Holiday Gift Coffees
Like wine, coffee makes a modest but immediately gratifying and reassuringly consumable gift for the holidays. However, those who drink coffee drink it daily, so a gift of coffee needs simultaneously to be familiar enough to please but special enough to warrant celebration.
We came up with a variety of strategies for identifying what might be special enough for the holidays, ranging from featured holiday blends to exceptional or celebrated single origins. Altogether we sourced about thirty-five candidate coffees from fifteen roasters.
The Splurge Origins
One way to identify specialness is price and reputation. We started with an effort to source some gift-worthy examples of the two great holiday splurge favorites: Jamaica Blue Mountain and Hawaii Kona. These two origins recommend themselves as gift candidates for several reasons. First, they cost too much for most coffee drinkers to brew them up year round, so by taking on the financial responsibility for the splurge we are sparing our coffee friends both wallet depletion and guilt. Second, they impress simply with their name, assuring attention. Third, they remind presently snow-bound citizens of sunny, palm-dappled times past and future.
Our basic approach to sourcing both Jamaica and Kona was to buy direct from origin, in other words, buy coffees not only grown and processed in Kona or Jamaica, but also roasted and packaged there.
With the Jamaica, we cupped four coffees from Old Tavern Estate, one of the handful of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee farms permitted to process and export their coffees separate from the bulk of Blue Mountain coffee. Two of these coffees, the medium roasted version of Old Tavern Estate and a medium-roasted peaberry version, were definitely worthy of high-rolling holiday purchase. We passed on two darker roasted Old Taverns.
Past cuppings have turned up many fine direct-from-the-farm Konas (see Konas and Other Hawaiis, February 2002), but this time around we were disappointed. Kona is a delicate origin that needs to be roasted and handled with care to preserve its melodic subtlety. Unfortunately, most of the farm-roasted Konas we received for this review appeared to suffer from a variety of post-harvest problems that undermined the integrity of the original green coffee. In some cases the coffee we cupped seemed to be last year's crop and consequently a bit faded and flat; in other cases the roasting seemed clumsy; in still others I suspect the roasted coffee was delivered less than fresh.
In fact, the most impressive medium-roasted Kona we turned up originated from the very large mainland roaster, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The best darker roasted Kona in the group did come direct from a grower: a new 2003 crop roasted by Kona Premium Coffee Company.
Some Other Luminous (or at Least Mildly Glowing) Choices
Both the pair of Old Taverns and the two Konas would make excellent gifts for coffee aficionados. However, even more impressive in the cup so were a trio of coffees from other origins: the magnificent, and unusually sweet, Kenya sent by Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, the powerfully but suavely acidy El Salvador Los Inmortales from the same roaster, and the classic Costa Rica Tarrazu La Minita Estate roasted by Kaffé Magnum Opus.
The two most interesting of the holiday blends we sourced were Peet's Coffee and Tea's version, a tender and almost buoyant rendition of Peet's signature dark roast style, and an all fair-trade, organic blend from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters bearing the name Joyful Season.
For those readers who are just tuning in, fair-trade coffees are produced by democratically run cooperatives of small growers who have been paid a formula-defined fair price for their production. When fair-trade coffees first appeared on the market a few years ago they were widely criticized by green coffee buyers as spotty in quality and limited in selection. This year, however, outstanding fair-trade coffees from Ethiopia and Indonesia have joined an increasingly distinctive array of fair-trade coffees from Central and South America, which means that blenders like those at Green Mountain now have a full, world-spanning range of coffees to work with when formulating their fair-trade blends.
Finally, I picked up some Starbucks coffees, on the theory that the great advantage of Starbucks for gift givers is ubiquitousness: There always seems to be a Starbucks on the way to the dinner party. Of the coffees I brought home from my local branch I found the Starbucks Special Reserve, Harvest 2003 blend the most interesting, and on the cusp of exceptional.
Next Month Some Holiday Heft
The surprising characteristic of the holiday blends we sourced was their light-to-medium body, belying the notion that the holiday palate ought to be tuned to brandy saturated cakes, fat-saturated gravies and general indoorsy, fire-lit winter weightiness. To compensate for that lack, next issue we are going to explore Pacific coffees, Papua New Guineas, Timors, Sulawesis, which, along with the often silky lyricism of Papua New Guineas, should introduce some gravity into the winter scene.