Everyday Single-Origin Coffees: At the Intersection of the Familiar and the Exceptional

Spreading coffee fruit for drying in Ethiopia. Courtesy of Royal Coffee NY.

While there is much to be said for the new and different in coffee — for surprising new cup profiles generated by the latest processing methods, tiny lots of coffee produced from newly rediscovered tree varieties — there is likewise a lot to be said for the pleasures of consistency. Even for those coffee lovers willing to pay big bucks for a few extraordinary cups of a super-distinctive Geisha fermented in sealed tanks with special yeasts, the morning may come when they may want a cup that pleases less with surprise and more with on a daily basis pleasure. Something special, but perhaps not $80-per-four-ounces special. The same reasonably priced special cup they enjoyed last week, say, or two weeks ago, or even last month. 

And though predictable satisfaction can be gotten from blends, a blend can be, at the other extreme, a bit too predictable. So, what fills in the gap between pricey, fleetingly available microlots and daily blends? 

A Sumatra Drinker for Life

Every day single-origin coffees, of course, the subject of this report. Coffees from a single country, usually from a single region or farm/cooperative, bought by the roaster in ample quantity to sell for some time, for months or longer. Usually, roasters do their best maintain continuity from year to year by buying from the same farm or exporter. They likewise try to buy beans that are well-conditioned and stand up to storage.

Such single-origin coffees with their familiar market names – Colombia Supremo, Guatemala Antigua, Kenya AA – were once the mainstay of specialty coffee. In a sense these origin names are brands that specialty roasters tap into free of charge. Their customers often have their favorites. I had a close friend who drank nothing nevertheless Sumatra Mandheling bought from Peet’s Coffee for almost her entire life. If she went someplace that wasn’t Peet’s she would still look for a Sumatra Mandheling.

When we put out a call for today’s versions of such staple single-origin coffees, coffees that have been purchased by the roaster in enough volume to roast and offer over the course of months, we received nearly 60 coffees from about 40 different roasting companies in North America and Taiwan.

A Quiet Individuality

We did get one Sumatra, a rather nice coffee, with enough earth and tobacco to please my friend, but not enough for us to overlook its quite downbeat structure. But what else did we get?

Extremely, an impressive range of what we asked for. True, lots of of the every day single-origins we received were a bit too familiar, simply too everyday, as it were. Maybe good enough to get us satisfyingly awake and out the door however not distinctive enough to give us a bit goose of enjoyment or surprise, to persuade us to pay attention to what we’re guzzling.

However the best of these 60 samples proposed a quiet individuality, a place where the familiar and surprising intersect. We review 10 of these exceptional on a per day basis coffees here.

Every day Coffees and Processing Technique

Most of the samples we received were processed by the conventional wet or washed procedure, the fundamental processing recipe for mainstream quality coffee. A substantial minority, nevertheless, (12 of 60) were processed by the ancient, nevertheless increasingly trendy, dried-in-the-fruit or natural recipe. Nevertheless we received almost no samples processed by latest alternative or experimental methods. For example, we received only one sample processed utilizing a variation of the fashionable anaerobic (limited oxygen ferment) procedure and only two by the honey recipe.

Washed-process coffees drying in trays, Ethiopia. Courtesy of importer Pebble Coffee, Taiwan.

The predominance of washed coffees is not because the wet recipe is cheaper for producers than, say, the natural process. What it reflects is the reality that washed or wet-processed coffees are primarily more reliable and predictable than coffees processed by other methods, especially when produced in larger quantities. Recall that in the washed recipe the fruit flesh is removed before the beans are dried, reducing the risk of various off-tastes developing from contact between bean and fruit residue during drying. (While likewise, of course, reducing the opportunity to customize such drying in an effort to achieve the fruit-forward notes enjoyed by most contemporary coffee drinkers). Also, due to the fact that washed coffees are used in large quantities in premium or quality blending throughout the world, they are more dependably available for smaller specialty roasters looking for everyday single-origin coffees of the kind we report on this month. 

Of course, it is also probably true that some consumers who gravitate to these everyday single-origins may especially welcome the consistency and familiarity of washed profiles. Ian Picco, Director of Coffee at Topeca Coffee, reports that “we cater to two distinct segments of coffee consumers: those who value variety and like to try new origins and coffee profiles, and those who value the comfort and predictability of their one favorite blend or single origin bean. The latter group far outweighs the former, so it’s important to cater to this crowd in addition to keeping things fresh with seasonal offerings.” Several roasters who corresponded with me on this month’s topic made a similar point.

