Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Emerald in the Coffeebloggosphere's Crown, or not so Special?

Eliminating The Suspense

Esmeralda = emerald in Spanish, OK?

The Esmeralda That Was

Esmeralda is one of the coffees widely regarded as one of the world's best; its reputation is that of a modern-day Jamaican Blue Mountain. Last year, my curiosity got the better of me and I arranged to procure some from Paradise Roasters. In blogging about it, I introduced it as follows:

I probably don't need to write too much about this one. If you have been living under a rock, or if you just happen to be one of the few people who doesn't follow the coffee auctions, you might not know that this is currently the world's most expensive coffee. Previously, that dubious honour went to kopi luwak. (I'll spare you the jokes - google it if it's news to you.)

Esmeralda has an impressive back story; in a nutshell, the gesha varietal that makes up the Esmeralda Especial lot seems to have basically gone extinct except for a few random rediscoveries in Panama. It just so happens that this particular farm's gesha offering has won something like four Best of Panama auctions and every single other cupping competition it has been entered in. In terms of scores, the consensus seems to be that it's a 92 at a minimum, with some tasters going as high as 97!

The 2007 Paradise Roasters lot displayed a predominant and intense mandarin flavour in all brewing methods, backed with hints of bergamot and a slight astringency.

The Esmeralda That Is

Last year's, as far as I can tell, the correct name for it was "Hacienda Esmeralda Special." Flash forward a year and all of a sudden, the Petersons decided to shake things up by sorting the crop into different lots, all of which were auctioned under the "Hacienda Esmeralda Special" moniker. Again, the auction was blogged about widely. Readers are encouraged to post links to other relevant posts in the comments field. If you have to choose only one (other) blog post to read on the subject, remember the old saying - "in Hoff we trust." James' points about dilution of their own trademark and the effect on the market struck a chord with me, particularly seeing as trade marks was one of my favourite subjects.

The auction itself always reads like a who's who, so you might like to imagine Joan Rivers delivering the commentary. Stumptown was wearing batch one, hailing from "north of the creek," but the heavy hitter shared the most expensive batch, two, with Sweet Maria's. The dashing duo deftly devoured batch three, the peaberries, whilst 49th snapped up the sole double pass lot. Though the Petersons didn't credit Mountain Top for their technique - as I understand it - one wonders if the Piccolo clan's decision to purchase wasn't influenced by best buddy, Australian Mountaintopophile and coffee guru, Instaurator, who has done some consulting for them. Batches six through ten were bought by a wide spectrum. For the readers of this blog who I know follow the Japanese CoE buying circuit, it looks like crowd favourite Kentaro Maruyama didn't even contest the Esmeralda auction against big dog Wataru Nishibayashi. Presumably this means that Wataru will edge ahead of Maruyama in the awesome coffee purchasing league tables, but I would still want a several Watarus for my mint condition Maruyama trading card.

Competition results also deserve a mention. This year, the Petersons gave the Best of Panama competition a miss, presumably in order to give someone else a chance at winning. They also failed to place first for the fourth time in a row at the SCAA cupping pavillion (perhaps one of my kind readers could provide the link; I can't seem to find it). Fortunately, though, they did at least manage to walk away with first place in the rain forest alliance cupping for quality competition.

Anyhoo, that's enough background.

Having had spectacular success with the Mamuto, I decided to place an order for Esmeralda with Terroir, along with a few other goodies for various people:

Nim's care package; two packs of Esmeralda, a pack of Mamuto, Coffee Trail book, Hacienda La Minita book and a pack of the AWESOME filtropa pourover filters to go with his filter cone.

Let's take a closer look at that label ...

Where's the trademark Howell photo?

It was interesting to note that last year's batch from Paradise was comprised of unusually long and thin beans. This year's lot from Terroir looked considerably shorter and rounder ... perhaps a consequence of the decision to separate Esmeralda Special into different lots.

Anyhoo ...

Siphon/Vac Pot/Clover: These brews varied from being excellent to OK and I found the coffee difficult to work with. Several tasters agreed that there were Earl Grey tea (bergamot) notes, but differed to the intensity that they perceived. Sweetness was not as high as I had hoped, there was a good measure of acidity and the coffee was dry. The best brews had hints of peach.

Espresso: As I felt that the coffee was slightly too dark for siphon, I took it into the big V, borrowed one of their grinders and treated everyone to some Esmeralda espresso. The espresso had the kind of astringency that I usually associate with a roast that is slightly too light for espresso, but displayed a tiny amount of sweetness and some tannic tea type flavours.

