Date: February 2013

Column/Title: Three Trends at the Cusp of the New Year

Author: Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids with Jason Sarley

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As the New Year settles in I thought it might be worthwhile revisiting some interesting coffees recently reviewed outside the framework of our monthly review articles. All but one were reviewed in either December 2012 or January 2013, and all reflect in one way or another ongoing trends at the top end of the specialty coffee business.

Or more than endures; continues producing striking coffees despite what seems like continuous negative news. Kenya producers complain bitterly about prices; production for Kenya as a whole keeps plunging; every year more valuable coffee land is lost to urban encroachment. In response well-meaning coffee authorities introduce a new hybrid variety and fiddle with market arrangements, undermining (with best intentions) what appear to be the very foundational reasons for Kenya’s reputation for fine coffee: superb, well-naturalized coffee varieties (SL 28 and SL 34), rigorous quality practices at cooperatives, and a disciplined and transparent green coffee auction system.

But our little sampling in December and January suggests that knowledgeable green buyers continue to sniff out the kinds of coffees that made Kenya’s reputation. The Kenyas we cupped recently were not only fine, but fine in different, though subtly related, ways. The 94-point Victrola Kenya Mukurweini Kamuchuni displayed the notes for which Kenyas are most famous: pungent, sweetly dry black currant and blackberry with rounding floral suggestions, all matrixed in a complete and balanced structure. The Beansmith Kenya Igutha (92) showed the more lyrical, flowers-and-honey side of Kenya and the Klatch Kenya Kagumoini Mugaga (92) the tarter, brisker side with a very wide range of floral notes from bitterish lavender to lush honeysuckle.

Animal Dung Coffee Selling coffees that have been processed through the intestines of animals is not really an industry trend; rather it is a marketing-driven media obsession that continues to soar to ever greater heights of hype and self-parodying absurdity. Meanwhile, a handful of sincere coffee producers attempting to capitalize on this coffee novelty in honorable ways are backgrounded by bloggers who assume that the products that cost the most necessarily must taste the best (where is Marx when we need him). The current marketing competition focuses on who can claim that the coffee defecated by their particular animals is the world’s rarest coffee and therefore deserving of the coveted title of the World’s Most Expensive. Recently we had Thai elephant dung coffee leading the pack at $50 per cup courtesy of the Anantara hotel in Thailand, but now a coffee processed through the digestive tracts of a species of Peruvian Coati has broken all records for price and chutzpah, courtesy of Harrods, that favorite shopping realm of oil-rich sheiks and apparently brain-dead snobs.

The entire production of Harrods’ new Terra Nera coffee is purportedly collected from the scat of only two Peruvian Coatis. The fact that there may be other coffee-eating Coatis available nearby, around sixty of which are at this very moment busy defecating coffee on behalf of the respected Peruvian coffee cooperative Cecovasa, is not relevant. Look fella, these are Harrods- brand Coatis. Two of them. The highest grade of Terra Nera Coati-processed coffee, grade 0, is sold in 24-carat gold-plated sacks “individually engraved and hand-crafted with the customer’s name” at a cost of $11,000 each. That includes the coffee. Yup. No indication of how much coffee exactly is contained in these little sacks, but they are recyclable.

Those knowledgeable in coffee will recall that the animal-dung coffee lunacy started with a traditional product, coffee gathered from the feces of a species of luwak or civet cat that frequented coffee groves in northern Sumatra, and which for many years was quietly sold to Asian aficionados of rare and exotic foods. I roasted and consumed my first purported kopi luwak or luwak coffee about twenty, maybe twenty-five years ago. Then the idea escaped from local tradition as ideas tend to do when they are worth money, and one feature film and countless can-you-believe-it journalistic accounts later we have endured Jaco bird poop coffee from Brazil, monkey spit coffee from Taiwan, the aforementioned elephant dung coffee from Thailand, Coati coffee from Peru, and a proliferation of new civet-cat coffees from Thailand, the Philippines and Viet Nam.

