Date: May 2011

Column/Title: Single-Origin Espressos

Author: Kenneth Davids; reviews by Kenneth Davids and Sean Kohmescher

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The practice of roasting a coffee from a single farm or cooperative for espresso brewing is a tactic that appears to be carrying the day at the higher end of the North American specialty coffee world. The old argument against single-origin espressos and in favor of blends ran: Put a single, unblended coffee under the magnifying intensity of espresso brewing and the coffee is liable to come out sharp, shallow or imbalanced; one needs to combine several coffees to achieve balance and completeness in espresso. But the results of this month’s tasting appear to confirm that we can enjoy the variety, excitement and intrigue of single-farm espressos without violating the expectations that we associate with espresso: balance, body, richness.

Of course single-farm espressos always express differences in character, sometimes startling differences. But recognizing and enjoying these differences is part of the fun. When Sean Kohmescher of Temple Coffee hosted us at his shop and roastery in a sunnily unpretentious but (it turned out) rather sophisticated neighborhood in Sacramento, California, we sampled an impressive range of very distinctive and very different single-origin espressos, from the clean, bright (but not too bright), floral/lemony to the deep, dark-chocolaty and occasionally edgily fruity or musky.

The overall quality of our twenty-six samples was impressive, perhaps extraordinary. Our lowest score was 85, and the average rating was just under 90. None of the reviewed samples was taken to a roast degree darker than just preceding or just at the second crack (what used to be called “full city”). Many were presented at a medium to medium-light roast. Regardless of roast level, roasters presumably pursued roast protocols designed to round acidity and promote full mouthfeel.

What was a typical submission for this tasting? A washed coffee from Latin America or eastern/central Africa with relatively low acidity and pleasantly rounded citrus and floral notes. Successful samples of this style generally attracted ratings of 88 to 89. The eleven samples reviewed here at 90 to 94 in various ways pulled away from the pack, either because they were different enough to be intriguing, or complete enough to be exceptional, or both.

The highest-rated examples of a brighter, lemon-and-flowers style, like the Terroir Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (94) and Olympia Burundi Kiryama (93), stretched their profiles toward cocoa or chocolate while retaining higher-toned fruit and citrus notes. The Café Grumpy Colombia El Paraiso (91), one of the lightest roasted of the reviewed coffees, presented uncompromised lemon, honey and floral character in an espresso presentation that ultimately only rounded and softened in milk, though once there performed that transformation beautifully. Simon Hsieh’s rare 100% Taiwan coffee, also rather light-roasted, showed either mainly lemon and honey if you follow Sean’s reading, or added a little pungent dark chocolate and fir if you follow mine. The same difference surfaced in Sean’s and my reading of the lightish-roasted Intelligentsia Peru Cruz Del Sur (90). I was pretty much alone in registering some dark caramelly and chocolate complication to a dominantly citrus and floral expression.

At the deep and resonant end of the sensory spectrum the surprising Las Chicas Del Café Nicaragua (94) impressed with great complexity and depth: stone fruit, berry, nut, dark chocolate. Sean nicely identified the appeal of the Victrola Bolivia Caranavi (94): a sort of richly nut-toned and fudge-like chocolate sensation complicated by a little edge of low-acid fruit. Both of these samples were brought to a roast level just preceding or just at the second crack, a style that, as many readers know, tends to deepen fruit, turning it away from citrus and toward stone fruit and chocolate. The Dry-Processed and Edgy

Drying coffee in the fruit – dry-processing – often produces taints that at the right level of intensity and structure contribute to the pleasure some of us take in coffee. For example, dry-processing done right may encourage a sweet fruit ferment that reads as berries, particularly blueberries, or brandy and cherryish chocolate. But often – too often – the sweet ferment is complicated by a mustiness contributed by micro-organisms attracted by the sugars. These musty or mildew notes are usually not pleasant, though they can be if they are sufficiently supported by sweetness, which coaxes them to read as pungent fruit or pleasant earth notes like fresh-turned humus or moist, fresh-fallen leaves.

Of the coffees we reviewed, three showed clear dried-in-the-fruit or natural character. The Novo Coffee Ethiopia Anyetsu was the cleanest tasting of the three, with an enriching hint of fruit that at most very slightly flirted with ferment. Since it lacked controversy, Sean and I were able to come home together on this coffee at 91. We split on other two more problematic naturals, however. The Velton’s Mexico Nayarita (90), from a project in Mexico with a long and honorable history of dried-in-the-fruit coffees, attracted a 92 from Sean for its deep stone fruit and chocolate, whereas Ken, at 88, also found this character prominent and attractive but shadowed by a salty, perhaps musty edge. We reversed positions on the Muddy Dog Brazil Moreninha Formosa Raisin (92), a coffee apparently systematically allowed to dry, at least in part, on the trees rather than in controlled circumstances on drying patios or tables. Coffee fruit dried on the tree is particularly vulnerable to the molds that create a musty or mildewed character because it is not protected from moisture during drying as patio- or table-dried fruit is (or should be). Consequently the Moreninha Formosa Raisin showed a clear fruity/musty character. But for me (94) it was a rich, sweet-toned sensation that I had no trouble calling pungently earthy and grapefruity, in the best tradition of Sumatra coffees. Sean only partly bought into the pleasingly pungent reading, however; his somewhat half-hearted 90 reflects his reservations.

