Colombia Runs the Table: Twelve at Ninety
A couple of weeks ago I was leading a coffee tasting for consumers, and I fielded a typical consumer question. What about Colombian coffee? Was it the - (hesitation, visions of Juan Valdez dancing in the head) - best in the world?
Before this month's cupping, I would have confidently replied: No, of course not. Colombia gives us some excellent, classic, high-grown Latin American coffees, but nothing exceptional. Although I certainly would have added that the Colombian Coffee Federation deserved all the credit in the world for having standardized a good but not great coffee, having made it available to consumers at a reasonable price, and having invested the profit in building the 100% Colombia brand (remember Juan Valdez?) and supporting the needs of the over 500,000 mainly small-holding farmers who make up the Federation.
But a distinctive, exceptional coffee with a complex and varying profile? I would have suggested the questioner look elsewhere: Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kenya.
After this month's cupping, however, I would have to admit that Colombia has as good a shot at the "best" title as any other origin. We sourced thirty Colombias for this article and twelve emerged with scores of 90 or better. This is certainly a record for any Coffee Review single-origin cupping.
Timing and Development
Why so many fine coffees? Partly timing: Most of these coffees came from southern Colombia, and we are about halfway through the crop year for that region, which means most of these coffees are still at their peak in flavor yet have been in production long enough for the roastmasters in charge to completely understand how to best roast them.
Secondly, I think we are seeing the payoff of the sort of careful support and development work performed by organizations ranging from the Colombia Coffee Federation to the Specialty Coffee Association of America and USAID to the Cup of Excellence and its green coffee competitions to individual roasting companies, all intent at uncovering and promoting small lots of exceptional coffee that in recent past would be lost in a sea of generic coffee sold by grade alone.
Most of the high-rated coffees came from small-holding artisan farmers in select parts of southern Colombia, particularly the San Agustin region on the eastern slope of the Andes. However, two generic Colombias out of about eighteen did achieve ratings of 90 or above, a good showing for such relatively anonymous coffees. The Don Francisco Colombia Supremo, at 92, was particularly impressive.
The Classic and the Unorthodox
The majority of the 90-or-over coffees displayed the classic Colombia profile: powerfully aromatic, sweetly acidy, with a hint of flowers, cedar and clean chocolate-toned fruit. Some, however, displayed idiosyncratic processing-related kinks. There were a couple of mildly earthy Colombias that seemed to have one foot in Sumatra, for example, as well as one sweetly winy, attractively fermented coffee that would have been at home in the Harrar region of Ethiopia.
But the most impressive coffees from this month were those that worked variations on the classic Colombia profile, leading with The Roasterie's Pitalito Estate (94), Terroir's La Esperanza (93), tiny Coffee Emergency's Inza Cauca (93), and the Don Francisco Supremo (92).
The less orthodox 90-or-better coffees included two versions of a sweetly musty, earthy Colombia from little A&E Roastery (91 and 90), the sweetly fermented Harrar-like Colombia from Flying Goat (90), and a very delicate Colombia from Boca Java (90) with an almost Ethiopian floral character.
Most of the 90-and-over coffees also were classic in roast style: A medium roast that allowed a naturally sweet acidity and complex aromatics to carry the cup. Two leaned toward a slightly darker style, however, and quite successfully: The Coffee Masters Los Idolos (92) and the A&E Organic Full City (90).
The Gourmet Alternative
Although we turned up no Fair-Trade certified coffees, very likely all of the micro-lot specialty coffees, with their roaster relationships and special paths to market, returned prices to their small-holding producers that matched or exceeded the Fair-Trade minimum. Organic coffees were a bit scarce, although two turned up among the thirty we cupped, including the excellent if unorthodox coffee from A&E Roastery (91 and 90).
What's at the Mall?
A final subplot: If consumers don't want to go shopping on the Internet for the highest rated Colombias ferreted out of tiny farms in southern Colombia, what is the likelihood of their turning up an exceptional Colombia among the largely anonymous offerings at the local mall or supermarket?
Only four of the thirty coffees we cupped appear to be available retail on a relatively wide basis. They include two Colombias from Starbucks, one purchased at a supermarket and one more upscale version purchased at a Starbucks retail location, a Safeway Select bulk Colombia, and arguably the Don Francisco Supremo, widely sold on supermarket shelves in southern California.
The Don Francisco, at 92 and classically clean, appears to be the best of the four by conventional standards. The Safeway Select (88) was an attractive Colombia of the earth-toned, musty style. The two Starbucks offerings were cleanly classic in profile, but the grocery store version (85) was a bit tired and the premium Narino sold at Starbucks locations (87) a touch muffled by the roast.
However, the average of these four generic Colombias, at 88, suggests that the casual consumer will find something quite pleasant at the Colombia end of the supermarket shelf. And certainly those more determined coffee lovers willing to take the time to search out the best and most distinctive Colombias will not be disappointed.