Let's start with origins that are already emerged, those that currently dominate American specialty coffee menu boards. There's Kona and Jamaica Blue Mountain, for example. They are well emerged. The insiders' favorites, like Kenya, Ethiopia and Guatemala, may be struggling with low coffee prices, but they also are definitely emerged. Colombia and Costa Rica are established classics, and Papua New Guinea is the real insider's favorite.
Virtually all other coffee origins are "emerging" in one way or another. In other words, they are busily attempting to elbow their way onto the specialty coffee A list as prestigious single origins. Even countries like Colombia and Brazil, whose identities are inextricably linked to coffee, are trying to lift their coffees from "good cup a Joe" status to elite, specialty status. However, some coffee origins started their journey toward specialty from way at the back of the room, maybe even from behind the door. Four of these origins are represented here: Rwanda, in Central Africa, and three countries lined up along the Andean backbone of South America: Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.
The Specialty Coffee Development Strategy
Peru, it can be argued, is not quite as emerging as the other three. Peru has been recognized for many years for its sweet, smooth coffees, expedient favorites for inexpensive roles as fillers in blends and as the self-effacing brown stuff the flavorings get mixed into, Miss Pina Colada's boring coffee chaperone at it were.
But Peru, like several other countries in Latin America and Africa, is the focus of what could be called the specialty coffee strategy for development. Agencies like the United States Agency for International Development Agency (USAID), the World Bank, and many other organizations have mounted efforts to use the higher prices paid for specialty coffees to help lift farmers in chronically troubled regions out of poverty (and, in some cases, replace growing raw materials for drug dealers with growing coffee).
What I am calling the specialty coffee strategy for development involves first identifying regions that potentially produce distinctive coffees, then working with growers to improve the quality of these coffees, and finally facilitating the entry of these coffees into the North American, European, and Japanese specialty markets. Thus the ideal scenario would see small-holding farmers who previously raised some coffee along with their vegetables and chickens and sold it for a pittance to opportunist middlemen becoming organized into cooperatives around well-designed, state-of-the-art coffee mills and producing elite coffees that command specialty prices on the wholesale market.
Long History, Renewed Push
Of course such a development strategy has been going on for many years. The prototypes for the current efforts were pioneered by visionaries like David Griswold, now heading the specialty importer Sustainable Harvest, Paul Katzeff of Thanksgiving Coffee, and Gary Talboy, now working as an independent consultant. The early strategy was to certify cooperative coffees as organic, typically an easy task given that these peasant farmers seldom had enough money to buy chemicals to start with. As the organic niche filled with competitors and premiums for organic coffees narrowed, the development of the bird-friendly or shade-grown coffee niche offered another opportunity for such development, followed now by Fair Trade certification. Many development coffees now carry "triple certification,' meaning they are certified organically grown, certified to have been grown in mixed species shade attractive to birds and wildlife ("bird-friendly"), and certified Fair Trade, meaning that they fit certain social and environmental criteria that qualify them to be sold at fixed, higher-than-market prices.
Today, however, several countries in Central America, South America and Africa are benefiting from well-funded efforts to extend and deepen the process of converting of small-holder coffees to specialty coffees. Peru, Bolivia, and Rwanda in particular are currently benefiting from this effort. In addition, Bolivia and Peru recently formed their own specialty coffee grower associations that are mounting their own, often self-funded, efforts to improve and promote their members' coffees, and recently Rwanda participated in East Africa's first coffee trade show and conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
Now the Coffees
How successful have these programs been in actually producing coffees that, from a purely sensory point of view, deserve specialty status?
Colleagues of mine who have visited these countries, often as part of the development effort, come back with glowing reports of the coffees they found there. They write to me, convinced that these origins deserve to move up, perhaps not yet to the specialty A list, but close, and definitely out of the shadows of specialty coffee obscurity.
Getting the Good Ones Here
The problem is getting these often splendid coffees into the United States and into the cups of American coffee lovers.
Take Rwanda, for example. Three specialty buyers who recently visited Rwanda as part of the coffee development effort contacted me afterwards with glowing reports of the high-grown, floral and fruit rich coffees that were coming out of the newly established regional wet mills or "washing stations" as these mills are called in East Africa.
However, by the time the current cupping came round none of these coffees had yet reached the United States in sufficient quantities to actually get roasted and offered to the public.
The only Rwandas I was able to cup for this review were two "pre-production" samples that Rob Jeffries of Ancora Coffee Roasters hopes to offer to his customers starting in a month or two. They are very promising coffees, impressive examples of the sweetly acidy, floral- and fruit-laced style of the finest East Africa origins.
Phil Anacker of Flying Goat Coffee was able to back up his new-found enthusiasm for Bolivia coffees (he was a judge at a recent Bolivian coffee competition) with an excellent production roast Bolivia sample, for sale retail and reviewed here. However, Bolivias from other roasters were difficult to come by, and those I did cup did not quite live up to the quality of the Flying Goat production.
Perus We Have, and Some Good Ones
That leaves Peru. Lots of Perus come into the United States, but few are offered as distinctive single origins. The problem here may be simply lack of recognition among consumers (coffee is way back on the association train of most American consumers' perception of Peru). However, within the specialty coffee industry the impediment may be that the typical sensory profile of a fine Peru coffee - sweet, with balanced acidity and clean, often delicate fruit tones, round and gentle but quietly powerful - does not fit the average American specialty coffee wholesale buyer's concept of a proper single-origin coffee, which runs to the intensely and resoundingly acidy style of some the finest Central American and East African origins.
At any rate, I was able to source some very agreeable Peru coffees coming out of American roasting companies, most with the kind of sweet, ingratiating profile that many American coffee drinkers love. If you are one of them, go for it and leave the blazing acidity to the experts.