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Whether it is the first time you taste the crystal clear bergamot of a Panamanian Gesha coffee, or the bracing salt spray of the ocean in an Islay scotch, or the multi-layered explosion of hot peppers you didn’t even know existed in a Szechuan hot pot, one of the great pleasures of palate exploration is coming across something new and different. Something that shakes up how you look at equations of flavor–something that gives you a clear, bright window into a different world.

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Getting to taste something fresh and foreign can be a rare pleasure. But just a few days ago, we received the 2014 Coffee Collection from designcoffee, featuring eight different coffees from premiere  Korean roasters. We tried the Collection (previously featured on Sprudge) along with our friends and partners at the Stumptown Coffee Roasters headquarters in Portland, OR at an informal cupping. What we found on the table was a delicious snapshot of the exploding world of high-end coffee in Seoul, and a deeply fascinating exposure to different approaches to coffee blending and roasting–including an out-of-this-world blend of a caffeinated and a decaffeinated coffee.

Designcoffee is a coffee equipment and design studio based in Seoul, an outgrowth of the (now closed) café and restaurant La Caffé (see a write-up from 2010 over at FRSHGRND). Owner Jungho Bang has found a lot of success supporting the growing specialty coffee scene in Korea, and decided to put together The Coffee Collection 2014 series to highlight eight of their partners’ coffees in a beautiful package.

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The result is a handsome set of individually bottled and labelled coffees, accompanied by an identification card complete with each brand’s name, logo, slogan (!), and coffee description. There was a smidgen of English identification for each coffee-but by and large we were flying blind.

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The cupping started off as just a few—Stumptown Lead Coffee Trainer Jonathan Sielaff, and La Marzocco USA’s Scott Guglielmino and Larry Eister, who were passing through town. But by the end of the tasting we’d pulled in just about every free person we could find from the roasting and training departments—this was the kind of table that made you want to go grab people and say, “Hey! Come here! Try this! I bet you’ve never had anything quite like it.” 

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From left, Scott Guglielmino and Larry Eister from La Marzocco, and Jonathan Seilaff from Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

The most immediately interesting part of the table was the range of roast degrees–there were some quite light roasts on the table, like Steamers Coffee Factory “Colombia National Winner”, a sweet and balanced coffee with clear apple notes, or the Greenmile Coffee “Greenmile Blend For Brewing”, which used what looked like post-roast blending to pair a mellow creaminess with a bright, possibly natural-processed strawberry note.

Then there were coffees that might have once been called Full City or Full City+ roasts, like the El Cafe “Winter Tree Blend“, a smooth 50/50 blend of El Salvador Helvetia & Sumatra Wahana with a lychee-like juiciness, or New Wave Coffee Roasters “Ethiopia Aricha,” a comparably clean natural-processed coffee with a bright lemon fruitiness and a cherry blossom-like floral aroma.

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Coffee Libre‘s “Bad Blood” blend lay somewhere in the middle, and hearkened back to a more classic approach to blending: the 30/30/20/20 blend of Guatemala San Antonio Caturra, Nicaragua Santa Gema Caturra, Ethiopia Yirgacheffee Dama and Kenya Gikirima gave this cup a heavy complexity with a deep cherry tang. It made me think of Zoka Coffee’s Paladino blend from around 2006, back when it seemed like everyone in the United States was offering complex, sometimes quite delicious multi-bean coffee blends.

There were also some definitely darker roasted coffees on the table, like the Coffee President “President Blend”, a sharper blend focused on spicy cinnamon and chocolate notes, or the Coffee Montage “A Bittersweet Life” espresso blend, which combined a washed India Mysore with a washed Ethiopia Sidamo Shakisso G2. In most North American and European markets, dark roasting is applied to low grade coffees, often to hide serious defects in the original green beans, but the coffees Montage used tasted quite clean, and the roasting seemed careful with pronounced notes of cedar, scotch, and a Ferrero Rocher sort of hazelnut coming through. I bet it tastes great extracted as a 17.5g/30g/30s espresso as suggested on their site, and even on the cupping table, it was great to try a very high quality take on a style of roasting and blending with a lot of global fans.

Last but most certainly not least was Namusairo Coffee’s “Love Letter blend“, which combined a caffeinated Kenya Gachombe with a Mountain Water Process decaffeinated Colombian coffee at a 50/50 ratio. This coffee was roasted almost Scandinavian light, and was one of everyone’s highlights on the table. The tamarind and currant notes were bright and delicate, with the light roast dancing delicately on the edge of starchy as so many do, but balanced by a generous sugar cane sweetness down the middle that gave a very pleasing smoothness and structure to this quite high-acidity coffee.

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Skip Colombo, Stumptown’s senior account manager, showed up just in time for one last pass at the cold cups.

I actually didn’t find out this wonderful coffee was blended with decaf until some serious in-depth Googling while further researching the coffee later. When I did find out one of the coffees in this delicious blend was decaffeinated, I couldn’t quite believe it. I reached out to Bae Jun-sun, Namusairo’s lead roaster and green coffee buyer, for more information. She told me both of the coffees were sourced from Cafe Imports. The decaffeinated coffee was from the Huila region, part of Cafe Imports’ “Origin Select” program where they buy specific lots of green coffee and then send them off to be decaffeinated, as opposed to the usual post-decaffeination spot buying. Noah Namowicz, Cafe Imports’ Director of International Sales, said in 2011 Namusairo was one of the first companies in Korea to work with Cafe Imports to avoid some of the vagaries of international speciality coffee shipping. They’ve been working together steadily ever since.

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Jun-sun explained to me that Namusairo focuses on seasonality in coffee and makes a number of blends, and that for this winter blend they wanted to make something with “warm and sweet vibes.” She said that for them, “2013 was a very special year–we had some ups and downs,” and that they wanted to express how they “were really grateful for our friends and customers who supported us each and every day.” The name of this blend is the love letter to their customers.

Cupping the eight coffees of the 2014 Coffee Collection gave an amazing vision of some approaches to the coffee flavor experience that were at once deeply foreign and immediately recognizable—approaches that developed in parallel to and in conversation with the dominant Western approaches to coffee flavor, yet brought a fresh, new perspective all their own.

Bae Jun-sun and Namusairo Coffee’s Love Letter blend showed that there are always new flavor approaches to try, always new possibilities in the cup, and that even things like decaf–long viewed as a reluctantly included obligation by Western roasters–can be components of amazing flavor experiences in the right hands. Sadly, the 2014 Coffee Collection is sold out, but we encourage you to jump at any chance you might get to try coffees from any of these great roasters from Seoul.

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Alex Bernson (@AlexBernson) is the Assistant Editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Bernson here

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