Carta Coffee Merchants is a new coffee company based out of Hawaii and founded by winemaker and consultant, Scott Burr. Scott, who grew up in northern California as a third-generation winemaker, fell in love with coffee through his travels to Hawaii. He bought a small 6-acre plot of coffee growing land in Kealakekua and rehabilitated it into what he named Nolyssa Farm, a combination of his kids’ names. Despite a Kickstarter that didn’t reach its funding goals, Carta Coffee Merchants is selling Kona coffee grown both at Nolyssa Farm as well as from other small farms on the island. 1Today I am looking at Carta Coffee Merchants’ Latitude Natural Process, a coffee consisting of 100% Kona-grown coffee. Latitude can be purchase directly from Carta Coffee Merchants online for $46/12oz bag or $25/6oz. Latitude is also available with its washed process brother in a side-by-side package, available on the Carta website. I will be looking at the washed version of this coffee later in the week.
Before we get to the coffee, let’s take a quick look at natural process, also known as dry process, coffee. Coffee is a fruit like a cherry. The seeds in the middle of the cherry are what we refer to as coffee “beans.” Natural process coffees are picked and sorted and then they are laid out on raised, ventilated beds to dry with the cherry intact. Other methods use some degree of removing the cherry skins and the mucilaginous fruit underneath. The coffee seeds undergo some fermentation during this drying process and dry process coffees tend to pick up a lot of fruit flavors, sweetness and body along the way.
I have to be honest, I was a little disappointed when I opened this bag of Latitude natural process coffee because the beans inside were roasted quite dark. While I don’t mind dark roasted coffees in the least, the reality of a dark roast is that it is more about the roast itself and less about the coffee origin. Think of it in terms of cooking a steak. You could have the best piece of meat in the world, but as you cook it longer you lose the character of that cut and instead the flavors come from the cooking process itself. This happens with coffee, too. Lighter roasts let more of the origin of the coffee through… the individual characteristics that make that coffee unique are very noticeable in a well done light roast. But as the roast gets darker, the individual characteristics give way to the roast characteristics, like how the sugars in the beans caramelize. As such, it can be hard to tell one dark roast for another in many situations. I like natural coffees, especially when they are on the lighter roast side, because all that beautiful, sweet fruitiness comes through.
But, the proof is in the cup, isn’t it? Using my hand grinder these beans ground very easily, a testament to their roast level and the complete development of the roast throughout the bean’s structure, which is a good thing. The resulting grounds looked like crushed Oreo’s, so a pretty dark roast on this coffee. I used a 1:15 ratio of coffee to water in a notNeutral Gino pourover setup with Kalita 185 white filters. After a 30 second bloom I got a draw down time of about 3:30 or so using 450g of water.
All I could get from the aroma on this one is “dark roast” but in fairness to the cup, my nose hasn’t been working the last few weeks because of allergy season coming hard and early here in Kansas City! The flavor on the coffee is the expected dark roast notes… lots of sweetness and dark, burned (but not in a bad way, if that makes sense) sugars. The coffee has a good, full body and a long lingering aftertaste with a somewhat dry finish, balancing out the sweetness in the flavors. Surprisingly, too, a good amount of fruit comes through in the flavor for me. There is a bit of very ripe strawberry in there and also very ripe banana, which is not a flavor I find much in coffee but seemed to work great in this coffee! I detected a fair amount of ferment in those fruit flavors, too, but I’m not terribly sensitive to ferment the way some tasters are and I rather enjoyed the earthy vibe it gave. It worked well with the dark sugars and the sweetness of the cup.
While this is certainly a dark roast coffee, there is a lot of character in the cup. As it cooled I even picked up some floral notes and a lot of complexity that usually isn’t found with dark roasts. You could easily drink this side-by-side with some of the very dark coffees I reviewed a few months ago from D’Amico, for example, and tell there is something different about this coffee. It makes me really wish the roast level was lighter to be able to highlight even more of those individual origin characteristics, but the coffee market definitely favors darker roasts for most consumers and not every coffee is roasted for the tastes of us third-wave geeks, nor should it be!
The elephant in the room with this coffee is the expense, isn’t it? At $46 for a 12oz bag, it’s priced up there with mid-range geshas and auction lot coffees. It’s hard to place “value” on a coffee. I would personally lean toward a gesha or unusual auction lot at that price mainly because of the roast level. At the same time, last year I bought a bag of coffee only because it came from a farm in Maui that had been near where I stayed in 2000 when I visited Hawaii, and I figured that was probably the closest I would ever get to a coffee farm! In other words, “value” has a lot of factors. With the price of Kona coffee and the often sketchy quality for the tourist market, I think this one from Carta stands out, and if I was in Hawaii drinking this or wanted to bring a bag home to extend my trip I would be happy with it. As far as dark roasts go, in general, it’s well crafted and drinkable and it’s delicious coffee, certainly. This is an excellent example of Kona coffee and hopefully this is a trend we’ll keep seeing from the island. My only “advice” to Carta would be to consider a light roast for those drinkers who are automatically turned off by darker roasts.