At a Glance: single origin (Ethiopia Yirgacheffe); full body; chocolate, burnt caramel, grassy; low acidity; washed; Ethiopia heirloom

Seasons greetings, boys and girls! Welcome back to my table here in the corner of Istria Cafe. This has been a really busy month here at the table, as I’m sure it has been for you. When I committed to review nothing but holiday coffees for the entire month of December, I didn’t have quite enough foresight to realize that there would be massive amounts of coffee cluttering my kitchen counter for weeks. Because that’s exactly what happened—I have unfinished bags of beans all over the kitchen counter and not much time to get through all of them. So, guess what I’m giving away as Christmas presents this year…

In any event, Ashley and I find ourselves in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood today, hanging with the one and only Joel Dewey at Istria Cafe, because they are currently featuring Counter Culture Coffee’s 2011 Holiday Blend. I’m very excited to be here because I’d been wanting to give this coffee a try, and I’m terribly relieved that I got to do it without losing more counter space. Are you as excited as I am?

Feel free to pull up a chair.

Every year, since 1999, Counter Culture Coffee rolls out its annual holiday blend. It seems that each year, they get their holiday roast beans from a different location—I at least recall that their 2009 roast came Finca Nueva Armenia (which we’ve actually tasted here at the table before) and their 2010 roast was a true world-blend, coming from Africa, Indonesia, and Latin America. What makes Counter Culture Coffee’s holiday blends so special is that they’re not just good coffees, they also benefit a greater good. Counter Culture is dedicated to spreading holiday cheer, and good works. For every pound of holiday coffee purchased, $1 is donated to a coffee-farming area of their choice. Last year, for instance, sales proceeds supported an organic soil-building project for small-scale farmers in Popayan, Colombia.

This year, the term “holiday blend” is a bit of a misnomer because this certified organic coffee is actually a single origin, coming from the small farming community of Konga in Ethiopia, in the Yirgacheffe region. And this year’s charitable side of things? A dollar per pound helps to build and fund schools in surrounding Ethiopian farming communities.

This area of the world has been a long-time coffee-producing region—it’s the birthplace of coffee, really. This mountainous region has been producing really great, high-quality coffee for centuries now. With elevations climbing up to 6,000 feet, rich volcanic soil, and centuries’ worth of farming experience handed down from generation to generation, it’s no wonder that the coffee from this region is so world-renowned, and so good. For this, their twelfth holiday coffee offering, it makes sense that Counter Culture would pay homage to the birthplace of coffee.

So how does this year’s “blend” taste?

Joel served me a mug from the pour-over bar, using a Hario V60. The aroma of the coffee was really sweet, with notes of fruits (cranberry), nuts (almond? pistachio?), chocolate, vegetation (grassy), even a little herbal. It was a really thick aroma too, almost malty or syrupy.

The flavor, on the other hand, was almost entirely different. Almost. The chocolate in the aroma retained in the flavor, as did the cranberry taste (though it was drastically diminished). The rest of the notes I detected in the aroma mostly vanished. When the coffee was fresh from the bar, still steaming hot, the taste was mostly dark chocolate and burnt caramel. It was sweet, but more bittersweet; maybe even a tinge of smokiness (this made sense when Joel later told me that Counter Culture roasted this year’s blend a bit longer than they ordinarily do with an Ethiopian coffee). Ethiopian coffees from the Konga co-op are usually lighter-bodied and more daintily flavored than this offering from Counter Culture was—they’re more often floral, more herbal, fruitier. So I was actually surprised at how little these notes showed up in this year’s holiday coffee.

As the coffee cooled, however, these elements started to emerge—very faintly, but they were there. Then again, maybe I was forcing myself to taste them because I wanted to taste them. The coffee, which still was bittersweet and dominantly chocolaty/caramel, started to feature a very slight lemongrassiness (I know that’s not a word). But that was it—it wasn’t floral, it wasn’t herbal, it wasn’t spicy. There was just a very faint hint of grassiness that is common in Rwandan or Burundi coffees, coupled with a lemony zest that is common in Panamanian coffees.

Holiday Blend had a nice, smooth earthy finish, very little aftertaste, and featured a relatively low, balanced acidity.

The Bottom Line

Counter Culture Coffee’s 2011 holiday offering—the superfluously titled “Holiday Blend”—is a pretty unique cup of coffee. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to be, knowing that it came from the Konga region of Ethiopia. Rather than being medium bodied and spicy/herbal/floral, it was full-bodied and tasted of dark chocolate and burnt caramel, with an earthy finish. Only towards the bottom of the mug, when the coffee had cooled to room temperature, did it even begin to resemble other coffees typical of this region.

That being said, Holiday Blend 2011 is a solid cup of coffee that A Table in the Corner of the Cafe recommends for moderate to serious coffee drinkers. And best of all, for every pound of Holiday Blend sold, Counter Culture will donate a dollar to building and funding Ethiopian schools, so head over to their website to get a pound for the coffee lover you know.

I would imagine this one will couple well with holiday meals or serve just as well as the first morning cuppa on a cold, crisp, snowy winter’s day.

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