Meanwhile, some producers, actual coffee professionals rather than marketeers, have applied quality standards to the original kopi luwak concept, producing coffees that are genuinely interesting in cup profile, if still disproportionally high in price. An animal rights issue has surfaced as well, since some producers apparently have quite logically started feeding coffee fruit to caged luwaks rather than allowing them to forage for ripe fruit among the coffee trees in traditional luwak fashion. The Doi Chaang wild luwak coffee we reviewed at 91 in back in November 2010 (Doi Chaang Wild Civet Passed Coffee) was both distinctive in the cup and, I am quite certain, respectful of its local population of wild luwaks. Closer to the present, the Faustino Philippine Alamid Coffee (Kopi Luwak) we reviewed just this last December at 93 points is probably the best of the new luwak coffees I have cupped and distinctive in ways that I suspect are not obtainable through non-luwak means, given its unusual juxtaposition of bright, sweet floral notes with a whole range of musky, mushroomy, foresty suggestions. However, I have no idea whether the participating Philippine luwaks were free to clamber among the coffee trees or were stuck in cages out back, not to mention whether anyone is really up to forking out $55 per 3.5 ounces even for an authentic and interesting kopi luwak. However, Harrods shoppers on a budget may wish to take note.

Was it only ten or fifteen years ago that everyone claimed that espresso brewing so exaggerates the sensory characteristics of a single green coffee that only a blend of coffees can assure a complete and balanced espresso? Given the success of so many single-origin espressos since those days it amazes me that the coffee industry clung to that generalization so long. On the other hand, it is true that we regularly test fine blended espressos at Coffee Review, blends that achieve effects that I suspect can only be achieved through crafty and knowledgeable green coffee juxtapositions that stretch the sensory envelope in subtle ways. And it is also true that no North American coffee company that I know of has produced anything approaching the deep, chocolaty style of the some of the finest espresso blends from Europe, where coffee blenders are not brain-washed from birth to avoid Robustas and feel free to use them to contribute weight and resonance to espresso blends.

Nevertheless, the range, variety and success of new single-origin espressos continue to impress. Over the last two months one of the most impressive single-origin espressos to come our way is a Brazil, perhaps predictably so, given Brazil’s reputation as a source of naturally low-acid coffees particularly appropriate for espresso brewing. The 93-rated Paradise Roasters Pocos de Caldas S.O. Espresso, brought to a medium roast, displayed a harmonious juxtaposition of flavor characteristics we associate with brighter coffees – honey, flowers – with deeper, more pungent notes we typically associate with espresso: dark chocolate, low-acid fruit, cedar. On the other hand, the Johnson Brothers Mihuti Kenya Espresso (93) espresso-izes a coffee origin that is most definitely not known for its naturally low acidity, rather for its exhilarating brightness. But a tactful moderate dark roast appears to help tame the acidity in this particular Kenya, turning the characteristic Kenya tart berry notes into a crisp pineapple that sits nicely inside a chocolaty sweetness. The mouthfeel is rather light but just syrupy enough, and the flavor retains its character with impressive resilience and complexity in short milk and cappuccino. Another Kenya espresso, Taiwanese Simon Hsieh’s Roar of Kenya (93) situates at the dark end of a classic medium roast, giving us complex floral notes and honey, pleasures of a high-grown medium-roasted Kenya, but without acidy sharpness and nicely deepened by an orangy dark chocolate.

The precision and attention that contemporary roasters bring to roasting single-origin espressos is made explicit in the Bluekoff Single Origin Thai Espresso Blend (93), a coffee both produced and roasted in Thailand. Two very similar but different roast levels were applied to the same grade of Thai green coffee, presumably helping account for the sample’s layered, ripely fruit-toned depth. As most roasters know, combining two roast levels is a risky business if not performed with restraint and tact. If the roast levels of the blend components are too extreme and contrasty they typically cancel one another out and hopelessly blur the character of the coffee. With the Bluekoff espresso, however, the two components are close enough in degree of roast to encourage a complementary resonance rather than a self-canceling or confusing dissonance.

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