Fourteen Covers of a Classic Tune: Mocha-Java Blends
Around 1740 Europeans had a rather limited menu of coffees to choose from: Mocha, the world's original commercial coffee from what is now Yemen, and Java, a recent introduction by the Dutch from their colony in the Pacific. Inevitably, these two coffees came together to form the world's first blend. In the years following, other, now more famous, coffees from Latin America began to fill out importer lists and dominate the world's coffee trade, but the Mocha-Java blend exhibited remarkable tenacity. The name has continued to appear on coffee signs, cans and menus for nearly three hundred years. Is the persistence of the Mocha-Java name simply owing to generations of coffee sellers taking the opportunity to sell coffee under a ready-made brand name handed to them by history, or is it owing to some accidental sensory genius inherent in the blend itself?
As this month's cupping of thirty-six Mocha-Java blends from thirty-four North American specialty roasters suggests, the essential blend concept is remarkably productive of interesting coffee, regardless of name. In fact, two blends appear in our reviews that forgo the Mocha-Java name entirely, yet follow the blend formula rather closely: the Romance blend from Paradise Roasters (94) and the Smart Blend from One Village Coffee (90).
And although the original Mocha-Java formula can be seen as an old tune inviting new interpretations, the interpretations reviewed here tend to riff modestly and sensitively on the original concept, innovating from the inside out, accepting the essential sensory contrast of the blend while varying either the lower-toned, pungent component (the Java) and/or the ferment-and-fruit-toned (the Yemen). I ended by dividing the variants we cupped into three categories.
The Geographically Authentic
These are the blends that take the original geography of the blend literally. They combine coffees from Yemen, complex and wild coffees that are still dried in the fruit on the roofs of stone houses as they were at the birth of the global coffee trade, with coffees from Java, wet-processed coffees using more modern preparation methods. Roasters who choose this path of maximum geographical authenticity face particular challenges. Yemen coffees can be magnificent, but good lots are very difficult to find, and they do not stand up well to storage, with a tendency to fade and turn musty with time. Similarly, the traditional coffees of Java from large government-run estates are difficult to source with consistency. However, two of the blends we review this month successfully followed this demanding path: the Equator Coffee Arabian Mocha Java (92) and the Kobricks True Mocha Java (89).
The Stylistically Authentic
These are the blends that stay true to the coffee styles and processing methods that created the original Mocha-Java blend while moving modestly from the original geographies. In place of the Yemen, they may incorporate very similar "natural" or dried-in-the-fruit coffees from Ethiopia, just across the Red Sea from Yemen, which are a little easier to source, less expensive, and stand up to storage a bit better. And in place of the Java, they may use small producer coffees from Sumatra, the next island east from Java. Most Sumatras are processed using simple, traditional hand methods that probably make them closer in sensory style to the original Java coffees of the 1730's than are today's mill-processed estate Javas. Such substitutions are not deceptive or expedient, by the way, but are interpretations that remain loyal to the coffee styles of the historical model. Some of the most impressive coffees we review this month fall into this modestly revisionist category, including the top-rated Romance blend from Paradise, the suavely earthy, darker-roasted Bull Run (91), and the ruggedly authentic Batdorf & Bronson (91) and Klatch Coffee (91) renditions.
The, Well, Almost Authentic
With this final group of blends we encounter a modest modern deviation from the original concept, but a productive one. In place of the fruity, often mildly fermented dried-in-the-fruit component, whether Yemen or Ethiopia, these variations use a wet-processed Ethiopia coffee, usually from the Yirgacheffe or Sidamo regions, whose clean, brightly floral character reflects modern "washed" processing methods in which the skin and fruit pulp are removed from the beans before drying. In most of these revisionist formulas, the buoyant, silky-bodied wet-processed Ethiopias are paired with Sumatras, whose earthy weight nicely complements them. The Green Mountain (91), Willoughby's (90) and Portland Roasting (89) are all successful renditions of this approach.
One blend reviewed here admittedly does drift rather radically from the historical model. The Mocha Java from The Roasterie (92) dispenses with the Java/Sumatra component entirely, offering instead an original and vibrant blend of three different styles of Ethiopia coffee: two fruity, rich dry-processed Ethiopia coffees and one bright and delicate wet-processed Ethiopia from the Yirgacheffe region.
Genuine History in a Cup
Again, however, what struck me most about the thirty-plus versions we sampled of this ancient blend were the engaging and varied yet parallel sensory experiences the concept inspired, from rough, robust statements like the Equator, Batdorf & Bronson or Klatch Coffee version that preserve some of the wildness of the originals, to silky, elegant modernist takes like the Green Mountain or Willoughby's, to those renditions poised between. Take together, these fourteen blends offer, quite literally, a sensory immersion in coffee history.