Coffee Article: Prize-Winning Coffees from Latin America

December 2010

Prize-Winning Coffees from Latin America
by Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Wendy De Jong and Kenneth Davids

The story this month may be more about what’s not reviewed here than what is. As in years past, we planned a review of competition-winning green coffees offered to North American consumers. These competitions are events "during which a jury of international cuppers spends several well-caffeinated days slurping, spitting and obsessing over a gradually narrowing group of fine coffees from a given growing country," to quote an earlier Coffee Review article. The most prestigious of these green coffee competitions are mounted by the Cup of Excellence program, while less elaborate competitions are held under other auspices in several other growing countries.

When we mounted a similar cupping of competition-winning green coffees in 2007, we received forty-one samples of prize-winning coffees. This year, despite a whole lot of prompting and communicating, we received eighteen.

Even the 2007 turnout of forty-one coffees was rather light, considering that there are hundreds of prize winners every year. Most of the winning coffees are purchased by bidders in Asia and Europe, a trend that has accelerated in recent years according to Susie Spindler, Executive Director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, the parent organization of the Cup of Excellence program. In other words, North American buyers are increasingly opting out of the bidding for the prize-winning Cup of Excellence lots, ceding the field to more enthusiastic buyers from Asia and Europe.

Implicit Controversy

What we make of this trend partly depends on how we perceive the current high-end coffee scene in North America. We could assume, as some do, that North American buyers are cheapskates who refuse to pay the price for great competition coffees and who are consequently dumbing down the specialty scene. Others feel that the newer trend toward direct trade and microlots, in which North American buyers work directly with producers to develop small, elite offerings of exceptional coffees, ultimately produces better and more interesting coffees than the cumbersome, by-committee approach of the Cup of Excellence and similar competitions. If there is any dumbing down of specialty coffee, according to this point of view, it is being committed by large juries of international cuppers whose individual perspectives are being muted by an anonymous and collective process.

One contribution I need to make to this (only partly voiced) debate is to testify that based on my experience the direct trade model in the hands of the leading small North American roasters is producing a large and continuing trove of exceptional coffees. Furthermore, these exceptional coffees often reflect a spirit of experiment, innovation, and individualism on the part of both producers and roaster/buyers. For example, I feel completely confident in asserting that there have never been, in the history of North American specialty coffee, Sumatras as extraordinary as the best that I have cupped from North American roasting companies over the past few years. There has never been as exceptional a group of natural, dried-in-the-fruit coffees as those that are beginning of come out of southern Ethiopia. Over the past several years I have cupped classic Central American wet-processed coffees from small North American roasters that have won no awards, yet are as pure, clean and distinctive as any I have ever tasted in my previous forty-odd years of association with the specialty coffee industry.

On the other hand, the competition model is precious and essential. One could argue that it is responsible for creating many of the relationships and expectations that led to the creation of direct trade programs in the first place. It discovers coffees from small producers that would never find recognition and exposure otherwise, and assures these producers attention from buyers for years after their initial success. The anonymity of the jury process may perhaps diminish the injection of individual taste and personality into the coffee selection process, but it also creates an invaluable level playing field for producers and helps build a global community around quality and distinction. As George Howell, one of the three founders of Cup of Excellence, put it in a recent email to me, he fears that by abandoning the Cup of Excellence current North American buyers are “leaving the goose that laid the golden eggs.”

Eight Fine Coffees

Implied controversy aside, we did turn up some impressive competition-winning coffees, eight of which are reviewed here, among them one clearly exceptional sample, the 94-rated Café Grumpy Honduras Fernandez Farm. I was joined in this cupping by Wendy De Jong, Vice President and Coffee Buyer for Tony’s Coffees and Teas, a respected and innovative specialty company with operations in both the Seattle and the San Francisco Bay areas and a specialty industry leader.

An interesting side plot in the cupping was an occasional divergence in ratings and preferencing between Wendy and me. For the highest-rated Café Grumpy Honduras we turned in identical ratings and closely parallel descriptors, and we were very close in our reading of most other samples as well. However, we mildly diverged on at least two, the Java Blend El Salvador La Pinera (Wendy 92, Ken 90) and the Cartel Coffee Lab El Salvador Finca Los Planes Lote La Lagunita (Wendy 87, Ken 89). For those interested readers I have tried to characterize our differences in the context of each of the two reviews. For me, such minor differences are inspiring, not dispiriting. They may encourage readers to actually read the detailed reviews rather than simply taking a single rating number as the final expression of the quality of the sample.

Oldies but Goodies

A final note: Some of the coffees we reviewed were winners in competitions held in 2009, which means that at this point in time have been held in storage as green coffee for months. Coffee insiders know that green coffees tend to fade in intensity as they age. It is probably a tribute to the original quality of these competition coffees that their cup character held up as well as it has. It occurred to me as I wrote the reviews for the 2009 winners that for some consumers the relatively muted acidity and lower-toned character of some of these older green coffees may well be attractive, more attractive perhaps than the same coffee when fresh and more brightly acidy and more citrusy in flavor. I’ve tried to speculate on the probable impact of time since harvest in the respective reviews.

Co-Cupper Wendy De Jong

Wendy is the Vice President and Coffee Buyer for Tony’s Coffees and Teas, located in Washington and California. Wendy began her coffee career as a barista in Seattle and has enjoyed coffee retail management, espresso education and training, equipment repair, roasting and production management. Currently she spends most of her time sourcing great tasting coffees and developing mutually beneficial relationships with coffee producers. She is a frequent volunteer with the Specialty Coffee Association of America, is currently serving as Chairperson for the Roasters Guild Executive Council, and is a licensed Q Grader.