Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Great coffee in Kansas City

I've had an off-and-on correspondence with Jonathan Cates Jr., who runs Broadway Café and Roasting in Kansas City, for a few years now, and he recently sent me four of his coffees to taste. I knew that Jonathan was a very intelligent guy, and noted with pleasure that his place had not only survived but thrived in the face of Starbucks opening up way too close by, but that was it.

Here are pics of the four coffees:

If you look closely you'll see these beans are packaged in plain old paper tin tie bags, carefully roast-dated (they arrived 2 days after roasting). That alone positively disposed me towards the coffees: no taped shut or heat-sealed (with no vacuum drawn nor nitrogen flush) valve bag promising shelf life that it couldn't deliver, but rather an inexpensive package that highlights the fleeting, highly perishable nature of coffee.

The coffees themselves are truly dazzling, reflecting a level of discrimination in green coffee selection and passionate precision in roasting that I haven't seen in many years. More than anything else I was reminded of Boston's The Coffee Connection in its prime, as the roast style here is classic Full City (what George Howell used to call "full flavor") - a "signature less" roast style, to steal wine writer Matt Kramer's characterization of a product that offers as transparent a taste of terroir as possible, with the roaster-cum-winemaker acting as midwife, not artiste. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Mr. Howell would probably have a heart attack if you put Mr. Cate's dry-processed Yirgacheffe on the cupping table (see below), but that (to my mind most admirable) greater catholicity of taste aside the roasts here are reference-standard Full City.

Where to start? The Guatemala Lake Atitlán San Miguel Tzampetey Co-op is arguably the most impressive coffee of the bunch, with blazing acidity, complex bittersweet chocolate and caramel flavor notes and a very lengthy finish. It has the kind of tightrope tension between acidity and sweetness that you find in grand cru Alsatian rieslings - and in the very best coffees. Given the challenges of wet and dry milling at the Lake (an areas I've spent a great deal of time at over the years) I'd have guessed this was a top estate-processed coffee from Huehuetenango or perhaps an out-of-the-park rarity from an old guard Antigua farm, rather than something from a co-op in one of the most challenging areas of the country.

The Kenya AA Gakuyu-ini was my least favorite of these coffees, which is saying something considering that it is quite lovely. It's a very good auction lot with typical intense acidity and the kind of rindy, tomato-juice style flavors that have pretty much entirely replaced the classic blackcurrant and brambles of 15-20 years ago. Still a great coffee and the roast was excellent, but Kenyas even at the most stratospheric prices simply are not the coffees they used to be. Utterly outrageous as it will sound (even coming from me) I've come to think lately that the best use of even the top lots is probably at Vienna or even somewhat darker roasts through pressurized brewing methods, as that combination of roast and extraction corrals the orange-rind-meets-V8 qualities and develops a plush blackberry-cherry fruit.

On to my personal favorite of the bunch, Ethiopia Natural Yirgacheffe Sun Dried Gr. 4. This is the coffee embodiment of the old Mae West quote: "too much of a good thing can be wonderful." The blueberry and wild strawberry aromatics in the dry grounds fill the room, and it just gets more intense when water hits grounds. My wife thought she'd been imprisoned in a Juicyfruit gum factory! This is seriously the most complex, intense, wild yet dialed-in dry processed Ethiopian I can ever recall having tasted. Thrilling, intoxicating stuff!

Last but not least there's Jonathan's Sumatra Mandheling Old School Grade 1, and if you were expecting (as I kind of was) "old school" in the West Coast moldy oldy we-just-scraped-this-off-the-tarmac style you'd be dead wrong. No, old school here hearkens to the manicured Grade 1 Sumtras of green importer The Supreme Bean, or the rare perfect lot of Pwani's from Erna Knutsen (via Jeremy Woods, of course) "back in the day." This is a tremendous rarity, classically Sumatran but with neither rough edges nor the soulless cleanliness of such washed Indonesians as Sulawesi Toarco. Many people will spend a lifetime in coffee without ever knowing that this kind of Sumatra exists.

With Jonathan doing his thing in Kansas City and arguably the world's greatest chocolatier, Shawn Askinosie just down the road a piece in Springfield I'm thinking that a Midwestern coffee and chocolate pilgrimage needs to be in my plans.


  1. Great review! What is the reason for the disappearing blackcurrant notes in Kenyan coffees? Could it be climate change, or something to do with processing?

  2. I just had the great fortune to roll through KCMO, Kevin, and was really excited to get a chance to hang out and talk roasting with Jonathan at Broadway. Lot's of fun stuff happening in KC for sure.