Date: July 2004

Column/Title: Daddy's Socks or Fancy Cheese: Monsooned Coffees and the Perils of Evaluation

Author: Kenneth Davids

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Some foods and beverages that are greatly valued by culture do not respond to the simpler expectations of gustatory pleasure. They offer quirky, ambiguous sensory experiences that typically appeal to those in the middle to late years of life. I still recall the moment, sometime in my early twenties, when I suddenly realized I enjoyed eating major quantities of a particularly fragrant soft-ripened cheese, which until then I had vaguely associated with the smell of my father's unlaundered socks.

In fact, the appeal of some of these unorthodox flavor complexes - blue and soft-ripened cheeses and the aromas of cigar wrappers and freshly dark-roasted coffees come to mind - probably attract partly because they hover close to taboo - they suggest refined versions of body or sexual odors or things fished out of the garbage.

For me, monsooned coffees are one of those ambiguous pleasures. Monsooned coffees are, in the words of an American coffee professional with whom I recently cupped, "deliberately taste defective." They are coffees that have been primitively dried with the fruit on the bean, which makes them mildly fruity to mildly fermented. After the dried fruit husks have been removed the beans are deliberately exposed to monsoon winds for several months, which mutes and rounds acidity while adding considerable body to the cup. Monsooning also typically contributes unpredictable mildewed tones that can range from intriguingly spicy, to sweetly earthy, to bottom-of-the-closet musty.

Although I have cupped monsooned coffees that approach conventionally attractive - balanced, cleanly fruity and sweetly spicy - most that appear in North America fall into the mildly to wildly fermented and distinctly musty category. Certainly most of those reviewed in the companion article to this one, the July 2004 article Mysores and Monsooned Malabars: Coffees of India fall into the more challenging category.

However, some coffee drinkers can't get enough of these extreme-tasting coffees, just as others can't get enough of ambiguous aged Sumatras or humus-and-pond-flavored Sulawesis.

The problem for a reviewer is how to rate such coffees. Other unorthodox-tasting, taboo-flirting foods and beverages - blue cheeses, Islay Scotch whiskies - have their own well-developed criteria for evaluation that have evolved over several generations.

No one, for example, expects a blue cheese to taste like Monterey Jack, nor do they ask a peaty, smoky Islay Scotch to taste like a suave blended whisky. First you place the cheese or the whisky into a well-recognized category of cheeses or whiskies, and then you evaluate it. Yet the specialty coffee profession, perhaps still in its infancy in terms of differentiated criteria for differentiated coffees, often tends to brand all coffees whose flavor distinction depends on unorthodox handling after picking as "defective."

Such purist cuppers doubtless will find my ratings for the monsooned coffees reviewed in Mysores and Monsooned Malabars: Coffees of India - 83's through 87's - too high. On the other hand, those who genuinely love these peculiar-tasting coffees may justifiably complain that my ratings badly undervalue their quirky pleasures.

When I recently awarded ratings of 95 and 94 to two Kenyas, I followed clearly recognized criteria for excellence - sweet, clean acidity, elegant and pristine balance, subtle but distinctive complexity of fruity expression. When I awarded high ratings to these Kenyas I felt confident that others in the coffee profession would award similarly high ratings - not the same ratings, but still high, and based roughly on the same criteria I followed.

But given the lack of any clear professional standards for monsooned coffees, I can only follow my own criteria, for what they are worth. In a monsooned coffee I still look for balance and a kind of elegance, for a fermented fruit that is sweet and ambiguous but not too composty, a full, suave body, and musty tones that are roundly intriguing rather than sharply bitter.

However, those are criteria that, transposed to the world of Scotch whiskies, for example, would apply to Highland single-malts and the best blended whiskies, but hardly to the rougher, wilder pleasures of Islay single-malts.

So, for those who love these defiantly unorthodox coffees, you have abundant precedent for an enthusiasm that exceeds mine. And if, like me, you hope the coffee profession will evolve special criteria for special coffees, talk to your local coffee cupper and buyer.

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