To ring in the New Year, we’ve decided to add a new feature to coffee. curated. We call them Roaster Roundups. Each feature will comprehensively review the coffee on offer from one roaster that season. To start, we’ve been checking out all the shops that are roasting locally, around us, in New York, in order to see their process and talk to them about their styles, their methods, and where they want to take coffee next. The first three roasters we’ve put under our microscopes couldn’t be more different, so we’ll be presenting them as a kind of three-part review, in order to compare and contrast their styles.
First, we have Caffe Vita, who approach their coffees almost like chefs, balancing blends and roasting single origins to make warm approachable coffees. Then, as a contrast, in two weeks we have SEY coffee, from Bushwick, who have brought the passion of the 3rd Wave to Brooklyn, roasting prized single origins with a light touch to give their customers a light, clean experience. At the end of February, we roundup the Columbian-only coffees, of Devoción, by far the most beautiful cafe in New York City. Devoción has a deep relationship with the farmers of their home country and change their roasting techniques to suit the characteristics of the land that it came from.
Without further delay…
Caffe Vita: Roaster Roundups
Caffe Vita sits snugly on the Lower East Side, nestled between skate shops, burger stands and fashion labels. A neon sign out front flashes the gang signs of a satanic clown, apparently raising a sarcastic cup of coffee to all who might wish to enter. So I stayed away for a long time.
My friend, the chef, always suggest it as a meetup spot on the way to anywhere else, Let’s meet at Vita! Have you been to Vita? So one hot day in August, I finally agreed. I ordered an iced Americano since it was a thousand degrees and I kept hearing how great their espresso was. But under the cruel white glare of the neon clown, I took one sip and smashed it hard against my chest, like a water balloon. My friend, the chef, didn’t even flinch, since in addition to being a chef, he is also my friend and so was completely unsurprised by my extreme lack of coordination.
Did you at least get to try it, first? He asked. The real answer: kind of. It did seem extraordinary. A kind of high fidelity nutty coffee flavor on the front end, giving way to a lazy sweetness that dripped down my throat. But I only noticed it so much. I was busy making a catastrophe on the sidewalk. So I finally broke down and bought some fresh bags from their roasting facility in Brooklyn. I took home an intriguing-sounding single origin from Papua New Guinea and the Theo Blend, which the barista claimed made great cold brew.
I made a cup of the Papua New Guinea, the YUS. I started with a Kalita, a pour over method with a paper filter. I measured out 13 grams of coffee for 200g of water and set my kettle to 96C. The coffee was sweet but had a flavor I couldn’t recognize that almost stunned my taste buds… Eucalyptus, maybe? Mystified, I made a batch of cold brew in the Hario Wine Bottle device with the silk basket. The next afternoon I tried it and was similarly puzzled. The main note I got was pepper? Who are these lunatics? I thought. Eucalyptus! Pepper!
So I tracked down Mason Sager, one of the heads of Caffe Vita’s coffee selection and roast and asked him what he was playing at. He laughed and asked me what the roast date was. It was the morning that I bought it, I told him. He explained to me that the coffee shouldn’t have been sold to me yet. It was actually too fresh. He asked me to try it in two days and get back to him. In the meantime, he sent me four more coffees to try: Caffe Luna, a French roast, Caffe del Sol– their espresso, a Peruvian Single Origin and the Holiday Winter Blend.
I was skeptical. I’m not the biggest fan of blends and French Roasts. But when the coffees arrived, I was continually surprised and delighted with what I tasted. First of all, and I can’t overstate this, the coffees were consistent and versatile. They made great pour overs, they made great Aeropress. They even suit more casual drip and French press methods. Great cold brew eluded most of them but that would be my only observation towards the negative and cold brew is often hit or miss. Here’s how they tasted:
Peru – La Convenciòn
The heart of this coffee tasted like roasted almonds with a hint of something sweeter, macadamia or Brazil nuts. But the nuts are covered in an expensive dark chocolate shell. I’m talking, the almost-no-milk dark chocolate of the ten-dollars-a-bar variety. The flavors develop in two directions, out from the sides of the center: first a light develops in the front of the mouth: Vanilla, sarsaparilla roots, –note by note, they start to sizzle, to caramelize while sitting on your tongue– meanwhile at the back of your palette, the umami is kicking in: brown butter, cedar, pepper, clove. As the flavors developed I remember thinking ohhhhh I know these flavors, these smells, what is this??? I even panicked that I had put on cologne and was just tasting the top notes, but no. The coffee, itself, was alive with all the complex winter notes of sweet peppery colognes. An amazingly complex, dark single origin.
