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The Battle of Fine Espresso: Kaña by Cubans or Marley by a Legend

I am a bona fide espresso afficionado.

I say it’s my mother’s fault. Su culpa. She starts her day with 2 shots of Cuban espresso, known to be one of the world’s strongest espressos. I’ve seen her walk around with a huge thermos since I can tie my own shoes. Interestingly, I didn’t start drinking coffee until I graduated from college, and even then, it wasn’t espresso. I’d have a cup of plain ol’ American, just to keep from falling asleep at my 9-5 desk.

And then 5 years ago, when I leaped out on faith and left my former life, I was at home in the mornings, long enough to have one shot with mami. That one shot quickly turned into two, and ultimately into café con leche–with 3 shots. And now my friends, sometimes I’ll have 3 cups of café con leche.

Do the math.

KAÑA CAFÉ CUBANO

Until last July, I was drinking a certain Cuban brand that has monopolized the market since what seems like the Cuban Revolution. Ergo, a long ass time! I’ve not deviated from that brand at all. On the occasion, I’ll have ‘bux and Caribbou, which I think is so much better than the latter. But, when I’m faithful, I’m faithful and it’s hard to break me from my OCD patterns.

But, enter the realm of Twitter. As my early tweets involved a daily mention of having several shots of that certain brand of the addictive Cuban persuasion, I caught the attention of a new Cuban espresso purveyor: Kaña. The owner insisted I would love his grind better and that the other brand paled in comparison. Hard to convince me, since anything my mother likes and recommends has always worked. I didn’t hesitate, in part because I fell in love with his packaging. May be a lame reason to want to try something new, but the white packaging with vintage iconography of Old Havana: The curvy, voluptuous woman, the man smoking his stick while driving his 1950’s Chevy, Varadero Beach–all things I came to see for myself during my last two visits.

Unlike the other brand of Cuban espresso, Kaña has 8 different blends. You can see them all here. Kaña is not competing with the other brand; its going after the Starbucks’s and Caribbou demographic. Smart. So, there’s drip, one medium roast, several dark roasts, several espresso roasts and even decaf espresso. Each one has a name that represents something Cubano: a beach, a city in La Habana, a city in Miami and so forth.

But is the café as good as it looks? After spending an hour on the treadmill, chatting in Spanglish with the owner, I was sold. “Send me some! In fact, send me your strongest roast.”

After playing with Hialeah, Varadero, South Beach and the Limited Reserve, here’s what I came up with. As shots, all are smooth, robust, have a clean finish, extract an amazing aroma and are not bitter. HIALEAH (considered somewhat of a “hood” sect in Miami”)  is definitely my every day roast. It had the strength, yet smoothness of what I look for in a fine espresso. The test for me was how it blended with my leche. Score. No flavor lost and all the properties were still there.

The Limited Reserve is la créme de la créme. That stuff there! It sips and goes down like a $300 bottle of cognac. I found it to be the epitome of an espresso; and I’ve had my share of espresso’s from France, Italy, et. al. I’d “reserve” this for special trysts and soireés. It’s just that special.

As for their bean growing practices, Kaña grows beans all over the world, primarily in Colombia. What makes it Cuban coffee is the process in which the beans are grown (climate, soil, region, latitude), pressed, dried, extracted and ultimately brewed.

I’ve been happily been drinking Kaña for the past 7 or so months and haven’t touched the other brand since. ALERT:  The coffee is so good, I’ve even converted my mother, whom has been drinking the other stuff for over 35 years!

MARLEY COFFEE: Stir it Up

Marleybag

 

On to Marley Coffee, my newest introduction and addition to coffee. When my friends at Dean & DeLuca offered me a sample, I was happy to accept it. I was attracted to this brand for several reasons. 1. The inspiration behind it is simple: son Rohan, wanted to realize his father Bob Marley’s dream of one day returning to farming in the Blue Mountains of his island; where I’m 30% rooted in. 2. Variety: Much like Kaña, it offers a variety flavors, also in drip, espresso, lighter and darker roasts. All are organic, meaning their growing practices are eco and health conscious. 3. The aesthetic and marketing appeal–each bean variety is named after a BM hit. 4. Name and timing: I received the offer to taste the coffee right in the middle of planning STIR IT 28, the culinary benefit for Haiti. I didn’t find any coincidence in being introduced to a coffee bearing the same conceptual name.

