Along the Andes: Coffees of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru
The short version is simple: Three coffee origins with massive growing elevations and substantial plantings of traditional varieties of Arabica but with little to no presence in the specialty coffee world suddenly provide us with fifty-three largely impressive, often distinctive coffees. For years Bolivia, despite ideal, very high-altitude terroirs and plantings of the old and respected Typica variety of Arabica, has produced almost nothing but poorly prepared, bargain-bin coffees for commercial roasters. Ecuador usually doesn't even appear on lists of specialty coffee producing countries. True, Peru has always been important in the specialty coffee world, but Perus have tended to be used in blends, for decaffeination, or foregrounded less for coffee character than for genuinely inspiring stories of indigenous producers struggling to improve their lives through coffee. What has changed?
Quality and Distinctiveness
From a sensory perspective the specialty coffee world is built on two pillars: quality and distinctiveness. Quality is easily defined: Is this coffee well prepared? Is it free of sensory distractions or off flavors? This latest group of southern Andean coffees did quite well in this regard: Among the fifty-three we tested we found only one - a Peru - that showed a clear taste defect. This is an impressive showing.
Distinctiveness, however, means that a coffee expresses some sensory nuance that separates it from the crowd of good but ordinary coffees. Despite high growing altitudes and impressive terroirs, the best Bolivias and Perus that have reached North America markets over the past decades have tended to be straightforward, softly balanced coffees in the Latin American tradition, with very little to distinguish them from one another -- or, for that matter, from other straightforward, softly balanced coffees in the Latin American tradition.
The seventeen Perus we cupped for this month's article were, by and large, the expected Perus: balanced, sweet-toned, softly acidy, with subtle rather than striking aromatics. Many were pleasing, versatile coffees that rated 88 or 89. For us the best - and most distinctive - was the 91-rated Peru San Ignacio from the specialty food chain The Fresh Market. It nuanced the typical softly acidy, sweetly balanced Peru profile with deep floral, orange and aromatic wood complications.
The Ecuador Surprise
Two impressive Ecuadors, rated 90 and 92, constituted perhaps the biggest surprise of the cupping. First of all, it was a surprise that any coffees from Ecuador showed up in the first place, given this origin's invisibility over the past few decades. The second surprise is that these two coffees were not only good, but, yes, distinctive. Two coffees do not a trend make, but obviously in at least a small sector of the Ecuador industry good things are happening. Ecuadorian grower/exporter Nico Velez brought a group of impressive micro-lot Ecuadors to the recent Specialty Coffee Association of American event in Anaheim, and one of them made it to this month's cupping: the superb 92-rated Ecuador Perla Negra from Equator Estates Coffee. One of the most distinctive coffees in this month's reviews, the Perla Negra displayed a complex, balanced fruit that was both tart and richly jammy, supporting soft floral and sweet cocoa notes. The Ecuador Jose Mayo Loja from Bird Rock Roasters (90) displayed an interesting spicy, peppery edge to a floral and gently citrusy profile.
Enthusiasm for Bolivias
Based on this month's sampling, however, Bolivia definitely appears to be the current favorite southern Andean origin among specialty roasters. An impressive thirty-four Bolivia coffees from seventeen North American roasters turned up. Some roasters were so enthusiastic about this reviving origin that they sent two, even three, Bolivia selections. Olympia Coffee Roasting, for example, sent three, including the top-rated Bolivia Mauricio Diez Medina Peaberry (93). Cafe Valverde submitted three (highest rated 91); Fratello Coffee Roasters of Calgary, Canada three (two rated 90 and 91); and 49th Parallel from the Vancouver area of Canada three (two rated at 90).
Why the impressive revival of interest in this always promising but heretofore largely overlooked origin? The most important reason is the work of USAID, which has supported a variety of general improvements in fruit removal, drying and transportation procedures, netting cleaner and more consistent coffees. USAID also has funded various marketing initiatives, including supporting a succession of Cup of Excellence competitions for Bolivia green coffees. Cup of Excellence events, the most prestigious of green coffee competitions, not only draw industry attention to an origin, but also attract judges (and prospective coffee buyers) from all over the world to visit, appreciate, and learn more about the origin and its coffees.
I have to diffidently report, however, that we were very mildly disappointed by this past year's Bolivia Cup of Excellence winners. Not that they didn't attract impressive ratings: The six Cup of Excellence prize winners we cupped averaged just short of 89, with the deep, sweetly complex Fratello Coffee Bolivian Caf- Central COE topping the list at 91. Nevertheless, we often landed a point lower in our ratings than the international jury did. Typically when we cup winners from green coffee competitions it's the other way around: Our ratings for competition-winning coffees production-roasted by the best companies usually exceed the competition scores for those same coffees, which are arrived at by cupping sample roasts. Perhaps my cupping partner Ted Stachura and I were slightly out of calibration with the tastes of the jury, or perhaps some transport delays or warehousing issues this year took just a tiny bit of the aromatics out of these fine prize-winning coffees.
The World's Highest-Grown Coffee?
For us the most interesting of the Bolivias was traded outside the competition. The very high-grown Mauricio Diez Medina Peaberry from Olympia Coffee Roasters showed the deep sweetness characteristic of the best Bolivias with great range of aromatics, syrupy mouthfeel and an impressively long, flavor-saturated finish. This coffee may be the highest-grown coffee in the world, which makes it a sort of poster-coffee for this country of massive 11,000-foot-high plains and towering mountains. Peaberries, of course, are single, oval-shaped beans separated during grading from normal beans. The Fratello Coffee Roasters Bolivia Agrotakesi (92) is another peaberry, a tiny, precious lot consisting only of peaberries screened out of the larger lot of normally-shaped beans that won the first prize in the 2009 Bolivia Cup of Excellence with a soaring score of 93. This rare selection showed a surprising brandy-toned chocolate aromatic complicating a finely balanced, softly acidy profile.
Fair Trade Disappointment; Decaf Design
Both Bolivia and Peru are leading candidates for Fair Trade and other programs that focus on supporting small-holding, often indigenous farmers who are organized into cooperatives. Surprisingly, Fair Trade certified coffees in general congregated toward the lower half of our ratings for this particular cupping. Four scored in the 87 to 88 range, including The Fire Roasted Coffee Peru Cafe Femenino reviewed here at 88, but none came off the table higher. This modest showing is unusual. I recently did an analysis of Coffee Review ratings for Fair-Trade certified coffees, and according to that analysis, average scores for Fair Trade certified coffees held up very well against comparable scores for non-certified coffees. Fair Trade coffees from Africa and Central America did particularly well. I hope this month's decent but rather disappointing showing for Fair Trade Perus and Bolivias was simply the luck of the draw.
Finally, we felt it only appropriate to review at least one decaffeinated Peru, given the popularity of this origin for decaffeination. As a group the five decaffeinated Andean coffees we cupped were not particularly impressive; almost all were dominated by the woody decaf flatness that can be characteristic of coffees subjected to the evisceration and restoration of aromatic-generating compounds during water-only decaffeination processes. One, the Kickapoo Coffee Organic Decaf Peru, scored 87, but I decided instead to review the 86-rated Just Coffee Espresso Monkey Decaf (also an organic Peru), partly because I liked the bag. OK, I'm a coffee reviewer and not a bag reviewer, but the Just Coffee bag is for me is an in-your-face masterpiece, with a design that crowds every surface with strong communication, humor, and the bold geometric red and blacks of retro Russian Futurism. And, for a decaf, the coffee's not bad.