This lot was interesting, but not the mind-blowing experience of last year's lot. Differences could have been due to (a) the separation of the Esmeralda Special lots this year, (b) the roasting of the coffee and (c) the shipping of this coffee, and attendant two week delay from roasting, compared with the last lot being brought over in carry on luggage. It would be very interesting to try out the various lots from the various sources that bought them, but that would probably end up being an expense to rival Krusty the clown's addiction to faberge' eggs.

The Esmeralda that will be ...?

It will be interesting to see if anyone actually does the work of tasting all of the various Esmeralda lots and working out how big the spread in quality is. Who knows how Esmeralda Special will be divided up in future? I am also very interested to find out how 49th's lot will go and whether this processing method might take off in Panama.

Digression - Siphon - Again

Siphon continues to be a learning experience, though brews are usually pretty good nowadays. I thought that the butane burner warranted a quick post. Frankly, I can't see how you can really use a siphon without putting it on the stove or using a butane burner. I bought mine off ebay from Jack Grieve. A similar burner is available at a very reasonable price through Jack's web store, along with some pretty cheap siphons.

When used in conjunction with a thermocouple, the butane burner makes it possible to get repeatable and adjustable brew temperatures. A marathon session of three siphon brews (and three cleaning runs) showed that the burner seems to emit more heat immediately after it is filled with gas. Good practice would be for the first use after refilling to be in a cleaning run.

So far, adjustments to the water temperature, dose and grind for the siphon have had eerily similar effects to doing the same thing for espresso.

One final tip - remember that every siphon brew is diluted by the water that doesn't make it into the top chamber to start off with and, as this is a fixed amount, the proportion of each brew that is made up of water that has never been in contact with coffee will increase if you try to brew less than the maximum amount for any given siphon. This lead to the experiment and realisation that if the brew is slightly on the strong side, dilution with hot water can sometimes save it.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Could it be ... BBB Logo ACF Tulips?

Move along.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Minita and Mamuto Mumblings


I'm a firm believer that the quest for coffee excellence requires tasting a lot of different coffees with an open mind. For my purposes, I try to taste a lot of different stuff purely to build up my own palate, as well as to get an idea of what others are writing about and what is possible in the world of specialty coffee. All of the good roasters that I know also believe in tasting a lot of different coffees - they view it as an exercise in benchmarking, without which they will quickly be proclaiming the virtues of utter crap; emperors with no clothes. Conversely, I don't think it's a coincidence that the very few roasters who I have heard of who don't taste widely do not produce a good product. (That applies equally to home roasters as it does to commercial roasters.)


Several years ago, I never would have imagined ordering coffee from the US of A. Over the past few years, coffee from the US has made regular, but infrequent, inroads into my usual rotation - fuelled in part by the prolific writings of the US bloggosphere and other coffee web pages.

It would not surprise me if the USA's coffee mainly does live up to the stereotypical Starbucks ashy espresso or the pot of drip coffee that has been sitting on the burner for a week, but they have a lot of good things going for them. As the world's largest economy, they have considerable buying power and they are conveniently placed near south and central america; two great producing regions. Their roasters appear to have developed against a background of a drip coffee culture, in which single origins are appreciated for their unique characteristics ... even if only because of the forehead-slappingly obvious contrast between a smooth colombian and a winey kenyan. In comparison with Australia, their espresso roasts have developed in the vacuum of Starbucks' shadow. Finally, they have an active specialty coffee association and are home to various programs such as the cup of excellence and the coffee quality institute. The USA has well and truly emerged as a big player in both the worlds of espresso and brewed coffee - one that leads the charge in many respects.

(Unfortunately, I appear to have misplaced my bag of Mamuto. I have taken a page from the book of barismo and borrowed this photo from Steve Ford. Steve ran an excellent project where he took a photo of the first cup of coffee that he drank each day over a year. You can check out 'First Cup' here.)

Terroir and George Howell

This particular coffee comes from Terroir in Massachussets. Terroir is run by George Howell, the man who founded the multi-site roastery 'Coffee Connection,' which he later sold to Starbucks before co-founding the Cup of Excellence and winning the SCAA's lifetime achievement award. Avid PQ readers will note that this is not the first time that Howell has rated a mention on this blog and I reiterate that his Long Road To Coffee Quality is a must-read.

The lovely thing about the prevalence of e-commerce in the USA is that the person on the other side of the web site is usually quite responsive and adept at getting around all sorts of problems, which included the difficulty of getting the coffee sent out as soon as it was roasted and correcting for an incorrect credit card number on my part. Nonetheless, postage is still a significant problem, with my package taking about three weeks to get here. Ugh. This activity is also not for the faint of wallet.