Marley coffee is distinct in that his has historical and ethical roots. Their beens are cultivated not only in Blue Mountain, Jamaica, but also Central America, Indonesia and Ethiopia, “the birthplace” of coffee. They ensure ethical treatment of the farmers and just as important, sustainable cultivation of the coffee trees. Additionally, the company benefits children’s soccer programs as a way to enrich children’s lives through active involvement in sports.

So, I know you want to know about the coffee! For purposes of this review, I’m only touching on espresso, since we all know it’s what I sip. The 5-bean organic espresso, LIVELY UP,  is bold, savory, a bit fruity, but not as strong as its Cuban counterpart. That’s not a bad characteristic, it just means I can enjoy a lighter shot of espresso when I don’t need to stay up until 4 am. Maybe 1:30 (which I’ll gladly take any day). The finish is smooth, and like Kaña, doesn’t bear a bitter after taste, which is a downer for me. I always look for a smooth finish with an incredible whiff of a fresh roast, as opposed to an over-roasted smell and flavor (Starbucks infamously commits this crime).

Honestly, as I was tasting them side by side (though I’ve been drinking Kaña far longer), there was a moment, where I had a hard time distinguishing the two. So, I made a café con leche with MC espresso to see if I could make the distinction. THERE it is. Not the same as my Cuban café con leche, albeit, great in flavor and finish. It had a fruitier taste and because it’s not as robust or dark as the Cuban one, I got away with less sugar; which can be a good thing.

After all that, WHICH do you think I like better?!?!

Regardless, I really enjoy both and will keep them in my repertoire of espresso brands and even recommend them to you coffee drinkers. Each brand embodies different characteristics, making them unique and special in their own way. If you’re going for a bolder, eye-popping espresso, I say try Kaña. If you want a softer espresso, with a floral palate, then Marley is the way to go.

Depending on the day, either or will make it into one of my 9 espresso makers. They’re that good!

OCD, I know.

Bye, bye old brand,  hello Kaña and Marley Coffee. Follow both on Twitter @kanacoffee and @marleycoffee. To buy and learn more about Kaña Cuban coffee go here and Marley Coffee here or here.

Disclosure: This was not a paid review. I simply received some coffee to taste. And yup, I love them both and will be supporting their biz.

HOW TO BREW A PERFECT SHOT OF ESPRESSO, CUBAN OR OTHERWISE.

Using a stovetop espresso maker, fill the bottom half with cold water up to the valve. Place the filter cup into the base. Fill the filter with the coffee, pressing down with the back of a spoon until it flushes with the rim.  Screw on the top of the espresso maker and brew on high until coffee has fully percolated. Do not allow espresso to burn. Remove from heat. Add 1.5 tbsp. of sugar into metal cup. Pour  coffee into the cup and stir well, until you get a froth. Pour into demitasse.

¡Buen Provecho!

 

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34 thoughts on “The Battle of Fine Espresso: Kaña by Cubans or Marley by a Legend

  1. Love this post… you were right!

    I have tried using my little stovetop espresso maker and I can never get it to work. Ugh! Do you still use the red one sometimes?

  2. I enjoyed reading this. Didn’t know that Ethopia was the birth place for coffee. Just learned somethinng new.

  3. You kinda lost me when you mentioned someone selling pre-ground coffee. I think I need to bring you some fresh roasted coffee [*] at some point. And grind it just before using. I still work only with single-origin roasts, but there’s so much to learn even with those. I have some aged Sumatran I should try soon.

    Another aspect to look for in coffee is the purchasing method. The details vary by country, but some smaller sources make their own direct purchases and post their policies (e.g. http://www.sweetmarias.com/farmgatecoffee.php ). There is, alas, more to all this than just organic and Fair Trade (TM).

