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Altitude Coffee Lab Brings Humility and Comfort to the Scottsdale Scene

Altitude Coffee Lab recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in the best possible way: by winning a New Times Best of Phoenix award...
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Altitude Coffee Lab recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in the best possible way: by winning a New Times Best of Phoenix award.

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The first thing I noticed about Altitude Coffee Lab was its staff; friendly, calm, and never overbearing, they graciously welcomed guests into the space without overwhelming them. Visitors were gently acknowledged, but never accosted with questions or salutations. The barista was knowledgeable enough, and quick to answer questions and provide recommendations. Her cohort bussed dishes, wiped down tables, and dried sprinkled-on patio chairs. When he stopped by to check how the drinks tasted, I asked about his role at the cafe. He said, "I'm one of the owners," and politely carried on with his cleaning.

This sense of humility is one of Altitude's finest selling points. The decor is clean and well-designed, but not fussy. The atmosphere is cozy yet dynamic. The food menu features very reasonably priced dishes comprised of fashionable flavors. And the owners don't seem much to mind taking out the garbage.

The coffee at Altitude is roasted on site in small batches. While the roaster itself is very visible within the space, the shop provides little information about the coffees they serve, comparatively speaking. Beyond country of origin and occasional commentary about roast level, the company provides very little information about its beans. Blend components are not advertised.

Modern coffee industry standards (and my own personal preference) tend to lean towards increased transparency when it comes to a coffee's origins. The "data points" - elevation, processing method, harvest dates, cultivar, et cetera - undoubtedly influence a tasting professional's expectation of a cup.

The absence of this information provided an interesting challenge. What would I experience in a coffee if I had no preconceived notions of quality?

I tried Altitude's espresso blend -- a mixture of light and dark roasted Colombian coffees, with a few Costa Rican beans thrown in. The espresso was not frilly in any sense, but was exceptionally well-balanced and free of obvious defect. Naval orange, walnut, and milk chocolate notes came together as a triumvirate of acidic, sweet, and bitter flavors. My favorite part of the espresso was a toffee-like linger that stuck with me for several minutes after sipping. This was not a remarkable espresso in any way, but it was certainly a pleasant one.

I also tried a cup of batch-brewed "light roast" Guatemalan coffee. Altitude's Guatemala featured peanut brittle-like sweetness and a great deal of macadamia-nuttiness. I generally shy away from coffees with very nutty flavors in a cup; these notes can be tasty to a point, but can also be indicative of some defect in production or processing. In the case of this particular coffee, the rich, nutty flavors seemed to be more indicative of skilled roasting than of inherently defective beans. As the coffee cooled, a gorgeous red berry-like and slightly effervescent acidity developed in the cup. A touch of dark chocolate rounded and grounded the cup. As with the espresso, the Guatemala was not a showstopper. But it was a solid cup, with a number of positive attributes.

Tasting these coffees, with few preconceived notions of what they might taste like, made me think about what it means to have a fantastic experience with a coffee. Maybe in my quest for the perfect cup, I've been too caught up in numbers and formulas to shut up and drink the damn drink. Maybe "perfect" doesn't (always) mean that a coffee is free of defect or precisely extracted. Maybe it can just mean that it was served in the company of a good friend, next to the fanciest Chipotle ever, on a sunlit patio, free of expectation.

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