It is an overcast day in Portland when I stop into the tiny cafe between 20th and 19th on SE Broadway called Saint Simon. Under the chalky sky, I hear the harsh caw of black-winged crows. I shiver, deliciously. Yet another foreboding Pacific Northwest day. Perfect for cold brew.
Saint Simon serves coffee from Coava, and I’ve had Coava’s cold brew before. But not like this. The blue-eyed barista, who introduces herself as Bethany, listens with a smile as I make my order and starts the setup. Four chilled vials (with a solid 1/2 inch of ice frozen at the bottom), one obviously handmade frame, and a no-nonsense steel jam funnel. Jar by jar, my experience is concocted, then pushed across the counter with another one of those knowing smiles. I sit, sip, savor, comparing my notes with the hand-printed card listing the current cold brew offerings.
First up: Coava’s Latin America Blend cold brew, with notes of caramel, plum, and cashew. Now, cashews are my favorite nut, and I currently have a bumper crop of dusky purple plums hanging, pendulant, in my backyard, so I’m excited. A typical low-acid cold brew with lingering notes of oak and almond, it has a smooth mouthfeel and leaves me intrigued—but not in love. Maybe I ask too much from my cold brew experience. We’ll see.
Next: Costa Rica Los Nacientes, proclaimed to have notes of cherry, mango, hibiscus, and cream. (Notes of cream? Hm…) This vial is a tad brighter in color than the other two, though all glow like amber in the light. Up front: malty hibiscus, yes, moving into a balanced and even creamy aftertaste. As Morrissey switches out on the stereo to some Irish band whose music is familiar but unplaceable, and as the old man slowly reading his New York Times while sipping a latte, red iPhone casually intersecting the table slats, glances up at me, smiles, and keeps reading, I ponder my second jar of cold brew. There’s a faint lavender aftertaste that keeps me guessing. The acidity is gentle, but present. My morning’s looking up.
Last up: vial #3, Coava’s Kilenso Ethiopia, which should—according to my card—have notes of lavender and grape jam. I could use a spot of purple on this grey morning. I pick it up, sniff, and pause. Yep, lavender and grape jam up front in aroma. And, on sipping, that wild Ethiopian acidity, like the sweet green grapes I cribbed from my neighbor’s vines last night. I picked them with hot fingers, and they popped in my mouth with tiny explosions of silky pulp, jewel-like seeds, and elastic skin. Now, it seems, I’m drinking them in my cold brew. It’s pleasant, but I preferred the grapes.
For the finish, in the final vial, is sparkling water as a palate cleanser—which I sip before I return to my favorite, #2, the Costa Rica. Across the street a woman in hot pink scrubs is taking a picture of her smooth-skinned daughter. A truck rumbles by, shivering the water in the steel pet water bowl beside me. I feel a strange mix of guilt and satisfaction: guilt because it took me a year and a half to make my way to Saint Simon for the first time, and satisfaction because I have had one of the best cold brew experiences of my coffee career to date. I return my vials, nod at the baristas, and snap one final picture of the cafe. I know I’ll be back, sooner than later.