    [*] Note that all coffees need to rest a bit after the roast. Some are good to go in 6-8 hours (most Central American and Kenyan coffees, etc.). Some take a few days to develop their full flavor (many Ethiopian, Yemen, and Indonesian coffees). When companies advertise coffees uniformly roasted “less than XXX hours ago,” it’s just marketing nonsense.

  4. Karen: YES! I actually used and shot the red one for this post, but decided not to use those pics… I use it often. Glad you liked it!

    Dullah: yup, always something to learn around these pages!

    Jason: great points. Marley coffee talks about their cultivating and purchasing practice in their press kit, which is why I wanted to mention it. I’m not too familiar with Kañas purchasing practices. For that reason, I didn’t want to get way too into that element of the process. I wanted to focus on the taste and what coffee drinker will experience when trying both brands. I don’t like Starbucks for obvious reasons. I like and appreciate their biz plan, but not their café.

  5. I also love espresso! I drink a lot of coffee (Turkish or Ethiopian), but I have never tasted Cuban or jamaican coffees…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  6. I have to admit I’m not a coffe drinker as I only take a sip of my wife’s daily dose, but I too was sold on Kaña the first moment I tried it. I haven’t tried Marley, so I can’t compare, but your vivid description (hope Kaña hires you as their spokeperson)does make justice to Kaña’s quality features. Strictly from a marketing standpoint, though, I have my doubts about a brand name that uses sugar cane (caña) as an ID for coffee. Kind of weird if you ask me, but then again, it may work; you never know. But name aside, Kaña is really good.

  7. It’s great that Marley publicizes their efforts! I wish more coffee companies would lay out the details. That’s one reason I keep buying greens from SM; they’re obsessive about details. I’ll have to keep Marley in mind for Blue Mountain, which is horribly difficult to obtain.

    Dullah, the folk story of coffee’s discovery is fun, too. You see, there were these partying goats… http://www.coffeereview.com/reference.cfm?ID=8

  8. So.. i’m not much of a coffee drinker… in fact, i don’t drink coffee at all, but when i smell my mom making this particular brand of coffee in the morning, I can’t help but be tempted to take a sip. Can’t help but wonder if it tastes as good as it smells.

    Should i break down and taste coffee someday, i’m sure it will be Kaña, because it’s what’s in the house (which my parents and family friends are swearing by, and apparently with good reason!!).

    Great post as always Bren! Thanks!

  9. Never really been a coffee drinker. Couldn’t imagine what an espresso shot would do to me, but you made it sound appealling. PRESSURE, PRESSURE…

  10. Well now you are talking my language. I need to try Kana and Marley you made them both sound so divine. I actually purchase my coffee freshly ground at the Dekalb Farmer’s Market but with Jamaican Blue Mountain being $33/lb that is reserved for Sunday mornings only. Otherwise I like the guatemalen (sp) blend and the Kenyan as well.

    j

  11. I am not a regular coffee drinker, but you may be able to sway me if I can taste some Kana and Marley next time I am over! 😉 HEEE! I will bring the dessert. Deal?

  12. It’s nice to see you are supporting/creating a grass roots effort to combat hunger. Great idea.

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  14. It sure sounds like you enjoy your coffee in the morning Bren. Also thank you for your generosity in continuing to help those who are unable to help themselves.

  15. Interesting to hear about these brands of coffee, especially the Marley brand. As a proud Jamaican (smile) I grew to really appreciate the Blue Mountain coffee that is produced in Jamaica. Whenever I go back to Jamaica I get requests from friends to get some coffee (as well as rum) since its so expensive here. Its funny since as a culture we are not heavy coffee drinkers but its a brand that is respected worldwide.

    Next time you are brewing up either of those two let me know.

