In the coffee world, the gold standard for beans is the annual Cup of Excellence award, judged by an international jury of cuppers who have to pass a sensory skills test. Winning coffees are judged no less than five times. After the scores are averaged, the winning beans from each country are then sold via internet auction. Farmers benefit both financially and with a tidal wave of industry-wide adulation. According to the awarding organization’s website, Cup of Excellence beans “are perfectly ripe, carefully picked with well developed body, pleasant aroma and a lively sweetness that only extremely high quality specialty coffees contain.”
In the past three years, no coffee bean has received more acclaim than Hacienda La Esmeralda, Geisha coffee grown by the Peterson family in the Panamanian town of Jaramillo. This year, it received “First Place, Best of Panama” and was cupped on average at 95.26 out of 100. Given the limited supply, the beans fetched a record-setting $130 per pound. Intelligentsia, my neighborhood coffee bar, was part of a consortium that purchased this year’s crop. For my first taste of Esmeralda, Kyle Glanville, in charge of “Special Projects” in Silver Lake, was my guide. He prepared the 16-ounce pour ($22) with a Chemex and educated me about its virtues.
Kyle prefers to brew “Esmo,” as he calls it, in a Chemex. He said while the coffee would still be good in the Clover, “You’d get more acidity, and less of the dark chocolate.” This particular batch of beans was roasted at the Intelligentsia facility in Chicago on October 22 and was only good through the end of the month.
After sixteen ounces of coffee had drained into the Chemex, Kyle poured a cup for me, himself, and for James Marcotte, the company’s West Coast head of wholesale operations. According to Intelligentsia green coffee buyer Geoff Watts’ tasting notes on the orange package, we were expected to taste the flavors of jasmine, honeysuckle and tangerine, with crisp citrus acidity and a “clean, white grape” finish. Kyle said that drinking a cup of Hacienda La Esmeralda was like drinking five great cups of coffee, since the flavor alters as the cup approaches room temperature. Kyle said, “That’s the thing that’s captivating about it, the fact that it changes so much, and that each change is so dynamic. Every change is a new amazing coffee.” With his first sip, he picked up on either “clementine or satsuma.” James picked up on “dark chocolate.” At this stage, I don’t have the necessary training to be able to justly describe what I was drinking, but Esmo was noticeably smoother than Intelligentsia’s normally excellent selection of coffees.
James said that with a coffee so fine, it’s perfectly acceptable to drink Hacienda La Esmeralda at room temperature, a point I’d never think to let coffee reach. “It’s so clean and devoid of acidy coffee grounds, so it’s okay.”
Kyle was so impressed with the Esmo that he began to eat the roasted beans from a plate. He said, “Some people like to connect to the coffee on another level.” This is an approach James doesn’t enjoy. He said, “You get the direct bitterness you’re trying to avoid.” Intrigued, I picked up a bean. It looked exactly like other beans I’d seen, roughly the same hue and size. James said that to the naked eye, most beans look similar, and that the coffee industry has to use mass spectrometry to differentiate between beans. I popped a bean into my mouth and began to chew. It was gritty, but more flavorful than I expected, and not nearly as bitter.
For comparison’s sake, Kyle also used the Chemex to brew Kianderi Auction Lot, named for a region in Kenya with soil that’s known for high acidity. Kyle explained that because the quality level of Kenyan coffee is overall so good, even top coffees are reasonably priced. Kenya sells all of its coffee through auction. Cup of Excellence requires coffee to be cupped at 84 points or above to be eligible to be sold at auction. Translation: every coffee in Kenya is “excellent.”
Kianderi is a varietal known as SL-28, SL-34, grown at 1500-1700 meters and harvested in January and February. This particular batch was roasted on October 23 in Chicago. Geoff Watts’ tasting notes described intense black currant and citrus flavor with potent but sweet activity and a savory pink grapefruit and chocolate finish. The Kandieri coffee had a more aggressive bite than the Hacienda La Esmeralda, but was still delicious.
A lot of of people think that $22 is an obscene price to pay for 16 ounces of coffee, but with a cup of Hacienda La Esmeralda, it’s about more than just a drinking cup of coffee. Paying a high price for premium ingredients expands understanding and clarifies what’s possible with certain products. People are willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine, so why not spend a fraction of the cost to experience coffee beans grown with the same meticulous attention to detail?