Coffee Article: Coffees Nominated by Coffee Review Readers

February 2011

Readers' Nominations
by Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

Perhaps we can take this annual cupping of coffees nominated by our readers as a kind of informal sampling of the state of specialty coffee based on the People’s input. At least a very small part of the People. If so, this early 2011 sampling provokes the following (strictly organoleptic-dotal and non-scientific) trends and observations.

Conclusion one: The taste for darker roasted coffees has not subsided, despite the ongoing victory march of medium-roasted coffee in the urban precincts of the hip. Of the twenty-six coffees we cupped, only five were light- to medium-roasted. And while the tendency from ten years back of out-Starbucking Starbucks by reducing every green coffee in the inventory to a uniform-tasting shiny blackish-brown seems to have diminished a bit, it does live on: Almost half of the coffees we solicited for this article came in dark- to ultra-dark- roasted. The remaining nine fell roughly into the middle of the roast spectrum, at the point where the impact of a darker roast is just insinuating itself but the character of the green coffee persists, gently muted and transformed.

This month did bring us one nicely designed and roasted ultimately dark-roasted blend. Philz Coffee, a specialty roaster and small local chain in San Francisco and environs sent us Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew (88), a notably smooth ultra-(very ultra-)dark roast that manages to keep the inevitably dominating charred wood character of such far-end roasts lively and cedary while maintaining sweetness and at least a touch of nuance.

Small but Impressive Showing for Micro-Lots

The current trend toward highly differentiated small lots of green coffee brought to a medium to light roast barely showed up in the nominations. Perhaps the urban and college-town sophisticates who have fueled this trend are too busy drinking their micro-lot coffee before it’s gone, or perhaps their favorite roasting company is already well-represented in our review archives.

Nevertheless, two such medium-roasted small-lot coffees turned up and, perhaps predictably, attracted the highest ratings in this month’s survey. The Doma Coffee Costa Rica Las Lajas Natural (93) could function as a poster-coffee for the microlot movement. First, it is a rare and atypical green coffee type (a dried-in-the-fruit “natural” coming from Costa Rica, an origin exclusively associated with wet-processed coffee). Second, it is an exceptional version of this exceptional type, displaying the rich and fruit-toned character of such natural coffees while maintaining freedom from the various faults that haunt the type: excessive fruit ferment, hints of mildew, etc. The 49th Parallel Ethiopia Sidama Wottona Bultuma Co-op (91) also fit the microlot expectations: a very specifically sourced coffee brought to a lightish roast that encouraged a distinctive lemony citrus and tart, bright acidity.

No Limits Geographically

Nominating readers definitely were not in a rut in respect to coffee geography, however. The microlot coffees we review often concentrate around a few favored origins: Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Sumatra. We certainly had a few of these, but we also had a Brazil, the Cup to Cup Alta Mogiana Peaberry (90), that was impressive in its quiet Brazilness: low in acidity, gentle, crisply chocolate-toned. Tas Kafé, a small New York State roaster specializing in Caribbean coffees, sent a sweetly pungent Dominican Republic (88) that showed intriguing signs of the elegant black currant note most associated with the Bourbon-derived varieties of Kenya. The true-to-type Sumatra Samosir Batak (90) from Caribou Coffee displayed the classic earth and pungent grapefruit-like notes of the traditional wet-hulled Sumatra type, in this case nicely deepened and rounded by a moderately dark roast.

Big Showing for Sustainable

The powerful and lasting trend toward sustainably certified coffees was clearly reflected in reader nominations. Five of the ten coffees reviewed this month displayed certification seals: three organic/Fair-Trade, one organic only, and one Rainforest-Alliance certified.

The organic- and Fair-Trade-certified Mocha-Java blend (90) from Thanksgiving Coffee struck me as particularly noteworthy. Thanksgiving is the granddaddy of all progressive roasting companies. Founder Paul Katzeff already was roasting and selling coffees that benefited social and environmental causes at a time when the founders of Fair Trade were, well, quite young. The Thanksgiving Mocha Java maintains a fine authenticity in coffee style while replacing the traditional Yemen Mocha component of the blend with a similar dry-processed coffee from Ethiopia and the Java with a traditionally processed Sumatra. These replacements not only enabled Thanksgiving to source Fair Trade coffees for its version of the blend, but also netted a sensory profile perhaps closer to the original 18th century character of this traditional blend formula than could have been achieved with today’s inconsistent Yemens and conventionally wet-processed Javas.

Also reviewed here is an example of the ultimate in third-party-certified coffees. The Birds & Beans quiet and caramelly Wood Thrush Blend (88) carries “triple certification”: organic, Fair-Trade, plus the Smithsonian Institution’s “Bird Friendly” designation, awarded exclusively to coffee organically grown in what amounts to a wildlife-rich thicket of indigenous trees and plants.

Some Disappointment

Although this set of reviews turned up some excellent and interesting coffees, I admit to mild disappointment overall. We received too many coffees (not reviewed here) from small roasting companies that seemed to suggest a lack of deep coffee engagement. There were too many that seemed not to be roasted dark thoughtfully with the goal of creating a satisfying dark-roast experience, but, to put it bluntly, simply left in the roaster a little too long. There is a difference between deliberately roasting a coffee dark to develop a deep, caramelly character or even a richly burned sensation, and simply roasting any old coffee dark any old way.

Nor was the quality of the green coffee, when the roast permitted evaluating it, impressive overall. I suspect that the practice continues of smaller, relatively newer roasters simply accepting the recommendation of green coffee dealers rather than carefully sample-roasting and selecting the coffees themselves from an array of possibilities. Although we cupped only one outright defective coffee (a real howler), there still seemed to lurk, often behind the veil of the dark roasting, green coffees that were sound and without defect but lacking energy and character.

I hope readers who made these nominations continue to support their local roasters with the same enthusiasm that prompted them to nominate in the first place. But I also hope the roasters themselves take more pains to live up to their customers’ loyalty with slightly more lively green coffees and more sensitive roasting.