I’ll just start by saying that I was not expecting to love this. Blends don’t thrill me much to start with and winter blends all taste like chocolate covered blueberries, right? Apparently not. The moment I brewed this coffee, I was burning my mouth just to taste it before it cooled. The aroma was so sweet and so nostalgic. HONEY GRAHAM CRACKERS. I had forgotten that they existed until I smelled this coffee. Then I was five years old again. The flavor was just as good as the smell. Very sweet but with a sharper point. The bag claims that one of the notes is Marshmallows. Which I struggle to even believe is an actual flavor. More of a texture right? A puffed up cloud of sugar? Nope. This coffee nailed it by tasting exactly like a marshmallow speared onto a finely pointed stick and held in a campfire until it’s black and smoldering like blown glass. The first sip makes a little cracking sound in your mouth as you bite through the brûléed outer layer of the coffee and let all that gooey sweetness in. The finish is powdery mellow. Just like a marshmallow. The least challenging coffee I’ve had since my first sit down at an all-day breakfast diner. And that’s not a bad thing. Just drink it while it’s hot. As it cools the acid comes up, bringing not flavor but a kind of thin astringency that undercuts the experience.
I’m not a drinker of French Roasts. I take them dutifully and even enjoy them when other people make them for me but it’s not my cup of coffee. So Caffe Luna was another surprise: deep and complex. As a pour over it tasted of freshly roasted bittersweet chocolate. That’s a whole world away from snapping a piece of store bought dark chocolate and chewing on it. When it’s fresh, bittersweet is eye-opening. As sweet as milk chocolate and with way more flavor. Unlike other French Roasts, Luna presents acidity on the front notes, expressed as figs, glazed in balsamic vinegar and passed under a torch, where hints of vanilla and maple crackle in the heat, their sugars sizzling and browning. The finish is long and luxurious. Glides slowly over the back of your tongue like silk, the color of coffee liquor. But coffee liquor isn’t the only hint of 21+ decadence. The finish is beyond floral, hopped even. Anyone that appreciates the complex flavors of IPAs will find something to savor in this coffee. The aftertaste lingers like cigar smoke.
Caffe Del Sol
Here it is! My return to Vita’s espresso without the brutal mess. Just to give you an idea of how truly great this espresso is, I had to put it on the highest shelf after I couldn’t get Liza (my incredible partner and the genius behind food. curated.) to stop using it. If I ran out of espresso before even reviewing it, I would be worse than the terrifying clown Vita uses to scare away children on their signs and bags!
The espresso, when pulled as a shot has a natural sweetness that is beyond any single shot I’ve had in New York. Even at home, on a Breville machine, I’ve been able to consistently pull an espresso that evokes molasses and creme brulee without even a grain of sugar.
By lengthening the shot, with hot water as an Americano, I’m able to draw out the hidden flavors of walnut liqueur, cinnamon and butterscotch. The finish has a beautiful umami flavor, like truffles. For the first time, I understood why little chocolates shared a name with the hidden fungus of the woods. As a cold brew, let it sit for at least 16 hours and you’ll get a nutty complex brew with flavors of toffee and almond skin. Highly recommended.
Papua New Guinea YUS
I finally got back around to the original coffee and let it sit. Apparently, it WAS just Co2 escaping that gave me the impression of numbness when I drank the first cup.
As a fully developed coffee, the YUS was very simple, very light. It had a mellow sweetness and clean clear flavor that I’m not accustomed to with coffee. Almost no acidic bite but the sure, sweet sunlight of honey in a field of freshly cut grass. There was something clovered in the flavor, something green. But not distracting. It enhanced. The beauty of this coffee is best suited for pourover but I got some interesting flavors in the Aeropress as well. Here the sweetness was accented with a deeper sage not and the whole thing was more satisfyingly “coffee”.
I’ll be honest, if I had to find one coffee that didn’t make much of an impression on me, it was the Theo Blend. It felt like COFFEE. HOT COFFEE. COFFEE HERE. EAT AT JOE’S, WE HAVE COFFEE. Yes, I know you are coffee and thus, you are good. But it just felt like plain coffee. Never fully shook that note of pepper either. But whereas all the other Vita offerings combined coffee, sweetness, aroma, surprise and sophistication together in a lightly spiced recipe that proves coffee is just as thorough an art as cooking, Theo just shrugged and said, now with pepper.
Overall I’ve been truly impressed with my Caffe Vita experience. Mason and his crew consistently show what you can do with coffee if you approach roasting as someone like Chef Wylie Dufresne approaches food: as something to surprise and delight. Later this week, we’ll follow up with some of the best brew methods and technical notes for these coffees, for all of you interested in trying them at home. I would recommend any of their coffees to the casual brewer, interested in a solid cup of coffee, with creativity and flavor. You won’t find the wine-like notes, or complex acidity of the super modern, high-end, 3rd wave roasters and, if that’s your vibe, Caffe Vita may not be for you. But for anyone else, that takes their coffee black, or with cream and sugar, grab any one of these coffees — you pretty much can’t go wrong.
–Geoff Rickly, coffee enthusiast/writer/musician, coffee. curated.