewarmed tared shot glass, stopping at blonding (25-30sec).
Measured shot weight on digital scale to nearest 0.1g.
Visually, all pours were good.
For tasting, poured shot glass into prewarmed demitasse cup. Sampled straight, then with 1/2t sugar, then with small amounts (1oz) of microfoamed milk.

Tasting notes
HB#1 is the start of a new format for Favorite Espresso Blends. The coffee arrived last week in a plain brown bag, with no indication of bean origin, roast date, suggested brew parameters, or tasting notes. Interesting idea. :-)

When I first open a bag of coffee, I start by sticking my nose in the bag and inhaling (taking a "bag hit", as Dave likes to put it). The roast aroma of HB#1 is seductive, with strong spice notes (anise?), broth, even lemongrass. Visual examination of the beans indicated an even medium roast, with a few quakers.

I began with non-espresso brewing (poor man's version of cupping): one cup of Aeropress brew, and one cup of Hario filter/drip brew, at 1:15 coffee:water ratios. Both cups were mild, balanced, unexciting - not a bad thing for espresso, which tends to amplify the flavor characteristics of a roast.

The espresso brews, however, were anything but bland. I found this to be a finicky blend to work with, prone to channeling and early blonding, highly temperature- and dose-dependent. Only rarely do I encounter a coffee that makes me wish for finer than the 1C temperature control of my Spaz S1. Ritual Sweet Tooth (a SO Guatemalan) was one of those coffees. This is another.

For straight shots, my best results came at 90-91C, with a small amount of sugar to counter the acidity. By experimenting with dose, grind and brew temperature, an interesting variety of fruit flavors can be pulled from this roast. Dark cherry cordial overtones predominate at lower brew temperatures, with hints of strawberry, tamarind, even green melon, green apple, and kiwi (but not citrus). There is some chocolate in the flavor profile, but relatively little caramel and nuts.

Above 91C the bitterness becomes objectionable, as smoky unpleasant flavors develop in the cup. Below 89C, sourness and acridity emerge. I felt like I was walking a tightrope with this roast, trying to find the perfect dose/grind/brew temperature combination.

Initially I found that a coarser grind and updosing to 16g worked best to minimize the bitter notes in the coffee. After a few days, as the coffee aged, a more normal (for me) dose of 15g and a finer grind produced the best results. Ristretto brew ratios (over 70%) produced a richer (although not necessarily better) result. By Tuesday (March 20) the flavors had muted appreciably, and the coffee, while still drinkable, was past its prime.

Milk drinks are passable, but I would not recommend this blend for big gulp lattes. The flavors get lost in large amounts of milk, and the flavor profile (fruity) is less suited for cappuccinos than more classic chocolate/caramel espresso blends.

A challenging coffee, one that I never fully mastered. Try this if you enjoy fruit-forward roasts, or for a change of pace from classic northern Italian "comfort food" espresso blends.

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Postby cannonfodder » Mar 22, 2012, 11:24 pm

Mystery blend #1

Blind tasting is an interesting experience. You go into the process with no preconceived conclusions or biases. It also puts your senses to the test, which is made even more challenging because the cherry trees are in bloom in my area. Allergies can make the process evening more difficult, but onto the coffee.

My plain nondescript bag arrived on Friday and it went into the grinder on Saturday. I pulled a lot of shots over then next 3 days. The blend was somewhat finicky with a relatively narrow temperature band. A little too hot and it went bitter and ashy fast, a little to cool or over extracted and it went sour and acrid. When the flavour shifted, it shifted in a big way.

The shots were pulled on my Elektra A3 using a LM triple basket and a La Cimbali Max grinder.

I found the blend interesting. The primary flavours were cherry/berry and what I would describe as a hint of green fruit like kiwi/melon/grape. I had a hard time putting my finger on the exact flavour but I think kiwi would be the most accurate descriptor. There was a hint of cocoa and lots of walnut in the finish with a very mild acidity. I settled in on a 19 gram dose pulling 27 grams of espresso at 200°F in 27 seconds. As I mentioned, the coffee had a tight temperature band. At temperatures below 199 the taste went sour and acrid with heavy alcohol distillate. At temperatures over 201 it went bitter and ashy. The alcohol distillate remained in the cup even at the optimal setting. When the temperature and extraction was right, I did not find the component objectionable. It reminded me of the woody flavours you get from a bourbon or brandy.

