Talking about my "top twenty coffees of all time" yesterday got me thinking about what, seriously, would be on that list. So I am going to revisit some of those memorable coffees over the coming weeks when the mood strikes me.
The following article appeared on my old, old blog (the LiveJournal one), and my readership has changed quite a bit since then, so I thought it would be fun to repost this. I originally wrote it for the women's website Divine Caroline, so those of you who are coffee experts can forgive the elementary presentation. But I still stand by the general philosophy of this piece. Enjoy!
COFFEES THAT ARE TRULY ONE OF A KIND
by Daniel Humphries
I’ve got my score sheet right here in front of me. It says, and I am not making this up: “banana, papaya, pineapple, raspberry, mangos... tropical...” (then you can see I am getting a little excited, because my handwriting is more hurried) “so sweet and smooth... astonishing” (then I lose my professionalism altogether): “Velvety pinks and magentas!!”
Would you guess that I was describing coffee? Yeah, me neither. But this is the sort of thing I sometimes come across in my travels: a truly unique coffee. For the skeptical here’s a statistic: brewed coffee typically contains over 800 different organic compounds, compared with around 200 in a glass of wine. Each compound has unique flavor, from the nasty (ashes, mold, animal hide) to the divine (meyer lemon, honey, baker’s chocolate). What marks a great coffee is an intriguing combination of positive attriubtes and a lack of negative ones.
It was in Ethiopia that I found the coffee that caused my little “pink and magenta” orgasm, in the middle of scoring coffees for a national competition. Now, strictly speaking, “velvety pinks and magentas!” is not a technically acceptable term. You might be surprised at the level of detail that goes into scoring these coffees. Coffees are evaluated on flavor, aftertaste, acidity (not always a bad thing!), body, cleanliness (really!), balance, sweetness, fragrance and aroma (not technically the same thing!), and well, you get the idea. If you are interested in what a scoresheet looks like (and if you are interested, my goodness dear, what kind of hopeless nerd are you?!) you can see one version (though not the one I was using) here.
The aroma notes I listed above (papaya, mango) are the kinds of notes professional cuppers will often make on their score sheets, though admittedly those particular notes are quite rare. Writing down colors is less common. It’s supposed to be scientific, after all. Sometimes I have to remind myself. Otherwise I might end up with drawings of race cars for, say, a kick-ass Blue Batak Sumatra; a series of angrily sketched frowny faces for defective commercial coffee from — name redacted to protect the purveyors of defective commercial coffee — ; and Keatsian odes to delicate Guatemalan beauties (“O, thou still unravished Huehuetenango of quietness...”)
Usually, though, I just stick to my numerical scores. I swear. Besides, giving a coffee a 9.5 on aftertase is about the same as writing a love poem to it, considering what that implies about the quality of the coffee.
All this is just to find coffees that people are going to like. Generally we don’t speak of people evaluating their double americanos based on balance and fragrance. But there’s the catch: they are evaluating it that way. They just don’t know it. People know what they like, they just sometimes lack the vocabulary to explain it.
And what do people like? Above all, they like sweetness and a smooth mouthfeel. Market research backs this up. Also: duh. This is why people put cream and sugar (or soy and splenda, natch) in their coffee. People also like a good aftertaste, a pleasing snap (“good” acidity), and an interesting or comforting aroma profile. The fact that they don’t break it down that way doesn’t mean that it can’t be broken down that way.
A truly great coffee will be so sweet and smooth as to not need any cream or sugar or Stevia. (Actually, nothing should ever need Stevia, ever. For any reason. Have you tried that stuff? I don't care if it's "all natural"," it’s like putting the purified essence of the sun on your tongue, if the sun was made out of sugar and post-industrial chemical waste). A truly great coffee will also have something unique about it that no other coffee has, no matter how sweet and smooth.
And this is why we go through all the trouble to taste and score coffee after coffee in the kinds of competitions I’m describing. Trust me, a lot of the coffee is terrible. There are all kinds of defects that can come up on the table. I don’t need to tell you this. You have already had terrible coffee many times. But the search is always worth it. When you find that glittering ruby on the table, you are such a happy little taster.
Lucky for you, dear and beautiful reader, it’s not necessary to go to Ethiopia to find these coffees. Just be discerning. In fact, be a snob. I highly recommend it. If you want to find a coffee like the one that made me start singing arias in Ethiopia, look for coffee that was bought and roasted in small lots or “micro-lots.” Coffee bought at specialty auction is reliably outstanding. Look for “Cup of Excellence” (top coffees from all over Latin America and now Rwanda), “Best of Panama” (top coffees from, um, Panama), “Ethiopia Limited” (where I found my little gem) and the like.
If your favorite roaster or coffee shop doesn’t offer something like this, ask them why not? And as always, let your own taste be your guide. If it makes you want to draw unicorns, it’s good coffee.
(Magenta Square by Nigel Tomm)