Now or Never: Special Reserve Coffees
Special seasonal offerings of small lots of exceptional coffees are a sure sign of coffee's coming of age as true specialty beverage. These coffees, often described using wine-influenced language like "Special Reserve," "Limited Edition," "Roastmaster's Reserve" and so on, represent coffee from a single crop and single place, often a single hillside, and are sold not on the basis of consistency or brand, but as an opportunity to experience the flavor associated with a unique moment in time and space and the dedication of a single farmer or group of farmers.
Of course the nature and volume of these special offerings differs by the size and ambitions of the coffee roasting company. The enormous volumes Starbucks needs even for its limited edition "Black Apron" coffees may involve purchases from entire regions rather than from single small farms, and are necessarily more generic than special reserve offerings from smaller companies.
Some companies - Portland's Stumptown Coffee and Chicago's Intelligentsia, for example, offer several limited edition coffees on a continuous rotating basis. Other companies may offer anywhere from one to a handful at any given time. Some very small companies - Terroir Select Coffees and Novo Coffee, for example - base their entire business on limited edition coffees.
Limited Edition Snapshot
This month's set of reviews represents a snapshot of America's special reserve coffee offerings as of mid-July, 2006. We cupped thirty-five such limited edition coffees from nineteen roasting companies that range in size from gigantic to mid-sized to tiny. In selecting the companies represented, we felt we needed to honor those companies that appear to be trying the hardest in this arena and are investing in making special edition coffees important.
How good and how distinctive were these coffees? Of the thirty-five that we cupped, fifteen came in with ratings of 90 or higher. Many were excellent but not exceptional coffees that rated 85 through 87. Of these, one or two were brought down by clumsy roasting. Others were special edition coffees that apparently did not sell well, and hung around the warehouse too long, turning a bit faded and baggy.
In one very surprising case, a coffee that was headed for a 90+ rating and had won a first-place award in a prestigious international cupping competition turned up with one cup utterly undrinkable owing to a sewery-tasting "stinker bean." The rest of the cups were consistently impressive.
Such occasions demonstrates how difficult it is to assign numerical ratings to coffees. Do we ignore the one bad cup and give this coffee a great rating on the basis of the other, outstanding cups? Assign a terrible rating because one bad bean snuck through the cleaning and grading? Or average the "good cup" rating and the "bad cup" rating, making the coffee appear mediocre rather than excellent yet flawed?
Unfortunately, Americans tend to buy by the numbers rather than read the fine print, so we didn't run the review at all. I await accusations of cowardice.
Repetition and Variation
In two cases we repeated coffees we had already reviewed earlier this year: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' Special Reserve Ethiopian Sidamo Natural Process and Starbucks' Black Apron Kopi Kampung Sulawesi. Both came out of this latest round of blind cuppings with approximately the same rating as they attracted in earlier sessions but somewhat different sensory descriptions. Perhaps I was influenced by variations in time and context, or perhaps the actual coffees I cupped differed slightly, since both of these coffee types, Green Mountain's Ethiopian dry-processed Sidamo and Starbucks' Sulawesi, are produced by groups of small holding farmers and tend to differ from bag to bag.
Finally, there was some repetition among these special edition offerings, simply because different buyers got excited about the same coffee and either shared the purchase voluntarily or were forced to do so by circumstances. Three companies offered the extraordinary Lake Tawar Sumatra, for example, among the best Sumatras I have ever cupped. They include Novo Coffee, whose version I did not review here to avoid excessive repetition. Two companies sent dry-processed Ethiopias. Despite these coffees being a bit long in the tooth owing to the months in the warehouse since harvest, both were quite impressive. Finally, several lovely Panamas from the annual "Best of Panama" competition turned up along with a handful of fine Colombias from Cup of Excellence competitions.