A Little Background Reading Please…
Being the world’s largest coffee producer means that Brazil has a coffee for everyone, regardless of their need or price point. They produce vast quantities of low-grade robusta coffee as well as many high-grade robustas and arabicas. It turns out that Brazilian coffee is pretty much everywhere, and you’ve probably consumed some recently, if you’ve consumed any coffee at all.
All this may surprise you if you don’t happen work in the coffee industry or follow it closely like an obsessive groupie. It turns out that Brazilian coffee is kind of like the working actor in Hollywood: ubiquitous, not often recognized, but easy to spot when you know what you’re looking for. The altitude at which Brazilian coffee is grown ensures a well-rounded, smooth coffee that blends well with bolder, brassier beans. In fact, most Brazilian coffee ends up in blends, whether it’s Folger’s or Coffee Klatch’s WBC espresso blend (rated best in the world in 2007). While a few Brazilian beans do succeed as single-origin coffees or single origin espressos, like Richard Jenkin’s recent rise to leading man in The Visitor, most seem happy with solid supporting roles. [You can read more about Brazilian Coffee at Coffee Review and Sweet Maria's]
Selecting the Cupping Line-Up
Seeing as how I’m more or less part of the teeming masses unfamiliar with the specifics of Brazilian coffees, I decided to cup a few in order to get to know them better. I didn’t want to keep all the fun to myself so I also invited some friends, similarly unfamiliar with Brazilian coffee, to partake in the process with me.
Selecting the line up turned out to be more challenging than I thought it would be. I quickly became overwhelmed with roasters, varietals, farms and processing methods, and whenever I started to narrow in on a particular aspect of Brazilian coffees I thought worth examining, the line-up of coffees from a given roaster changed or I read something about another varietal or process that sounded interesting. Ultimately, I settled on a simple rubric for selecting my coffees. I decided to go local, buying just from roasters in the Bay Area, and I ruled out coffees from the Poco Fundo cooperative. The latter wasn’t a choice I made for a strong methodological reasons. There were simply a lot of Poco Fundo coffees available and I thought these might make a great sequel (Son of Bay Area Brazilians!). Oh, and on a last minute whim, we threw in some of Starbuck’s Pikes Place Roast – there’s probably some Brazilian coffee in there somewhere, right?
In the end, I settled on the following five:
- Blue Bottle Coffee’s Chapada Diamantina. The name denotes the region and I believe the coffee is a pulped natural Catuai.
- Ritual Roaster’s Fazenda Do Serrado, a natural processed Yellow Bourbon.
- Ecco Caffe’s Fazenda Cachoeira Screen Dried Yellow Bourbon.
- Ecco Caffe’s Daterra Estate Reserve, a Yellow Bourbon. Not sure about the processing with this one.
- Starbuck’s Pike Place Roast.
The Main Event
We cupped blind, my wife acting as the PricewaterhouseCoopers of the ceremony. We also cupped hungry, which hopefully was a good thing. Blueberry pancakes, bacon and home fries were waiting for us at the after party (already prepared so as not to influence our senses). I gave a short introduction, began the mad dashing between table, grinder and kettle, and the rest is history.
The top two coffees were pretty clear. Four out of the six of us picked the Blue Bottle Chapada Diamantina as our favorite while the other two preferred the Ecco Caffe Daterra Reserve, and most of us picked the other one of these two as a runner up. I’ve included my notes below, but I think the reason for this particular outcome has to do with certain objective qualities of these two coffees. Both revealed a fruity bouquet underscored with rich, full-bodied coffee with lots of strong chocolate notes. These two are far from identical coffees, but like a good, fruity merlot, they seem to have real universal appeal.
The group diverged when it came to the bottom three. Most surprising was that the Ritual Faezenda Do Serrado tended to score near the bottom while the Starbucks Pikes Place Roast hovered only around third or fourth in most tasters rankings. These results were alarming to me at first – the lone dissenter for whom Ritual’s beans tied for second and Starbucks was very much in last place – until I thought more about why this might be the case.
