Date: December 1998

Column/Title: Holiday Gift Coffees

Author: Ken Davids

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Holiday coffees pose a challenge to both buyer and seller. Coffee is one of the great habitual, everyday luxuries. Holiday gifts, on the other hand, are supposed to be exceptional, not habitual, and not everyday. That conflict leaves roasters scrambling to find plausible ways to cash in on the holiday buying debauch with coffees that appear unique to the season, while consumers try to figure out what constitutes a coffee exceptional enough to make an impression on some coffee-obsessed cousin.

Roasters generally respond in two ways: First with a special blend or two, usually dark-roasted, full-bodied, and intended to project a holiday heartiness; secondly by roasting up coffees with famous names and high prices: most typically, Hawaii Kona or Jamaica Blue Mountain. Many roasters carry Kona and Blue Mountain only in the weeks leading up to the holidays. Kenya may be the world's most consistently good coffee, Costa Rica La Minita may be the most celebrated among coffee insiders, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe the world's most distinctive origin, but you can't beat a coffee like Kona for name recognition, not to mention price recognition. People know you've dropped a few bucks when you hand over a pound of Kona, and it's important to remember that, among some of our fellow Americans, a present is not a present unless it costs too much. Plus Kona doubtless reminds present-openers that there is another place where, in another, less encumbered life, they might be spending Christmas sniffing warm salt winds rather than contemplating snow shovels.

Hence the odd combining in this cupping of self-defined holiday blends with three Hawaii coffees, a Kona and two lower-priced but still premium "non-Kona" Hawaiis from the island of Kauai.

First the seven holiday blends. They were worthy, they were dark-roasted, they were hearty and wintery, but they were, to my palate, a bit too predictable and repetitive. Either the darkish roast styles took too much out of the coffees, or in an effort to achieve a full-bodied, comfortable, sit-by-the-fire character, roasters chose to blend excessively comfortable coffees; i.e. coffees without much acidity, nuance, or excitement. Certainly if I had solicited seven breakfast blends or seven house blends I would have turned up coffees with more variety, and, probably, more intrigue. I was particularly disappointed that some of these coffees lacked sweetness to complement the bitter side of their dark-roast pungency.

On the other hand, it was reassuring that the highest-priced coffee in the cupping, the Kona from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, was exceptional, not so much for its Kona-ness, but for its sheer classic presence.

Whether this Kona is "worth" the extra bucks it costs per pound is impossible for me to judge. So far as I'm concerned (and I know I've made myself tiresome on this point) coffee is one of the most underpriced luxuries in the world. It's not so much that Hawaii Konas are overpriced, it's that the rest of the fine coffees of the world are grotesquely underpriced.

But, turning to the bargain side of the big-name coin, what about the two less-expensive coffees that attempt to ride the coat-tails of the Kona into the pocketbooks of Hawaii-name-dropping holiday coffee gift buyers?

Not bad. In fact, far better than coffees grown on a vast plantation at around 300 to 900 feet elevation should be. The Kauai coffees will never be great coffees because they will never display the acidity of higher grown origins, but the peaberry in particular made a very nice moderate dark roast; in fact, to my palate it modestly outcupped all but one of the darker-roast holiday blends in the cupping.

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