Many high-scoring coffees we cup at Coffee Review come from micro-lots: small, sometimes tiny, lots of green coffee from a single farm or cooperative, often produced from a single tree variety, and often processed in some special or distinctive way. Given how rare they are, these micro-lots are usually available to consumers for only a brief window of time. Such micro-lots also are typically more expensive than what we are calling “macro-lot” coffees, which, for the purposes of this article, are coffees that come from a single lot of green, unroasted coffee of at least 100 bags, or around 13,000 to 15,000 pounds, all of it in the possession of the roaster.
Why carry out a cupping like this one focused on these larger lots of coffee? Because for most of the smaller roasters that submit coffees to Coffee Review, 100 bags is a substantial volume of coffee, and represents a commitment to a sort of “everyday” coffee that will be available to consumers, not for a few weeks like the typical micro-lot, but for longer, perhaps for several months. In other words, this cupping is a test of roasters’ ability to deliver high quality and distinction consistently over a longer period of time (and usually at a more affordable price) than can be delivered by rare micro-lots that first soar in the ratings before flying out of sight and into memory.
This is the third time Coffee Review has conducted a macro-lot cupping. This time around, we cupped 25 samples in total from 20 different roasters. While this represents a somewhat lower number of submissions than we’ve tested in previous years, the ratings for these submissions were impressive. Fifteen of the 25 samples we tested, or 60%, scored 90 or higher. Our 2015 macro-lot cupping showed about the same success rate: 53% of 32 samples scored 90 or better. But results of both of these recent cuppings showed a dramatic improvement over the results of our 2011 macro-lot survey, in which only two samples out of 43 generated a rating of 90 or higher. The average score for this year’s samples was a little over 89, about the same as the average for last year’s macro-lot cupping, but considerably better than the modest 85.5 averaged by the macro-lot samples in 2011.
Macro-Lots and the New Coffee Paradigm
In last year’s macro-lot report, we surmised that the current artisanally driven coffee paradigm, with its preference for lighter roast profiles and more direct involvement in the sourcing of green coffee beans, supported by intensifying creativity among producers, was one reason for the dramatic improvement in the 2015 ratings compared to the 2011 scores. That trend toward quality and distinction appears to be confirmed by this year’s results. Although many of the origins appearing on this month’s cupping roster were not marquee names like Kenya, the source of a top-rated sample from Doma Coffee we review here at 94, they nevertheless impressed: a Temple Coffee Roasters Papua New Guinea (Temple Sero Bebes, not reviewed here) scored 93, for example; a Temple Brazil scored 91. In other words, it does not appear that roasters are putting all of their care into small, exceptional coffee lots and ignoring the staple, everyday lots, but rather that they are putting considerable care into sourcing (and tactfully roasting) all their offerings. True, we tested a handful of disappointing samples suggesting that some roasters are not as selective when buying large lots as they are when sourcing for micro-lots from boutique suppliers. But the general picture was quite reassuring.
The Return of Colombia, a Strong Showing from Ethiopia and a Few Surprises
An interesting trend in respect to origin was a modest fall-off in the number of top-rated Ethiopias and a modest resurgence of high-rated Colombias. Over the last year or two, Ethiopia has been on a ratings roll at Coffee Review. In our 2015 macro-lot cupping, for example, five of the twelve top-rated coffees were Ethiopias. This year only two of the top eleven were Ethiopias, although both were exceptional coffees. Meanwhile, this year, Colombia, having recovered from a weather-related fall-off in volume and (arguably) quality that lasted from around 2008 to 2013, placed three coffees in the top eleven : the PT’s Colombia Suarez Cauca (93); the Taiwan roaster Once N Café Etude Colombia (93) and the Big Shoulders Colombia Supremo (91).
Nevertheless, Ethiopia fared well, with three coffees that rated 90 or above: Kickapoo’s Organic Ethiopia Aramo Natural (94) and Temple’s Ethiopia Limmu Burka Gudina Estate (93), both reviewed here, along with a Bartok Ethiopia Gotiti (90) from Taiwan. All three were processed by the trendy, though still somewhat unorthodox, dried-in-the-fruit or natural method, as opposed to the wet-processed or “washed” method.
Rwanda made a strong showing as well. We cupped three coffees from the small central African country whose coffee industry has been critical to its recovery from the genocide of 1994. Equator Coffee’s Rwanda Buremera (92) is reviewed here; Thanksgiving Coffee’s Rwanda Medium-Roast scored a solid 90. While Taiwan roaster ICC’s Rwanda Mashesha didn’t crack the top 10, it was an interesting and unusual example of a natural, or dry-processed, Rwanda.
The Macro-Lot Value Proposition
When we compare prices for the macro-lot coffees reviewed this month to the micro-lot coffees we’ve reviewed so far in 2016 (excluding the super-expensive, rare Gesha coffees), it’s clear that this month’s macro-lot coffees offer a solid value proposition for those consumers concerned with their coffee budgets. The average price for the eight coffees we review here is $15.60 per 12-ounce bag, while the average price for micro-lot coffees we’ve reviewed thus far in 2016 is $17.50 per 12 ounces. Certainly there are values to be had among micro-lot coffees, but the macro-lots reviewed this month offer a particularly impressive combination of moderate price coupled with quality and distinction. Plus, they should be around for awhile.
Blending Coffees that Double as Fine Single-Origins
One might infer that one reason smaller roasters purchase relatively large lots of a coffee is for use in their blends. At least in some cases, this appears to hold true. Eton Tsuno, Director of Coffee at Temple Roasters in Sacramento, tells us that the Ethiopia Limmu Burka Gudina Estate, reviewed here at 93, is from a 300-bag lot also used as a key component in his company’s Three Pillars blend (25%) and its Dharma Espresso blend (40%). He says, “In our business model, these [higher volume] coffees help us to support a larger piece of the coffee supply, which I believe is very important. Many companies focus on creating or finding the … micro-lots for which we all pay crazy prices; however, no one can sustain a roasting company on that alone. And the coffee-origin side cannot survive on [only high-priced micro-lot] coffees [either].”
Jeff Taylor, President and Co-Founder of PT’s Coffee, whose Colombia Suarez Cauca is reviewed here at 93, reports that this larger lot was also selected for its use in both custom and house blends. Purchased though Café Imports and Banexport as part of their “Regional Select” program, this Colombia is a blend of green coffees intended to represent a distinct regional flavor profile, a practice also common in wine-producing regions throughout the world.
What’s heartening for us is to find coffees like these and the other high-rated coffees reviewed here that, despite having been purchased in relatively large volumes and perhaps doing double duty as blend components, nevertheless cup so well and so distinctively.