Special Reserve is Dead. Long Live Special Reserve.
Two or three years ago, offering small, distinctive lots of coffee on a temporary, seasonal basis and calling them "special reserve" or "limited edition" appeared to be one of the most promising trends in specialty coffee. These offerings proposed to wean coffee drinkers from expecting the same kind of consistency in single-origin coffees as they might expect from brands of beer or soft drinks: The expectation that this year's "Kenya AA" would taste the same as last year's, for example. Instead, the special reserve concept emphasized coffee as an excitingly mutable, seasonal specialty agricultural product: On any given year one co-op's Kenya AA could be exceptional and another's pleasant but ordinary, and the mark of real connoisseurship (for both roaster and aficionado) is identifying the exceptional lots and jumping on them before they disappear.
But when Coffee Review began trolling the specialty waters for special reserve offerings for this month's reviews we discovered two things: First, many smaller roasting companies have converted half of their offerings to small, seasonal lot coffees, making the special reserve designation moot. Second, many bigger companies have found the concept too rigid to fulfill at the large volume levels their businesses require, leading them to compromise the idea in various ways.
Motley but Exciting
For these reasons we ended with a rather unfocused (if exciting) assortment of coffees for review. Boutique roasting companies tended to send us whatever small- or "micro"-lot coffees they currently offered and liked. Other companies sent unusual or difficult-to-find coffees regardless of whether they fit the reserve concept. Caffe Pronto submitted an interesting naturally low-caffeine hybrid Arabica from Brazil (89), for example, a coffee that should please those who avoid both excessive acidity and caffeine, yet who still crave authentic, if subtle, coffee flavor. Victrola Coffee sent an unusually good Yemen (89), an historic origin hard to find at this level of quality.
We sourced reserve coffees from two larger roasters. In the case of Peet's Coffee we had a choice of either a temporary Internet special or a "Reserve" coffee offered all year round. (We cupped both, preferring the deep, sturdy, cocoa-toned, year-round JR Reserve Blend at 90.) Starbucks, on the other hand, appears to be sticking with its Black Apron Exclusives line, and sent an interesting, distinctive, if rather underpowered Rwanda (87) inside the filigree Black Apron package.
The Micro-Lots Prevail
Nevertheless, the highest ratings went as usual to small- or micro-lot coffees from boutique roasting companies that specialize in finding and roasting these miniature gems. The Willoughby's Panama Elida Estate (95) was a spectacularly pure, complex yet sweetly balanced coffee, a sort of classic Latin American washed coffee on steroids with aromatics in HDTV resolution. On the other hand, the PT's Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Aricha Selection Seven (94) was brilliantly impure: dried-in-the-fruit and lush with chocolaty ripe-to-fermented fruit and night flowers. The Barefoot Guatemala Finca Hermosa, Microlot Vista Hermosa (92) was pure, big and sweetly acidy, the Terroir Bolivia Cup of Excellence (92) pure, subtle and delicate.
The Black Apron Entry
We reviewed the middling-ranking Starbucks Black Apron Rwanda Blue Bourbon (87) not to demonstrate that Starbucks can't compete with the boutiques (a couple of smaller specialty companies sent coffees that rated 87 or lower), but rather to give credit where credit is due: A gigantic company that makes its money selling milk and flavorings is still doing its best to produce unusual and distinctive coffees from interesting single origins. It must be difficult. This Rwanda gave every sign of having been a very distinctive coffee when it came out of the mill, but, like many Starbucks offerings I have cupped over the past few years, appears to have lost energy, body and presence on the way from mill to cup. Either delays caused by big-company logistics coupled with compromises owing to volume promote fading by the time the green coffees reach the roaster or an effort to dark roast without causing bitter or astringent notes may in fact be flattening the coffee profile and draining it of vitality.
Alive and Continuously Recreated
I suppose we conclude by chanting "the Reserve concept is dead, long live the Reserve concept." The top end of the specialty industry is finally transforming itself from faux specialty to real specialty, and in the process may be shedding clumsy wine-inflected affectations like the special reserve idea, instead simply presenting coffee across the menu as it should be presented, a magnificent, mutable beverage in constant change, with a product time line somewhere between wine and fresh fruit; alive and continuously recreated, frustrating for those who buy by name or brand, but sublime in opportunity for those who read the fine print and slow down enough to taste the difference.