Well.... step one is now complete. The first of three such cuppings has concluded and results have been tallied. There were some surprises, and some lessons learned.
First... a little set up.
Goal - evaluate the state of high end quality coffee in San Francisco.
Process - three different cupping sessions each with a different selection approach (today was the first of the three).
Protocol - blind cupping with cuppers selected who are independent of any of the roasters and who each represent a different perspective, background and palate.
This first of the three cuppings was of coffees selected as follows:
- an employee of the vendor was asked for recommendations for two coffees to buy. The only constraint was that no blends would be selected and that this was not for espresso. They were not told this would be for cupping or for analysis of any sort. Coffees were paid for and there was no reveal of my role in any of this.
The cuppers were selected to be representative of:
1 - professional coffee cuppers / roasters
2 - serious home (semi-pro) coffee roasters
3 - serious food and wine professional (passionate about coffee)
I cupped as well (mostly for the fun of it).
The hardest part of the process was selecting which roasters to buy from. In the end I made an executive decision and chose what I thought were likely to be the top five roasters in the area (as calculated by average opinions of passionate coffee buyers and professionals). As a result, I left out two roasters who probably deserved to be on the list - which I feel bad about. But I think this is a good representative sampling none the less, and I do feel it's a good "average opinion" list.
The roasters were:
Four Barrel Coffee - San Francisco based roaster and coffee bar. The "newest" of the roasters on this list, Four Barrel has a lot of buzz amongst coffee professionals.
Ritual Coffee Roasters - San Francisco based roaster with three coffee bars. Ritual has a strong presence in San Francisco and has expanded into the Napa region as well.
Ecco Caffe - Santa Rosa based roaster, wholesale only. The smallest of the roasters on this list, Ecco is known for its espresso and its organic coffees.
Equator Estate Coffees - San Rafael based roaster, wholesale only. A well-known coffee brand, Equator won Roast Magazine's 'Roaster of the Year' award for 2010 and is served at The French Laundry.
Blue Bottle Coffee Company - Oakland based roaster with four cafes. One of the hottest coffee brands in the US right now, Blue Bottle is loved by SF foodies and is expanding nationally.
The coffees sourced were as follows:
- Costa Rica Cafetin 1900
- El Salvador Kilimanjaro
(It was no shock to me that the coffees selected were both from central america given Four Barrel's focus and their style of roasting.)
- Guatemala Xeucalvitz
- Honduras La Pinona
(Again, these selections were not a shock given the style of coffee that Ritual focuses on.)
- Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op
- Kenya Gichathaini
(While Ecco is well-known for their espresso, I'd ruled espresso out. And the new crop Brazils have not arrived for US roasters yet, so this selection made sense to me.)
- Nicaragua Aldea Global
- Costa Rica Montes de Oro
(I was a little surprised that both coffees were from central america given Equator's offering list, but both coffees seemed well chosen none the less.)
- Mexico Chiapas
- Mexico Nayarita
(I was quite surprised by this selection. Suggesting two coffees from Mexico seems a little odd to me. The Nayarita was quite enthusiastically praised and the Chiapas was suggested as a way to compare the Nayarita to a more traditional coffee from Mexico.)
The cupping went very well.
It was informative and fun.
The mix of backgrounds and perspectives created a really interesting dialogue - and in the end there were only 2 coffees that provoked any dispute. And in some ways this dispute was the single most valuable take away from the day.
What we learned can be summed up by three statements.
The very best coffees from San Francisco are very good indeed.
The top four coffees were nearly unanimous, and when scores were averaged the gap between these four and the remaining coffees was quite large. In addition, there was almost no gap between the 2nd, 3rd and 4th coffees (they were effectively a three way tie).
Beyond this, however, these top four coffees were all of exceptional quality. We felt these four coffees could hold their own on nearly any cupping table in the US.
Coffee people like sour coffees - consumers with educated palates do not.
