For years, we have deflected criticisms that, on one hand, Coffee Review ratings are too high (though they are in line with wine reviews) and, on the other hand, that we never go past 97, even with coffees that propose a combination of flawless perfection with startling distinctiveness. I recall a conversation with George Howell, who years ago challenged me when we lavished great praise on one of his Kenya Mamutos but rated it 97. “Ken,” he said, “If it’s so good, why not 100 points?”
The problem with reporting scores above 95 is the question of relativity of taste. At Coffee Review, we aim to reflect and interpret the broad gustatory values of the leading edge of the global coffee community. You can find an essay on how we attempt to do that and why at The 100-Point Rating Paradox. And I feel pretty confident about the Coffee Review team’s consistency and judgment in respect to scores up through 94 or 95. However, I regret to say that we seldom have complete consensus when we start pushing past 95. When the three of us emerge from our slurp-ridden silence around the cupping table and share our ratings, and if two of us have pushed up past 95 or 96, there is almost always one holding out for a lower score (and perhaps another holding out for an even higher score). I am usually in the middle somewhere, listening carefully to my younger colleagues who have fresher noses than me but less experience, then carrying their testimony back to the cup and testing it against what I genuinely experience there. If the three of us remain stuck, I usually make the final call, often in the face of barely concealed resentment from the odd cupper out.
A Possible Socio-Economic Embarrassment
Awarding our first 98 to this particular coffee raised another uncomfortable issue. This is a coffee that just broke all price records for a publicly auctioned green coffee at US$1,029 per pound green, coming at a moment in history when most coffee producers are being paid an all-time low price of around US$1 per pound for good-quality green coffee that has not been recognized in a competition. As my colleague Kim Westerman wrote in our September 2019 tasting report, does this mean that the coffee industry is “hollowing out in the middle, increasingly divided between a tiny prestige-chasing elite and a vast, anonymous commodity machine?”
So when it came to evaluating this coffee, I might have preferred Coffee Review to have been the cupper in the crowd who pointed out that the emperor had left his new clothes at home.
But we have always tried to report honorably and honestly on what we actually taste, not what we’re told we should be tasting, even when those scores may be higher (or lower) than others expect. I recall we gave high ratings to many fair trade coffees back when major components of the industry were busy bashing them across the board for their purported poor quality. And we gave high ratings to lovely fruity but clean naturals when most coffee professionals were still busy dismissing them as tainted.
So, when I looked at my score sheet and found that my attribute scores totaled not just a 98, but a rather high 98, and when I learned that another colleague had the same score, I decided to roll over and go high. We had cupped this same celebrated green coffee from other distinguished roasters and scored it 96 and 97. Clearly this was an extraordinary coffee, with this particular version optimally roasted (at least by our taste) by Tamas Christman of Dragonfly Coffee Roasters in Boulder, Colorado.
Everyday Pleasure and Art
Of course, almost nobody in the world will be able to share our pleasure in this coffee, even if they could afford to buy it. The quantities available are so small that it has been largely pre-sold. This is ironic, given that an element of Coffee Review’s mission is to help consumers find and enjoy the best coffees available. And here we are giving a very high rating to a coffee that is essentially not available at any price.
Furthermore, there are coffees available at this moment selling at quite reasonable prices that will doubtless deliver as much, or almost as much, pleasure to your morning as this 98-rated sample might — and at a fraction of the cost. I am drinking such a coffee right now, a lovely, clean, lyrical Ethiopia natural that retails for around US$25 per pound. (It ought to retail for more, particularly if the increase could be gotten back into the hands of the hardworking farmers and mill workers who produced the coffee. They don’t need to be paid a thousand dollars a pound, but they would be very, very happy to get US$10 a pound rather than the US$3 or $4 I expect they probably got.)
But another part of Coffee Review’s mission is approaching coffee as an art as well as an everyday pleasure. We want to celebrate the efforts of those who devote their lives to extending the possibilities of coffee as an aesthetic achievement, including those who crafted this coffee. And art, as anyone knows who reads the results of art auctions in New York or London, is not rationally priced.
You can find the review of this record-breaking Elida Estate Panama Geisha roasted by Dragonfly Coffee Roasters here.