Date: December 2008

Column/Title: Holiday Gift Coffees 2008: The Rare, the Exceptional, the Weird

Author: Kenneth Davids

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Just to be clear, this is not a "10 best coffees of the year" article (or 50 best, or 150, or whatever number of bests an editor intends to dazzle us with). We've reported on many superb coffees over the past year, but by now most of them are a memory. We concentrated on coffees that can be bought now and enjoyed close to their peak in flavor and freshness.

Our goal was to turn up coffees that might make good gifts or special holiday indulgences for coffee enthusiasts. We cupped about 60 samples. Most were impressive and many rated 90 or higher. We made our final review selection not simply on the basis of high rating, but also with the aim of pointing our readers at a wide range of gift- and splurge-worthy coffee types and possibilities.

We looked for Kenyas, for example, because the best Kenyas are always remarkable, often astoundingly so. We added four interesting holiday blends. We looked at Konas and sister Hawaiian coffees because some coffee buyers like to splurge for the holidays on a fetish substitute for a tropical getaway. We added a couple of distinguished Central American high grown coffees for classicists, and two of the new favorites of the younger coffee set, exotic dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopias. And on behalf of coffee adventurers and knowledge seekers, we took on a rather alarmingly unconventional blend incorporating the virtually forgotten coffee species Liberica.

The Terroir Kenya Ndiara (96) supported a complexly crisp Kenya fruit with an unusually expansive sweetness, as did the slightly more pungent Kenya Ndaroini (95) from Counter Culture Coffee. Both are extraordinary coffees and excellent values.

Finding a really outstanding Kona proved to be a challenge, partly because the timing is awkward - a little too early for the new Kona crop to be properly rested, and a little too late for the old crop, which has been sitting around for a year. Plus many Kona artisan growers, as passionate and committed as they are, still tend to miss a quality detail or two along the path from tree to roasted product.

But we turned up one Kona that was astonishing, and another very good one. Both are from Hula Daddy, a long-time Kona producer in the relatively deep-soiled North Kona Holualoa district up the mountain from the resort town of Kailua-Kona. The Hula Daddy Sweet Kona Light Roast (97) is a dried-in-the-fruit or "natural" coffee. Over the past few years growers all over the world have been gingerly experimenting with this ancient process. It is a simple idea - put the coffee fruit in the sun until it dries - but tricky in execution, given how easily the fruit ferments and attracts molds during drying, often shadowing the typically lush fruit notes with a slight but distracting undertone of sharp astringency.

The Hula Daddy Sweet Kona Light Roast is, however, the purest dried-in-the-fruit coffee I have ever cupped. Extraordinarily complex, lush yet pure, cleanly and delicately wine-like, it seems to display all of the complexly fruit-promoting virtues of dry processing without a hint of the nagging, astringent downside. Undoubtedly the success of this coffee is owing to Miguel Meza, one of specialty coffee's younger visionaries who recently moved to Hawaii after making his reputation at Minnesota's Paradise Roasters. Miguel personally supervised the drying of this batch of around 500 pounds.

For those interested in a more conventional Kona, Hula Daddy sent a second selection processed by the usual Kona wet or washed method. The Hula Daddy 100% Kona Private Reserve (90) is a bright, delicate, honeyish whisper of a coffee. The flowers were just a touch grassy when we cupped this very fresh crop, but by the time it reaches your home the cup should have rounded nicely.

The holiday blends turned out to be surprisingly distinctive. None were perfunctory and all showed tact and imagination on the part of the blenders. Most appeared to pursue a familiar holiday goal: big body, hearty presence and a touch of deep, autumnal sensory referencing. The darkest roasted and heartiest was the Holiday Blend from Peet's Coffee (91), the company that originated ultra-dark roasting and remains among the subtlest of those that pursue this difficult style. Like many of Peet's blends, it also showed a backgrounded but distinct Indonesia allusion to earth and pungent fruit. The Counter Culture holiday blend, the Dolok Sanggul Vienna Melange (91), leaned entirely on Indonesia earth and fruit for its holiday play. It is a single-origin Sumatra Lintong brought to a mix of slightly different roast levels. The Monk's Christmas Blend 2008 (90) from Mystic Monk Coffee is a good story (roasted in a Carmelite monastery in Wyoming) as well as an impressive blend, a complex and slyly layered mix of eight coffees. For those who can dispense with the earth but still want body and an autumnal resonance, the Fair Trade Holiday Blend from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (90) offers depth, sweetness and an easy, comfortable profile. Other holiday blends not reviewed here also were interesting and thoughtful in design: a "Peace on Earth" Holiday blend from Just Coffee at 89, a fir, fig and dark-chocolate-toned Gloria Jean's at 88, and a roasty Thanksgiving Coffee single-origin Nicaragua, Fair Trade and Organic certified, at 88.

Several roasters sent "natural" or dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopias. We cupped six, rated all 90 to 91, but found them rather different in their expression of the berry, flower, wine and chocolate potential of the type. Ultimately, we chose to review two, the expansively fruity and floral Novo Coffee Aricha Selection 11 Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (91) and the brighter, more citrusy Coffee Klatch Ethiopia Beloya Nine (91). For those nostalgic for the more transparently floral style of traditional wet-processed Ethiopias from Yirgacheffe, the Caffe Pronto Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Wondo Worka (92) is a fine exemplar of the type, pure and lightly but tactfully roasted.

The Central American submissions disappointed slightly; none dazzled though several shone. As was the case with the Konas, the timing of this review, coming at the cusp between the old and the new crop years, may have been difficult. The Cafe P11 100% Guatemalan Highland Arabica Coffee (92) was the highest rated and also the most unusual in conception, a blend of high-grown Guatemala coffees roasted (very sensitively) in Guatemala and packaged whole-bean in small, darkly elegant 180-gram reusable cans. Readers who still have some disposable income to lavish on high-end party favors and grab-bag gifts may find these expensive but attractive little tins interesting, particularly given their the-more-you-buy-the-less-they-cost pricing. Those in pursuit of bright, summery lift rather than autumnal depth may enjoy the refined Cafe Pronto Guatemala El Socorro Y Anexos Cup of Excellence (90), a very light-roasted, tartly sweet breakfast cup.

The Archer Farms Guatemala San Guayaba Cup of Excellence only rated 87, but we reviewed it because it marks an interesting new development for the coffee market: A distinguished Cup of Excellence coffee handsomely gift-packaged in a metal canister and - the new part - sold at Target. Regrettably, the sample we cupped lived up neither to its coffee competition pedigree nor its elegant packaging, but still offered a respectable specialty cup at 87 and an attractive quickie toss-it-in-the-cart coffee gift possibility.

Finally, we felt obligated on behalf of the more fearless style of coffee adventurer to review Badbeard's Microroastery Naturally Nirvana (87), a rather bizarre blend combining coffee from trees of the historically (and perhaps justifiably) forgotten Liberica species with a more conventional coffee, an Arabica from Mexico, both dried-in-the-fruit. Purists and classicists should not buy this coffee, nor should someone buying gifts for purists and classicists. Nor, come to think of it, should ordinary coffee drinkers. But as for coffee obsessives and luwak-admiring and mescal-worm-eating experimentalists, you know who you are.

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