Monday, January 31, 2011

Peet's Coffee and Tea: review of African coffees

Greetings, coffee enthusiasts, and welcome to another edition of Drew's Reviews.

African-American History Month is just around the corner and we here at Peet's Coffee and Tea are celebrating the occasion. As a global community, we owe a lot to the appropriately dubbed “Motherland,” or “Birthplace of Humanity.” It is Africa, after all, that gave us the basic fundamentals of jazz, the soul of blues and gospel, and the rhythms, the backbone, of modern music; that provided us with thousands of years of art and sculpture that still influences artists today; that has produced some of the richest literature in the world; that has provided scientists with groundbreaking discoveries  that was the central hub of Pangaea; that, scientifically speaking, is the origin of all mankind. And we Peetniks are especially thankful to Africa for being the original birthplace of coffee.

While coffee is grown and harvested all over the world (most notably in South and Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific), all coffees can actually trace their heritage all the way back, centuries ago, to Ethiopia. There is a legend that chronicles the story of coffee and credits its discovery to Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherder. It is said that while in the Ethiopian highlands, he discovered coffee after his goats ate the red berries of a certain bush and were so spirited by the berries, that they started dancing and jumping and wouldn't sleep. He decided to eat the berries himself to test their effect on him and he became so exhilarated by them that he felt obligated to bring them to a holy man at a local monastery. The monk disapproved of their use and threw them into a fire to destroy them, but when they roasted, they created a very pleasant aroma. They attempted to save the beans and raked them out, ground them, and dissolved the grounds in hot water, thus producing the world's first cup of coffee.

Today, at Peet's Coffee and Tea, we still enjoy one of Africa's most beloved exports with our Kenya Auction Lot, Ehtiopian Fancy, Arabian Mocha Sanani, and Uzuri African Blend coffees.

It is true that all coffees owe their individual tastes and nuances, not so much to the way they are roasted (though that does make a big difference), but to the region that they're grown in. It is also true that certain regions create tastes that are generally accepted as widely characteristic of that region. For example, coffees of the Americas are generally bright and light-bodied and have hints of spice and citrus; Indo-Pacific coffees are typically full-bodied with earthy, woody, and nutty tones. African coffees are described by Peet's Coffee and Tea as “distinctively aromatic, [with] hints of flowers and fruits.” While this writer puts a lot of stock in the descriptions Peet's writes of their own coffees, I wanted to try the African coffees for myself.

I set up a comparative tasting last week that my fellow Peetniks (and even some of you) participated in. I made four press pots of the four African coffees we sell, and we systematically tasted them over the course of the week, writing down our observations of each. While Peet's was bang-on in their overall description of African coffees, we found a few more nuances in each that are definitely worth mentioning.

Kenya Auction Lot: The Kenyan coffee, of the four, had the most interesting taste. Most of us, after each sip, would wrinkle our noses, squint our eyes, and stare off into space, pondering what sort of descriptors we could employ to summarize our feelings of it. There were so many different subtleties going on that it was difficult to accurately describe it, so a good many of those who tasted it went back for second and third samples to, again, ponder. In the end, the most common sentiment was that the Kenyan had a full-body flavor with a smooth, dry finish. It had a slightly earthy taste with an understated chocolaty tone (which we found to be the case with all of the African coffees); but what made the coffee so “interesting” was its tangy tartness. Each sip of the Kenya left a very distinct aftertaste that none of us were able to quite define until Kelly quipped, “It's almost like a tangerine!” 

Ethiopian Fancy: This coffee, as aforementioned, is the original coffee. So, needless to say, we were all pretty excited to taste the bean that gave birth, so many centuries ago, to the worldwide phenomenon known as coffee. Like the Kenya Auction Lot, Ethiopian Fancy had a rich earthy texture; however, it wasn't just a soily texture we were tasting—it was a thick, heavy, muddy texture that coated the palate. It was a fairly heavy coffee, heavier than the rest of the coffees we tasted at least, but had such a smooth, sweet berry flavor. Mixed with the dark chocolate taste we got from it, Ethiopian Fancy was a bittersweet coffee that I think would make for a perfect dessert coffee. 

Arabian Mocha Sanani: Rich, bittersweet, smooth, full-bodied Arabian Mocha Sanani provided the most satisfying tasting of the day. Every slurp of this complex coffee felt like someone had just given us a wonderful gift. As the name “mocha” suggests, the Sanani had very distinct dark chocolate overtones that gave the coffee a certain bittersweetness; this, coupled with its mellower red-winy nuances made for an exceptionally delicious cup of coffee. Drinking this coffee was a lot like taking small bites of Godiva dark chocolate and washing it down with a dry Merlot. 

