I first encountered Scarlet City Coffee Roasters in what amounted to something of a pop-up appearance for Blackbird Cafe when they set up shop for all of two weekends at the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market. After I tasted their espresso there I found myself in touch with Jen St. Hilaire, owner of Scarlet City and whose past includes work with both Vivace and Ecco Caffe. Somehow time flew by, and now, nearly a year later, I’m finally getting around to trying some samples Scarlet City was kind enough to send me (they were not year old samples – it just took that long for us to arrange to send them). You can find Scarlet City Coffee still being served at Blackbird Cafe’s kiosk at the Marin Farmer’s Market.
Feeling inspired by the end of Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide, I’ll attempt to keep these capsule reviews of each coffee short and sweet.
Light Speed Espresso (3+)
The Light Speed is an American espresso blend which I think even the likes of Giorgio Milos might approve. My tasting notes included words like fresh bread, brown sugar, cocoa and butterscotch with a certain savory bite and crisp, dry acidity. It’s an understated blend with a thick, but not syrupy mouthfeel intended mostly for espresso and light milk drinks rather than cappuccinos and lattes, where its subtlety gets quickly overwhelmed. It wasn’t a knock-my-socks-off espresso but the profile was evocative of some slightly arid, northern Italian landscape, or, um, perhaps the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon?
Peru Decaf (3)
I still haven’t figured out yet how to rate decaf coffees successfully. They rarely stand up to their caffeinated cousins, but it seems unfair to penalize them for falling into this lot in life. Isn’t the persecution they face under the tell-tale “D” emblazoned on their package sufficient? Don’t they deserve the benefit of the doubt? These bigger questions aside, I found this decaf to be a worthy contender of its peers. This coffee is marked by pine-like acidity, but not nearly as sharp as this type of acidity can be with other Peru coffees. I also noted lime, clove and dry earthiness. The roast did, at times, lean a bit dark for me, bringing out the more bitter elements of molasses. I would especially recommend this decaf to drinkers of darker roasted coffees who are ready – willingly or unwillingly – to improve their coffee outlook and make a change for the better.
Ethiopia Amaro Gayo (3-)
As those familiar with coffee will know, the Amaro Gayo coffee is produced by Ethiopia’s only female miller and exporter, Asnakech Thomas, and is synonymous with the words fruit bomb. This naturally processed coffee is the kind that jumps out at you on the cupping table. It’s also the type of coffee now deemed passe by many coffee greats. One glance at Scarlet City’s Amaro Gayo and I was doubly convinced that this coffee was not going to be to my liking – both too fruity and too darkly roasted. But I tasted it and changed my mind. Just as a chocolate chip cookie can benefit from a caramelized, if not slightly burnt, edge, this coffee’s potential for cloy turns out to work with a darker roast. In addition to the expected blueberry notes, I found some vanilla and a little bit of spice in this thick, but not syrupy coffee that seemed to work best as a French Press. A paper filter tends to bring out the roast and block the fruit to a less than desirable degree. I’m not fawning over this coffee, but it does make me reconsider how you really do have to pick the right roast for the bean, and sometimes consider choices outside your roasting comfort zone.
Warp Drive Espresso (2+)
This blend appears to be the workhorse blend for Scarlet City, anchoring down the big, bad lattes that are so passe in coffee circles these days and providing a bolder espresso option for those planning to to enter blow hard contests with William Shatner. While there’s something to be said for a more seasonal approach, less standard approach to espresso blending, I see nothing wrong with a roaster offering up a bass-heavy milk-mixer blend like this one if it meets the needs of the customer. My take: earth, molasses, dark chocolate, a hint of fruit (purple grapes) and a syrupy mouthfeel. When done right, this blend produced bass heavy shots with pleasant flavors, but I found the blend could stray into the phenolic and musty.