Costa Rica La Minita

La Minita has a reputation of being one of the great coffees of the world. It is also a model of quality and ethics working hand in hand. In a nutshell, my understanding is that they are very stringent on their picking and processing, to the point where they pay the pickers a premium to ensure that under-ripe fruit is not harvested. In turn, this means that their product is consistently good, justifying the premium for the roaster. This is a delicate, washed coffee that is really ideal for brewed coffee (drip/filter/siphon/clover). However, I first tasted this coffee in Klaus Thomsen's 2006 WBC winning blend, where it was paired with Daterra Sweet Collection to create a light, clean, crisp and sweet blend.

Siphon/Drip: Bright, slight apple flavour. Slight bitterness emerged on cooling.

This particular coffee simply didn't stand up to the battering that it received in shipping. I have no doubt that it would be better if it were fresher. That said, it wasn't exactly bad, but this struck me as a relatively subtle coffee that was always bound to be overshadowed by the Kenyan powerhouse. Read on.

Kenya Mamuto

The Mamuto has gained notoriety due, in part, to the ridiculously high scores that Kenneth Davids has awarded it over the years. Again, this coffee also demonstrates that quality and ethics can happily coexist at the pointy end of the market - when I bought it, Terroir's web page said that $2USD per 12oz went back to the farm, which is a helluva lot of cash in the world of green coffee.

Siphon/Drip: Bright, sweet, smooth, ribena, coffee cherry, tomato.

This coffee was simply fantastic. I turned off the espresso machine for a week and gladly scrubbed my siphon out. If it was that good after its shipping ordeal, it's kind of scary to imagine what it would have been like earlier. Simon James was of a similar opinion:
Well I’ll cut to the chase! The Kenyan Mamuto was STELLAR! No wonder it scored a 97 at Coffee Review. I can’t say that my description of the flavours I experienced was the same as those of the Coffee Review, but it was certainly sweetly powerful, with a smooth balanced finish. But I got blackcurrant aroma with stewed apricot in the cup. A very tasty coffee!
Needless to say that this coffee stood up to its trip a lot better than the Minita did. I actually took both the Minita and the Mamuto along to a cupping at BBB. The Minita fared well, but was not a standout. The Mamuto was the absolute stand out; it was everyone's pick, regardless of their level of experience.

From my description above, you can see that this cupped up like an exceptional, but classic, Kenyan coffee - very different to what one would expect from a Colombian, for example. It's worth pausing to reflect that perhaps it is the fact that these coffees tend to have the least 'classic' profile that makes them so clearly special. Coffeecuppers deal with the distinction between classic cups and unusual coffees in their short coffee tasting primer. Howell that this consistent and unusual cup profile merited the title 'Grand Cru' - on his fondness for wine analogies, see CG podcast 63 (link directly to 29 megabyte mp3 file).


Yeah. I admit it. I have some different stuff on the way from Terroir - readers with less respect for their wallets are invited to taste vicariously through future posts. I'm also keen on getting some stuff from the outstanding Ecco Caffe if anyone wants to split postage at some stage.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 11, 2008

Indonesians are generally thick, dirty and not very bright ...

... and that's not a coffee tasting description that you want overheard in public!

With Saturdays free now, I have managed to make it to BBB for cuppings. It seems that most people use BBB's cuppings as a way to learn more about coffee and to build their palate. It's not an exaggeration to say that people travel far and wide for this opportunity - last week Emanuel from Ristretto in Perth turned up; this week it was Perth espresso godfather Corey from Epic and a bus load of his staff. It's great to see such dedication ... and mind-boggling to see a cafe owner flying his baristi across the country just to check out some cafes.

That's all well and good, but cuppings also provide a fantastic opportunity to sample BBB's offerings to work out what to take home. Last week, I was on a bit of a mission to find a fantastic, generic chocolate-bar type blend. I had a fantastic drip coffee - more on that next post - and, so, was looking for the opposite end of the spectrum for my morning cappuccino. I found it in mystery cup number 7:

Cupping: From memory, the cup was not particularly pleasant whilst hot, with an odd rubbery/chemical overtone. After cooling, the dominant sensation in the cup was body, supported by hints of sweetness, dirt, broth and the immortal "funky forest floor." Remarkably clean, for what it was.

Espresso: Striking, dense, brick-red crema. Heavy body. Some acidity, bleeding into a slightly unpleasant camphor/terpene (chemical) finish.

Cappuccino: Effortlessly mastered even relatively large amounts of milk, leaving me wondering whether I hadn't inadvertently added several spoons of Milo. Sledgehammer subtlety.

No prizes for guessing that this was a Sumatran Mandheling - actually a new crop Kuda Mas. I'm looking forward to this one over the next few months.

Labels: ,