We are pleased to present our Top 30 Coffees of 2015, Coffee Review’s third annual ranking of the most noteworthy coffees among those we reviewed over the past twelve months.
In 2015, we cupped thousands of samples and published more than 300 coffee reviews. Approximately ninety of the reviewed coffees scored 94 points or higher. Obviously, all coffees earning scores of 94 points or more are exceptional. But we couldn’t include them all, and some were more unusual or noteworthy or better values than others. Consequently, some outstanding coffees were left off the list. However, every coffee on the list is remarkable or exciting in some way.
As in past years, we selected and ranked our Top 30 coffees and espressos based on quality (represented by overall rating), value (reflected by most affordable price per pound), and consideration of other factors that include distinctiveness of style, uniqueness of origin or tree variety, certifications such as Fair Trade and organic, and general rarity.
As in past years, our rankings featured a significant number high-scoring coffees produced from botanical varieties of Arabica with striking sensory properties: coffees of the Gesha/Geisha variety and coffees from the distinctive traditional varieties from Ethiopia and Kenya. In 2015, in an effort to provide greater variety in the Top 30 and somewhat minimize the dominance of coffees from these super-star varieties, we refined our ranking process to place greater importance on factors other than overall score.
For 2015, we also decided to create additional categories to help focus attention on fine coffees from less celebrated origins and/or produced from more common botanical varieties. The coffees in the category rankings may not have attracted superlative ratings of 95 points or more but they merit recognition for their excellence, nonetheless.
For those who are curious about why certain coffees from certain tree varieties tend to score better than coffees from other tree varieties, or generally are interested in how we conduct our testing and rating process at Coffee Review, we recommend reading Editor Kenneth Davids’ piece, How Coffee Review Works.
Breaking Down the Top 30
The average overall rating of the coffees on the Top 30 list for 2015 is 94.8 out of a possible 100, the same as 2014 and slightly higher than the 94.4 average in 2013. The average price is $40.33 per pound, up from $37.98 in 2014, and $35.00 in 2013.
For the second year in a row, a coffee from Panama was named the top coffee of the year. This year’s No. 1 coffee is Finca La Mula Geisha, roasted by JBC Coffee Roasters in Madison, Wisconsin from coffee grown on Willem Boot’s La Mula farm in western Panama. We described the coffee, which earned 97 points (out of a possible 100) as, “Immense, sweet, juicy, intricate. Lilac and jasmine, peach, apricot, rosehip, much more in aroma and cup.”
Six of the Top 30 coffees in 2015 come from trees of the Gesha variety grown in Panama. Gesha or “Geisha” is a rare Ethiopia-derived botanical variety of Arabica that boasts elongated beans and a distinctive floral and chocolate cup.
Coffees appearing on the list were grown in eleven different countries. The most frequently appearing origins are Panama and Ethiopia, with six coffees each. Other origins with multiple coffees on the list are Kenya (4), Colombia (2), Nicaragua (2), Costa Rica (2), and Sumatra (2).
Given that Coffee Review’s tasting facilities are based in the United States, it is not surprising that 27 of the 30 coffees on the list were roasted by companies in the United States. California roasters dominated the rankings this year with nine representatives overall. However, coffees roasted by companies in Canada, Taiwan, and China also appeared on the list at No. 29, No. 8, and No. 2, respectively.
Regular Coffee Review readers will recognize many of the roasters appearing on the Top-30 list. Six roasters had two coffees on the 2015 Top 30 list: Dragonfly Coffee, JBC Coffee, Klatch Coffee, Old Soul Co., PT’s Coffee, and Temple Coffee. All six of these roasters are Coffee Review advertisers, although their status as advertisers had no bearing on their review ratings or their selection to the Top 30. For one thing, we cup coffees blind, identified by number only. We do this consistently and rigorously. Also, here is what happens over the long run: Roasters interested in Coffee Review send us their coffees for review. Some of these coffees do not attract high ratings. Others do. Those roasters whose coffees attract high ratings then send even more coffees for review on a more consistent basis, and at some point may become advertisers in order to further capitalize on the success of their coffees. In other words, it is not that advertising leads to consistent high ratings, but that consistent high ratings sometimes lead to advertising.
Tree Variety, Processing Method and Diversity
The variety of tree that produced the coffee appears to play a crucial role in cracking the Top 30. In 2015, six coffees came from the rare and celebrated Gesha variety, six from trees of ancient, distinctive-tasting varieties native to Ethiopia, and four from the heirloom, Bourbon-related SL 28 and SL 34 varieties responsible for the finest coffees of Kenya. In addition, two Top-30 coffees were produced from trees of the rare, big-beaned Pacamara variety and one from the tiny-beaned, but even rarer Mokka. So, in the case of at least 19 of the Top 30 coffees, unusual or rare tree variety appeared to play an important role in generating an exceptional cup worthy of a high rating. For more on botanical variety and the role it plays in fine coffee see Kenneth Davids’ How Coffee Review Works or our December 2011 tasting report, Single-Variety Coffees: Aficionado Fun.
Processing method also appears to play a significant role in qualifying for the Top 30. On this year’s list, for example, seven coffees were dry-processed or “natural,” meaning the beans were dried inside the fruit rather than after the fruit has been removed, as is the case with wet-processed or “washed” coffees. Until relatively recently, dry-processing was seldom if ever applied to high-end specialty coffees like those that appear in our Top 30 list. This showing is evidence of a continuing trend toward use of alternative processing methods as creative tools for crafting distinctive cup profiles.
There are other signs of greater diversity of coffee types in the 2015 Top 30 list. For example, last year there were no decaffeinated coffees in the Top 30. This year, one at least, No. 23, was a decaf. Last year, only one blend appeared. This year, there were two. In 2014, only one coffee designated for espresso brewing made the list, versus four in 2015. At least three Top 30 coffees in 2015 were certified organic.
The Cost Factor
Returning to value considerations, the average price of coffees on the list was $40.33 per pound, although that average was skewed upwards by the six extremely expensive Geshas.
Not surprisingly, higher scoring coffees tended to cost more:
97-point coffee (1) = $119.90/pound
96-point coffees (7) = $78.74/pound
95-point coffees (11) = $23.68/pound
94-point-or-less coffees (11) = $25.30/pound
However, one of the selection criteria for the Top 30 coffees was value or affordability, measured by price per pound. Many of the coffees on the list are priced in line with similar single-origin specialty coffees. Three coffees on the list were priced at less than $18 per pound, and 16, or more than half, cost less than $25 per pound. The top two coffees on the list were also the most expensive, selling for the equivalent of more than $120 per pound. The three most affordable coffees on the list were the No. 29 Reunion Island Colombia Las Hermosas ($11.95/12 ounces), No. 30 Red Rooster FTO Congo Sopacdi Cooperative ($13.49/12 ounces), and No. 10 Willoughby’s Kenya AA Kigwandi Estate ($17.99/16 ounces).