2007 Prize-Winning Coffees from Central America and Colombia
This month we review ten prize winners from green coffee competitions held this year in Central American countries and in Colombia. These competitions, "during which a jury of international cuppers spends several well-caffeinated days slurping, spitting and obsessing over a gradually narrowing group of fine coffees from a given growing country," to quote my own earlier article on the subject (hey, we don't wear a shirt only once), have become a permanent and important feature of the contemporary fine coffee scene.
Despite the relatively large number of competitions held this year in Latin America (I count ten; most are organized under the auspices of the Cup of Excellence program) and a combined list of prize winners that must run into the several hundreds, relatively few of the winning coffees make it to United States consumers. About forty American roasting companies participate directly or indirectly in the Internet auctions for competition coffees, but these companies often follow the sensible practice of pooling their resources and bidding as a group on their favorites from the various competitions.
This practice of group bidding accounts for the repetition among the coffees reviewed this month. Eighteen roasters submitted a total of forty-one samples for review, but many of the samples consisted of the same green coffee - roasted, of course, slightly differently. For example, four roasting companies submitted their versions of the first-place winner from the El Salvador Cup of Excellence competition, La Montana, and eight sent versions of the second-place Guatemala winner, San Jose Ocana.
Three First-Place Winners
This options-narrowing redundancy could leave American coffee lovers feeling short-changed. On the other hand, we do have the satisfaction of knowing that we have the opportunity to sample three coffees that took first place in their respective competitions, the El Salvador first-place La Montana, the Colombia First Harvest winner La Esperanza, and the Panama first-place winner (and currently and arguably the world's most celebrated coffee) the Esmeralda Especial. The competition-winning lot of the Esmeralda reviewed here, by the way, attracted a world-record price of $130 per pound (as a green, unroasted coffee) at Internet auction. It is sold out at The Roasterie, the company submitting the sample reviewed here, but probably can be found elsewhere, though at understandably high prices and in inevitable short supply.
Two Very Distinctive First-Place Winners
Both the Esmeralda Especial and the El Salvador La Montana are unusual coffees, and both owe much of their distinctiveness and value to the botanical variety of the trees that produced them (or at least to the felicitous harmony of those trees and the terroir on which they are grown). The Esmeralda is produced from trees of the rediscovered Gesha variety, a cultivar of arabica that originated in Ethiopia, the botanical home of coffee, and traveled a complicated route from there, most likely Kenya to Tanzania to Costa Rica, before it reached its now hallowed hillside in Panama. At this point we do not know for certain how this variety fares when grown elsewhere in the world, but we doubtless will find out soon enough, given the number of farmers who are attempting to plant it.
Its peculiar and seductive sensory combination of night flowers, cocoa and wine- or brandy-toned fruit is so distinctive among the world's coffees that to say one has cupped it "blind" is almost impossible. It immediately identifies itself with the first noseful of aroma. And this latest version seems even more distinctive than those I cupped in past years. I remember the first year I cupped the Esmeralda Gesha I reacted as many did, and as my colleague Kevin Knox did last year when he called it "the finest Ethiopian coffee Panama can produce." At first it did simply seem like a very good Ethiopia coffee that somehow made it to Panama. At this point, however, and after this latest cupping, I feel that characterization is unjust. Although Ethiopia may be a starting point in attempting to find sensory descriptors for the Esmeralda, this coffee tastes, quite literally, like no other in the world. And, for me at least, it's all good.
The El Salvador La Montana, on the other hand, is produced from a more recently developed variety, the Pacamara, a cross between the huge-beaned Maragogipe (first found growing in Brazil in 1937) and Pacas, a local strain of the old and respected Bourbon variety. At least as grown on some farms in El Salvador, the big-beaned Pacamara produces a very fine and distinctive coffee, though not nearly as unearthly and different as the explosive Esmeralda Gesha.
The Bigger Picture
The other prize winners we cupped for this month struck me as distinguished and interesting coffees, though not quite as distinctive as the Esmeralda Especial and the La Montana. Overall, seventeen out of the forty-one samples submitted scored 90 or higher; of those seventeen, ten are reviewed here. The remaining twenty-four all scored in the 87 to 89 range. In most cases, I felt the lower scores owed more to roasting decisions (more on that below) than on the essential character of the green coffees.
