Quest for an Everyday Coffee: Macro-Lots
Readers often write to us asking for recommendations for an “everyday” coffee – the equivalent of the $10 bottle of wine, a reasonably priced, reasonably distinctive, but consistently available coffee. Most coffees that attract a high rating on Coffee Review are exceptional in some way: They are often produced from small, or “micro” lots of green coffee, specially selected for quality and distinctiveness, precisely described in regard to botanical variety and other details, and not likely to be available for more than a couple of months before they’re sold out. And usually (though not always) they cost considerably more than other, more anonymous coffees from the same origin or region.
For this month’s article we tried to tilt the playing field away from rare and expensive coffees toward everyday staple coffees. We required that any coffee we consider for review come from a single lot of a green, unroasted coffee (in the possession of the roaster) of at least 100 bags, or around 1,300 to 1,500 pounds. For very large roasters, of course, 100 bags is nothing, a bean in a bucket of beans. On the other hand, buying at least 100 bags of a coffee for smaller roasters (we hope) implies a sufficient commitment to that coffee to suggest that it will be available to consumers for some time and represents the sort of everyday, staple offering we were looking for rather than specially selected “now or never” micro-lots with equally special pricing.
We gathered around forty-three such “macro-lot” coffees from twenty-seven roasting companies ranging in size from very large to modest. The result? Of the total of forty-three coffees tested, three rated under 80 (avoid), thirteen rated 80 through 84 (OK in a pinch), fourteen 85 through 87 (decent, solid, but nothing exceptional), twelve 88 to 89 (attractive, worth seeking out), and only two 90 or over (both at 92). The average of all forty-three coffees we tested was 85.5.
From the glass-is-half-full perspective, this is a good result. It suggests (if anyone ever doubted it) that even everyday whole-bean offerings from specialty coffee companies are significantly better than roast-and-ground supermarket offerings (our last cupping of six nationally branded supermarket cans in late 2007 netted a dismal average score of 78) or whole bean coffees at discounters like Costco, Sam’s Club or even Trader Joe’s (average rating of 82 in 2008). Of course, you will pay considerably more for the coffees reviewed here than you will for the desperately drab stuff in the plastic supermarket cans or value-priced whole bean offerings in the big box stores, though typically substantially less than you would for the finer and rarer microlots.
Unfortunately, the unprecedented surge in green coffee prices over the past few months has made precise cost-to-ratings comparisons with past review articles problematic. However, a quick run through my local supermarket netted an average current price of about $0.60 per ounce for a basket of nationally branded roast-and-ground canned coffees, compared to an average of approximately $1.10 per ounce for the much superior whole-bean coffees reviewed here. Additionally, the consumer has the bonus satisfaction of knowing that the coffees reviewed here give back more to the coffee producers and the environment, most dramatically with those coffees certified Fair Trade and organic. But even in respect to the coffees without certification reviewed this month I feel certain that the quality premiums paid to producers considerably exceeded whatever made it back to the producers of the bottom-of-the barrel grades of coffee that fill the supermarket cans.
Nevertheless, moving from the glass-is-half-full to the glass-is-half-empty perspective, I admit that this month’s samples as a group were just a little dispiriting. I was hoping for some ordinary, generic coffee to shock us with its sensory excitement and put some of the expensive micro-lots to shame, but that did not happen. The two coffees that did pop to 92, both very attractive wet-processed Ethiopias, could just as well have been offered as micro-lots by other roasting companies. They were not anonymous, bulked coffees, sold by origin and grade like Colombia Supremo or Costa Rica Strictly Hard Bean; both were coffees of particularly high quality from fairly precisely identified producers. On the other hand, it is true that the price for the Boyds Ethiopia Sidamo, $0.80 per ounce, is significantly lower than most current microlot prices, and lower than any other coffee in this month’s reviews except the excellent 88-rated dark-roast Colombia from Finger Lakes Coffee, offered at $0.70 per ounce. Certainly its impressive price-to-value ratio makes the Boyds Ethiopia Sidama the most relevant “find” among this month’s reviewed coffees.
Which leads to a perhaps surprising outcome of this exercise. Six Ethiopia samples, all wet-processed coffees from the Yirgacheffe and Sidama regions (and all reviewed here), dominated the top of the ratings with an amazing average score of close to 90. Furthermore, these six Ethiopias on an average cost less ($0.92 per ounce) than the seven coffees from other origins reviewed here (an average of $1.21 per ounce).
Does this mean that a consumer who wants an engaging, distinctive coffee at a reasonable price would be well-advised to buy a wet-processed Ethiopia? Perhaps. Wet-processed Ethiopia coffees from the Yirgacheffe and Sidama regions are probably the most distinctive-tasting of the world’s coffee types that also can be purchased with some consistency in larger quantities at a decent price. The best Latin-American grades and origins may be excellent in quality and subtly distinctive, but are not as distinctive as the best Ethiopias, while that North American favorite, Sumatra, is distinctive but difficult to obtain in consistent quality. Other Africa origins may be distinctive but offer either smaller volumes or, in the case of Kenya, produce some of the world’s finest coffees, but in select lots at often rather dauntingly high prices. Wet-processed Ethiopias also tend to keep well in the warehouse without losing character, which may be another reason we received so many for this article and they did so well.
The six Ethiopias we reviewed also displayed an impressive range of character, from exotic but balanced (Boyds; Counter Culture) through bright and authoritative (Montana Coffee Traders), through even brighter and drier (Barefoot Coffee), through roasty and lemony/chocolaty (The Roasterie), to exotic but quietly rounded (Green Mountain).
Starbucks and Peet’s
Generally, well-established medium to large regional roasting companies sent us the best-rated samples, although we ran into some clear inconsistencies. For example, both Boyd’s and Montana Coffee Traders produced outstanding 92-rated Ethiopias, but other samples they sent did not particularly distinguish themselves. Such inconsistency applied as well to samples from several other roasting companies.
What about Starbucks? It did not respond to our emailed request for samples (perhaps we contacted the wrong person), but we did pick up two samples at our local Starbucks location and two at a competing Peet’s. (The Peet’s representative we contacted by email also declined to submit samples.) No sample from either company came off the table at 88 or higher, so none are reviewed here, but to satisfy curiosity and the San Francisco Bay Area Peetniks’ hunger for bragging rights, Peet’s samples fared a bit better: 87 (Kenya Auction Lot) and 85 (Sumatra) to Starbucks 86 (Kenya) and 83 (Guatemala Antigua). The Peet’s samples generally showed a bit more character and complexity, whereas the Starbucks samples, as they often have for the past several years, came across as free of fault but relatively flat and listless.