A Coffee Blended Like Wine
King’s Row Coffee offers a different approach to an extremely good cup of coffee.
Single-origin coffee is quite the rage at the moment—grinding up your Finca El Injerto Pacamara beans from Guatemala (by way of Stumptown) evidently leads to a flavor experience that offsets the $60 per pound cost of the stuff.
Recently, though, I came across King’s Row Coffee, which offers a different approach (by way of James Beard Award–winning chef Craig Shelton) to an extremely good cup of coffee. Shelton’s idea, together with founder Sam Sabky, was to blend coffees in the same way that some of the world’s great wines are blends (from different grape varieties and different vineyards); to design them, in a sense, to go with different environments or kinds of food.
As Shelton says, “The usual idea of food and wine pairing is that you’ve got two static things, the wine and the food, and if the dish and the wine have the same characteristics, then you’ll like them together. But that’s absolutely inadequate, because our sensory organs never measure anything in a static way. It’s all referential; it’s more like a fabric. Taste a young vintage of a long aging, premier cru Chablis, and it can seem thin and harshly acidic.” But bite into a lemon first, he explains, and the wine will taste rounder and richer, because your palate has already adjusted to the high acidity of the fruit.
So, for King’s Road’s Bon Bon blend, meant to go with food, Shelton came up with a forward, bright coffee that would prove resilient against intense flavors; i.e. a coffee meant to go with food rather than after it.
More interesting to me, though, is a side result of Shelton’s blending experiments. He says, “I remember drinking the Shelton blend [the basic King’s Row blend] on a sailboat in New York harbor one morning, and I said to my sailing buddy, ‘You must have screwed this up; it’s so flabby.’ But then it occurred to me that the brine in the air was neutralizing our perception of acidity.” Similarly, tastebuds pick up both sweetness and saltiness less at high altitudes. (Also, boiling points are different at altitude, which affects coffee flavor.) As a result, Shelton’s next step was to create both a “Coastal Blend” and a “Mountain Blend” for King’s Row.
As Sabky says regarding the Mountain Blend, “We sampled over 100 coffees in a controlled environment until we found several that extracted oils at lower temperatures [the boiling point of water is lower at altitude]. In a regular environment, the Mountain Blend is almost syrupy, almost overextracted, but at altitude it’s just right.”
I taste-tested the King’s Row Mountain Blend against the regular Shelton Blend, and Sabky’s assessment is spot-on. Shelton says about the Coastal Blend, “I might have beans from six or seven different sources, each broken up into four or five roasting lots for the Shelton Blend. For the Coastal Blend, that might be only five, because I want a little more punch, a little less complexity; it’s not meant for a contemplative environment. You want something that goes with the wind in your hair, the roughness of the ocean.”
King’s Row coffees run $15 for 12 ounces, about the same as any high-end coffee these days. It’s a fascinating project and the coffees taste great. But more to the point, when I head up to our Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this year—7,900 feet up in the Rockies—I’m bringing along some their Mountain Blend. Purely, of course, in the interests of science.