Saturday, May 21, 2011

Starbucks' Exotic Flavors Impress

I always thought my last day on Earth before the (now-defunct) Rapture would be sitting at a Starbucks at Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street sipping exotic coffees. Indeed, there I was on May 20, taking part in a coffee tasting of three of Starbucks’ newest Reserve coffees: the Sumatra Tapanuli, the Rwanda Gakenke, and the Kenya. I was joined by two other food lovers, as well as two corporate Starbucks employees to explain the coffee tasting process.

We were greeted and ushered into a small and cozy upstairs room for the tasting. While I am no coffee aficionado, I was able to appreciate the effort the Starbucks employees, district manager Dawn DePetris and manager Ryan M. Hudnall, put into trying to teach their passion of coffee to us.

The first step, I learned, in any coffee or beverage tasting is to cup your hands around the sides of the cup, bring it close to your face, and deeply smell the aromas that the coffee offers. This important step is done to prepare the drinker for the flavor that they will soon experience. The smelling is not a cursory step, as the aroma should really develop a sense of what the beverage should taste like. Following the smelling, the drinker should slurp the beverage. Slurping allows the beverage to disperse throughout the mouth, and hit different taste-buds. This process allows the drinker to not only have a distinct taste of what they will be drinking, but also the ability to not over consume the beverage. The final step is to take a sip and really experience the beverage; what flavors are tasted, where the flavors hit the palate, and what the experience was with the drink.

The first drink we tasted was the Rwanda, a drink that featured different combinations of flavors that I normally would not associate. I immediately smelt chocolate after partaking in the first step of the tasting experience. Not as strong as a mocha, but still a definite presence of cocoa. Yet the taste of the Rwanda was much different; rather than a strong cocoa taste, I sensed a presence of lemongrass. In addition, the coffee was very dry; the lemongrass or chocolate did not make the coffee refreshing. It’s difficult for me to see how the coffee can be enjoyed outside the arena of where I sampled it. Because of the exotic flavor of the Rwanda, drinking it inside a Starbucks makes more sense than taking it to go.

The two flavors, chocolate and lemongrass, complimented one another well. However, the pairing of lemon loaf allowed the lemongrass flavor to become much more established. Unfortunately, the sweetness of the lemon loaf didn’t compliment the coffee; instead, it smothered it. While the loaf made the taste of lemongrass more prevalent, the hint of chocolate was almost lost because of the density and richness of the loaf’s lemon flavor.

Following the Rwanda, we sampled the Sumatra, a very different tasting coffee indeed. The brand produces only about 8 bags per year of the coffee, and the beans are picked at 14,000 ft. in the mountains of Sumatra. Hudnall described how the altitude does in fact affect the flavor of the beans.

The Sumatra had a very earthy and bland smell to it. While I was able to pick up a hint of chocolate and fig in it, it did not impress me; the mild smell did not create a good first impression. Yet the taste was different than I expected. Rather than a flat and mild taste, the Sumatra featured an array of earthy tones and flavors that immediately interested me. While the fig and chocolate tastes were certainly present, the natural flavor of the Sumatra coffee itself stood out for me. The coffee was paired with the low-fat cinnamon cake, which I found to be the perfect complement. Not only was the cinnamon cake an expressive and animated flavor that mixed well with the earthy coffee, but it also enhanced the chocolate and fig notions associated with the coffee.

In an attempt to switch things up, I ordered tasted the Kenya iced. It was a very difficult drink to nail down taste-wise, as there was a lot happening and a lot of flavor in it. However, the citrus was the most prevalent flavor. The citrus was an unmistakable grapefruit taste, and its full body taste impressed me. Pairing it with the lemon loaf, though, was a poor idea. Again, the lemon loaf superseded any hint of enjoyable citrus flavor with the coffee, and delivered an almost too-intense citrus and sweet flavor in my mouth. If I were to order the Kenya again, it would definitely be by itself, rather than pairing it with anything else.

While my tasting experience was positive at Starbucks, I did have reservations about recommending some of their products. The lemon loaf is quite strong and intense, as it did not pair well with any of the coffee flavors I tasted. Instead, it subtracted any hint of spice or subtle fruit and instead replaced it with an onslaught of lemony-flavor. Yet despite the lemon loaf, the Rwanda, the Sumatra, and the Kenya were all interesting blends of coffee which allowed me to broaden the spectrum of my coffee enjoyment.

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