  16. Well.. I’m not what some folks would consider as a major coffee drinker, but I do like a mild American roast every now and then. I tried some espresso a few years back and it had too much caffeine in it for me. I think I stayed awake for 4 straight days (lol). I wonder if there is decaffeinated espresso or Cuban coffee, because I would like to try them. I have an espresso machine that was given to me as a gift that I’m dying to use. I’m sure that a good cup of espresso, Cuban coffee would go great with a flan..

    You did a great job on this post..

    Derek

  17. Hi Bren… thank you so much for the information. I prefer espresso as well and it helps me to sleep better 😀

    I have several gadgets just for drinking coffee and my latest collection is Greek/Turkish Coffee maker 😛 Though I’m from the Southeast Asia region and my hometown is very close to Sumatera, Indonesia (yes, I’d tasted the Kopi Luwak!), my preference is still South American coffee beans even though in my country, we also produce coffee beans but mostly Robusta and the local coffee is roasted with corn, etc. (dark & potent!).

    Now, I wonder if these suppliers you mentioned able to send Cuban coffee to Malaysia or maybe they have distributors in my country that I can contact for some purchases?

    PS I love that espresso set you pictured…so vibrant and colorful… just like you 😀

    Take care and have great week

    pixen

  18. I agree with the previous poster that freshly-ground coffee (preferably used within an hour of grinding) is essential. It also reminds me that I’ve never actually had traditional Café Cubano. Adding to my to-do list now. 🙂

  19. Rosa: I love Turkish espresso. Just as strong at Cuban, but a totally different taste. I find it to be more bitter.

    David: Yeah, I heard you converted, too! Love when a new brand can do that. There’s room for others, you know! I agree w/you on their name, though. Doesn’t make too much sense. Now I need you to try Marley coffee!

    Jason: Yea, that’s what I appreciate about what Rohan’s doing with their coffee. Pretty transparent; much like his father. Blue Mountain is not only difficult, but expensive as all get out.

    Lil B: Hi sis! LOL! Girl, yo no se que te pasa? You’re around coffee drinkers all day long and you’ve not sipped! Even Missy has had some of the goodness!! The smell is so intoxicating. Too bad Folger’s has that tag line for waking up in the morning to a wonderful smell.

    Tiffany: you know I’m capable of converting you too!

    3Piece: Next time you’re over, I’ll make sure to make you some! I’m surprised you didn’t have any Marley espresso cocktails at STIR IT. His stuff is really good. Co. ethics is respectable, too.

    Chris: Bring it on woman!!! You know I’m down!

    Mark: Thanks so much! It’s something I’m passionate about. I’m glad you left a comment. Feel free to tell others about it!

    Daniel: That number sounds inaccurate, but it’s awful either way. I thought the ratio was lower, which would be even more intolerable. I’ll definitely be checking you guys out. Thanks for stopping by!

    Val: girl, you know how I am about this stuff! You keep doing your thing, too!

    Rohan: You know I’m going to hit you up for BM next time you go home. I’ve never had 100% BM. I’ve Columbian, Cuban, Ethiopian and Greek. I’ll make sure to brew some next time I have a soiree!

    Derek: I need to work on getting you away from American roasts. How boring is that?! And mild? What? Both the Cuban and Marley brands offer decaf, so I’ll have to introduce you to it, too! Had no idea you had an espresso maker, but then again, I’m not so surprised. You and that flan! It’s coming, it’s coming!

    Pixen: now, Asian coffee is not something I’ve experienced a lot with. Coffee helps me sleep better, SOMETIMES! not often, though. I love coffee gadgets, too–like a frother. I’ll find out if they ship to Malaysia and get back to you. Thanks for dropping by!

  20. To be honest, I hate the taste of coffee. I don’t know what it is but it just find it disgusting. But let me tell you, growing up in a Cuban house-hold and having to make coffee for family members and friends, it is the only kind I can stand. The taste is great and it’s such a small dose and keeps you going. I was always told that I can make a mean espresso and I learned the trade from Chef Bren, so Thank you Sis.

    Love you

  21. Mmmm you know this is a post close to my heart; I’m going to post something similar one of these days with some Italian brands…I also have to do a step-by-step on brewing it stovetop…so many people ask!

