Best (or Should-Be-Best) Selling Single Origins 2009
With this month's review we aimed to evaluate those single-origin coffees that sell best all year. We were after the sturdy, consistent coffees that make up the backbone of roasters' single-origin programs, the coffees they absolutely need to have in bags or bins to avoid muttering customers or nasty emails. We hoped to bypass for now the precious and the extraordinary, the tiny lots flown in by air or the single bag of a green coffee competition winner available to consumers for only a few weeks.
In part we succeeded in our goal; in part we didn't. Along with the staples there were some pretty fancy coffees on the table. But business strategies differ, customer bases have grown more sophisticated, and the staple Colombias and Costa Ricas of the early days of American specialty may well have given way to Kenyas (we received eleven) and Ethiopias (we were sent ten). The days when the average American coffee buyer didn't even know coffee originated in Africa much less knew it was produced there seem to be dwindling, thankfully.
On the other hand, Kenyas and Ethiopias have a record of rating well on Coffee Review, and perhaps some of this month's Africa submissions represented cheating on the concept a little. But who knows; if they weren't best-sellers this year they may well be next.
Doing Well by the Consumer: Thirty-Six at 90 or Better
At any rate, we certainly cupped a lot of coffees: almost seventy. (The quantity of coffees plus a short but nasty head cold account for the lateness of this review.) Nor were there many of the seventy that we could dismiss from the table after a cursory sniff and slurp. These were by and large exceptional coffees. If we take this month's cupping as a kind of survey of quality of basic single-origin offerings of small to medium-sized American specialty roasting companies, then that segment is doing extremely well by its consumers. Thirty-six coffees, or over half of the seventy submitted rated 90 or better.
As usual, the season of the year probably influenced the outcome of the cupping. This is not a good time of year for Sumatras and Brazils, so we had only three Sumatras (none reviewed here) and no Brazils at all. On the other hand, this is fairly good timing for coffees from the northern hemisphere, and we had plenty of those, from East Africa and Central America in particular. If we did ratings averaging by origin, Ethiopia's ten coffees did very well, as a group averaging well over 90. The three submissions from Costa Rica averaged close to 93 and the eleven from Kenya just over 90. Impressive coffees showed up from Colombia and from all of the major Central America origins. Only one Mexico coffee showed up, but that one was outstanding, a gentle and suave classic from Conscious Coffee (92).
Los Angeles to Taiwan
Thirty-nine roasting companies submitted coffees. They ranged from the large and close-by (the family-owned-and-operated giant Gavina Gourmet Coffee in the Los Angeles area) to the small and relatively distant (Simon Hsieh's Aroma Roast Coffees in Taiwan). Gavina's entry (Colombia Supremo, 91) fit our best-selling expectations perfectly: America's most popular coffee origin offered at a reasonable price, brightly acidy, big-bodied and opulent, the quintessence of an American favorite. The other extreme, Simon Hsieh's tiny, Taiwan-based Aroma Roast Coffees needs special introduction. Simon published my book on coffee roasting (Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival) in Chinese in Taiwan some years ago. Since then he started a business importing high-end specialty green coffees into Taiwan and is now roasting them as well. Judging by the quality of his green coffees and his exquisitely tactful roasting Simon has gone far beyond the basic advice I offered in my roasting book, so I can take no credit whatsoever for the success of his two submissions reviewed here, a transcendent Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (97) and a memorable Kenya (96). The Yirgacheffe tasted more like the celebrated Esmeralda Gesha ideal than do many actual lots of Esmeralda Gesha, by the way, dramatizing (if anyone ever doubted it) the close relationship between the Gesha variety growing in Panama and the pure but largely unnamed local varieties growing in southern Ethiopia, particularly in the Yirgacheffe region.
A Review-Allocation Balancing Act
Most of the other roasting companies represented in the thirteen reviews here are familiar to Coffee Review readers. They are among the leaders and newcomers that are changing American specialty coffee. Our biggest challenge in writing these reviews was figuring out how to narrow down thirty-six 90-plus coffees to the thirteen we finally reviewed. We started by dropping out coffees that rated 90, while reviewing all of those that rated 94 or higher. That still left us with eighteen outstanding coffees. Our final selection among that group was based on spreading our reviews among origins and secondly among roasting companies, so that no single origin dominated the reviews, all origins that had significant representation among the submissions were reviewed, and most roasting companies that did well were represented in the reviews by at least one coffee, with an Ethiopia caveat: Roasting companies whose best-rated coffee was an Ethiopia were sometimes not reviewed because otherwise we would ended reviewing almost all Ethiopias.
To compensate for the omissions occasioned by our review-allocation balancing act, what follows is a sort of "honorable (or better) mention" list, naming all of the samples that we rated 90 or higher. Those coffees for which we wrote reviews are indicated with an asterisk.