Date: June 2000

Column/Title: Central America Coffees

Author: Ken Davids


Again and again while writing the reviews of this splendid assortment of Central America coffees I found myself attempting to characterize the classic American cup, the cup that American supermarket blends aspire to, but never come close to fulfilling.

It is a dry, bright, acidy cup, yet sweet and round, transparently free of earth or ferment, yet alive with high-toned, subtle nuance: nut and vanilla in the aroma, fruit and flowers in the cup, chocolate in the finish.

It is a cup that shows best when drunk black or only lightly qualified with milk or sugar, so that the balance of dry notes and natural sweetness can be fully relished. It is best brewed through paper, so that the clarity and lucidity of the cup can be enjoyed without the silty weight of French-press brewing.

It is the Central America cup at its purest: high grown and dense-beaned, impeccably wet-processed, absolutely free of defect, roasted medium to medium-dark. It is a cup that has, in part, gone out of fashion, having been replaced by thin-bodied, scorched "French roasts," ambiguous Sumatras, or -- at best -- perfumy Ethiopias or full-throated, winey Kenyas.

Those who want to experience the promise of the classic American cup fulfilled could not do much better than the best of these ten Central America coffees. Only the Raven's Brew El Salvador and the Thanksgiving Nicaragua Maragogipe drift off the mark a bit, though both are pleasant enough coffees in their own right.

The other eight coffees are all impressive variations on the theme of the American breakfast cup. The Premier Roasters Guatemala Antigua is light-bodied and high-toned, a sort of apotheosis of a diner coffee. Others are fuller bodied, more complete, better balanced between sweetness and brightness. Some are a bit darker roasted than others. They build in a crescendo of distinction culminating in the extraordinary Dawson Taylor Guatemala La Tacita. Colleagues often tease me about my use of terms like buoyancy, but taste this coffee and believe: This is buoyancy. This is a coffee that has everything the other coffees in the cupping have, but it lifts, wiggles and soars. Nothing stands pat; everything dances.

Predictably, the most impressive samples came from Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama, the three premier origins by country in the region. Although this sampling is far too small to prompt generalization, nothing here contradicted the usual expectations. Highland Guatemala (at best, as represented here): bright, floral, complex, ranging from light to medium in body. Central Costa Rica: straightforward, acidy, clear but resonant. Western Panama: straightforward, acidy, resonant, though a bit more complex than Costa Ricas.

Only the El Salvador from Sunrise Coffee seemed an anomaly. Rather than the soft, gentle, round profile typical of El Salvadors, this El Borbollon was as big, bold and acidy sweet as any coffee in the cupping. The difference between this coffee and the coffee of the same name from Raven's Brew may reflect a difference between separate lots of green coffee, but above all it suggests a difference in approach to roast. The Raven's Brew sample was roasted relatively dark and probably quite quickly; the Sunrise roasted slower and with more tact.

But aside from a couple of examples of aggressive roasting, these coffees were all American classics: flawless, clear, complete, as subtle yet direct as a Shaker chair.