Readers' Choices: The Lush, the Classic, the Ultra-Dark
Our annual readers' choice article often represents an unintentional though perhaps inevitable mini-survey of specialty coffee trends and countertrends. Among this month's twelve top-rated reader-nominated coffees are several that echo the latest developments in the specialty world. Two, for example, are fine examples of the latest coffee type to excite American roasters and aficionados: dry or "natural" processed coffees from southern Ethiopia. Four are winners from the prestigious green coffee competitions that have become a powerful global trend in coffee. Two are excellent Fair-Trade/organic coffees. Finally, several are examples of the special seasonal selections that specialty roasters have taken to offering recently, presented in sumptuous packaging and wine-label detail.
Along with these trend indicators, other fine coffees turned up whose names and styles reach back to the very beginnings of specialty coffee: classic cups from familiar growing regions in Costa Rica and Guatemala, a musty, syrupy Sumatra, and one extreme dark-roasted blend.
The Latest Insider Discovery: Fruit and Brandy
For many years the names Sidamo and Yirgacheffe have been associated with coffees prepared by the wet or washed method, in which the coffee fruit is removed from the beans immediately after picking through a complex series of rather delicate operations (many involving water, hence "wet" or "washed"). Prompt fruit removal after picking encourages a bright, high-toned profile that liberates the delicate but lavishly intense citrus and floral character associated with these two famous origins. However, the Sidamo and Yirgacheffe regions also produce coffees prepared by the dry method, meaning the beans are dried inside the fruit, a process that may take weeks to complete and that holds the beans hostage to whatever happens to the fruit as it dries around them.
What often happens is the sugars in the fruit ferment, imparting a flavor character to the beans that can range from exhilaratingly fruity and richly brandy-like to outright rotten to mildewed or musty - or all of the above.
Owing to such inconsistency, only rejected or imperfect fruit is typically subjected to dry-processing in the Yirgacheffe and Sidamo regions. The sound, ripe coffee fruit goes to the wet mills (in Ethiopia called "washing stations") for wet-processing.
Over the last several years, however, innovating specialty coffee leaders have encouraged dry processing of Sidamo and Yirgacheffe coffees that have been picked ripe and dried with care. This meticulous approach helps develop the sensory positives of the dry-processing procedure (rich, berry-toned fruit) while reducing risk of the downside (musty astringency, composty tones).
The result has been some amazing coffees, including the Counter Culture dry-processed Sidamo (90) and the Coffee Klatch Yirgacheffe Bella Kara (89) reviewed here.
When these two coffees are held up against the ultimate goal for their type - dry-processed Ethiopia perfection with lushly soaring blueberry, chocolate and brandy notes but absolutely no astringency or sharpness - both fall very slightly short, probably because they have faded a bit in the time since harvest. Yet both are treasures of a style of cup that will soon become indispensable for aficionados of high-end specialty coffee.
The Classic Option
On the other hand, the two prize-winners reviewed here from Cup of Excellence (www.cupofexcellence.org) green coffee competitions are wet-processed Latin-American coffees of the cleanly classic style, completely free of processing and drying taint, good or bad. Of the two, the Counter Culture Bolivia Carrasco Pica del Tucan (93) comes closest to perfection. If the two dry-processed Ethiopias are baroque in their risks and excesses, full of romantic arabesque and blueberry overload, the Counter Culture Bolivia is a tribute to the perfectly prepared, flawlessly uncluttered coffee gesture.
Other wet-processed Latin-American coffees reviewed here are less boldly powerful than the Counter Culture Bolivia and a little less perfect in their preparation, but a bit more complex in aromatics. They are classic in profile, but offer a bit more nuance with a little less perfection and power - for those who remember the first weeks of Art History, graceful Ionic to the Bolivia's simple, forceful Doric.
The Ultra-Dark-Roast Entry
In terms of degree or "darkness" of roast this year-s nominations tended to be relatively well-distributed from extremely dark to moderately light, with most nominations predictably falling into the middle, medium-to-moderately-dark range.
However, there is a dedicated group of coffee drinkers who prefer really dark roasts, in which the sensory impact of a terminally dark roast almost completely dominates the character of the green coffee. Finding an exceptional super-dark roast is difficult. Ultra-dark-roasting is a tricky and challenging business. The green coffee needs to be robust enough to stand up to the roast, plus any slight misstep during the roast cycle means thin body and burned-board flavor rather than robust, rich roastiness.
I can't honestly say our readers turned us on to any super-exceptional extreme dark roasts this time round, though one, the SLO-Roasted Coffee Morning Fog Lifter from Central Coast Coffee (87), impressed with its richness and banana-and-cedar-toned fruit plus freedom from that almost inevitable downside of extreme dark roasts, bitter astringency.