This holiday season may mark the definitive return of the blend to the high-end specialty coffee scene after years of almost exclusive dedication to ever-more-refined single-origin offerings. The excitement and ingenuity of many of the holiday-themed blends we sampled this past month certainly suggest such a revival. The holiday blend, a long-standing staple of the specialty coffee business in the U.S., until recently tended to be: 1) deep but rather drab; 2) dark-roasted; 3) secretive in its formula. Most of the holiday blends we tested this year, however: 1) revealed their components out front, giving the producers equal billing to the roasters; 2) were medium-to-light roasted; 3) seemed to be aimed at creating authentically original sensory experiences rather than satisfying a generic expectation at a good price point.
We review six of these new-style holiday blends here at scores ranging from 95 to 93; all interpret the implicit mandate of the holidays (go hearty, go deep, go fruit-forward) with striking originality. We also review six high-rated, gift-worthy small-lot coffees produced from elite botanical varieties. These are the sort of rare and exciting coffees that have dominated Coffee Review’s highest ratings over the last couple of years.
The Holiday Blend Revival
But first to the new-style holiday blends. The Olympia Coffee Roasting Holiday Blend (95) doubles down on the heirloom Bourbon card, combining an El Salvador Bourbon with what is almost certainly a brighter, more pungent variant on the Bourbon cup represented in a Kenya SL34, one of the two traditional Bourbon-derived varieties that produce the finest Kenya coffees. The result is arguably a more complete rendition of the Bourbon style than can be gotten from one coffee, as well as simply a straight-on seductively crowd-pleasing cup.
A similar doubling down is at work with the Compelling & Rich Panama Geisha Holiday Blend (95), which brings together two preparations of the rare, distinctive and expensive Gesha variety, one a dried-in-the-fruit natural and the other a wet-processed or washed version, the first presumably more lush and sweeter, the second presumably brighter and brisker. The result is a cup as explosive and crisply intricate as a fine single-farm, single-preparation Gesha, but with perhaps a more comprehensive structure and subtler, more balanced nuance.
The remaining four holiday blends reviewed her all appear to be aiming for depth and zesty heartiness, adding some savory and spice suggestions to complicate the fruit and flowers. Three of the four, the deep, peppery, aromatic CQ Holiday Blend (93), the brighter and juicier Seattle Coffee Works Holiday Blend (93), and the crisp, resonant Velton’s Holiday Blend (93) all incorporate a Kenya into the mix, playing its intensity off against other, complementary yet contrasty coffees. The only reviewed holiday blend that does not list specific components, the Geisha Coffee Roasters’ Gratitude Blend, is perhaps the deepest and spiciest of all, slightly darker roasted than the others, achieving an impressive fusion of the tart, the juicy/grapy and the spicy/savory. It is also an impressive value given its rating, as are all five of the non-Gesha holiday blends reviewed here.
The Fancy Single-Origin Options
By pure chance, five of the fancy single-origin coffees we review this month offer a sort of overview survey of the origins and varieties that have tended to attract high ratings on Coffee Review over the last couple of years. Two are dauntingly expensive but extraordinary versions of the now celebrated but still rare Gesha variety, both produced in Panama: The PT’s Auromar Camilina Gesha (95), a magnificent dried-in-the-fruit rendition, big, juicy and ringingly complex, and the Temple Esmeralda Especial Geisha Bosque 2 (94), a classic wet-processed version, brisk, rich and intricate, from the original Gesha producers, Hacienda La Esmeralda.
For less extravagant-minded gift-givers we review a splendid dried-in-the-fruit version of the deep, savory but juicy, big-beaned Pacamara variety (Dragonfly Nicaragua Pacamara Los Congos, 94), a startlingly extravagant fruit-bomb of a dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia (Old Soul Ethiopia Wenago Natural, 95), and a super intense but lyrical Kenya (Tony’s Kenya Muthonjo, 94).
And a California-Grown Entry
Finally, we review our first ever California-grown coffee, the Good Land Organics California Caturra (91), the product of experimentation by a southern California grower of exotic fruit. The Good Land Organics farm has several other prestigious and distinctive coffee varieties planted, but this Caturra, a sturdy, respected dwarf variety widely grown in Central America and Colombia, produced a quietly original, sweet-toned cup. It may seem odd to call an agricultural product from California rare and exotic, but by coffee-world standards this product qualifies. And, unlike some coffee curiosities from surprising places, it offers an attractive and subtly distinctive cup.