Even before Esmeralda became the most famous coffee in the world, it was a pretty famous coffee.
The geisha coffee from Hacienda la Esmeralda in Panama was well-known in the specialty coffee world well before it got a jaw-dropping $130/pound (that's green coffee) in the 2007 Best of Panama internet auction. In fact, it had been winning that annual competition every year, and even setting price records. To those who had been paying attention, it was no surprise that Esmeralda was tops in Panama in 2007. The only surprise was the price.
I remember the first time I had Esmeralda. I was working at Victrola Coffee Roasters in Seattle, and the staff held a cupping with samples from all of the winning coffees. This was 2005. I think there were about 22 lots that year. For some reason we decided to cup all 22 coffees at once, so I was working quickly to get through the line.
Anyone who has done professional cupping can tell you, commenting during the cupping is a big no-no. In fact, it's a bad idea to even make little noises or faces. Your reaction to a given coffee can heavily influence the way your fellow cuppers will approach it. If you shout out "Lemon!" everyone is going to taste lemon. If you even mutter "gross" to yourself and make a little face, you are liable to bring down the score of the cupper next in line.
Well, the Esmeralda caused me to violate rules. I was going down the line, tasting, evaluating, and enjoying. Keep in mind these were the 22 best coffees from Panama that year. It's not like we had 21 bad coffees and then the Esmeralda. We had 21 outstanding, unique coffees, and then the Esmeralda. As I zipped down the line, slurping away, suddenly I stopped in my tracks and literally did a trible take. I think I made a little, inarticulate, "Hahh?" noise. Then I stood there and took about five sips in a row.
I've had the Esmeralda Reserve a few times since, plus several other outstanding Panama geishas. It's hard for me to know now how much of my memory is tainted by knowledge I got later. And since I don't still have my notes from that session lo these 4 and a half years ago, I have to rely on my memory. One thing I know for sure, because I remember telling friends about it later that day over beers, is that the Esmeralda tasted just like really sweet, fresh orange juice. I don't mean the stuff from a frozen artillery shell. I mean if you've every had an orange in its native tropical environment, still warm from the sun when you cut it open. So sweet! That was the Esmeralda geisha.
After the cupping, incidentally, there was no liquid left in those particular cups. Everyone had drunk it all down. We enjoyed it so much that it was after that cupping session that I started hosting public cuppings at Victrola with my friend Tonx. And people thought we were crazy... [And look what kind of nonsense came out of that, speaking of the Esmeralda.]
Most of the geisha I have had belongs in my Top 20 Coffees of All Time, but I'm just gonna put it in there once. The first time I had it will always be the strongest memory I have of it. Isn't that always the way life goes?
Back in New York City after a long weekend in Atlanta. SCAA was, as usual, lots of faces, lots of parties, lots of interesting new concepts and machines, and way way way too much caffeine. Good times
I'd like to share some highlights and lowlights from my experience:
1. Gwilym Davies' signature beverage. Gwilym is your new World Barista Champion. Of course, as a non-judge, I didn't get to taste his espresso. From everything I heard, and judging on the fact that he beat out the 50 best baristas in the entire world, I'm assuming it was positively fantastic. Roasted by these guys.
But, although again I didn't get to taste it, Gwilym's signature beverage was a sight behold. At the beginning of his competition time, he gave the four sensory judges each an envelope and told them to open it and follow the instructions therein. It was a mystery to the general audience what was going on. Then he made his espressos and cappuccinos. When sig-drink time came, he collected the envelopes and announced what four flavors the judges had selected. You see, each card contained four different flavor components, divided into four categories, and Gwilym had the judges choose their "favorite flavor component." Then he went to his tray of 16 different ingredients and selected the four named by the judges for the drink, and prepared the drink. Ballsy, entertaining, and presumably delicious.
In the first round, the choices were butter, hazelnuts, honey, and cherry. I didn't catch the combo in the final round. But all 16 were components he claims are in the espresso, and it's easy to believe him based on the scores he got. Every time I think baristas couldn't possibly come up with new innovations, the best prove me wrong. I have no idea how next year's champ will top this — that's why they are champs and I am not — but I'm already intrigued. Bravo, Gwilym!
