This month’s reviews fall neatly into two categories: first, five exceptional holiday blends; second, an assortment of fine single-origin coffees offered only for the holidays that range from versions of familiar names to three holiday splurge coffees likely to satisfy money-is-no-object gift-giving and holiday impulsiveness. Starting with the holiday blends, the most striking finding of this month’s cupping is how much better and more distinctive the best of this year’s blends are compared to the set we cupped last holiday season. Last year we managed to find only six holiday blends that made it to 90, including one that nudged a bit higher to 91. This year ten out of twenty of the holiday blends came off the table at 90 or higher, with five – all reviewed here – rated 92 through 95. The general raising of the bar for coffee quality and distinction among top-tier roasting companies is nothing new – it has been unrolling dramatically for the past three or four years. But this modest sampling of holiday blends offers further evidence of the trend.
True, some of the lower-rated among the holiday blends we sampled simply executed the familiar holiday blend formula – dark roasted but not too dark-roasted, populated by coffees apparently intended to vaguely please everyone and not to offend anyone – in other words, coffees low in acidity to the point of near inertia and often listless in flavor and aroma. It’s possible such blends should be called Holiday Left-Over Blends, on the assumption roasters may be trying to unload decent but potentially fading coffees by reindeer-izing them into something worth celebrating.
Recreating the Holiday Blend
On the other hand, the best of the holiday blends we cupped this year combined distinctive and distinguished green coffees and seemed aimed at recreating the holiday blend in contemporary medium-to-light-roast terms rather than recapitulating it. These blends appeared to aim at offering both the comforting reassurance of the familiar holiday coffee theme – robust, round, hearty – along with the pleasant surprise of something new and striking. The 95-rated Velton’s The Holiday Blend was remarkable both in originality and range of sensation – from tart raspberry-like fruit to deep, pungent sandalwood to honey and flowers. The Velton’s appeared to be a true blend; in other words, it incorporated a combination of coffees that together produced an exceptional sensory profile difficult to associate with any one coffee origin taken in isolation. In this case, the component coffees are a fine, top-grade Kenya and the rare Sulawesi Toarco, a high-grown, conventionally washed coffee from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
The Olympia Holiday Blend (93) is a skillful variation on the ancient Mocha-Java blend formula, a combination of sweet, richly fermenty dried-in-the-fruit coffee and a brighter wet-processed coffee, although in this case the dried-in-the-fruit “natural” component appears to dominate, giving the blend its rich, brandyish holiday character. The Klatch Coffee organic Original Christmas slash Nick’s Holiday Favorite blend (93) doubles down on the fruit-and-brandy theme by combining two distinguished dried-in-the-fruit coffees, both Ethiopias, at least one of which also contributes a pungent, bay-leaf-like spice.
At the lighter, drier end of the holiday blend spectrum are two fine 92-point blends, the CQ Coffee Roasters Holiday Blend (honey, flowers and cocoa) and a surprising Korean entry, the charmingly named Lover Letter for Winter Holiday from Namusairo Coffee, a delicately brisk blend, buoyant and silky.
Gift and Not-So-Gifted Geshas
Regular readers of Coffee Review are doubtless aware that many of the highest-rated (and certainly highest-priced) coffees we have reviewed over the past few years have come from trees of the recently rediscovered and now celebrated Gesha (or Geisha) variety of Arabica. The original Hacienda Esmeralda Gesha discovered growing on the Peterson family farm in Panama and debuted to spectacular success in 2004 has now been joined by Geshas produced on other farms in Panama (including other Peterson farms) as well as on farms in Guatemala, Colombia, and Costa Rica.
First the good news on these new Geshas: Many have lived up to the Gesha hype, sometimes exceeded it. For holiday shoppers looking to splurge on a rare, exceptional coffee we offer reviews of two outstanding Geshas currently available: the 96-rated Barrington Estate Perci Red grown by the Ninety Plus Gesha Estates in Panama (first reviewed in November), and the less distinctive but perhaps more balanced (and a bit less expensive) Panama Finca La Mula Geisha Natural from Equator Coffees (94).
Now to the not-so-good Gesha news: Over the last three months, and for the first time since the spectacular debut of the Gesha variety nine years ago, we have cupped some loser Geshas. Judging from the shape of the beans and hints in the cup, all except one appear to be authentic Geshas. In two cases these authentic Geshas were ruined in the roaster, apparently by clumsy, character-muting roast profiling. But a couple of others came across simply as pleasant but not particularly distinctive green coffees: The beans were Gesha and the aroma and flavor were a little Gesha but the price was far too Gesha: These decent but not distinctive and exceptional coffees did not warrant their sometimes astronomical, name-driven retail price.
All of which is to say, if you splurge on a holiday Gesha buy it from a roasting company with a history of high-end successes, not just with Geshas but with an entire range of its coffees. And make sure you brew it while it’s still fresh, and brew it carefully.
The Notorious Kopi Luwak
Another favorite super-splurge coffee among high-rolling gift givers is clearly more culinary curiosity than culinary revelation, but in the name of holiday extravagance we offer one Kopi Luwak review. You know Kopi Luwak, the coffee processed through the intestinal tract of an animal and the subject of endless incredulity and occasional misplaced reverence. Genuine Kopi Luwaks that have been roasted properly are pleasant enough and subtly distinctive, but you will be paying the big bucks mainly for the story, not for the cup. The Bantuan Foundation’s Wild Kopi Luwak reviewed here at 92 has all the things going for a good Kopi Luwak: Sensitive roasting and the odd combination of low-acid fruit, musk and mushroom that distinguishes the type. Furthermore, this Kopi Luwak is described as gathered from the scat of wild luwaks rather than caged luwaks, and its sale supports an admirable cause: stopping child trafficking and slavery in Indonesia. For another wild civet coffee, this one also with a strong social back story but produced in Thailand and roasted in Canada, visit www.doichaang.com.
Three Classics for the Holidays
Finally, three fine classic coffees from three distinguished origins offered at reasonable prices. The 95-rated Lexington Kikai Kenya (first reviewed in November 2013) is a superb coffee in the Kenya tradition with a holiday-ish savory edge to its intense, richly opulent Kenya orange and black-currant character. The Kickapoo Organic Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, reviewed for this article at 94, offers one of the most majestic and lavish expressions of acidity I can remember experiencing in a coffee. Remember that what we call acidity in coffee is a sensation both intensely tart yet luxuriously sweet; imagine the freshest possible juice from the ripest, sweetest possible orange: that rich, deeply sweet, complexly tart sensation is an approximation of the seductive sensation that animates this Yirgacheffe.
Finally, a Sumatra, a favorite origin for many readers at any time of the year. In the case of this month’s refined Sumatra Aceh Takengon (93) from Compelling & Rich roasters, the earthy/musty edge associated with the unorthodox Sumatra wet-hulled processing method is transmuted into a moist, fresh tobacco note, enriching a complexly pungent fruit character we read as papaya, mango and zesty orange.
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