The coffee also appears to have a relatively short optimal age. Saturday and Sunday were the best with a noticeable shift to blandness on Monday. The subtle fruit flavours faded out and the chocolate and distillate notes are all that remained.

I did try the coffee in a cappuccino but found the milk washed out the flavours of the espresso and left me with a bland cup. In a press pot or vacuum brewer the coffee was quite bland. This is not unusual for a blend designed for espresso extraction. I found it best consumed in the form of an espresso.

While I found the blend interesting it was not overly exciting in my opinion. It was a nice change in my coffee rotation and the short flavour window means you will either need to consume a lot of coffee very fast, or freeze it in small batches to keep it in that prime window. If you have a temperature challenged machine, you may have some difficulty with the blend as a one degree change does make a very noticeable change in the cup, and most often that is not a good change.
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Postby shadowfax » Mar 24, 2012, 3:15 pm

HB Favorite Espresso #1


Blind tasting coffee can be a very fun and informative experience. Often, particularly when trying to compare two subtly different things, it can be tedious and frustrating. In the case of our review series, however, it's an open-ended and very approachable experience.

In the case of this review, I find it striking how much a coffee can tell you without a label with a roaster and component details. The first bag opening was remarkably telling: a thick, sweet, fruited, chocolatey aroma wafts up to the nose. The roast degree is visually right about usual for an espresso blend and the sweetness in the aroma suggests the roaster managed to develop the roast for a sweet espresso.

This coffee makes for a fruit-forward espresso grounded by ample caramels, cocoa, and mild nuttiness. The acidity is characterized by a blend of cherry/berry and green fruit (green apple skin, honeydew melon, fig, kiwi, etc.) flavors. There's also some mild funk to be found here: if you've tasted some classic liqueurs (maraschino, port, sherry come to mind), you'll likely recognize some pretty familiar tastes as you work with this coffee.

Dialing In

I found this coffee easy to dial in because its sweet spot is very close to where I started: a medium-high dose (17.5-18g in a Synesso ridgeless double basket), medium-low temperature (199-200°F), and mild ristretto brew ratio (60-75%) for a 25-30s shot. The best shots in this range are very close in flavor to the aroma that you get when you open the bag: syrupy and sweet with cherry and green fruit tones grounded by sweet cocoa and caramel flavors and some nuts.

This is a coffee that's very responsive to parameter changes. Updosing and pulling tight clearly reduces sweetness and nuances and thickens the shot body. Downdosing increases the sweetness, thins the shot body, and yields a very mellow shot. Shot temperature is like a volume knob for the fruit flavors—take the temperature down to get more of them (and eventually turn them sour), up to mute them and shift towards dryness and astringency. That 'knob' is perhaps a little sensitive; 0.5-1F° adjustments on the GS3 delivered noticeable differences in flavor balance, especially at lower doses (16-17g). The sensitivity of this coffee to changes made it easier to manipulate for my setup and preparation routine, but may be a caution for users with equipment that delivers less repeatable temperatures or users who are less comfortable with brew temperature manipulation on their equipment.

In milk, the acidity of this coffee is easily lost. It produces simple, sweet and creamy caramel cappuccinos that get very milky if you use excessive amounts of milk. Straight shots are definitely what this coffee is best at.

I also found this coffee to have a narrow age-range. It was roasted on March 12th, and while it produced acceptable shots on Thursday and Friday (15th/16th), it was best on Saturday for me, 5 days out. I wasn't able to try it on Sunday, but by Monday it had noticeably lost a lot of its more delicate fruit flavors. I did freeze a portion of my review coffees for tasting later in the week, and this proved to be a good idea. If you get this coffee, I recommend freezing it in portions that you can use in ~2-3 days and keeping coffee out in the 4-6 day range.

