By June 24, 2013 Read Article

Hype Meets the Cup: St. Helena Sandy Bay Estate

Some interesting green coffees have come into the lab recently. These were green samples, but you can probably find roasters who offer them via an Internet search.

Those who have some history probably are aware that St. Helena, a tiny island located in the middle of the South Atlantic roughly between Brazil and Africa, is famous as the final exile place of Napoleon I (and also, in travel writing hype, as one “of the most remote places in the world.” ) A tiny island but mountainous, its coffee apparently was first made famous by that same Napoleon, whose claim that it was the best coffee he ever tasted made it briefly fashionable in France. After that it apparently dropped out of sight until revived in recent years.

It occasionally shows up billed as a contender for the world’s rarest coffee; alternatively the most expensive, etc. etc. Typically such story-driven novelty coffees are rather limp in the cup, blown away by any decent Yirgacheffe, for example, and the two samples of St. Helena I cupped in past years did not particularly impress. The sample we had of this past year’s crop, however, was quite engaging. Maybe my colleague Jason hit the roast just right (a slow, coaxy profile to whole-bean M-Basic 48, darkish medium), or maybe some years of careful cultivation are producing healthier cherry.

The sample was rich, floral- and wine-toned, juicy: night-blooming flowers, Concord grape, peach, with a clean, balanced structure, a little like a very good Rwanda, for example.

The beans were intriguing in appearance as well. They look a little like Ethiopia beans from regions like Yirgacheffe, smallish, definitively oval, with a deep crease that tends to retain silver skin. When I finally got myself away from the cupping table and went on line I discovered that the St. Helena variety is purported to be a pure strain imported from the Yemeni port of Mocha, originally brought to St. Helens by in 1733 by a Captain Philips of the East India Company, and currently named (at least according to material floating around the Internet) Green Tipped Bourbon. Certainly both the appearance of the beans and the profile I tasted support this history. These are maybe larger beans than one sees among the old varieties in Yemen, but they of course would have naturalized in a much more lush environment than found anywhere in Yemen. And the cup definitely has a quietly East-Africa character, in particular expressing the deeply floral and richly fruit-toned side of the Bourbon heritage.

What drove me to write about this coffee is the unusual confluence of history, exotic plant variety, exotic terroir and rare coffee hype that in this is actually supported by a distinctive and distinguished sensory profile. This spring we’ve reviewed several coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya that probably blow the St. Helena away in terms of pure sensory fireworks, but I think students of coffee will find well worth trying a sample of this quietly distinctive coffee if they can find one sensitively and freshly roasted.

About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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