Uzuri African Blend: The Uzuri African Blend is the latest, greatest (arguably, anyway) coffee to join the ranks of Peet's signature blends. There is no arguing, however, that Uzuri is one of the most exciting coffees at Peet's, not only because of its taste, but because of its inception and the cause behind it. From the Peet's Coffee and Tea website: 
Uzuri African Blend represents a journey of small scale farmers improving their lives through coffee quality, culminating in a malty sweet East African blend with a medley of dark berry notes. Peet’s newest blend began with our partnership with Technoserve and farmers who did not have “Peet’s quality” beans to sell. Now, working together, we're helping farmers grow higher quality coffee that garner higher prices, delivering more into the farmers’ pockets. Their lives begin to improve almost overnight as they rise from overwhelming poverty to stable incomes. Uzuri African Blend features coffee from the producers of Rwanda Lake Kivu and Tanzania Peaberry. The farmers also provided the name; Uzuri is a Swahili word for excellent, or beautiful.
 Of all the African coffees we tasted, it is this writer's opinion that, if one were to ask me what the most characteristic coffee of Africa is, “the Uzuri African Blend” would be my reply. For one thing, the Uzuri has a wider scope. Being a blend, it combines the elements of three separate African regions and combines them all. The single origin Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Sanani coffees, obviously, only provide one what their region of origin provide. Furthermore, while all three of the single origin coffees certainly shared some traits, the Uzuri African Blend is the only one that is all-encompassing. Each of the other coffees were similar, but had that one particular trait that offset it from its peers: for Kenya, it was the tanginess; for Ethiopia, it was its muddiness; and for Sanani, it was winy-ness. The Uzuri African Blend, on the other hand, is a light-bodied coffee that has a smooth, dry finish. Whereas the Kenyan was earthy and the Ethiopian was muddy, the Uzuri was “dusty” (one customer's description that I absolutely adored). It also shared its African counterparts' florally, fruity, chocolaty flavors that are exceptionally pleasing to the palate. Since the first time I tried it, nearly four months ago, I have always quipped that this coffee is a lot like drinking a chocolate-covered berry.

If I may, I urge all of you to celebrate African-American History Month (albeit in the most trite and cliché way) by coming in to Peet's Coffee and Tea and trying any one of our four African coffees. If you're a coffee enthusiast, you owe to it yourself to broaden your horizons, and you owe it to “the Motherland,” as a token of your gratitude, for providing you with the very thing you love: good coffee.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Peet's Coffee and Tea: review of vanilla lattes vs. sugar-free vanilla lattes

Greetings, coffee enthusiasts, and welcome to 2011!

It's a new year and for billions of people all around the world, that calls for new plans, new goals, new resolutions, new lives.  People are committing themselves to spending their money more wisely, watching less television, reading more books, losing weight, consuming healthier foods and drinks--all for the sake of improving their personal lives.  One thing that coffee drinkers do to follow through on their resolutions is to make the switch from whole milk to skim milk, or from flavored syrups to sugar-free flavored syrups, and some even make both switches at the same time.  

On the other hand, there are those who are nervous about the transition to sugar-free syrups.  It's understandable--the sugar, after all, is what gives those drinks that sweet vanilla goodness.  Without the sugar, the drink would just taste bland, boring, or, at best, artificial.


It is with this question in mind that we at Peet's Evanston decided to find out for ourselves just how different our vanilla lattes is from our sugar-free vanilla latte.

Ironically enough, all of our participants in our comparative tasting unanimously concluded that the sugar-free vanilla latte actually had a sweeter taste than the regular vanilla latte.  The vanilla latte, despite its sugary base, was very subtle and, if one didn't know that vanilla was in their latte, one might not even recognize it immediately.  Although the sweetness was definitely still there, the beverage didn't have an overwhelming vanilla taste to it--the syrup mixed with the espresso and milk so well that, as Mal pointed out, it actually tasted like real vanilla beans had been infused with the drink, rather than a syrup added as an extra element.

The sugar-free vanilla, on the other hand, didn't have that same subtlety--upon first sip, the syrup made a grand appearance on the palate, dominating the steamed milk and espresso.  This was especially true when we went one step further and made the latte with skim milk rather than the traditional whole.  The sugar-free was so sweet, in fact, that we could still taste it lingering in our mouths after we had finished the cupping.  Of course, this is not so much a complaint as it is an observation of sugar-free syrups; whereas most sugar-free options (like hazelnut, caramel, raspberry, et al) in the coffee market leave a formidable aftertaste that even a glass of water can't shake, the vanilla syrup that we use, though it did leave an aftertaste, had minimal lingering.  This writer believes this was mostly because the syrup didn't really blend as well with espresso and milk--not the same way that regular vanilla did.  Another factor contributing to this was the artificial sweetener (Splenda) in the sugar-free syrup--it was almost as though Splenda overcompensated for being artificial by attempting to "out-sweeten" regular sugar.  If that's the case, mission accomplished.

However, despite these differences, the regular and the sugar-free vanilla were surprisingly similar to each other.  Like Halle remarked, "...the taste is not so different that sugar-free vanilla cannot provide an alternative to people looking for a healthier option."  Both beverages were sweet, bother beverages were creamy, and, despite one of them being artificially flavored, the final word is that both beverages tasted like vanilla.  So if you're one of those who made the resolution to consume more healthily, but are wary of sugar-free syrups, fret not!  Peet's can help you meet your goals.