A Note on Baskets

It's worth noting that this coffee wants a fairly coarse grind, especially at higher doses. I found that it was challenging and finicky to use with my VST 18g basket. It had a tendency to channel and produce thinner, duller shots. Changing to a coarser grind and a 14g ridgeless basket made for shots with nicer body and more 'pop,' not to mention consistently even-flowing shots.


This coffee places nicely in between mellow, comfort-food espresso blends and the more punchy high-acid ones that have become all the rage lately. It has a really interesting, pleasing acidity that is balanced by sweetness and lower tones sufficiently to make it a crowd-pleasing coffee. Its responsiveness to adjustments make it a good choice for home-baristas looking to work on shot manipulation skills.
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Postby HB » Mar 26, 2012, 9:17 pm

Tonight we close the formal review for #1 and reveal it's Espresso Rustico by Counter Culture Coffee. Sorry to the reviewers for trying to trick them with a familiar roaster! But I wanted to work the kinks out of the process in the first round before venturing off the beaten path.

To add more context to this blend, Counter Culture Coffee has recently reworked Rustico. To my taste, it's more fruit-forward than previous renditions that relied on chocolates and nuts flavors. During one of our get-togethers at Counter Culture, locals and I agreed that a temperature around 199°F worked best. I confirmed this finding by bracketing 197, 199, and 200°F. While lower temperatures often evoke greater fruit flavors (albeit at the risk of sourness), Rustico responded with less cherry notes, less chocolate... overall less interesting, so the remainder of the taste rounds were pegged at 199°F. A good starting point for dose is 17 grams on my equipment; the early espressos were creamy light chocolate with subtle tart plum notes. Increasing the temperature affected the finish, pushing towards roasted walnuts. At Jim's suggestion ("higher doses and coarser [for]... brandied cherry flavors in the fruit and the deeper chocolate tones"), I tried updosing, but the chocolates it evoked were too pungent for my taste.

As other reviewers noted, the fruit-forward nature of this blend is fleeting. It peaked around day 7-9. I recommend this espresso for those who enjoy a light chocolate treat with zest twist; I jokingly referred to it as "Apollo Lite" last week during our group taste test since it's a midpoint between comfort espressos and the high-acidity single-origin espressos that enjoy rising popularity of late.
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Postby Chert » Mar 27, 2012, 3:52 pm

I went through a bag of Rustico recently and really enjoyed it. My best effort was at 50% extraction using 14 grams on the Astoria but enjoyed results from the Pavoni and Livietta as well with extraction ratios in the 70-80%. The 50% extraction shot was thin in body but yielded the mix of caramel, nut, and fruit (that the aroma of the beans and ground coffee delivers), very very nicely.

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Postby heavyduty » Mar 28, 2012, 6:49 pm

I also have recently gone thru a bag of Rustico. This is a blend that I'm familiar with, reordering every so often over the last 2 1/2 yrs. I have always enjoyed straight shots of Rustico with its plumpness and creaminess. I did notice that it had changed recently. It is basically a blend of Ecuadorian (Apollo) with a healthy dose of an Ethiopian. I'm guessing that a lot of people are not that familiar with coffees from Ecuador (unless you've been drinking the recent Apollo). I don't really like bright shots. This Rustico had a balanced acidity that I did not mind at all. It did take me a little longer to dial in this rendition. I started getting my best shots around 7 days post roast (as mentioned) and continued until it was gone. I also found that stirring the shot really synergized this blend and kicked it up a notch (at least for me). I wonder if any of the reviewers did this and found it helped (or not).
shadowfax wrote:I found this coffee easy to dial in because its sweet spot is very close to where I started: a medium-high dose (17.5-18g in a Synesso ridgeless double basket), medium-low temperature (199-200°F), and mild ristretto brew ratio (60-75%) for a 25-30s shot.

These are pretty much the parameters I settled on.
HB wrote:I jokingly referred to it as "Apollo Lite"

Wow-right on!
Tomorrow came sooner than expected.


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