Holiday Blends and Other Gift Coffees
Creating special blends and offerings for the winter holidays is a long-standing coffee tradition, and, well, a cool retail opportunity for roasters. It's a natural: nights are long, mornings are dark, days are cold, and coffee is a good thing.
Coffee roasters tend to meet the winter holiday challenge in several ways. One is crafting special holiday blends, usually going for heavy body and understated heartiness, like several of the examples reviewed this month. Another is sloshing large quantities of propylene glycol and seasonal-themed flavoring (eggnog, Yule log, cinnamon stick, etc) on a nice Peru or Mexico, an approach not reviewed here. The third is a different strategy entirely: selling expensive, famous-name coffees from Hawaii and Jamaica, presumably as a special treat for the coffee lover, a sort of tropical-getaway-in-a-cup approach.
The problem with Kona and Jamaica Blue Mountain as holiday gift coffees is that neither has been particularly impressive of late, nor have most of the blends built around these celebrated origins. When we reviewed Konas and Kona blends this past April 2006, we found few that lived up to the promise of this delicate, gently floral origin (Hawaiian Coffees 2006: Not This Year).
Beaches and Coffees Beyond
A fourth option might make more sense for roasters, which is simply to propose to your customers as something special for the holidays the most interesting seasonal single-origin coffee you can come up with. Why stop with Kona and Jamaica? There are beaches and sunshine elsewhere in the coffee world in December, not to mention excellent coffees.
A handful of the roasting companies that submitted coffees for this month's reviews took exactly that approach: sent us a couple of newly sourced single-origins as their special holiday offerings. Two East Africa coffees, the extraordinary Kenya Mamuto from Terroir Coffee and the unusual new Kaffa Forest Ethiopia from Paradise Roasters, stood out, the Kenya Mamuto for its sheer perfection and elegance and the Kaffa Ethiopia for its striking and unusual profile. From my perspective, either of these coffees would make an impressive gift for the coffee fanatic or an inspiring contribution to the usual winter episodes of culinary indulgence.
The Holiday Blends
Unless, of course, we expect something slightly darker-roasted, rounder-toned and heartier for the holidays, which appears to be the assumption behind the fifteen or so holiday blends we cupped for this month's review.
These 2006 holiday blends roughly fell into three categories. The striking and exotic, with clear use of dry-processed coffees from the Horn of Africa (the 93-rated Anniversary Blend from Barefoot Coffee and the interesting if slightly awkward Original Christmas from Coffee Klatch). The quiet and rich, with roundly restrained acidity and (usually) a touch of roastiness (most of the other holiday blends). And the badly roasted and poorly sourced, fortunately not many and none reviewed here.
Almost Too Agreeable?
Aside from the 90-and-over Barefoot Anniversary Blend and Coffee Klatch Original Christmas, both of which went out on a limb conceptually, the other holiday blends seemed almost too successfully low-key and agreeable, like dinner guests who are so easy to get along with that in the end you can't decide whether they were quiet fun or borderline boring.
Nevertheless, all of the holiday blends reviewed here demonstrated a clear if understated coffee intelligence and did come across as subtly different. The Quartermaine Holiday blend, for example, was a fine demonstration of a slowly achieved dark roast with the distinctive (and to me quite attractive) pungent grapefruit notes characteristic of some origins brought to a darker roast. The Orleans Coffee Exchange emphasized body and a round, banana-like fruit, while the Willoughby's displayed an agreeable balance of roasty and sweetly acidy character.
The Flavored Options
Finally, a word about flavored holiday blends, which most wholesale roasting companies feel they must produce to please customers and fill gift baskets. Most of these blends have flamboyant candy-store or punch-bowl subtitles, promise an extravagant if low-calorie holiday-dessert sort of indulgence, and positively reek with the cloying, penetrating odor of propylene glycol, the almost universal medium used to carry flavor into the beans and beyond into the cup.
We don't review these propylene-glycol-based flavored coffees, first because they do not seem to belong in a publication that takes coffee seriously as a human art performed in dialogue with nature, and secondly, because they smell up the cupping lab so badly that when we do cup them we need to do it (literally) in the storeroom.
However, we did receive one flavored coffee that was a tribute to restraint: The Moore Coffee Holiday Blend, which added just enough of an orange flavoring to a sound, chocolate-toned, darker roasted coffee to introduce subtle notes that pushed the envelope of the coffee without overpowering it or producing much more than a slight ghost of metallic aftertaste. If you want to try a flavored coffee that genuinely manages to remain a coffee and not a low-cal liquid candy, try it (Moore Coffee & Tea, www.moorecoffee.com). It's not reviewed here, simply because there seems to be as much basis for comparing its particular form of success with the success of coffees that do not use artificial flavor enhancers as there would be attempting to evaluate a very good trampoline performance in the context of a gymnastics tournament.