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coffee@home: Musings on the Black Cat

Beans: Black Cat and Decaf Swiss Water Process Black Cat
Roaster: Intelligentsia Coffee
Rating: 4 and 3+ 4
(see update below)

There’s probably not a lot I can tell you that you don’t already know about Intelligentsia’s signature blend, the Black Cat. If you are into coffee, or at least espresso, then you are probably aware of its reputation as a relatively inexpensive, forgiving, yet amazingly good espresso, and you probably know how it tastes. If haven’t had it, then I don’t really need to convince you; as an espresso hound, you are more or less morally obligated to try it.

The best description I could come up with for the Black Cat is that it is to contemporary, American espresso, what Chez Panisse is to contemporary American food. It represents a radical re-conceiving of what espresso can and should be: high quality, yet accessible at a set price. Yet, when I first visited Chez Panisse, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. The food was so simple and so familiar that I left feeling as though I had tasted all these elements before in more complicated dishes elsewhere. It wasn’t until my second visit that I was struck by how this incredibly simple food could be so amazingly nuanced and so inspiring. Eating at Chez Panisse provides an opportunity to ground oneself in the basics of all things good about food. Drinking the Black Cat does the same for espresso.

I don’t feel that I can add too much to what Intelligentsia has already added to the label by way of describing the coffees themselves. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try.

The regular Black Cat met me with an intense burst of citrus that quickly mellowed – front-forward is exactly the right way to describe it. As the citrus subsided, I tasted melon, roasted nuts, and hints of smoke and bittersweet chocolate. The decaf Black Cat was darker. It was earthy and rich with brown sugar and hints of orange turning to lemon as the cup progressed. The only reason, I’m giving the Decaf a slightly lower rating is that it inevitably does taste like a decaf. Relative to other decaf espressos, it’s probably closer to a 4.

My only “complaint” – if it can even be called that – is that both these coffees seemed a bit flat and one-dimensional when brewed as a pour over drip or French Press. I wouldn’t necessarily expect otherwise since they are designed as espresso. Intelligentsia, however, does note their suitability for brewing. I’d say that if you’re not looking to pull shots of espresso, then you should consider any of the other wonderful coffees that Intelligentsia has to offer.

Update (2/22/09): Please see my review on The Grove and Ost Cafe for updates on Intelligentsia’s new Black Cat line-up and my current thinking on the new Black Cat. I’ve also included some comments here.  I haven’t had the opportunity to try out the regular or single origin Black Cats in my home yet, but I did try some decaf. What I had at home as espresso was less creamy than I experienced in the cafe, but still just as delicious and far superior to how it used to be. This coffee creates a simple and straightforward – dark, bittersweet chocolate of the highest quality. Like any decaf, it lacks a little something as a French Press or other brewed method, but try this one as an Americano if you don’t want straight espresso. This coffee isn’t going to compare to some lighter roasted, fruitier or more brightly acidic coffee, but for a darker roasted coffee and a decaf, it’s as delicious as I’ve ever tasted.

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2 comments to coffee@home: Musings on the Black Cat

  • Sophie

    I am trying to find out if you can get this coffee anywhere in San Francisco – is there a retail outlet that sells it there?

  • No one currently sells Black Cat or other Intelligentsia Coffee in San Francisco that I know of, although Specialty’s Bakery does use it. Unfortunately, to date, the results have been far from up to par with what one usually gets from Intelligentsia. That may be set to change though. The rumor has just been confirmed that Specialty’s coffee may be making a turn for the better with a new Pine Street Coffee Bar open in October. Keep your fingers crossed.

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