A last note on definitions. I think it is clear that, for starters, a single-origin coffee for the purposes of a review like this one needs to have been produced on a single farm or at a single wet mill. However, that definition allows for significant ambiguity, as cooperatives in particular can be huge; wet mills often process coffee cherry from a large variety of terroirs, and large farms frequently split their production by processing method, harvest timing, field, cultivar, etc. So ideally, perhaps, a single-origin coffee ought to be a coffee roasted from a single limited lot of green coffee from a single farm, wet mill or cooperative. Perhaps we should call them single-lot coffees rather than single-origin.

On the other hand, what are we to think about a coffee from the same farm that is a blend of two different processing methods? The remarkably successful 94-rated Las Chicas Del Café El Patron Espresso was exactly that: a blend of beans from the same farm (and the same tree variety, the heirloom Bourbon), but processed by two different methods, dried-in-the-fruit and washed. Surely this canny on-the-farm blending (not to mention the impact of the Bourbon) was a contributor to its excellence.

This example indicates how problematic absolute definitions can be of single-origin or even single-farm. All of the coffees reviewed here except one, the Simon Hsieh Taiwan, fit the broader definition of single-origin cited above: a coffee limited to a single crop from a single farm, cooperative or wet mill. Several of the reviewed coffees also appeared to fit the second, narrower definition, a single lot of coffee from a single farm, cooperative or wet mill, though some may have not. However, we decided not to get too picky, at least not this year. We also decided to accept Simon’s Taiwan coffee, despite the possibility that it is a blend of green coffees from different Taiwanese farms, because, after all, the entire coffee production of Taiwan is probably considerably smaller than the output of even an average-sized Latin American farm, not to mention one of the larger farms of Brazil. To keep this Taiwan coffee out of the mix at this point seemed like a disqualification based on a technicality. Simon, by the way, also submitted an excellent Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (92); we decided to review his Taiwan coffee rather than the Yirgacheffe because it brought a unique origin to the article.

Shots for this month’s reviews were pulled by Leslie Fraser, Coffee and Wholesale Trainer for Temple Coffee, a very fine boutique, two-location roaster/retailer founded, owned and managed by Sean Kohmescher in Sacramento, California. Leslie started pulling shots for Temple Coffee at its founding in 2005. Sean is Barista Guild Chapter Representative for California and Hawaii and a certified Specialty Coffee Association of America trainer. He is passionate about finding amazing coffees and a particular sucker for stone-fruity ones. His loves include his baby, his wife, his dog, his cat, coffee, and car-racing.

Finally, here it is again; please skip it if you’ve already read it: a defense of blind-tasting espressos using standardized preparation protocols. To synthesize a couple of quotes from earlier Coffee Review articles:

One would think that given the almost universal use of uniform blind tasting protocols and procedures to evaluate virtually every beverage and food now existing in the Western world we would not have to defend the use of those same protocols and procedures to evaluate espresso. Nevertheless, some espresso aficionados and some professionals question us every time we run another blind tasting of espressos.

Admittedly there are unusual issues at play in evaluating espressos. Coffee generally is a fragile beverage that is in a continual state of re-creation. In particular, there is an intimate interplay between the espresso coffee and the extraordinarily complex act of brewing it on expensive, sophisticated pieces of machinery. I certainly have no problem with people publishing reviews of espresso coffees in which they have made every possible adjustment within their technical capabilities to maximize the performance of the coffee being reviewed. This practice provides valuable insight for everyone.

On the other hand, there also is enormous value in gathering a lot of coffees in one room, subjecting them all to the same protocols and procedures (protocols and procedures that reflect a consensus of industry leaders), and with everything stripped away except the fact of the cup itself, with all triggers of expectations, loyalties and coffee ideologies hidden and out of sight, taste and report honestly on what one has tasted.

Very likely there were some espressos in this month’s tasting that might have attracted higher ratings had they been extracted at, for example, higher water temperatures or lower temperatures. Or using one of many brewing nuances available to skilled baristas like Leslie.

However, coffees that do well at standard brewing parameters using standard protocols carry at least some reassurance that they are versatile enough to perform well in home equipment with its typically very limited control of brewing variables. Which is, again, the main point here: We want our readers to be happy with their coffee.

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