A Range of Washed Coffees

Nevertheless, coffees processed by the washed method are hardly taste-alike clones. The tree varieties that produce the coffee vary, the details of the wet processing vary, the weather varies, terroirs vary.

Producer from the Laboyano Group of growers, Colombia. Courtesy of importer The Coffee Quest.

One thing is certain: The eight washed coffees we review this month embody an exciting and engaging range of the type. At the pure, bright, straightforward end of the washed spectrum, I would place the Topeca Colombia Laboyano (92), a fine classic coffee in the high-grown Colombia mode: clean, direct, with a bright nevertheless smooth acidity and modest nevertheless satisfying apricot/stone fruit nuance. The Speedwell El Salvador Monte Verde (92) is similarly pure in profile however dramatically softer in expression (many likely owing to lower growing elevations), with carefully expressed acidity, deep sweetness, and cocoa, flowers and nut. Remarkably, given the traumas El Salvador has endured over recent decades, it is roughly the same elegantly gentle style of washed El Salvador I admired over 40 years ago when I wrote my first book on coffee. Derek Anderson, owner of Speedwell, says his company focuses especially on El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia when looking for larger a number of coffee for long-term offerings, concluding, “We literally do embrace the challenge to find and roast these great single-origin coffees that don't break the bank, nor disappear in a month.”

Magnolia Coffee’s 92-point Papua New Guinea Timuza Organic. Courtesy of Magnolia Coffee.

The Magnolia Timuza (92) organic from the often-overlooked origin Papua New Guinea (92) is another sweetly bright classic, here with a crisp edge to the acidity and orangy and almondy aromatics. Jay Gestwicki, Founder and Director of Coffee at Magnolia, reports, “Coffees from Papua New Guinea have become a big part of our program. They are still rather rare in the scope of coffee, and they introduce people to unique aromas without being so different that they can turn people away from thinking they don’t like specialty coffee. Our Papua New Guinea Timuza is a wonderful example — it’s an easy-drinking washed coffee, yet it has enough complexity and nuance for anyone to notice it’s special.”

Enter the Ethiopias

Of the 10 coffees we review this month, six were produced in Ethiopia. And based on ratings, we could have reviewed at least two more Ethiopias. We held off because we did not want too much focus on only one origin, however admirable its production. 

Why so the majority of Ethiopias? Almost indeed because Ethiopian tree varieties are unique in the world with respect to the distinctive character of their aromatic profiles. Recall that Geisha/Gesha is an Ethiopian variety. And these distinctive Ethiopia coffees tend to be plentiful and reasonable in price. 

Of the six Ethiopias we did review, five are washed recipe, even though, again, the washed profiles vary. Two, the St1 Cafe Ethiopia Guji Raro (93) and the MK Coffee Roasters Sidamo Washed (93), display the sweet brightness of classic washed coffees nevertheless tempered by the gentleness and fragrant complexity particularly related to Ethiopia. I found that I used the words “suave” and “balanced” when reviewing both of these coffees, and for both cited a similar vanilla-like slant to their layered floral character. Carrie Chang of St1 Café reported that the Guji Raro was her “June and July sales champion” due to the fact that many of her customers “like the soft, gently and sweet floral notes.”

Three more washed Ethiopias displayed variations on another characteristic tendency of the southern washed Ethiopia type: soft and gentle, nevertheless likewise crisp, brisk, often spicy. These variations in profile could be owing to exposure to moisture during drying (it tends to drizzle in lots of of the famous southern Ethiopia regions during harvest), but there doubtless are other reasons as well. With the Cup to Cup Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere (93), the crisp, spicy, savory-edged tendency is reinforced by a darkish medium roast. The Cup to Cup likewise displays a remarkably full mouthfeel. James Spano, owner/operator of Cup to Cup, tells us that he has offered this coffee in its seasonal incarnations for over ten years.

The Fieldheads Ethiopia Sidama (93) and the Evie’s Café Ethiopia Botabaa (93) display a tendency in washed Ethiopias that I particularly admire: a paradox or overlap between the sweet, delicate and floral and the brisk and savory tendencies of the southern Ethiopia washed type. Both Ben Storest, owner/roaster at Fieldheads and Evelyn Chang of Evie’s Café report that they offer these coffees regularly and that they rank high among their customers’ favorites.  

