Date: December 1997

Column/Title: Holiday Coffees '97

Author: Ken Davids


Inevitably, here we go with an assortment of holiday coffees. Coffees, not blends, because some roasters now approach the holidays with the idea that their special seasonal offering doesn't need to be a unique blend, but perhaps a single-origin, unblended coffee that is offered only once during the year. Thus the cupping includes a Mexico Maragogipe from Gevalia and a special, premium Kenya from Allegro Coffees.

Most of the holiday coffees in the cupping are blends, however. Assigning names to any blend, much less a seasonal blend, is always a challenge. Some roasters take the classic route: Holiday Blend, Christmas Blend. Others work sly variations: Minneapolis's Caribou Coffee offers a Reindeer Blend. Others take advantage of an exotic location or otherwise go international: Thus we have Royal Vinter Kaffe (Gevalia, Sweden); Hawaiian Christmas Roast (Lion Coffee, Honolulu); and Celebration Caffe (Allegro, Boulder; I assume the Italian refers to a slightly darker roast style).

Perhaps least obvious but most appropriate is Alaska-based Heritage Coffee's Patshatl Blend. Patshatl, I learned, is a Northwest Coast, Native-American word for gift. Given the famous potlach ceremonies of Northwest-Coast Native Americans, in which the goal apparently is to accumulate prestige by staging enormous orgies of gift-giving, this seems an appropriate name for a holiday coffee in contemporary America.

Holiday coffees as cupping category is obviously defined by the consuming end of the coffee axis rather than the growing. What is a holiday coffee, besides something that presumably can only be gotten during the holidays? Holiday beers are usually heavy and hearty, which would argue for holiday coffees with more body and resonance than usual, perhaps darker roasted than the local norm.

It would appear that most roasters represented in the cupping approached the holiday challenge precisely in this way. The Holiday Blend from Jeremiah's Pick, a small San Francisco roaster, combined Sulawesi and aged Sumatra, two coffees famous for body and depth. The Caribou blend also contained aged Sumatra. Gevalia offered a blend with a complexly exotic, wild-toned profile that justifiably could be called hearty. The Allegro Coffee newsletter speaks about aiming for a "winter weight" in its seasonal Celebration Caffe. And all of the coffees at the darker end of the roast spectrum were successful efforts to generate the sort of enveloping, pungent-yet-sweet profiles associated with afterdinner coffees and (by extension) long winter evenings.

I found no flat-out losers among any of the participating coffees. None of the darker roasts were burned: All were more full than thin, more pungent than carbony. All of the blends achieved varying degrees of the complexity and balance that presumably are the goals of blending in the first place. The two single-origin coffees were predictably less complex than most blends in the cupping. The Mexico Maragogipe from Gevalia was a coffee that precisely fulfilled expectations of a Mexico (light, rather brisk, vanilla-nut notes). Allegro's Kenya was more complex than the Mexico, as befits an origin known for its complexity, but was lighter and brighter than the heady expectation of Kenya that I carry around in my cupping baggage. But perhaps its special holiday status is justified exactly by that bright uniqueness.