Both from the practical goal of generating gift ideas for coffee aficionados and from the wonkier goal of understanding current trends in high-end coffee, this month’s sampling of thirty-five holiday coffees appears productive. The only criterion we imposed on the coffees we reviewed was availability: We asked that they be on sale throughout the holidays. But the larger expectation was, of course, specialness. Given how habitual a beverage coffee is, it seems fair to expect a holiday coffee to be, well, not habitual. Hopefully, memorable.
Splurging on very expensive but very rare and amazing coffees like those produced from the superstar variety Gesha (or Geisha), for example, is one way to break out of the habitual into the memorable, and several roasters took that route. Of the four Geshas we review here, all were dried-in-the-fruit or “natural” versions, all were aromatically intricate and surprising, though each was subtly different, from the sweet, spicy, perfectly structured PT’s Panama Auromar Geisha Natural Peaberry (96) to the immense, floral-saturated Geisha Coffee Roasters El Burro Geisha Tachi Natural (95) to the richly fruity/savory Giv COFFEE Panama Boquete Kotowa Gesha Natural (94) and the sweetly balanced, melodic Willoughby’s Panama Finca Auromar Camilina Natural (94).
Other single-origin efforts memorable enough to make the cut were a bold-beaned, spicy-sweet natural-processed Pacamara (the 95-rated Old Soul Co. Nicaragua Pacamara Los Congos Lot #8) and an unusual dried-in-the-fruit Kona (the 93-rated Hula Daddy Hokulele Kona).
Taking the Holiday Blend Route
A second way roasters aimed at the holiday exceptional was with an unusual or striking holiday blend. Producing a great blend for the holidays appears to have become an implicit competition among some roasters; if so, we cupped a few major contenders this month. The general strategy roasters pursued was juxtaposing a fine, lush-tending dried-in-the-fruit natural Ethiopia with one or more brighter, crisper wet-processed coffees. The Ghost Town Holiday Blend (95), for example, combined a dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia, floral and fruity, with a doubtlessly brisker, more pungent wet-processed Kenya. Two blends complicated this approach by adding a second wet-processed coffee: the Red Rooster Holiday Blend (93) juxtaposed a wet-processed Colombia with both a wet-processed and a dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia, while Olympia Coffee’s Holiday Blend (94) brought together wet-processed Honduras microlot coffees from the Capucas Cooperative, a dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, and a classic wet-processed Kenya.
Perhaps the most original in composition of the blends reviewed this month, the Velton’s Coffee Holiday Blend (93), combined coffees from two origins we seldom have an opportunity to sample at Coffee Review: a Java from small holders at the west end of that Indonesian island (most coffee is produced by large farms nearer the east end) and a Papua New Guinea, which together netted an unusual spice- and almond-toned cup.
What did the coffees reviewed this month suggest about current trends in high-end specialty coffee?
- It appears that, for now, dried-in-the-fruit, “natural”-processed coffees rule. All of the single-origin coffees we reviewed this month at 93 or higher were naturals, even the Hawaii Kona and the Pacamara. Perhaps roasters feel that the fruit and chocolate tendencies of the type particularly suit wintery expectations.
- Our cupping seems to have confirmed the ongoing trend of creating assertive seasonal blends from two to three distinctive, individualistic coffees, rather than quieter year-round blends from multiple origins.
- Finally, roasters appeared more inclined than ever to share their blend formulas, rather than conceal or mystify them.
Perhaps the most impressive trend overall was toward quality and distinction: of the thirty-five holiday coffees we cupped for this article, twenty-two rated at least 90, and an impressive twelve, all reviewed here, scored 93 or better.
Coffee Review associate editors and co-cuppers Kim Westerman and Jason Sarley were particularly instrumental in crafting this month’s reviews.