A Snapshot from the Caribbean
Coffee reviews are necessarily more provisional than reviews of bottled beverages like wine. Not only is coffee subject to a much wider range of creative input, from grower and mill owner through roaster to the consumer who finally does the brewing, but the green coffee also changes through the crop year after it has been harvested and rested. I often describe a coffee review as a useful and revealing snapshot taken of a certain coffee at a certain moment, rather than an eternal and absolute judgment.
If so, it follows that this review is a snapshot of certain Caribbean coffees taken at a somewhat inopportune moment. Rather than perfectly coiffed before a dinner party, these coffees were snapped when their hair was messed up and their shirts half buttoned. In other words, this review came at a time too early for the best of this year's crop of Caribbean coffees and too late for last year's crop, which has faded over the year as green coffees tend to do.
So take these reviews of nine rather celebrated Caribbean coffees from Jamaica and Puerto Rico as somewhat off-balance snapshots, and trust the subjects all will look a bit better in the coming months.
That being said, some rather impressive coffees turned up. When I scheduled this cupping I had hoped not only for the high-end coffees from Jamaica and Puerto Rico, but also for some of the outstanding Dominican Republic types I have cupped over the years.
None of the latter turned up, however, and I was hard put to turn up the nine samples of Jamaicas and Puerto Ricos I review here. The best were a fresh-crop Jamaica Blue Mountain from RSW Estates roasted by Capricorn Coffees in San Francisco and imported by Knutsen Coffee. The past crop Jamaica Blue Mountain from Dallis Bros. and the past crop Old Tavern Estate Jamaica from Down East Coffee via Kaya Imports also were impressive. Two fresh-crop samples roasted and shipped directly from Alex Twyman's celebrated Old Tavern Estate in the Blue Mountains were excellent, though perhaps a slight touch off, probably because they were rushed out of their post-harvest rest directly to the roasting room for the sake of this cupping.
The three Puerto Ricos were a mixed bag. Yauco Selecto, the best-known Puerto Rico export coffee, had some great moments some ten or so years ago, but lately has been decent but a bit disappointing, as these samples confirmed. A newcomer to the Puerto Rico export array, a past-crop estate selection marketed as Clou du Mont and roasted by Dallis Bros, showed considerably more promise, with its rich, big bottomed fruit character.
The Caribbean Cup Defined
What is the Caribbean cup? For me, it is low-toned with a vibrant but restrained acidity, as befits a somewhat lower grown coffee, but richly full-bodied and alive with fruit in the lower registers.
The characteristic fault of the Caribbean cup, at least of those versions produced in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Haiti, is a slight musty or mildewed note, the kind of faint shadow defect produced by a variety of failures, including rewetting of the coffee during drying and faulty storage. This note is so ubiquitous in these three origins that I often have wondered whether I it is an intrinsic character of the coffee rather than shadow fault, but I have cupped enough perfectly full, sweet, round, resonantly complete Jamaicas and Puerto Ricos to remain convinced it is a taint owing to processing rather than a characteristic given by nature. As for the Platonic Caribbean ideal & the low-toned but vibrantly fruity cup, richly full- bodied and roundly balanced & none of these coffees perfectly embodied it, but several came quite close. And as for the shadow mustiness, several displayed this note as a sort of stealth characteristic that turned up at the back of the aroma and in the finish. I often found myself standing up from having sampled an otherwise splendid cup and gradually becoming aware of a very slight but heavy astringency working its way faintly into consciousness.
Waiting for Christmas
Fortunately, this experience was sporadic and almost subliminal, and should not much distort the beauty of many of these coffees, although I did dock some of them rating points for it. And perhaps when these coffees make it to the pictures around the Christmas tree all the hairs will be in place and we will only notice the smile (and, in the case of the Blue Mountains, the price!).