Date: January 2003

Column/Title: Readers' Choices Round Two

Author: Kenneth Davids


Reviewed here are a dozen more coffees nominated by Coffee Review readers. As was true of the ten readers' nominations I reported on last month, the relatively high ratings for this group of coffees seem to support the notion that Coffee Review readers either have excellent taste in coffee, or, if you take a more cynical relativist position, tend to share my taste in coffee.

The fifty or so nominated coffees I sampled for these two articles were almost universally impressive, with only four generating ratings below 80. Here are twelve that broke 85. Some came from very small roasters, some from very large. About half are blends intended mainly for espresso brewing.

For me, two themes ran through the cupping.

First, the quality and character of the espresso blends. Surprisingly, not one of the nominated espresso blends exhibited the sharp, bitter character that until recently was typical of American espressos. It would seem that American roasters are learning to achieve sweetness and milk-mastering power in espresso blends by using naturally sweet, full-bodied coffees rather than roasting hell out of high-grown acidy coffees.

On the other hand, the European tendency to blend for espresso using bland but crema- fattening robusta coffees has, apparently and fortunately, not yet caught on with American roasters. It would seem that even Italian roasters honor the American specialty taboo against blending with robustas: The Italian roasting giant Lavazza, most of whose European blends are laced with robustas, uses none in the impressive Qualita Oro canned espresso blend offered in American supermarkets and reviewed here.

A note on procedure in espresso evaluation: We evaluate espresso as espresso, prepared using a well-tuned commercial machine following parameters adopted by the Specialty Coffee of America: 1 _ ounces by volume per shot including crema, 17 - 21 seconds per shot from the first appearance of coffee from the portafilter.

Also note the difference in review format between our conventional cupping reviews and espresso reviews. Espresso reviews do not rate acidity (a largely negative characteristic in coffees intended for espresso brewing), replacing it with an "In Milk" category, which reports on the general impact of hot milk on the brewed espresso coffee: Does the coffee survive the impact of milk? If so, does it survive with some character and distinction? A brief report on performance in milk can be found in the "Blind assessment" paragraph, where "small milk" means coffee performance when a serving of espresso is mixed with an equal amount of hot (not frothed) milk and "large milk" means performance when mixed with two parts hot milk.

A second thread that, for me, ran through this review was surprise at the unexpected sources for some of the outstanding light- to medium-roasted coffees that readers turned up.

First, the Jamaica Blue Mountain from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. That Green Mountain should produce an exceptional medium-roasted coffee is, of course, no surprise. Green Mountain is one of the country's finest and certainly one of its most versatile coffee roasting companies. But the quality and character of the Jamaica Blue Mountain was a surprise for me. Most Blue Mountains I have cupped over the last ten years or so have been listless and ordinary, often shadowed by a slight mustiness that I assume develops while the beans, with fruit removed but still wet, are trucked down from the mills in the mountains to the drying facilities in Kingston.

However, this Blue Mountain exhibited almost every characteristic of the great Blue Mountains of years past: tremendous, ringingly deep dimension, perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and absolutely cleanly expressed fruit, a kind of essence of coffee fruit. I admit that I did register a couple of missing elements: The body was excellent, but not quite as big and bouillon-like as the Platonic Blue Mountains of memory, plus a slight, slight astringency may have imbalanced the finish. But these are quibbles, occasioned more by my lust for Blue Mountain perfection than by any failing of pleasure generated by that particular cup at that particular moment in time.

Reader Ben Anderson deserves our thanks, not only for calling this coffee to our attention, but also for so precisely identifying its distinguishing strengths in his nomination.

Other surprises were the appearance of exceptional light-to-medium-roasted blends from unexpected quarters. Graffeo, a small second-generation Italian roaster identified with San Francisco and particularly known for its dark roast, produced an impressive, uncompromisingly medium-roasted blend simply called Graffeo Light. Mozart's Coffee Roasters of Austin Texas showed a fine, sweet, light-roasted blend. And the excellent medium-roasted Millstone Colombia Supremo is available in supermarkets all over the country.

Thanks to all who nominated coffees. I pay close attention to all nominations, and will do my best to work more of them into upcoming reviews, giving perceptive readers credit as I do so. If your nomination did not appear in this or the previous set of reviews, it may yet pop up over the coming year in another article.