When deciding on which coffee to brew for guests or for your own private feelings of cool and prestige, it's impossible to ignore the label. We've all been guilty of purchasing food or drink based on packaging—and why stop there, when the package could include the endorsement of someone superfamous, or at least someone closely connected to the superfamous?
To this end, we recently tried three high-profile celebrity-endorsed coffees big on the market right now, or trying to be. (We regret that we haven't yet had a chance to sample celebrity coffees from Rob Zombie, Emeril, Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy, or Styx.) Here's what we sipped, and what we thought:
Marley Coffee, passionate venture of Bob Marley's son Rohan Marley, is an internationally distributed, US-roasted coffee created partially in tribute to Rohan's father's "deep respect for nature and humanity." We've seen the not-cheap Marley branded Jamaica Blue Mountain blend (the Talkin' Blues coffee retails for upwards of $50/lb), but despite turning up in some fancier retail outlets, the backbone of the business seems to be convenience. They rely heavily on pre-ground bags of affordable, organic coffees from Central America and Africa at low prices, with no particular origin attached—though the temptation to gift someone a bag of One Love or Buffalo Soldier is very very high.
We tried Get Up, Stand Up, one of the lightest roasts available, and found it to be drinkable yet nondescript—notes of chocolate and dark fruit show up in the aroma, and get lost a bit in the cup. But if you're looking for a coffee with an irie vibe (their website urges you to join them in partnering on business solutions such as vending machines and kiosks), definitely stand up for this. Some proceeds go to youth soccer.
Grace Hightower "Coffees of Rwanda"
An unusually successful convergence of philanthropy and taste is Grace Hightower De Niro's Rwanda project, a line of four coffees—three filter roasts and an espresso—from Rwanda, traded and marketed with the goal of elevating awareness of this exemplary coffee (and troubled coffee growing region.)
In this case, the results are good ones: we liked what we sampled from Grace's Signature Series the best: this particular line of coffees highlights specific smaller origins, in this case it's coffee from the Buf Café washing stations that are famous for producing remarkable Rwandan coffees. We tried some flavorful cups of the Buf Café and found the lighter roast retained much of the lovely nuance of coffees of this region like sweet berry and stone fruit. Of all the coffees we tried, we liked Hightower's the best both in the cup and for its conscience.
Joey Kramer "Rockin n Roastin"
If you are looking for dark roasted diner-style coffee with an album-oriented rock twist, Joey "Drummer for Aerosmith" Kramer's "Rockin' n Roastin'" line will do. We spoke to Joey about his private label coffee line—roasted by Harmony Bay Coffee of North Andover, Mass., which focuses on putting affordable, higher-quality coffees within reach of the discriminating, and presumably rocking, consumer. Though Kramer insists his role is hands-on and the product is not a novelty, the premise is a bit too simplified: currently the coffees are exclusively sourced from Guatemala, Sumatra, and Ethiopia ("the best places for coffee", sayeth the drummer) and are roasted to a shiny darkness, even when the bag says medium. What unique characteristics began in these beans is unfortunately submerged in the roast, and—acknowledging that all of these coffees come with months-long "best before" dates—is labelled with a distressing expiration date of 2015. Freshness and flavor, then, not taking too much of a front seat in the rock and roll lifestyle.
Kramer's part of the high-cost-of-coffee backlash, insisting that "We're making a whole lot less money so that people realize you don't HAVE to pay $5 for a really great cup of coffee," though he assured me that both rockin' and roastin' are hard work that he has a passion for. Sadly our tasters found our cup of woody, roasty Guatemala not to rock very hard at all—but perhaps we drink to the beat of a different drummer.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop.