We’ve seen two conflicting, yet overlapping, trends at the growing end of specialty coffee over the past decade. On one hand, greater and greater homogeneity. Traditional coffee tree varieties, varieties that may not taste unique, but do taste subtly different, are being replaced by disease-resistant, higher-yielding varieties that incorporate robusta genes and, well, usually don’t taste different at all. Traditional ferment-and-wash wet-processing is being replaced by mechanical demucilaging, in which the fruit pulp is removed by squeezing and scrubbing rather than by fermentation and washing. The fermentation step, although tricky, arguably contributes differentiating nuance to individual coffee batches. Both of these simplifying, homogenizing trends are happening for good reasons, of course. Farmers fare better with disease-resistant trees, and the environment fares better without mucky ferment water entering the ecosystem. There are ways to clean up the water, of course, but they are cumbersome and relatively labor-intensive.
On the other hand, specialty coffee at the producer end is also full-on into a move toward diversification and differentiation, just as intense as the trend toward homogenization. Farmers all over the world are experimenting with different coffee varieties chosen for one reason only, which is that they taste different and/or better than more familiar varieties, and for that reason can command higher premiums per pound. And as a further strategy for differentiation, farmers and millers are experimenting with exotic processing methods, including refined versions of the ancient dry or “natural” method, in which the coffee is dried inside the fruit, and experiments with the honey or pulped-natural method, in which skins are removed, but some or all of the fruit pulp is allowed to dry on the beans. Both of these methods, although tricky to pull off successfully, have a profound differentiating impact on taste, and done right can generate significantly higher premiums per pound for the producer.
Both trends, toward homogeneity and toward differentiation, are on display in Central America today. But between them, what is being lost, or at least overlooked? Potentially the subtle, familiar variations on the familiar, classic Central American cup, produced from well-established tree varieties like Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai and Typica and processed by variations on ferment-and-wash methods.
Look back over Coffee Review’s Central America reviews over the past couple of years and you will find plenty of pricey coffees from the newly rediscovered and exciting Gesha variety, for example, plus many high-rated coffees processed by exotic natural or honey methods. But what about the standards? What about classic wet-processed coffees from Central American origins produced from traditional varieties not named Gesha?
Surveying the Classics
We tried our best to sample that familiar, classic world of Central American coffees with this month’s cupping. We tested 39 samples from 25 roasting companies in the U.S. and East Asia. All of the main Central American producing countries were represented, although some were more thoroughly represented than others. We tested fourteen Guatemalas, seven El Salvadors, seven from Honduras, five Panamas, four Nicaraguas, and two Costa Ricas.
All were wet-processed coffees (no natural- or honey-processed samples). Based on cup and on description, the majority appear to have been processed by traditional ferment-and-wash methods rather than by short-cut, squeeze-and-scrub mechanical demucilaging methods. None were Geshas.
So, did we turn up some outstanding examples of fine, classic wet-processed Central America coffees, balanced, bright but not too bright, aromatically complete but not flashy, with subtly engaging variations?
However, the distinctions among the best of these samples were not dramatic, and intense attention often was required to distinguish between what, for us, was a quintessentially complete, well-structured cup with a quiet but intriguing sensory story line that we might rate 92 or 93, for example, and a solid, balanced cup with a satisfying but somewhat simpler story line, which we might rate at anywhere from 91 to 89, and cups that were, well, edging down from solid and balanced toward flat and simple (anywhere from 88 to 85). It took particular attention to make distinctions between a 92 and a 93, for example, or a 91 and a 92, distinctions that seem much simpler to make with more intense, individualistic origins like Ethiopia, Kenya or Sumatra, or with coffees processed by more unorthodox methods that produce more idiosyncratic cup profiles.
Take the Old Soul Panama Elida Estate Lot #6, for example, which we ultimately rated at 92. This coffee might work as a poster cup for classic Central America washed coffees. Produced from trees of the solid but not distinctive Catuai variety, cleanly processed by the wet or washed method, and brought to a tactful and appropriate roast, in this case a roast at the slightly darkish end of medium we used to call “City,” together net a deeply sweet cup, balanced, complete, with quietly though not dramatically complex aromatics. This is a coffee that people who say “I just like coffee that tastes like coffee” ought to particularly enjoy. The Victrola Honduras Santa Barbara Finca Las Brisas (Bourbon and Pacas varieties, 92) offers a similar appeal. The Bartok Coffee Guatemala Huehuetenango El Rincon (Bourbon and Caturra varieties, 93) proposes a lighter-roasted version of a similarly classic Central America cup, with the light roast helping turn it crisper, higher-toned, with an emphasis on flowers and citrus zest. The Kickapoo Coffee Organic Guatemala Rio Azul (92) offers a particular style of small-holder coffee that benefits both from traditional tree varieties (Bourbon and Typica) and from a slight, serendipitous harvesting/processing taint, a whisky-like hint of sweet ferment that complicates the fruit notes, a “clean” fresh-tasting ferment that I particularly associate with some of the better small-holder coffees of Central America.
