Every coffee roaster eventually develops a reputation—for their quality, consistency and for the type of roasts they tend to turn out. As far as reputation goes, Red Rock Roasters has earned theirs. Twenty-five years and two generations of experience roasting coffee in the high desert has made them hone their recipes into a product that’s won them loyal industry and private customers throughout New Mexico and across the country.
And they’ve won some other things too—most notably the first annual New Mexico Coffee Roaster Competition, which happened at Villa Miriam Roasters in September of last year. Rachel Langer, the coffee director at Red Rock (and generation number two of the family business) proudly shows me the trophy, handmade by Daniel Sanchez of Oval Dogs Coffee. It’s carved wood made to look like a coffee tamper, with a turquoise Zia inlay in the handle.
I visited Langer at Red Rock recently to try a few of their favorite coffees in a guided tasting. There are specific terms used in the coffee world to describe things like flavor, mouthfeel and aroma: A flavor wheel on the wall of their storefront gives some of those terms and their subgenres. If you try a coffee and taste “fruity,” the wheel helps you hone in on the flavor based on notes that are typically found in coffee—“cherry” is a very different flavor from “grapefruit,” for instance.
In addition to this common language of defining coffee, there are standardized score sheets for rating them. One is designed by Specialty Coffee Association, and the other by Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based roasting and distribution giant. Langer tends to use the Intelligentsia cupping scoresheet, she says, because “It’s simple and intuitive. It makes more sense for what the process is actually like.”
She’s talking about the standardized coffee tasting process: “cupping.” For this cupping, Langer served samples of three of her favorite Red Rock coffees: the single origin Sumatra, Ethiopia and Guatemala. Each coffee in this tasting has the same roast and the same brew method, meaning the only flavor variable is the origin. If the Guatemala tastes different from the Ethiopia, it’s because of the differences in the soil, air, water and climate of those places.
And as I quickly discovered upon tasting, these factors make a huge difference. Here are the three Red Rock coffees we tried, according to my tasting notes:
Aroma: Savory, light and vegetal. There’s nothing cloying or earthy about this coffee.
Flavor: Citrusy and bright. There’s a definite aftertaste of lightly toasted bread. A good breakfast coffee that you could keep sipping all morning.
Pairing: Langer’s request: “Nothing spicy!” This is a delicate coffee that could be overpowered by food that’s heavy on any kind of spice. Have it with toast or pancakes—something carby—or a breakfast burrito with mild green chile. (P.S.: Langer has written a whole post about coffee and burrito pairings on Red Rock’s blog. You should check it out.)
Aroma: Smells roasted and a little earthy. I know roasted sounds obvious, but it’s a definite “fresh out of the oven” kind of scent.
Flavor: Milk chocolate and herbs. As Langer put it, “It smells like dirty weed. But, you know, in a good way.”
Pairing: A good coffee to drink with milk, if you like that sort of thing. It’s fairly neutral—a “coffee flavored coffee.” You could drink this with almost anything.
Aroma: Blueberry, brownie and dessert-y smell
Flavor: Dark chocolate, cherries, pipe tobacco. It’s like the Port of coffee: heavy, sweet and rich.
Pairing: A great dessert coffee, but don’t let it overpower something delicate like a fruit tart. Drink it with your chocolate cake or bread pudding.
The Ethiopia was by far my favorite. Though all of them are tasty in their own right, this is the one I took home with me. Whether or not you consider yourself a coffee person, knowing what flavors you like will help you know what to look for when you’re shopping. Good coffee shops and roasters, just like a good wine shop, speak the language and will know what to get for you. However, If you want to know what coffee goes best with which burrito, you should probably go to the expert in that niche.