12.03.2009

State of SF Coffee (round 2)

And so... our second round of cupping coffees from some of the top Bay Area roasters is now complete.

For more information on the idea - the process - and the roasters, please read Part One.

We assembled the same cuppers as in Round One - but this time we (the cuppers) chose the coffees. These coffees were from the same five roasters (Blue Bottle, Ritual, 4 Barrel, Ecco Caffe and Equator). As with Round One - we chose 2 coffees from each roaster. We did, however, run into a snag with one of the roasters. We had hoped to cup Equator's Sumatra Golden Pawani but were unable to lay our hands on any (despite a frantic trek all over San Francisco). This turned out to be a somewhat significant issue as the replacement coffee had some very real issues.

Update: As it turns out, it seems highly probable that the coffee sourced as the replacement for the Equator Sumatra was NOT (as advertised) from Equator. As such, this piece has been re-written to reflect this.

The coffees selected for this round consisted of:

Four Barrel:
El Salvador Siberia Estate Bourbon
Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon

Ritual:
Honduras Finca Fernandez
Kenya Kanyoni

Ecco:
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op (top ranked coffee from Round One)
Peru Tingo-Maria

Equator:
Ethiopia Harar

Blue Bottle:
Colombia Cauca Tierradentro
Papua New Guinea "Tribal Aromas"

Unknown Roaster:
Peru Organic (replacement for the Sumatra) (SEE UPDATE)

This combination gave us an interesting table - with coffees representing a wide range of cultivars, growing regions, processing methods and roast styles.

It turned out to be both intriguing and challenging. Comparing coffees of such diverse styles forced us to really get away from simply evaluating the green beans and get into the details of the roast in addition to the beans and created amazing conversations about the holistic appeal of each coffee.

In the end we, again, learned a couple interesting things. These can be summed up in (again) three statements.

You cannot always rely upon the staff selling you coffee.

Across the board we agreed that the coffees we had picked out were better than the coffees picked out for us by staff of the various coffee retailers (Round One). In part we can assume this is because we kind of know what we like - and buy what we like. But given that there were four of us making these decisions, personal tastes should have balanced out. None the less... this time we (with one exception) preferred the coffees over what we'd received in Round One. Obviously, this point is heavily influenced by the (poor) suggestions in Round One for Blue Bottle -- and by the "Mystery" coffee from Round Two.

San Francisco has some fantastic green coffee.

The top six coffees on the table were exceptional. They were unique, enjoyable, lovely, intriguing and represented a wide range of taste experiences. All of the top 6 coffees were clearly exceptionally high quality green coffee - something that really pleased us. It is very clear that San Francisco is seeing some green coffee that is on par with what any top roaster anywhere is getting.

San Francisco roasters have to improve.

While the top 6 coffees were all exceptional, we could really only say that 3 of the coffees were (in our opinions) optimally roasted. Out of the ten coffees, in fact, 3 were egregiously poorly roasted. In the case of 2 of the coffees, this went from merely sloppy roasting to truly unprofessional roasting. Compared to top roasters in the established roasting centers, SF roasters still have a long way to go.


From this cupping the results were as follows...

As noted, we had a group of 6 coffees that were all exceptional. We had to resort, in many cases, to using 1/4 points in order to break some of the ties (individually) and still ended up with one (aggregate) tie.

The top ranked coffee was the Ecco Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Co-op -- a repeat from last week. This is a lovely coffee, with notes of lime blossom and grapefruit rind and marmalade with the only critique being that it was a bit thin in the body and lacked some mouthfeel.

Following behind this (in tight formation and in order) were:
Four Barrel Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon (wonderfully balanced, plum, berry, super sweet chocolate, dried fruit)
Ritual Kenya Kanyoni (dried blackberry, tomato broth, wonderful pomegranate / citrus / berry acidity as it cools)
Four Barrel El Salvador Siberia Estate Bourbon (tons of juicy stone fruit, lovely balance, classic profile, dark chocolate bon-bon)
Ecco Peru Tingo-Maria (super juicy, watermelon jolly rancher, white pepper, drying finish)
Ritual Honduras Finca Fernandez (subtle, delicate floral and soft fruit notes, tightly knotted fruit acidity, milk chocolate and caramel, orange pith finish)

All of these coffees were very good - showcasing both the palates and in some cases the roasting skills of the coffee companies in SF.

