Judges at the recent Fine Cup Award for India coffees experienced the jolt that has become usual at such competitions: Among the many excellent coffees that perfectly fulfilled their expectations of what a wet-processed India coffee should be -- low acid, sweet, mild, perhaps with just a hint of flowers -- two coffees broke through the stereotype completely, with powerful, complex, high- toned fruit and wine character more typically associated with the best coffees of East Africa.
In fact, this stereotype-breaking surprise has become routine at international coffee competitions. Wherever these competitions occur, whether in India, Brazil, Panama or Nicaragua, judges often find themselves surprised, not only by the quality of the entries, but as by their expectation-defying variety.
When I returned home from the Indian competition I was curious to find out how many equivalents of the excellent coffees I had cupped there might be available to consumers here in the United States. Hence the theme of this month's cupping: single-origin Indias.
As it turned out, it was difficult to even find India coffees offered as single origins in the United States. Second, those that were available for this cupping hardly matched the potential revealed by the competition coffees in India.
True, the timing of this article turned out to be inopportune. The new crop of Indias is just arriving in the States, and those roasters who do handle Indias as single origins often were stuck sending me samples of last year's crop. And Indias, like many relatively delicate, lower grown origins, do not hold up very well to long storage.
Direct from India
Nevertheless, it's hard not to conclude that America's specialty roasters should be doing better by India coffees.
When it became clear that I would not have nearly enough samples to fill out a cupping, I emailed the Coffee Board of India asking them to send me some additional India coffees, roasted as they would be for retail sale in India's own growing specialty industry.
The Coffee Board graciously sent me eight roasted samples, including four, as it turned out, that were prize winners as green coffees in the Fine Cup competition. I had my assistant assign these eight coffees, plus seven more sent to me by American roasters, arbitrary three-digit numbers. These fifteen samples were then cupped blind, identified by number only, by me and by Chris Palmer, my co-cupper for this article and Product Development and Quality Assurance Manager for Neighbors Coffee.
Chris Palmer had expressed interest in doing a co-cupping with me of Indias because, as he put it, he didn't know much about the origin and would like to know more. I had considered seeking a co-cupper who is already an authority on India coffees -- my distinguished Indian colleague Sunalini Menon, for example. But I feared that any confirmation of the quality of the India coffees expressed by someone already identified with those coffees might be passed off as partiality. What I preferred to happen was something like the encounter I had witnessed in India between India coffees and cuppers who were extremely experienced but largely innocent about the origin.
So how did it all turn out?
Winners: Available Only in India
Good for India and not quite so good for the American specialty coffee industry. Neither of the cupping's two top-rated coffees are available for sale in the United States, either as green or roasted, despite their exceptional quality and distinction. Chris was so impressed by the exhilarating Badnekhan Estate India that he awarded it a rating of 96.
The two coffees from Nandipura Coffee, rated third and fourth in the cupping, are available via the Nadipura website (www.nandipuracoffee.com). The highest rated India in the cupping from a general American specialty roaster is the agreeable Plantation A Kents from Coffee Express. Interestingly, this coffee fulfills the expected norm for India coffees: low-key, sweet, round, agreeable rather than authoritative.
India's Exotic Blending Coffees
In addition to its wet-processed coffees, India produces two exotic coffee types that are often used in blending for espresso: wet-processed "Parchment" robustas, among the finest robustas in the world, and Monsooned Malabars, dry-processed, fruit-toned arabica coffees that are exposed to several months of moist monsoon wind in open-sided warehouses, turning the beans fat and golden in appearance and heavy bodied, expansively low-toned, and (usually) sharply musty in the cup.
Neither wet-processed robusta nor Monsooned Malabar appear to make successful single origins, at least from an American perspective. Even the best robustas drunk straight are flat, lifeless, grainy and cloying. And Monsooned Malabar's weakness as single origin was modestly confirmed by this cupping; two single-origin Monsooned Malabars, one from an American roaster and one from an Indian, both were dominated by thoroughly unpleasant rubbery, musty tones. Neither appears in this review. On the other hand, Monsooned coffees and high-quality, wet-processed robustas contribute valuable body and rough heartiness to espresso blends and, occasionally, to dark-roast blends intended for drip brewing. One such robusta- and Monsooned-Malabar-containing blend, a Viennese Roast, was submitted for this cupping by Coffee Express.
At Crossed Palates
Despite its 77 rating from Chris, I decided to include the Coffee Express Viennese Roast in our report because the conflicting nature of his reaction and mine illustrates the difficulty of applying rating systems odd-profiled coffees. I immediately recognized the grainy robusta and musty Monsooned Malabar tones in this blend, but, as a dedicated drinker of single-malt Scotch whiskies, I also acknowledged something wildly and wonderfully lush, rough and quirky about it. Unlike the sharply musty, rubbery single-origin Monsooned Malabars in the cupping, this blend exhibited depth and complexity, albeit a rather unorthodox depth and complexity. So I had a choice: either follow my instincts and give it a modestly high rating, or follow what I knew to be cupper consensus and give it a low rating. I ended by giving it an 85, although I easily have mounted an argument for a considerably higher or lower score.
The point to be taken from this cupping in regard to consistency among cuppers would seem to be the following: When confronted by exotic but cleanly structured coffees like this month's highest rated Badnekhan Estate and Jumboor Estate, professional cuppers from all over the world will exhibit an impressive degree of consensus. The international jury assembled in India preferred these two coffees over competing Indias, and so did Chris and I. Furthermore, the international jury's ratings for these two coffees were very similar to ours.
But, when faced with odd but potentially interesting profiles like the Coffee Express Viennese Roast, cupper consensus may not be so clear.
All Hail Those of Pure Palate
On the other hand, all hail to cuppers of pure palate like my colleague Chris Palmer, whose clarity and rigor I assume is one of the main reasons that I find myself giving Neighbors coffees high ratings in cupping after cupping. Maybe the last thing we need are coffee buyers lurching down unorthodox paths in pursuit of lush strangeness.
Emerging from the wilds of relativity, the main two points to be taken from this cupping would seem to be: 1) last year India produced at least two coffees of startling and classic distinction together with a whole bunch more of very, very good coffees, and 2) even the very good coffees apparently failed to make it to the warehouses of American coffee roasters or to the palates of American coffee lovers. I hope this situation changes soon, and we see more fine and surprising Indias on specialty menus.