French roast brews, sip for sip
EVERYONE had skipped their morning cup of Joe, and the natives were noticeably restless. That was the scene as The Times tasting panel convened recently for a tasting of 13 French roasts.
Why French roast? Coffee experts had groaned when I’d told them that’s what we’d be sampling, rather than Colombian, say, or Guatemalan -- milder single-provenance beans. You won’t be able to taste the difference, they’d said. You’ll be tasting the roast, not the bean; it’ll just taste burnt.
But that’s what Americans like to drink (dark roasts are by far the best-selling blends), and besides, that’s what most of us secretly make at home. Joining me on the panel were food editor Leslie Brenner, deputy features editor Michalene Busico, columnist Russ Parsons, assistant food editor Betty Hallock, staff writer Corie Brown, editor at large Thomas Curwen and Guy Pasquini, owner-president of Pasquini Espresso Co.
We’d assembled beans from the big caffeine guns, such as Starbucks and Peet’s, from stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, plus well-regarded local micro-roasters.
The coffee wonks were right: In general, these coffees were mostly unpleasant -- bitter and burnt-tasting. As we smelled and sipped and swirled cup after cup -- all brewed identically in French presses and tasted blind -- we were struck by how similar so many of them were. A couple stood above the rest, though, both local micro-roasters. Here they are, listed in order of the panel’s preference. Prices are per pound, unless stated otherwise.
Jones Coffee Roasters French roast. From Guatemalan beans roasted in Pasadena, this coffee is well-balanced, creamy and complex, with attractive aromas and a mild, nutty flavor. 537 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. (626) 564-9291; www.jonescoffee.com. $10.25.
Groundwork Blackgold blend. From four organic beans from Central and South America and Africa, this is Groundwork’s darkest roast. A delicious, medium-weight blend with floral aromas and spicy flavors. 811 Traction Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 626-8650 plus four other locations. www.lacoffee.com. $8.75.
LA Mill Parisian roast. Chocolaty and nutty, with soft aromas and a round palate. 112 Westminster Ave., Alhambra. (626) 202-0322. www.lamillcoffee.com. $11.95.
Peet’s French roast. Fairly well-balanced, but with burnt caramel notes and a chalky, bitter aftertaste. Available at Peet’s Coffee stores. (800) 999-2132. www.peets.com. $11.9.
City Bean Coffee Aga blend. This blend of three Central American beans with nice body and decent flavor has an unpleasant bitter finish. 5801 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City. (323) 965-5000. www.citybean.com. $9.90.
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf French roast. Upside: silky mouth-feel, chocolate notes. Downside: bitter and vegetal. Available at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf stores. (800) TEA-LEAF. www.coffeebean.com. $11.95.
Graffeo dark roast. This blend of Costa Rican, Colombian and Papua New Guinean beans has chocolate aromas and a soft finish, but it’s rather flat. 315 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-0817. www.graffeo.com. $12.75.
Supreme Bean French roast. Dull, with a bitter finish. 5457 Cleon Ave., North Hollywood. (818) 506-6020. www.thesupremebean.com. $9.
The Coffee Cellar dark roast. Clean, with good smoky aroma and flavor ruined by a long, bitter aftertaste. 2124 W. 7th St., Los Angeles. (213) 305-4484. www.coffeecellar.com. $11.
The Conservatory French roast. From Sumatran, Central American and either Indian Malabar or Kenyan beans, this brew is aromatic and layered, but too sharp and bitter. 10117 Washington Blvd., Culver City. (310) 558-0436. $11.
Trader Joe’s French roast. Nutty aromas and a creamy texture, but burnt and bitter-tasting. Available at Trader Joe’s stores, www.traderjoes.com. $4.99 for 14 ounces.
Whole Foods “Allegro” French roast. Blended from East African beans, this coffee has a pleasant aroma, but it’s heavy, medicinal-tasting and overwhelmingly bitter. Available at select Whole Foods markets, or at www.allegrocoffee.com. $10.99.
Starbucks French roast. Flat, funky, musty and burnt. “Tastes dirty,” said one panelist. Available at Starbucks stores, or www.starbucks.com. $9.95 in stores, $9.99 on website.