Not for Beginners: Prize-Winning Latin American Coffees 2005
The eleven coffees reviewed this month are all prize winners from the various green coffee competitions that took place earlier this year across Central and South America. These competitions, during which a jury of international cuppers spends several well-caffeinated days slurping, spitting and obsessing over a gradually narrowing group of fine coffees from a given growing country, have become a permanent and important feature of the contemporary fine coffee scene. For more detail on the history and value of such competitions for both farmers and consumers, see our November 2004 article Prize-Winning Central-American Coffees from the Cup of Excellence .
In many respects, the prize-winning coffees reviewed this month are not beginners' coffees.
First of all, they are expensive. The winning coffees are sold by Internet auction, and the competition for the higher rated lots can be intense, and winning bids quite high. The now celebrated Esmeralda Especial, a first-prize winner in two straight Panama competitions, broke all records paid for a green coffee in 2004 at $21.00 per pound. (For those curious about this exceptional coffee, versions from two roasting companies are reviewed this month, and a third, from The Roasterie in Kansas City, can be found reviewed in our August 2005 Issue (The Roasterie, Panama Esmeralda Special 2005) .
Secondly, these competition winners tend to be distinctive, subtly unusual coffees. In some cases it may be better to approach them simply as unique and extraordinary hot beverages rather than a beverage we perhaps limit with the habitual expectations clustered around the term coffee.
Finally, most of the coffees reviewed this month are roasted much lighter than the current norm for specialty coffee. The green buyers and roastmasters who bid on these coffees did so because they valued something precious and unique about them, and by roasting them to medium or even lighter roast levels, they are attempting to share some of this preciousness with their customers.
The Rest Went Somewhere Else
That being said, I found myself a bit disappointed by the limited number of prize-winning coffees that actually made it to American roasting companies. It won't take long skimming through these eleven reviews to note that there is a certain amount of repetition: two Esmeralda Especials, for example, two Nicaragua Las Termopilas, two Honduras El Miradors.
This repetition derives from the sensible practice of buyers pooling their resources to bid on their favorite coffees. Two, three, even four or five roasting companies will band together to bid on their favorites auction lots, and if they prevail in the bidding they split the coffee and the cost.
On the other hand, the opportunity to sample the same lots of green coffee offered by different roasting companies affords the aficionado the pleasant opportunity of directly experiencing the subtle impact of roast on fine coffee. To take two examples from this month's reviews, the dry berry character of the Honduras El Mirador develops quite differently in the extremely light-roasted presentation from Terroir Coffee than it does in the only slightly darker roast applied to the same coffee by Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Both are excellent presentations, but both bring out subtly different aspects of the same complex character.