Date: February 2008

Column/Title: Juan Valdez's Progeny: Micro-Lot and Other Fine Colombias

Author: Kenneth Davids

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This month's cupping of coffees from Colombia confirms that this giant among coffee producers has successfully turned at least a portion of its industry from supplier of immense quantities of good-but-not-great generic "100% Colombian" coffee to prized source of smaller (sometimes tiny) lots of subtly distinctive specialty coffees. Handsome symbol Juan Valdez and his photogenic mule are being joined by growing numbers of actual small-holding farmers with pickup trucks instead of mules, distinctive-tasting coffees and real names: Humberto Gonzales, Odair Achipiz, Jairo Guiterrez, Alvaro Quintero, Javier Ladino, to name five whose coffees appear in this month's reviews.

Not to knock Juan. He, of course, is the masterwork of the marketers who created the phenomenally successful advertising campaigns for 100% Colombian coffee, the dependable production of the National Federation of the Coffee Growers of Colombia, a vast, nation-wide association of mostly small-holding Colombian growers whose reliably good-quality coffee has for years given supermarket-can-buying Americans an alternative to the tasteless steam-neutralized robustas that dominate other cans.

But the thirteen Colombia coffees reviewed here (and a half-dozen more rated 90-plus but not reviewed) definitely transcend the reliably good. Rather, they are exceptional variations on classic purity and balance. All are wet-processed or "washed" coffees, with the fruit and pulp removed before the seeds or beans are dried, a procedure that performed correctly emphasizes transparent, bright cup character with aromatic notes that reflect the floral-tinged, sweetly tart cherry character of coffee fruit just after picking. Most come from trees of sturdy, straightforward tasting varieties of arabica: caturra, typica and the hybrid Colombia. Most are very high-grown coffees with dense beans, full mouthfeel and substantial acidity, but acidity rounded and nuanced by natural sweetness from ripe fruit harvested by farmers whose fruit selection approaches the obsessive.

These coffees display subtle and sometimes surprising variations on their classic theme. A suggestion of the dry "black currant" note that makes Kenya coffees so distinctive shows up in the PT's Reserva del Patron (93). The Coffee Klatch Humberto Gonzales micro-lot (93) is powerfully acidy but lushly sweet, grand but voluptuous; the El Portal micro-lot from Intelligentsia (also 93) is similar but a bit crisper and more pungent; the Willoughby's La Argentina (93) more direct and classically straightforward. Perhaps the most impressive of this group of sweetly acidy Colombias is the Paradise Roasters Jairo Guiterrez Micro-Lot (95), which adds a particularly rich mouthfeel and almost symphonic complexity to the classic theme.

Other Colombias reviewed here, like the Intelligentsia La Dorada (94), are more delicate, with a soft, backgrounded acidity and fruit notes that come across as crisply cocoaish rather than tartly berry- or cherry-like. The 95-rated Kickapoo Fondo Paez Colombia, the only organically grown coffee reviewed here, is extraordinary in its combination of balance, completeness, and delicate, cocoa-nuanced complexity.

Understandably, the highest rated of this month's Colombias are the tiny "micro" lots offered by roasting companies that specialize in offering seasonal lots of very small volume and distinctive cup character usually sourced directly from small-holding farmers: Intelligentsia (Chicago), Paradise Roasters (Minnesota), Coffee Klatch (southern California), Counter Culture (North Carolina), Stumptown (Portland, Oregon), PT's (Kansas), Willoughby's (Connecticut). Then there are Colombias that are a bit more generic and probably sourced (skillfully) through normal industry channels, like the Island Joe's Colombia Breakfast Blend (91) and the Batdorf & Bronson Estrella del Sur (90). The Leopard Forest Colombia Maragogipe (90) is unusual in two respects. It marks a diversifying of offerings by Leopard Forest, a vertically integrated company originally formed to import and roast coffee from a single large farm in Zimbabwe, and it consists of coffee from trees of the exotic Maragogipe cultivar of Arabica, a variety that produces huge beans that impress with their appearance but usually fail to impress in the cup owing to thin body and subdued flavor. In this case a tactful, very light roast level permits the delicacy of this unusual variety to show at its best.

In general, these coffees were brought to a light-medium to medium roast to best display their tartly sweet structure and complex aromatics. At darker roast levels most of their subtle differences probably would go up the roaster chimney. They still would impress as lovely, balanced coffees, but I doubt whether I would be able to register the distinctions among them that I did for this month's cupping. And one of the main reasons for bringing coffees to a moderately dark roast, which is muting acidity, rounding body and softening fruit toward chocolate, is largely unnecessary here, given the natural sweetness, fruit-softened acidity, and inherent cocoa or baker's chocolate lean of the fruit in the majority of these coffees.

The only exception to the medium-roast style among the coffees reviewed this month is the Island Joe's Breakfast Blend, which scatters a modest percentage of darker roasted beans among medium-roasted beans of the same excellent Colombia. Usually I don't find the mixing of dramatically darker roasted with medium-roasted beans of the same coffee an effective strategy, as it often results in a blurring of the character of the original coffee. Island Joe appears to have pulled this trick off, however, with the darker roasted beans deepening without dampening the impression of the cocoa and fruit.

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