Readers' Choice 2008: Hearty Coffee from the Heartlands
A Readers' Choice article at Coffee Review always provides an interesting pretext for speculation about specialty coffee drinkers' latest tastes and preferences. The following would hardly make it through an academic review process, but here are some observations based on our 2008 sampling of reader nominated coffees (this speculation has a margin of error of somewhere around 100%).
1) Current specialty coffee drinkers may be losing interest in extreme dark roasts, and fewer small regional roasting companies are roasting all of their coffees dark regardless of origin.
2) On the other hand, few of the smaller roasters we sampled have migrated to the newly trendy medium-to-light roasts. Most are situating themselves right in the middle of the roast spectrum — in artisan-roasting terms, just into the second crack.
3) Small roasting companies and their customers continue to interest themselves in coffees certified Fair Trade and organic.
4) It appears that few of the nominated roasting companies have jumped onto the micro-lot bandwagon. (Micro-lots are very tiny lots of extremely refined coffees, usually sourced directly from small growers.) Most nominated coffees appear to be from old-fashioned macro-lots sourced through the regular specialty supply chain, identified rather broadly by origin, coffee type, certification or occasionally farm. Names were familiar, ranging from Tanzanian Peaberry (a favorite, with several nominations) through well-established Central American estate names to plain old Colombia.
5) Small roasting companies continue to sport names that lean toward the rustic and irreverent: Rusty Car Roasters, Muddy Dog Roasters, Wildfire Roasters, and not reviewed here, Black Bear Microroastery (with its Hibernation Blend) and Pike's Perk (in Colorado of course).
6) The great majority of nominations came from the middle part of the country, between the coasts. It may be that readers and roasters in those parts of the country feel left out, though I hope not. The reader who nominated the excellent Yirgacheffe from San Antonio-based Wildfire Coffee Roasters (90) wrote that he "would like to see a roaster from a non-traditional (for most roasters) part of the U.S. get a mention."
7) The quality of this sampling overall was arguably better than past Readers' Choice samplings. There seemed to be fewer outright defective green coffees and more tactful, origin-sensitive roasting.
8) On the other hand, a surprising number of mildly musty coffees turned up, though most were the kind displaying the pleasant, roundly rich kind of mustiness that can be safely glamorized as earthy.
All Peaberry and Some Peaberry
We chose fourteen of the highest-rated or most interesting coffees for review.
Tanzanian Peaberry is a popular coffee type dating from the early days of specialty coffee. Given that peaberry, a single oval bean appearing in place of the usual two flat-sided beans, is produced everywhere (it typically makes up anywhere from 10% to 30% of a normal crop), it is not at all clear why over the years it has become particularly associated with Tanzania. (See our 2003 article The Tanzanian Peaberry Mystery.)Nevertheless, it remains true that if a Tanzania coffee appears on a specialty menu it most likely also is a peaberry.
When Tanzania peaberries are good, they can be very, very good in the classic sweetly acidy and cleanly but voluptuously fruity East Africa style, as is the case with the Ruvuma Tanzanian Peaberry from The Roasterie (95). Two other Tanzania peaberries did not impress as much, although we included the Rusty Car version (89) for its social and environmental credentials (Fair-Trade/organic), sensitive dark-roasting, plus a rustic, musty-earthy character that admirers of the traditional Sumatra and Sulawesi profiles should enjoy.
We reviewed three other East Africa coffees, all from Ethiopia: two dried-in-the-fruit "natural" coffees displaying a variety of unorthodox berry, wine and earth notes (Coffee Emergency's Misty Valley Yirgacheffe and an organic Ethiopia from The Roasterie, both rated 91) and the classic wet-processed citrus-and-floral Yirgacheffe from Wildfire Coffee Roasters (90).
Two samples represented versions of a Café Feminino Fair-Trade and organic Brazil. One of the two, the Ancora Coffee Roasters interpretation (90), in particular revealed a classic natural Brazil character with all of the subtle, cocoa- and nut-toned virtues of the type.
The Earthy and the Pure
As I indicated earlier, a striking number of this month's samples, including all three reviewed blends, incorporated coffees with a musty or mildewed note, a sensation often termed "earthy" by coffee cuppers who like it and other names by those who don't. It is a complex sensory note influenced by many factors, including its intensity and other characteristics of the coffee like degree of natural sweetness and various fruit and ferment notes. Some of the world's less orthodox coffee types are more or less expected to exhibit at least some musty/earthy character, especially Indian monsooned coffees and traditional Indonesian coffees like Sumatra, Sulawesi and their aged variants. It may be that the three blends reviewed this month deliberately relied on one or more of these conventionally earthy coffee types to add anywhere from a touch to a blast of hearty roughness to the blend. They include Muddy Dog Roasting's Old North State Blend (91), Velton's Treehouse Blend (90), and Storyville Coffee's close to over-the-top musty Prologue blend (87).
On the other hand, very pure, honey- and floral-toned wet-processed coffees were relatively few, with The Roasterie's Ruvuma Tanzanian Peaberry the standout and Counter Culture's micro-lot Colombia La Golondrina Duviel Coca (90) also impressive. One reason for their scarcity may be that fresh crop coffees from Central America and East Africa are only now arriving in North America, and roasters were reluctant to send an old crop version of a nominated coffee. In many cases, of course, the nominated coffee was simply no longer available for review in any form.
But it is also possible that readers enjoy a hearty touch of earthy mustiness, a characteristic that can be particularly pleasing in coffees brought to the moderate, mid-point dark roast style that many of the nominated companies appear to favor.