The most controversial coffee was one which was alternately described as "sparkly, tart, with lovely bright acidity" and "sour, painful, harsh and thin."
Our wine and food professional commented of this coffee, "this is the kind of coffee that you coffee people love - but the rest of us hate."
I think this is something that coffee professionals need to be concerned about. I've heard this sort of critique before and it's usually written off as coming from an uneducated consumer palate. In this case, the consumer in question had a palate FAR more educated than any of the coffee palates - so I think we have to pay attention.
The top Bay Area roasters still produce some bad coffee.
While the top coffees would stand on their own on any cupping table, the bottom coffees in our opinion were not of speciality coffee grade.
This is where SF coffee needs to improve the most. As compared to coffee in, for example, Portland - our good is good, but our bad is unacceptable. We need to raise the bar for what minimum quality is - and not sell or serve coffee that doesn't meet this minimal grade. Obviously, if the coffee is not of speciality coffee grade then it should not be used.
From this first cupping... the results were as follows.
The top rated coffee was the Ecco Caffe Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op. This was an absolutely lovely coffee with gorgeous grapefruit zest and a lovely hoppy flavour that reminded us of a pine-less Russian River Pliny the Elder. Wonderfully elegant and sophisticated, we all felt that this coffee was a true stand-out.
Following this were three coffees in a virtual dead heat. These were:
- Four Barrel Costa Rica Cafetin 1900 (wonderful sweet acidity, pluot and cherry notes)
- Ecco Caffe Kenya Gichathaini (juicy jolly rancher sweet fruit leading to robust, savory and fleshy barnyard and broth)
- Ritual Guatemala Xeucelvitz (super crisp lime acidity, mellowing over time to a rounded and full sweet blackberry)
These top four coffees were all considered to be exceptional.
After the top four, there came the controversial, "sour" coffee. This coffee was rated quite highly by two cuppers and very poorly by a third. In this case, we can conclude that the results have more to do with the style of coffee than the coffee itself.
- Ritual Honduras La Pinona (super bright with apricot and green apple and white grape skin in some ways hiding a bottom of cane syrup)
Below this coffee there was a reasonable gap before another group of three coffees. These three were less closely clustered than the top four and ranged in our opinion from good to servicable to acceptable in quality. They were:
- Four Barrel El Salvador Kilimanjaro (tons of midrange with dried fruit, spice and stonefruit and lovely aromatics but diminished acidity)
- Equator Nicaragua Aldea Global (some nice crisp tangerine acidity and hints of milk chocolate and spice but a little flat and slightly toasty tasting)
- Equator Costa Rica Montes de Oro micro-lot (smoky and flat with some decent sweet caramel but also noticeable ash and little to no acidity)
At the very bottom were the two coffees that in our opinion failed to make the speciality coffee grade. We were unanimous with our opinion on these. They were:
- Blue Bottle Chiapas (dirty with strong cardboard and mushroom notes; noticeable ash and hints of fish)
- Blue Bottle Nayarita (severe defect. heavy ferment. very dirty. rotting berries and diapers)
In looking at these coffees, I think that one thing we learned is that a significant part of the results have to do with the selection. I was a bit surprised by the selection from Blue Bottle - especially as there was a Yirgacheffe on the list. And the surprising selection obviously hurt them. I'm looking forward to the next two cupping sessions (where selection will be handled differently) as I'm expecting that Blue Bottle's coffees perform far better than this.
I was also shocked by the Equator Costa Rica. This is a micro-lot coffee that I would have expected to have had far more character and to be honest would have thought would finish ahead of the other Equator coffee. I think this shows just how much variance there is in coffee, and how much of your experience is going to be luck (was the roaster "in the groove" that day, are the beans at or near the end of their lifetime, etc).
But overall - I'm quite proud of these coffees and I think San Francisco has a lot to be proud of.
Thanks to my guest cuppers - you all are the best.