A note on ratings: As usual I cupped these coffees blind, meaning the coffees were identified by number only with no indication of origin, roasting company or history. When I matched the data from the various competitions to my assessments I was struck by how closely my scores matched the scores of the competition juries. In the past, my scores often tended to be higher than the juries' scores, occasionally lower.
I suspect the reason for the closer match this year between my scores and the jury scores may be the growing consensus around ratings for Latin-American coffees among international specialty coffee professionals. Some years ago competition scores tended to be lower, probably because some jury members were too cautious or critical to give coffees the scores some of the rest of us felt they deserved. Apparently we are over that, which is good.
An Opportunity to Better Understand Roast
What this month's set of coffees does give the reader is the opportunity to experience subtle distinctions of roast as they apply to the same green coffee.
One common way of discussing degree or "darkness" of roast is based on the cycle of the crack, the pattern of sounds produced by the roasting beans. Particularly crucial is the onset of the "second crack," a sort of crinkling sound accompanied by an intensification of a more pungent smelling roast smoke. The onset of the second crack marks the turning point in the development of the roast from brighter medium styles to darker styles that gradually, as the second crack accelerates, embody a more and more pungent, "roastier" flavor profile with an accompanying rounding and simplification of green coffee character.
With one exception, the coffees reviewed here roughly organize themselves around three points along the roast spectrum. First, those definitely lighter roasted coffees for which the roast was terminated well before the second crack (indicated by first or whole-bean Agtron number of 55 or higher), second, those that were dropped from the roast chamber just before the second crack (first Agtron number around 50), and finally those that were allowed to ride just into the second crack (initial Agtron number around 45). Only the Montana Coffee Roasters' Nicaragua Santa Isabel (rating 90) was allowed to develop well into the second crack at Agtron 38.
What do these often subtle differences in roast color and development mean for the coffee consumer?
An informative contrast is presented by the two versions of the El Salvador first-place La Monta-a reviewed for this month. The Terroir version of the La Montana (rated 93, initial or whole-bean Agtron number 62), for example, was stopped well before the second crack, making it most definitely a "medium" roast, whereas the Caffe Pronto version (rating 91, whole-bean Agtron 46) was allowed to ride just slightly into the second crack, subtly rounding and deepening sensation and developing the pungent character of the fruit. I felt both were outstanding presentations of this coffee, and although my rating shows a slight preference for the Terroir version with its wider range of sensation and generally brighter character, many readers may prefer the still distinctive but simpler, deeper-toned character of the Caffe Pronto version.
On the other hand, the Guatemala second-place San Jose Ocana, a rather delicate coffee, appeared to present a different challenge for roasters. Whereas the La Montana seemed to respond well to a variety of roast levels - all four versions we received attracted ratings of 90 or higher despite significantly differing degrees of roast - the eight versions of the San Jose Ocana we received showed a much greater range in score. Three versions attracted ratings of 90 or higher, with the other five hovering around 88, still a very good number but not exceptional. What struck me when I matched my blind ratings to the Agtron numbers after concluding the cupping was that the San Jose Ocana seemed to have a sweet spot for success around Agtron 46 to 48, precisely at/barely into the onset of the second crack. Versions that were slightly lighter (dropped from the roasting chamber before the second crack) or slightly darker (dropped just after the onset of the second crack) either seemed to fail to develop the lush but fragile aromatic bloom this coffee was capable of producing or failed to preserve it under the impact of the slightly darker roast.
If this analysis of roast detail seems obsessive to many readers, my apologies. In fact, such distinctions barely scratch the surface of the issues around roasting that impact coffee flavor. Left out are countless subtleties involving machine technology and patterns of heat and air velocity, all unstated and difficult-to-quantify issues that also impacted how this month's coffees tasted and felt in the cup.
And the Price?
All of the competition winners reviewed this month are rather pricy, by the way, not only the Esmeralda. They cost more because the roasting companies paid more for them. Most sold at auction for prices four to seven times current regular prices for similar green coffees.
Are they worth the extra money? In my view, definitely yes with the two most distinctive coffees in the cupping, the La Montana and especially the La Esmeralda. With the other winners the main reason for buying these 90+ coffees as opposed to other, similarly rated coffees bought outside of competition and costing less, is the aficionado pleasure of participating in the excitement and complexities of the competition phenomenon itself. You can second-guess the experts, or at least check in on what they are doing. Also, of course, these competition winners give you bragging rights if you are the type that likes that sort of thing.