Just Coffee Co-op is a coffee roaster and, equally if not more so, activism platform based out of Madison, WI. They reached out to me recently about coffee reviews and I happily received a bag of their Electric Monkey Espresso and Espresso Monkey Decaf. I did quite a bit of research about Just Coffee Co-op in preparation for this review and I still don’t know a ton about the company and it’s backstory, but my palate learned a lot about both coffees, and that’s what matters! You can buy Electric Monkey for $14/12oz bag and Espresso Monkey Decaf for the same price directly from my pals in Wisconsin!
Just Coffee Co-op was co-founded by Matt Earley about 15 years ago. Matt is featured in a 2014 documentary about coffee growers in Mexico and Central America called Connected by Coffee and the company is based on activism, transparency, fairness, being good stewards of the land and other heady principles that transcend “just coffee.” My first impression of Just Coffee Co-op’s website and packaging was, “Wow, these guys have a lot of money and must be part of a larger conglomerate.” I also wondered if they were the “craft brand” front of a more commodity-based coffee company, much like what we see commonly in the craft beer industry. They offer a ton of coffees and several non-coffee products like some good-looking hot chocolate. My research didn’t show any of that to actually be the case, and for a company that has been in coffee for 14 years on the roasting side and without a cafe or storefront to sink money into, it makes more sense that they have a polished and professional brand and look without necessarily being “alternatively funded.”
All paranoia aside, I really liked their bag art (which are all printed and do not use stuck-on labels) across the board. The company went through a big rebranding not too long ago and it shows nicely. The artwork is quirky, funny and cool, yet remains clean and readable. Just about every square inch of Just Coffee Co-op’s bags are printed, so they give you a lot to look at! One thing I did find missing from the bag was a “roasted on” date. I’ll come back to this in my conclusion, but there is a way to look up the roast dates of every bag of Just Coffee. Let’s look at these two coffees and see how they tasted!
Sorry for the grungy machine in the vid. Once I’d shot the video I realized I forgot to wipe it down first from the previous spitters and shooters that the naked portafilter was giving me! LOL
Electric Monkey Espresso
For some reason this coffee gave me major fits with my bottomless portafilter and I actually switched back to my spouted Gaggia PF and was much, much happier with the world. For the record, I think we can squarely place the blame on me and not on the Electric Monkey! After some fiddling around with the Rancilio Rocky, I ended up pulling shots that tasted great somewhere in between a 1:1 and 1:2 ratio, closer to the 1:2 mark. The bag and website don’t give too much info about the Electric Monkey blend other than it is considered a dark roast and contains “coffees from around the world.” Fair enough. I can only assume that, like many blends, the components change based on the season. The flavor description offered by Just Coffee Co-op reads, “cocoa, dark chocolate, tangy.” As I was dialing in, I was getting a lot of very roasty, not-so-great flavors, but once I found the sweet spot, the majority of that metallic roastiness went away and I ended up really liking this coffee. I’m telling you this so if you find yourself buying a bag of this coffee and thinking, “Damn, that is too roasty!” then you need to keep working on your shot parameters.
This coffee pulls with a great, dark crema that’s thick like shaving cream and holds up to vigorous stirring. Once I had the shots pulling the way I liked, I found lots of cocoa and chocolate, tending toward the darker side of things, a bit of smoky roast and a fair amount of cherry flavor that was in-between a sort of black cherry and a sweet, bright red cherry flavor. The body was thick and full and the finish was neutral. I was really happy with this coffee as a straight shot and in a small cappuccino it holds up well to milk and just gets as chocolatey as you can imagine. This is definitely more of a “traditional” espresso both in the straight and milk-based drinks and while I do like bright, more “third wave” shots, too, this one was balanced and interesting, drinkable and delicious and I cannot ask for more from espresso.
Espresso Monkey Decaf
I know decaffeinated coffee is heresy for many people but I think a lot of specialty coffee roasters do a good job with their decaf selections and roasting and companies like Swiss Water are really doing a great job taking the buzz out of these coffees. There are lots of reasons to offer decaf coffees and I am a fan when companies do. Personally I don’t love a coffee buzz and a few cups of coffee will get me there. I also don’t like drinking caffeine after around lunchtime, usually, so decaf options are great for me. The website and bag indicate that Espresso Monkey Decaf is a blend of washed coffees from Peru and Sumatra that use a “water processed” decaffeination method. It also says it’s a “medium” roast. Despite being called Espresso Monkey, Just Coffee recommends this coffee as French press or siphon, too, so it’s probably a useful dual-use coffee.
The flavor profile for this coffee is, “Smoky, dark chocolate, pumpernickel.” I found I needed to tighten the grind by just one step on my Rancilio Rocky to work for this coffee after having dialed-in for the Electric Monkey. This coffee pulls a bit thinner and the crema is lighter and a bit thinner, as is often the case for decaf shots in my experience. It still held up to stirring and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this coffee is sort of a brighter, slightly fruitier version of it’s fully caffeinated brother. This still is not a fully-on West Coast enamel stripper of a shot, but that cherry flavor I found in the Electric Monkey was brighter and more pronounced while still having lots of bright single origin chocolate (think Mast Brothers chocolate bars) sweetness. It was really nice and I really enjoyed this coffee. I ran out of milk and couldn’t make another capp but based on its straight flavors, I think this would hold up great, especially in smaller milk drinks like cappuccinos and cortados.
Both coffees were impressive and I was happy to drink both. I love having a good espresso on deck for those mornings where I need a quick shot on my way to work, and I will gladly keep working on both bags until they are finished. Both espressos were balanced, yet hit all the marks of a bit of fruit, lots of chocolate and sweetness and a good depth of flavor without being harsh. Very nicely done. If I had to pick one that I liked better, at least this morning I would say the decaf won my palate over. That could be different tomorrow and, honestly, I’d be happy with either.
So, my only gripe is the lack of a “roasted on” date on the bags. My Espresso Monkey Decaf bag did have a label that read, “8/4/16” and I can only assume that is intended as a “best by” date, which I feel like is way too long. I imagine Just Coffee Co-op can be found in a lot of stores and groceries and those stores tend to leave coffee on the shelves for a frustratingly long time. That being said, I have most of my bag of the decaf left, so I will pull a couple shots every month until August and I’ll report back in with how it fares. I may well be surprised that it holds up better than I think, but in my experience, two months past roasting is usually the end of the road for espresso. A good experiment and I always keep an open mind. Just Coffee does include a label on each bag with a 4-digit code that can be looked up in the “transparency” section of their website. I did test this feature and it worked fine from my Mac at home, but I get the sense it would be clunky, if even do-able, from a phone standing, say, in the grocery store in front of an aisle of coffee. Besides, who would want to look a bunch of codes up to find a new bag, anyway? I feel like it would be way more transparent to put a roasted-on label on the bag so consumers know exactly how old the bag is without having to go to a website and look codes up. That’s just my 2 cents.
But, all that aside, these were a nice couple of espressos from Just Coffee Co-op. Delicious coffee, pretty to look at in the cup (which for espresso, means something) and a job well done by the gang in Madison!