2. Chris and M'lissa's wedding reception. Good friends and great people (and great coffee people) Chris Owens and M'lissa Muckerman were married recently, and they saved their big reception for the SCAA show. M'lissa used to run the show at Octane coffee in Atlanta, and that's where about 400 drunken happy baristas and assorted coffee folks descended on Friday night to toast them and dance the night away. At the end of the night there wasn't a single drop of booze left in the place (seriously), though they had started with a mighty inventory. Chris wore a tux and M'lissa a pretty dress, and everyone was smiles all around, spilling out into the parking lot and the streets of Atlanta. So great to see so many old friends! It's a tribute to how much everyone loves those two that it was such a great party. Also a good thing that my primary job the next day was to drink coffee.
Thanks Chris'n'M'liss! Congratulations!
3. Devin's shot of Black Cat. You get a ton of coffee at these events, of course. Some of it is good, some of it is great, and some of it makes you wonder what people were thinking (in a room full of 1000s of coffee experts, better bring your A-game!). I went in hoping to get a real transformative experience from some unknown coffee, but the best shot I had all weekend was actually a shot of Black Cat espresso made for me at the Intelligentsia booth by master LA barista, Devin Pedde. Perfect chocolate and caramel, touch of rich fruit, velvety smooth mouthfeel that stayed with me for an hour.
The other fantastic shot I had was at the Barista Guild of America cafe, a shot of Terroir Coffee's Daterra Reserve (a famous Brazilian grower, roasted by a famous Massachusettes coffee expert), pulled by fellow New York Stater Chris Ganger of Ithaca Coffee Company. Very clear and light for a Brazil, but with lots of sweetness and great aromatics. Nice job, Devin and Chris.
4. First Annual Taster's Championship. Won by another northeasterner (detect a pattern?), Ben Kaminsky of Barismo. This has been a long time coming. For all the attention given to barista competition, it's about time we had a national competition for tasters. The format is simple differentiation of triangulated coffees (pick which of the three is different from the other two), in as short a time as possible. Geoff Watts of Intelly made the top three, but Kaminsky pulled out the championship in the end. Now it's on to world's for him. Major props. If I have the balls I will compete next year myself.
5. Hartmann Honey from Gimme! Gabe Boscano of Gimme! Coffee gave me a small bag of Panamanian coffee from his latest batch on their restored Probat drum roaster. Gimme! has air-roasted from the start, and the drum-roaster is a new venture for them; Gabe's helping to drive that bus. I didn't technically taste this at the show, but rather brewed myself two pots this morning. It's very rich and sweet for a Panama, due in part to being "honey-processed" coffee (pulp dried right on the parchment instead of fermented off). I know this is a risky way to process coffee, but the Hartmann family did it perfectly, and the Gimme! crew roasted it perfectly. I'm already looking forward to drinking some more later today. Thanks, Gabe!
Just one here: JFK airport almost completely shut down on Monday due to a little blustery weather and heavy rain. That place is so damn busy, the slightest glitch seems to send it into total disarray. People were getting canceled and redirected all up and down the East Coast. My colleague David left very early Monday, ended up in Cincinatti somehow and barely made it home. My colleague Steve had to spend the night in Raleigh, NC, and then was delayed again on his morning flight. As for me, I was delayed several hours out of Atlanta, then circled over New Jersey for an hour or so before they sent us to Boston where we refueled, took off again, circled over Long Island for a while and then, at the last moment, they let us land at JFK 7 hours late. Oof...
But I'm back now. And luckily, the highlights (of which these five are only a small selection) vastly overpower the lowlights.
1) Conde Nast traveler visits the New Amsterdam Market and name-drops the New York Coffee Society. This will give you an idea of what's stirring at the South St. Seaport lately. Crappy sound quality, unfortunately.
2) Willem Boot sends this video of Geisha seedlings growing on his farm in Panama. If you have never seen a baby coffee plant before, this is fascinating. Warning: the kind of lingering shots here that scream out "Proud Papa!" like someone filming their kid's piano recital.