Recently Henry Chang, a passionate home coffee roaster (when he’s not pursuing his successful career as an obstetrician/gynecologist), sponsored a contest for his home roaster Internet correspondents. He asked Coffee Review to act as judge. As busy as we were, we agreed, since both my co-cupper Jason Sarley and I are strong supporters of the home roasting community even though our reviewing work is exclusively devoted to evaluating professionally roasted coffees. My third book (Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, St. Martin’s Press) helped kick off the home roasting movement when it first appeared in 1996; it is now in its second edition in English and has been translated and published in Taiwan and Korea. Although I intended it as a cross-over book aimed at beginning professional roasters as well as home roasters, it was most clearly designed to encourage a home roasting community in North America.
Henry Chang first screened the samples sent by his home roaster colleagues, then presented us with twelve. We eliminated two more of the twelve and cupped and evaluated the remaining ten; one of the ten was later withdrawn because the roaster sells his coffee as well as consumes it himself, which Henry felt disqualified him from this competition. Reviews of the remaining nine samples appear below.
I had no idea what to expect; some years ago I suspect there would have been quite a few overroasted or poorly roasted entries. Not this time around. The green sourcing was excellent and the roasting sound, ranging from medium to light, with the only suspect sample one that was clearly a little underdeveloped, plus two that may possibly have been very slightly underdeveloped. When I write underdeveloped, I do not mean “too light”; I mean that the pattern of heat transfer or “profiling” overall did not succeed in fully developing aromatics and sugars, at least to our palates. For us sensory signs of a successful very light roast of a fine coffee are notes of honey, meadow flowers and crisp roasted cacao nib, among others. Signs of a somewhat underdeveloped light roast are hints of raw nut or fir-like wood and floral notes that more suggest sweet grass than flowers.
But we only cupped one sample that was clearly if slightly underdeveloped, an attractive but difficult-to-roast peaberry. With two other samples, the aromatic muting could just as well have been owing to faded green beans or fading of the roasted coffee on its complicated way from the roaster through Henry to us.
The norm, by far, was very nicely roasted coffees that probably hit or came very close to a sweet spot for their respective beans. The percentage and degree of success, by the way, about duplicates the percentages associated with samples we receive from professional roasters. Of course, in this case some samples were screened out in advance, but still, the showing of those we did cup definitely suggests how far the home roasting community in the United States has come.
The first paragraph of each little review represents our blind rating and assessment, which we arrived at before Henry told us the identity of the sample. The second (usually shorter) paragraph of each review represents reflections on origin, roast, and issues that, in retrospect, may have affected the cup character of the sample.
Tom Chips. Sisters of Panama Geisha: Panama La Mula Dry Process and Finca Santa Teresa Honey-Processed Geisha. 93.0
Giddily exhilarating; great balance and sweetness. Buoyant, lively acidity. Very silky mouthfeel. Notes of peach (particularly), sweet milk chocolate, flowers, a hint of musk in aroma and cup. Flavor simplifies in a clean though slightly drying finish.
A blend combining dried-in-the-fruit and honey preparations of the spectacular (and expensive) Geisha variety. Nicely roasted.
Alex Fan. Sidamo Shelcho, Babe, Shebe Dry Process. 93.0
Crisply sweet, delicately pungent. Smooth, balanced acidity. Light but silky mouthfeel. Notes of roasted cacao nib, lavender, honey, cider, peach in aroma and cup. Rich finish with excellent flavor saturation led by peach, lavender and cacao nib. Mildly drying in the long finish, but the sweet-toned flavor pushes on through.
Subtle, sensitive light roast of a very clean dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia. The glories of this coffee are its crisp sweetness and complex aromatics.
Andrew Kan. Colombia Familia Guerra La Isla. 93.0
Sweet with a pleasingly complementary bitter edge; impressively balanced. Rich, deeply expressed acidity. Syrupy though lively mouthfeel. Notes of dark chocolate, hazelnut, orange marmalade, a hint of narcissus-like flowers. Chocolate and hazelnut in particular lead into a long, resonant finish.