Following these top 6 came a group of 3 coffees that were mediocre and flawed but still acceptable. These were (in order):
Equator Ethiopia Harar (tons of blueberry, nice kirsch notes, hints of earth, medicinal NyQuil note in the finish, obvious ferment)
Blue Bottle Colombia Cauca Tierradentro (brazil nut, maple butter, dried fruit, hints of vanilla, a little ashy, slightly baggy with wet straw notes)
Blue Bottle Papua New Guinea (earth, mushroom, dried fruit, semi-sweet chocolate, smoke, mold, ash)

Finally, there was one coffee that was simply not acceptable. It was hard to know if this coffee (in green form) was of speciality coffee grade, but our guess is that it was not. In addition, it was catastrophically misroasted.
Unknown Roaster Peru Organic (trash fire, diapers, moldy charcoal briquettes)


Unlike in Round One, we did not have any "controversial" coffees this time. While there were slight differences of opinion on rankings of some coffees there were mostly differences of one place in the ranking ("I have numbers 4 and 5 swapped from where you have them") or differences of less than 1 point in scoring.


We are starting to see some segmentation among the roasters as well. As of right now, we seem to have a group of 3 roasters who are producing consistently excellent coffee, and 2 roasters who are not.

While Blue Bottle's coffees showed far better in this cupping than they did in Round One, they are clearly still underperforming. I'm hoping that they can up their results in the third part of this evaluation. Given that they are considered by many foodies in SF (and outside of SF) to be the "top" coffee company in the Bay Area - their poor performance to date (1 marginal coffee, 1 poor coffee, 2 unacceptable coffees) is both shocking and simply not okay.

I'm a bit disappointed with Equator's coffees as well at this point. I'd like to see them move up into contention with the top three in the final round. They are the reigning "Roaster of the Year" from Roast Magazine -- and as a result a lot more is expected of them from what we've seen so far (1 decent coffee and 2 marginal coffees).

While Ecco has had the top coffee both weeks, over-all they are effectively in a dead heat with Four Barrel and Ritual. Four Barrel's coffees have been as consistent as Ecco's, while Ritual has been hurt first by the "controversial" Honduras La Pinona and this week by the underperformance of their COE Honduras Finca Fernandez (expected by many of us to at least challenge the Ecco Yirgacheffe for top spot).


As an interesting aside - the shock inclusion of this "mystery" unknown roaster coffee has enabled us to compare these "top" roasters against what we could describe as a "generic" roaster. In this comparison - any and all of these roasters come out clearly on top. At the same time, the idea that ANY coffee bars are serving coffee of the quality of that Peru is simply shocking.


In our next (and final) round of cupping we will be soliciting 2 coffees from each of these 5 roaster directly -- allowing them to choose the coffees they would expect to do best under these circumstances. I'm expecting that this will be the strongest showing of all three rounds.


And, again... my thanks to the cuppers working on this. You all rock.



Important Update: In talking with the folks from Equator, it seems HIGHLY likely the Peru that was provided to us was in fact not from Equator. While I'd love to blame the coffee company that sold us this coffee - I have to take at least part of the responsibility myself. I absolutely should have double checked to make sure that this was a coffee on Equator's current roster and accept the blame for not doing so. My apologies to Equator - and to the poor cuppers who had to taste that coffee.

7 comments:

Ben Kaminsky said...

re: Trusting the staff for recommendations

Just a side note. The two Ritual coffees selected for this round were not yet on the menu/available at the time of the last round.

Otherwise, always nice to have third party critique.

-Ben k.

chris said...

and to be clear - the suggestions from the barista at Ritual for Round One (as the results demonstrate) were quite good (also true of Four Barrel and Ecco).

Matthew said...

I like what has been done so far, but choosing the same coffee for another round challenges the blind concept, doesn't it?

chris said...

That would assume that cuppers knew what was on the table. In this case - they did not.

manseekingcoffee said...

I love this investigation. Can't wait for part 3. Could you elaborate on how you used the playing cards in your scoring system?

chris said...

The playing cards are not used in scoring per se. They are just a way of "coding" the coffees that allows for blind cupping (one "jack" can go at the place on the table, one on the cups of coffee, one on the bag of beans - with a master sheet that maps each card to each coffee).
Nothing special.

Gabriel said...

We chose the same coffee three rounds in order to test/prove/share the concept of consistency...which is something as both barista and roaster that is exceedingly challenging but keeps me motivated.