The Fruit and the Naturals

Finally, to the minority dried-in-the-fruit or natural-processed samples. From the 12 naturals we tested, we review two here. Red Rooster sent a Papua New Guinea (PNG) natural (92) from Baroida Estate, a long-established farm in the Eastern Highlands of the country. A lot of PNGs are wet-processed and often foreground a type of grapefruity citrus brightness probably promoted by the exceptionally high PNG growing elevations. The Red Rooster PNG is, undoubtedly, bright, but its natural processing appears to encourage a savory base, big body and a complex aromatic range that combines flowers, soft citrus, and a fragrant, incense-like pungency suggesting fresh tobacco. 

Natural processed coffee being sun-dried in Ethiopia. Courtesy of importer Pebble Coffee, Taiwan.

The champion of the cupping, at least for me (co-cupper Jason Sarley had some reservations), is the Per’la Ethiopia Durato Bombe, at 95. There has been a reaction against “fruit bomb” naturals lately among some coffee insiders, and I suppose this coffee might be similarly dissed, though it does not particularly fit the lush fruit-and-brandy stereotype evoked by the term. Exceptionally light-roasted, and expertly so, this is less a fruit bomb than a flowers-and-cocoa bomb, with massively complicated aromatics emerging from a juicy, sweet-savory structure. Paul Massard, co-founder and managing partner at Per’la, told me that the previous season this coffee had shown so popular among his customers that this year he bought enough to offer it continuously over the past seven months. 

The Economics of the Daily Yet Exceptional Bean

As one might expect in regard to larger lots of coffees aimed at satisfying a broad range of customers, the normal retail price for the coffees reviewed this month is a reasonable one: US$1.59 per dry ounce, or around $19 for a 12-ounce bag. This is normal for lots of of the coffees we rate in the 92-94 range at Coffee Review. On the other hand, average prices for very high-rated coffees, often microlots processed utilizing exotic techniques and/or produced from rare tree varieties, average dramatically higher. Coffees scoring 95-96 in our Top 30 for 2021 averaged a rather daunting $11.60 per ounce, while those rated 92-94 averaged $1.48 per ounce, close to figure for this month’s reviewed coffees. Moving in the other direction, contrast that price with the retail price of a full-on commodity whole-bean coffee, in this case Eight O’Clock Coffee: The Original, which cost $0.52 per ounce when purchased on Amazon a couple of months ago. Or moving up the quality chain from there, the Dunkin’ Donuts Original Blend cost $1.09 per ounce, or about the price of the least expensive of the specialty single-origins we review this month, the Cup to Cup Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere.  

So, are the per day single-origin coffees we review this month just high-end commodity coffees sold through a relatively anonymous supply chain, and dressed up with fancy names? Based on the 10 samples we researched and reviewed this month, the address is no. These ten coffees would seem to have passed through a system from farmer through exporter/importer to roaster to consumer that is relatively clear and traceable. We understand, for example, that the highest rated Per’la Ethiopia Durato Bombe was collected from 626 farmers in Durato Bombe Kebele village in the Bensa District of the Sidama Zone, with the processing performed at the nearby Qunqna grinding machine. This coffee was exported by Daye Bensa Coffee, the owner of the grinder. However were those 626 farmers, a lot of of whom probably likewise work at the grinding machine, compensated fairly for the fresh coffee fruit they brought in to make up this splendid lot? Most likely yes, however confirmation is difficult at this distance. 

Really, exactly what might constitute a fair “farmgate” price (the price farmers needs to truly receive for their coffee once the a number of, a lot of additional costs essential to transform coffee into beans and transport the beans to the port have been deducted), is difficult, perhaps impossible to determine with any confidence. Take a look at the article in the industry newsletter Great Day to day Grind titled Green Coffee Pricing Transparency is Critical and Complex for a sense of how important, yet how bafflingly complicated, the fair farmgate coffee pricing question is. 

I would conclude with two rather irresponsible, half-supported conclusions. 1) The majority of likely the producers (both small-holding farmers and workers on larger farms) of the moderately priced, traceable specialty coffees reviewed here are not being brutally exploited like the producers of the majority of anonymous commodity coffees. 2) However, they ought to be paid better for their work, and we ought to be prepared to pay more for the familiar yet exceptional coffees they produce.

Thanks To:

All of those roaster correspondents who greatly enriched this report by sharing their ideas and experience regarding every day coffees with me: Derek Anderson, Carrie Chang, Evelyn Chiang, Jay Gestwicki, Tony Greatorex of Red Rooster Coffee, Paul Massard, Ian Picco, Mark Shi of MK Coffee Roasters, James Spano and Ben Storest.

This article was inspired by the article at Coffee Review, a website specializing in coffee reviews, espresso coffee ratings, informative articles, and coffee blogs written by coffee experts.