Romance and Perfection: 2006 Readers' Choices
Several exceptional coffees and some interesting subplots emerged in our annual cupping of coffees nominated by Coffee Review readers (in this case, coffees intended for non-espresso brewing methods). Readers showed their usual good taste, with none of the thirty-six coffees we cupped attracting a rating under 80, and four scoring 90 or better. Some of this month's subplots and coffee protagonists:
I used to divide my fellow cuppers and coffee drinkers into purists and romantics. The purists or were whose who measured all coffees by the standard of the classic, high-grown Central America or Colombia cup, a sweetly bright, highly acidy coffee in which there were no ambiguous or off notes whatsoever introduced by the procedures of fruit-removal and drying. On the other hand were what I called the romantics, who valued a wide range of sensory profiles, and who were open to flavor characteristics introduced by unorthodox fruit removal and drying, like the earthy/fruity character of traditional Sumatras or the chocolaty ferment of some dry-processed coffees from East Africa.
I don't employ this distinction much anymore, because I feel most American cuppers have transcended it and have become more cosmopolitan and versatile in their reading of the cup. However, it remains a useful distinction, and it appears that readers who nominated coffees this past year tended to be romantics rather than purists. For example, note the predomination of earthy Sumatras and dry-processed Ethiopias among the mix of single-origin coffees reviewed here, as opposed to medium-roasted coffees from classic Latin American origins like Costa Rica, Colombia or Guatemala.
Gratification for both Purists and Romantics
However, both purists and romantics will find extraordinary coffees to enjoy from this month's list.
The Intelligentsia Tres Santos Colombia Almaguer (93) is a classic exemplar of the purist's high-grown Latin American cup: lucid, sweetly acidy, absolutely impeccably prepared, and tactfully medium-roasted. The fruit and floral notes were so perfectly pure that I found it difficult to associate them with any other fruit or flowers except the fruit and flowers of the coffee tree itself.
Blueberry, Wine and Chocolate
Romantics have something arguably even more impressive to admire this month: An amazing dry-processed coffee from the celebrated Yirgacheffe growing region of Ethiopia, sensitively roasted by Sacred Grounds Organic Coffee Roasters and rated 95. Packing a combination of a candy store's, fruit seller's and wine cellar's worth of complexity, this coffee strikingly expresses the contributions unorthodox drying and processing can contribute to coffee flavor.
Although the exotic character of this coffee undoubtedly owes much to the traditional heirloom plant varieties that dominate in the Yirgacheffe region as well as to the imponderables of soil and climate, much of its blueberry, wine and chocolate character undoubtedly is intensified by how this coffee was processed. Most Yirgacheffes, as well as most Latin-American coffees (including the Tres Santos Colombia) are wet processed, meaning the fruit residue is removed from the coffee beans or seeds before they are dried. Performed well, this procedure promotes a clean, high-toned, lucid cup, free of taste taints, whether good or bad.
The Hama Cooperative Yirgacheffe, however, was dried inside the fruit (dry or natural processing). As often is the case with East African and Yemeni dry-processed coffees, the sugars in the fruit fermented slightly during the drying, introducing a brandied cherry, wine-like character to the cup. Unfortunately, this sweetly fermented character often has a downside, which is a sourish ferment in the finish. The glory of the Hama Cooperative Yirgacheffe roasted by Sacred Grounds is the way it displays all of the aromatic complexity that can result from mild sweet ferment with almost none of this downside. (Attentive tasters may detect a very slight negative fermented note in the long finish, or the aftertaste when observed a minute or so after swallowing or spitting.)
This coffee was nominated as a green coffee, so we ordered samples of what would appear to be the same lot of green coffee roasted by three different companies. The differences among the three preparations again dramatize the importance of how roast interacts with the characteristics of the green coffee in producing cup profile - the Sacred Grounds version was by far the most impressive of the three, although we included a darker roasted version from Montana Coffee Roasters for those who may prefer a roastier, more bracingly astringent version of this fine green coffee.
Victory of the Round, Sweet Dark-Roasted Cup
Victory over the savagely over-roasted, thin and burned dark-roasted cup, that is. Among the thirty-six coffees we cupped, we did not find a single one that was terminally fried to the point of tasting like licking the boards of recently burned buildings. Instead, we had a good number of full-bodied, roundly sweet dark roasts, some moderately dark and some very dark, but all preserving body, sweetness and aromatic complication. Perhaps the most impressive was the Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee's Costa Rica Tres Rios (91), which preserved sweetness, complexity and body at a very dark degree of roast.
Further Vindication of the Fair-Trade/Organic Cup
Although the contention that Fair-Trade and organically certified coffees are necessarily inferior in cup quality to conventionally grown or traded coffees long has been an anachronism, the results of this month's cupping should reinforce the fact that coffees that benefit from organic and Fair-Trade certifications can equal any in the world in character and quality. The top-rated Sacred Grounds Hamma Yirgacheffe (95) and the high-rated Smooth Groove blend (89) were both Fair-Trade and organic certified.