The Spoiler Pacamaras and Maracaturras
Complicating, or enriching, our search for the classic Central American cup were several quietly but strikingly distinctive samples produced from trees of the Pacamara and Maracaturra varieties of Arabica. Both of these varieties are showy, bold-beaned hybrids developed over the past decades (the Pacamara in El Salvador, the Maracaturra originally by farmer Byron Corrales in Nicaragua). Both are crosses of compact-growing varieties (Pacas and Caturra respectively, both natural mutants of Bourbon) with the huge-beaned, low-yielding Maragogipe variety, a natural mutant of Typica first found in Brazil. The resulting hybrids, Pacamara and Maracaturra, with their big showy beans, also often display subtly distinctive cup character, usually tending toward a juxtaposition of crisp, savory-sweet, nut-toned depth with complicating notes that range from pungent, berryish fruit to quiet florals. But since neither of these varieties displays the consistently striking, recognizable character of Gesha, we decided to allow them into this month’s sampling, to be cupped along with coffees produced from more familiar, traditional varieties popular in Central America like Caturra, Catuai, Typica and the heirloom Bourbon.
As it turned out, the relative success of these big-beaned hybrids, particularly the Pacamaras, did distort our results a bit. Of the ten samples that scored 92 or better, three were from trees of the Pacamara variety: the top-rated El Salvador Finca Medrano Nohemi Ventura from Korea’s Namusairo Coffee (94), the Equator Coffee Guatemala El Injerto Pandora del Carmen (92), and the Namusairo El Salvador Los Vasquez Pacamara (rated 92 but not reviewed). Two of the three Maracaturra samples we cupped also did quite well: the Bird Rock Guatemala El Socorro Maracaturra, reviewed here at 92, and the Willoughby’s Guatemala Finca El Socorro, rated 91 but not reviewed.
Other exotic varieties included a sample of the original, huge-beaned Maragogipe variety (Bird Rock Guatemala La Bolsa Maragogype, rated 90 but not reviewed) and a sample from trees of the SL-28, the variety most responsible for the great coffees of Kenya. Planted in central Costa Rica and roasted by Korean roaster Coffee Roasters Avenue, the Costa Rica Herbazu Finca Leoncio SL-28 offered a fine variation on the pungent, dry-berry character of Kenya at a rating of 91.
The Cup-Suspect Varieties
As far as the newer disease-resistant hybrids incorporating robusta genes go, we had very little to go on with this month’s sampling. Catimor, an early-version robusta-incorporating hybrid that is particularly neutral in the cup, has been planted in some Central American fields, but almost always turns up mixed in with other varieties, as it did in one of this month’s samples. Apparently the more recently developed, more sophisticated robusta-incorporating hybrids have so far only been widely planted in Honduras. We did test one sample made up purely of coffee from trees of the Lempira variety, a robusta-incorporating hybrid particularly popular in Honduras. Nicely roasted, it produced a brisk, rather zesty, though not particularly inspiring cup at 89.
Tellingly, perhaps, Honduras’s overall coffee production is predicted (by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to rise in this coming year by 13%, despite the ravages of the leaf rust epidemic, a gain attributed mainly to widespread planting of disease-resistant hybrids like Lempira. On the other hand, in El Salvador, where the coffee industry has honorably and high-mindedly remained focused on more distinctive-cupping but more disease-prone varieties like Pacamara and the heirloom Bourbon, coffee production is predicted to be flat for the coming year, with overall production having declined since the onset of the rust epidemic in 2013 by an extraordinary, heart-rending 44%. This, of course, is a statistic that can make gourmet coffee writers who yammer on lovingly about Bourbons and Pacamaras seem a bit like narcissistic ghouls. On the other hand, there is some questioning of the long-term agronomic wisdom of converting exclusively to disease-resistant varieties rather than sticking with the possibly more resilient range of varieties that is typical in Central America. See the thoughtful blog, Coffee-Leaf Rust: Problems with Rust-Resistant Varieties by Patrick Hughes posted at Barista Magazine. [http://baristamagazine.com/blog/coffee-leaf-rust-problems-with-rust-resistant-varieties/].
And it is clear that farmers who grow distinctive-tasting but disease-prone varieties of Arabica do now have tools available to combat leaf-rust, assuming they have the resources to deploy those tools. Carlos Batres, owner of the admired Montecarlos Coffee Estate in El Salvador, a farm that mainly produces Bourbon and Pacamara, reports that by using currently available fifth-generation fungicides, his farm has controlled the disease, and he expects his production to return to normal levels in 2016. But small-holding producers throughout Central America, particularly those who are on their own and not associated with successful cooperatives, are simply abandoning coffee, and doubtless suffering along the way.
Those unfamiliar with the technical and scientific challenges of coffee production may ask, with innocent logic: Well, why doesn’t the coffee industry just develop hybrids that are not only disease-resistant, but also taste good and taste different?
First, because developing new varieties is hard to do and it’s expensive. Second, because until recently there has been a chasm-like split between technical people who do the breeding and those in the specialty coffee industry who care about taste and differentiation. Third, the specialty coffee industry itself has only recently got the difference straight between quality (how free a coffee is of taints and distractions) and distinctiveness (how different a coffee tastes from other coffees, given equal freedom from taints and distractions). When you confuse coffee quality with coffee distinction you are simply not in a good position to evaluate the cup character of new varieties and, hence, their potential market value.
But the word is out, and the recently founded World Coffee Research (WCR) organization, for one, claims to be focusing both on productivity and cup character in a sophisticated new breeding program that incorporates genetic coding and commits to an impressive, well-considered agenda. Unfortunately, the WCR predicts that it will take years of patient work to produce new varieties that will fulfill the program’s lofty, inspiring goal: coffee trees tough enough to meet the challenges of disease and climate change that still taste amazing.