The fact is that the friends I had invited to participate, while very much passionate about their coffee, could fairly be described (most likely to their credit) as possessing only limited to maybe moderate obsessiveness when it comes to coffee – at least if CoffeeGeek is any basis for the extremes to which people go for good coffee. This was their first time cupping and, while that by no means is intended to diminish the value of their input or opinions, I want to mention it because I think it does help to inform you, the reader, of how you might want to evaluate the outcome of this cupping.
It’s no secret that Ritual roasts its beans extremely light, a style I’ve really grown to appreciate and love. However, it’s a flavor that not everyone is used to and is certainly acquired given the proliferation of darker roasts that dominate the coffee drinking world. I’ve encountered a similar situation with other friends when introducing them to Ritual – it’s not a roast for everyone, and is very much surprising and off-putting if you don’t know what to expect. While I personally find Starbucks’ new roast barely drinkable, it is much closer, and an improved version at that, to what most people might tend to find in their coffee. It’s familiar, while pushing things in the right direction of lighter roasts, revealing greater complexities of the coffee. I think the lesson I learned with this cupping is that there is no disputing tastes. Oh, and you should always keep an open mind. At the same time, this is my blog so I get to have the final word (of course that doesn’t stop my friends from deluging this post with lots of comments).
The Final Word
Here’s my opinion on the five coffees we tasted:
- Blue Bottle’s Chapada Diamantina (Rating 4): My favorite. It was very consistent in terms of its dry and wet aroma as well as flavor. It had a strong theme of blueberry surrounded by honey, sweet white wine, chocolate, butter and brown sugar. It had a somewhat viscous mouthfeel but wasn’t overly syrupy. It pressed well, but was better as a pour over drip. I did have this coffee, made on the Clover at the 2008 WRBC and I would definitely drink it that way again in a second. I imagine it has the potential to make a really great single origin espresso, but in the few shots I tried to pull, I could never quite nail it.
- Ecco Caffe’s Daterra Estate Reserve (Rating 4): I put this one and Ritual’s as tied for second. The dry aroma was sharp with lots of lemongrass and dry white wine, mellowed by dark chocolate. The acidity in the wet aroma and the taste, however, morphed into a more fruity bouquet – raspberry, orange and lemon. It was very well-balanced with rich chocolate and had a medium-thick body which mellowed into a tobacco-like aftertaste. I had the best luck with this one as a single-origin espresso. It worked well as a pour over drip but slightly better as a French press.
- Ritual Roaster’s Fazenda Do Serrado (Rating 4): Although this one tied with the Daterra, it was a very different coffee. It was tea-like in its foundation, light and delicate with hints of cinnamon, raspberry, mint and lemon. It had a very clean mouthfeel and was very well balanced for a lighter roasted coffee. I liked it a lot as a French Press, but found it almost too light as a pour over drip, however, I’d like to try it as a pour over drip on ice. My limited attempts at pulling shots with this one made me think that it simply wasn’t meant to be a single-origin espresso – too much acidity and not particularly balanced.
- Ecco Caffe’s Fazenda Cachoeira Screen Dried Yellow Bourbon (Rating 3 – maybe a little less): The dry aroma was very pleasant with lots of apple, brown sugar and chocolate, but smelling and tasting the wet coffee reminded me of tasting a strong cheese; I enjoyed the complexity, but I’m not quite sure I enjoyed the flavor. It had a thick mouthfeel and slight off-putting taste which grew more pleasant, more fruity, as I sipped. I’m not familiar enough with this type of processing to confidently distinguish intended complexity from negative characteristics, but no one in the group found it particularly pleasing, and that should account for something. I found this theme consistent whether I pressed it, dripped it or pulled shots of it as espresso.
- Starbuck’s Pike Place Roast (Rating 2). I rated this bean ever so slightly higher than I did when tasted in the store. The dry and wet aroma were, in fact, complex and didn’t fall too far from the company’s description, of bright, crisp apple, dry white wine and dark chocolate. However, I could have been biased by the fact that these beans were pretty easy to spot. The bright sheen of oil coating their surface screamed out bad roasting. The taste, however, fell flat. It tasted mostly of roast with only the slightest suggestion of something more. This coffee clearly distinguished itself in the negative direction from the other four coffees, but was not terrible compared to what it could have been.