Date: December 2002

Column/Title: Readers' Choices

Author: Kenneth Davids


What coffees do readers of Coffee Review actually drink, as oppose to read about? Are their tastes fairly similar to mine, or are they marching to some different coffee drummer?

This review and next month's suggest some answers to those questions. Over the last few months readers have nominated close to two hundred coffees for review. Sometimes the reader simply delivered the name of the coffee and a rating, sometimes a line or two of praise, occasionally a few delightful and informative paragraphs of confessional enthusiasm.

My co-worker Morgan and I began working through the nominations starting with the earliest and working toward the present, until we had turned up about thirty nominated coffees. It took about seventy or eighty nominations to get to thirty coffees -- in many cases we failed to find contact information for the nominated roasting company; in other instances the roaster chose not to respond to our invitation to send us coffees. Starbucks garnered the most nominations among the group we worked through -- about eight. Only one canned coffee was nominated, the MJB 100% Colombian reviewed here. Other nominations ranged from coffees from large specialty roasters like Timothy's World Coffee and Diedrich Coffee to interesting small roasters I never would have come across without the help of a reader. The thirty coffees that made it to the cupping table ranged from medium roasts through medium-dark roasts, dark roasts and espressos.

Based on the coffees that actually made it from email nomination to palate, readers are looking for about the same pleasures in a coffee that I am: complexity, nuance, balance, clean and agreeable finish. Most strikingly, if we delete two totally out-of-context oddities that turned up (more on that below), the average rating for these thirty reader-selected coffees was several points higher than the average rating for the coffees that usually turn up for my reviews.

In other words, readers -- coffee-savvy readers at any rate -- may be doing considerably better at identifying quality than some of the roasters themselves.

Here are reviews of ten drip coffees, ranging in roast style from very light to very dark. Next month another ten reviews will appear, including reviews of five excellent espresso coffees.

Whenever feasible, I introduced the reader's evaluation along with mine. Many of these email nomination speeches were quite short and to the point: "I like it!" In other instances, readers presented more complex evaluations, evaluations that I almost always basically agreed with, even though my language differed.

A word of caution, however: Readers tended to nominate extremes & either medium-roasted coffees or dark-roasted coffees. Only a few nominations filled the sweet middle part of the roast spectrum.

In particular, there are several old-fashioned, medium-roasted, brightly acidy coffees reviewed here. Coffee drinkers who enjoy a moderately dark-roasted, round and comfortable cup should buy them either cautiously or in a spirit of adventure. These are refreshing, brisk, challengingly dry coffees best drunk only lightly sweetened and with little to no dairy.

The exception is the Thanksgiving Maragogipe, which turned out to be one of those exceptional coffees that displays absolutely none of the astringency that reads as slightly sour in medium roasts and bitter in darker, and should be agreeable drunk in almost in any fashion.

Which finally gets us to two blends that were extraordinary in another way -- they were, by international specialty coffee standards, the most alarmingly bad coffees I have ever cupped that have actually been offered for sale to the public. Neither is reviewed here, but their sheer shocking badness would seem to make it important to bring them up, lest some other well- meaning entrepreneur decides to start importing similar roasted blends from abroad. Both blends, a medium and a dark, were formulated and roasted in Europe and imported to the United States as specialty coffees.

I was quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article declaring that really badly handled coffees have two main off tastes: "compost" and "old shoes in the back of the closet." In other words, intense ferment and intense mold and mildew tones. Both off-tastes develop because the coffee fruit has been strip-picked and dried in half-rotting piles.

These imported European blends displayed both faults in extreme -- compost-ferment as well as old-shoes-mustiness -- and not much else. They appeared to consist not only of mass- processed coffees, but mass-processed coffees of the tasteless (at best) robusta species. Even given the fact that fermented and mildewed coffees have something of a following in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East (these coffees hailed from neither region), I find it hard to believe that anyone anywhere would find these coffees pleasant to drink. But I invite contradiction from either the roaster or the importer.

With that out of the way, I invite readers to enjoy the fruits of their colleagues' coffee-hunting generosity.