    Btw, did you know *how* coffee was discovered in Ethiopia? GOATS! A goat farmer noticed his goats were dancing around one afternoon after having nibbled on some strange plant…coffee! And so it began…YES, I, being a new goat mum and espresso will also write about that someday 😉

    Man the to-do list just gets longer every minute, doesn’t it?!

    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  22. Brilliant article Bren, I really enjoy coffee but as you mentioned often, I don’t need always to stay up till 4am (ok, here we need to apply some math since my circadian clock seems like living in NY area while the body is in Germany so I usually go to bed at 3am and get up late; the above 4am would mean actually 6am lol).
    I like coffee tasting and find very useful the addition of a little bit (very little) of fine salt to suppress bitterness (I don’t use sugar); have you ever tried using this method?

  23. Wooo, this is just too much caffeine! 🙂 Though coffee and espressos are too much for drinking, they are perfect for baking. You should give them that sort of taste test!

  24. Carl: I good ground bean is great to grind, but believe it or not, I don’t have a grinder, so I always have my coffee sent to me ready to go!

    Rebecca: thanks so much!

    Guy: Just like K, I’m so surprised you guys have yet to sip on a good ole cup of espresso. We all know mami doesn’t like it con leche, which is fine, but it’d be good for you to try it at least once. Try mine! 🙂 love you back.

    Michelle: I know, I know 🙂 I have to play with some Italian brands. I’ve had them, but not purchased them for enjoyment at home. And yes, I do know how coffee was discovered in Ethopia. I think it’s a great story. I know there are different versions to it. Since you are a goat mom, you have to do something on your blog! Will be looking out for it!

    Alessio: Thanks so much my friend. I know how much you enjoy coffee, so I thought this post would satisfy you. But, you got me on the salt bit! What is that all about??!? Never, ever heard of a coffee drinker using salt in lieu of sugar.

    DuoDishes: no it is not! Get with it girl! I make a really yummy espresso flan and coffee cake. and let’s not talk about ice cream! 🙂

  25. I love to drink coffee in the mornings,folgers is my brand, but maybe i’ll try expresso and see how i like it and if i get hooked on it.

  26. I admit I’ve never heard the salt bit before, but now I’m tempted to try it… There are other fun things to mix with coffee, too. Chicory is a traditional additive / “coffee extender” that lends a flavor I like with milk & honey or when frozen into a summer granita.

    There’s also a Yemeni tea (ok, tisane) made of coffee cherry husks called qishr. I haven’t yet, um, acquired a taste for it. But now I’m wandering far afield.

  27. I learn somthing new everytime I check out your post. I am a coffee drinker, must have a cup daily, however tommrrow morning I am going to have a cup of espresso and let you know what I think… thnx for the info.

  28. Sakina: uhm, we need to get you off that Folgers. This is an espresso culture, honey! 🙂 tell your bro to get you a stove top espresso maker!

    Jason: I don’t think there’s anything interesting about trying salt w/my espresso. But I guess it’s like Mexicans adding salt to mangoes which actually works!

    5 Star Foodie: QUE!? you don’t have an espresso maker! Next time in DC, we’ll have to get together!

    Paula: I’d love a MOKA pot. I used on in Trinidad and it was great. Need to find a place here in Atl that sells them.

    Erika: HUH? you never thought of adding sugar? So you drink yours straight! Try it honey, you’ll love it even more, promise. Jason, did you hear that!?!

    Terry: Come on now Terry, I urge you to try both brands out! Both will ship to you! Tell them I sent you and you might get a discount. Both owners are wonderful people. Well, you saw the MC at the event, remember?

  29. I bought a kilo of Altas Cimas espresso beans near Barsalona, Spain. I had some at an espresso bar and loved it. I’m not sure where it was grown, I couldn’t buy it in smaller amounts so I now have the beans in plastic bags that I tried to make as air tight as possible with a straw as a means of drawing out the air. I’ve wraped it twice in plastic and now have it in the freezer… So, whadda ya think? I’m open for information!

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