Slugging Espressos

In the last couple days, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting three top Portland cafés: Coffeehouse Northwest, Extracto and Barista Alberta. If we were talking about baseball (and the season is just around the corner), these three cafés would be comparable to the 1927 Yankees (the famed “Murderer’s Row”). In other words, I was expecting a great lineup of espressos.

At Coffeehouse Northwest I ordered both of the espressos on grind (the famous flight), each roasted by Sterling. The first, from Los Piajos de Tolima (from Colombia), was impressive. If I were scoring it for a barista competition, I would give it high marks in many categories. The appearance of the crema was shiny and consistent, the persistence and consistence very good (thick and lasting). The taste was well-balanced—sweet, sour and bitter elements all came through in a way that was pleasant. A sweet plum flavor punctuated the first sip. Its tactile balance, or mouthfeel, was superb. It had lots of body but still fit comfortably inside my mouth.

After enjoying the Colombia, I took the second leg of the flight, to Rwanda. The coffee, grown by the Coko cooperative, was also roasted by Sterling.  The crema had an even color with a light sheen, but it was a little on the thin side. When I sipped it, I immediately noticed the differences in mouthfeel compared to the first. It was very heavy and syrupy. The acidity was the most prominent of the flavor components, although it did not overpower the others. The coffee left an aftertaste of toasted popcorn (where some of the kernels had been on the bottom of the pan too long, adding some caramelized flavors to the mix). Overall, very good but not quite as good as the first.

At Extracto , the single-origin espresso I tried was a Kimel peaberry from Papua New Guinea. Savory, savory, savory—that’s how it tasted. The barista said the earthiness should really stand out. He wasn’t kidding. The thick espresso had the bite of a fresh rosemary leaf or green tomatoes. The bitter element stood out a touch more than the sweet or the sour, but all three were present, so it was fairly balanced.

My second Extracto espresso was the blend on grind (unfortunately, I forgot to ask the name). Like the previous espresso, it was also very thick and syrupy. Cocoa notes came through in the first sip and caramel flavor about halfway down the cup. The espresso left an aftertaste kind of like a Twix candy bar (without adding any sugar).

A couple blocks away, at Barista Alberta, I headed back to South America and ordered a single-origin Peru Cevasa, roasted by Stumptown. A quick visual inspection gave the coffee good marks – it had an even, shiny reddish crema (a small blond stripe in the middle would cost it the “excellent” rating in competition). The first sip was bright, but the brightness quickly backed off. Flavors of green apple washed across my palate. Although the espresso seemed heavy at first, it did not linger, quickly dissipating and leaving a clean mouthfeel behind. 

Looking at the box score, the cafés went 5 for 5 with two home runs (the Colombia and the blend at Extracto).  Not even the most feared lineup in the history of baseball could do that every day. I tip my hat to a job well done.