For the past several hours, my Twitter feed has been merrily abuzz (achirp?) with a tiny tussle over "tasting notes." @alexbernson of New York City tweeted, "Let's be real, 95% of coffee tasting notes on retail bags are crap that do little to help the lay consumer hone in on the coffees they like." This observation was subsequently affirmed, poked, prodded, grimaced at, and re-tweeted multiple times by various coffee aficionados across the country. It was, perhaps, a little over-stated. But he made a valid point.
Tasting notes, for many in coffee, are a sort of bane. Being able to describe coffees in detail is a non-negotiable part of the culture. It is also, in many respects, a completely impractical, impossible, purely subjective art form. (Kiwi? Really, are you sure you taste kiwi in that? It's coffee.) Coffee companies try and try to catch consumer attention with pretty labels, origin information, and lots and lots of notes. But how relevant those notes are to the average consumer remains undocumented territory. Do people actually care if the coffee has a hint of cinnamon? Do people actually try to taste the hint of cinnamon?
With all of this often in mind, I recently had a good laugh when I walked into Tougo Coffee Co. and picked up a bag of coffee from Handsome Coffee Roasters. "Handmade and Damn Handsome," it said. Brazen, being your own selling point.
The Handsome Coffee team of Tyler Wells, Michael Philips, and Chris Owens tend to bring to mind the grownup coffee world's version of teen heartthrobs. Each of these individuals comes laden with accolades; their years of experience in coffee have made them each well-known and respected names in the industry. So it seems disrespectful to compare them to Backstreet Boys, or Hanson... but then, they did choose to name their company "Handsome."
And they did successfully turn me into a creepy stalker of a groupie.
Currently, there is only one place in Seattle where you can find Handsome on bar with any regularity. And it can still be as damn difficult to catch as it may be Damn Handsome when you finally do. Tougo Coffee in the Central District carries Handsome coffee for sale, and currently has their espresso on bar an approximate three mornings a week: Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But, like waiting outside a venue exit for an hour in hopes of seeing your favorite band up-close and personal... only to discover that they left in disguise through a back door 20 minutes before you even arrived on the scene... Handsome Espresso seems to possess a semi-mythic evanescence.
It took me no less than a month of showing up just a bit too early, or just a bit too late, or just a bit too something before I finally managed to get a shot of Handsome at Tougo. (It may or may not have required convincing one of the baristas to start directly sending me notifications whenever the espresso went into the hopper. And being disinclined to roll out of bed by 7:00 on most Saturday mornings, I still missed it several times.)
So what of the coffee? What does it taste like? Why must we always come back to these silly tasting note things? Well, because Handsome, as appealing and inexplicably marketable as it may be, doesn't actually offer much information. And, whether we really cling to, or even agree with the observations of a roaster, they're still nice to have (if I want to disagree, I need something to disagree with). It would be a disservice to Handsome if I failed to state that their coffees do come furnished with tasting notes. Or, as they tactfully frame it, with "We taste:" notes. But I think it would be a disservice to the coffee if I highlighted either their or my take on its flavor profile. And here's why.
The one thing that stands out to me about Handsome espresso is actually texture. This is an unusual defining feature in a coffee, for me, so it stands out a lot. If you've ever eaten a good chocolate truffle finished with a dusting of quality cocoa powder, you're familiar with that lingering dry, bittersweet sensation on your lips and the tip of your tongue... not really a flavor in itself, but more of a brilliant texture that makes you think intently about it, and about the flavor that preceded it, and about how much you wish that there was one more truffle still left in the box.
Handsome espresso finishes that way. Having now tracked it down and tried it twice (once as a macchiato, and once as a straight shot), that is the fascinating element. The slightly unpolished, or if you will, ruggedly handsome, nature of the roast. It is an excellent coffee. And though I could try to tell you what it tastes like, or what makes it excellent, I feel it would be like trying to verbally explain the thrill of finally meeting a band you've been following around the country face-to-face. It may not be something quantifiable by words; I'd just end up saying things like, "Trust me. It was awesome."
Not that I've ever done that.
But you get the idea.
If you'd like to meet Handsome Coffee for yourself, check out Tougo Coffee's website for hours and information, but keep in mind: your best bet may be earlier than you want to wake up on a weekend. This coffee calls for a little dedication. Don't worry: it's worth it.