Displays the big, deep, balanced structure of a fine Colombia; well-roasted.
Mark Spottswood. Kenya Gaturiri Micro lot AA. 92.5
Gently pungent, very complex. Straightforward, bright, functional acidity. Mouthfeel is leanish but buoyant, lively. This coffee is most successful not so much in structure but in aroma and flavor: almond, lilac, blood orange, roasted cacao nib, a hint of saffron. Flavor consolidates but persists in a gently rich, sweet-toned, deep finish.
Fine Kenya; appears well-roasted.
Henry Chang. Ethiopia Gedeo Worka Dry-Process. 92.0
Big, juicy, fruity-fermented. Round, juicy acidity. Full though perhaps not fat mouthfeel. Notes of buttery dark chocolate, lush night-blooming flowers, cantaloupe. The pleasingly pungent, sweet-fermented note we ended associating with the Brazilian spirit cachaça, though grappa or the more rustic style of brandy might work too. The finish is long, rich, deep, with considerable flavor saturation, although it shortened a bit as the cup cooled.
A fine example of the grand-gestured, richly fermenty style of dried-in-the-fruit Ethiopia cup, well-roasted.
Hank Levine. Colombia Granja La Esperanza Geisha “Margarita’s Micro-Lot”. 90.0
Delicate, sweet, crisp. Bright, lively acidity. Syrupy mouthfeel. Notes of molasses, almond, roasted cacao-nib, walnut, honeysuckle and a hint of freshly picked vegetable – pea or tomato vine – in aroma and cup. Rich, sweet-toned finish, though flavor fades rather quickly.
Given the very distinguished tree variety and producer, something may be a bit off here. The structure (acidity, mouthfeel) are outstanding, but the aroma/flavor should have been much more complex, pronounced and dynamic. This fading could have been owing to partial staling after roast or an older green coffee, although the rather muted aromatics and the molasses and hints of vegetable possibly suggest (alternatively or in addition) a very slightly underdeveloped roast.
Allen Bartee, Colombia Familia Guerra-La Gallimeta Wet Process. 89.5
Crisp, sweet, slightly woody. Acidity is delicately brisk and balanced. Mouthfeel is impressively full and syrupy. Notes of almond, molasses, carob, cherry-like fruit and a hint of flowers in aroma and cup. When the cup is hot, finishes well: sweet, rich, long, with good flavor saturation. The finish tends to fade and the woody note comes forward as the cup cools, however.
Our rating for this coffee when the cup was hot was 90.5. We deducted one point for fading of flavor and aroma as it cooled, which accentuated a backgrounded woody character, suggesting either fading after roast, fading of the green coffee before roast, or perhaps a slight underdevelopment in the roast.
Aaron MacDougall. Yemen Haraaz Marqaha. 89.0
Woody but sweet, rich. Backgrounded acidity. Lively but slightly rough mouthfeel. Notes of strawberry, walnut, roasted cacao nib, a hint of brandy in aroma and cup. Very sweet in the finish, though still woody, with the strawberry note in particular persisting into the long finish.
Yemen coffees do not store or transport well; perhaps fading of the green coffee is the cause of the mild woody listlessness that dampens an otherwise very sweet, aromatically complex dried-in-the-fruit coffee. Roast seems sound.
Cammie Hill. Sulawesi Peaberry Washed. 87.0
Delicate, softly brisk. Acidity is lively and gently bright, though a bit woody. Mouthfeel is lightly syrupy at first impression, though leanish thereafter. Lemon grass, honey, prairie flowers, woody walnut, a hint of vanilla in aroma and cup. Some flavor carries into a long, sweet-toned finish.
This coffee displays the honeyish, sweet but slightly floral-vegetal character of a coffee that most likely was not quite fully developed in the roaster, perhaps because peaberry is a difficult bean to roast.