The World and the Cupping Table: 25 Years of Change at Coffee Review

Kenneth Davids in the Coffee Review lab circa 2007.

Coffee Review has been reviewing coffees and reporting in depth on the world of specialty coffee since 1997, making this our 25th year of slurping, spitting and writing. Over those 25 years, we have published reviews of thousands of coffees, tasted tens of thousands more, and produced more than 250 in-depth monthly reports on coffee growing regions, processing methods, tree varieties, and roaster issues. We were the first in the world to apply 100-point ratings to coffees (in 1997) and the first online publication to offer serious in-depth coffee reviewing and reporting. (During our early years most roasters hadn’t developed websites; we published phone numbers). You can find an account of our founding years here.

What in coffee has changed over these 25 years, particularly as seen from the perspective of our cupping table? What has not changed?

Our basic method — blind testing coffees using formal professional protocols — has not changed. Nor has our aspiration to report on what we taste as honestly as we can, with as little influence as possible from fashion and ideology. And our larger mission has remained the same as well: raising awareness of coffee as a specialty beverage worthy of connoisseurship, while elevating the status and wellbeing of those who work in coffee, particularly those who grow it.

So, what has changed? In the larger specialty coffee world, it would seem, almost everything. Our engagement with a few of those changes, and occasionally our struggles with them, is sketched out in what follows.

From Predictable Classics to Challenging Experiments

When we surveyed El Salvador coffees in 1997, in one of our very first reports, all of the coffees available for review were washed or wet-processed coffees of the general style then associated not only with El Salvador, but with the world of fine coffee generally.

Washing channel at a wet mill in Antigua, Guatemala.

We were able to evaluate those El Salvadors in the light of general, widely shared criteria for washed coffees while acknowledging certain subtle expectations particularly associated with El Salvador. Fine washed coffee, in which the fruit is removed from the bean in careful stages soon after picking and before drying, aims to project the purity of that coffee without influence from the steps involved in fruit removal. Any impacts on taste caused by these acts of fruit removal and drying, collectively called processing, were likely to be branded in 1997 as taints or faults. These taints and faults were taken as failures to achieve what the coffee world then defined as “quality,” which meant, essentially, consistency and predictability.

The Fading Connection Between Origin and Cup Character

Those who follow coffee know what happened next. The connection between origin — growing country and region — and how one expects a coffee to taste began to break down as producers turned away from the traditional in processing method and tree variety to the new and different. Two decades after our first 1997 report on El Salvador, for example, in a 2019 tasting report, only 35% — about one-third — of the El Salvador coffees we cupped were classic washed coffees of the style once solidly associated with that country. Of the remaining samples, 39% were natural-processed coffees (dried in the fruit) and 26% were honey-processed  (dried in part of the fruit), both methods that encourage subtle to dramatic differences in cup character from coffees produced by the washed method. Many of the natural-processed coffees we cupped in 2019, even the better ones, probably would have been branded as “tainted” by green coffee buyers in 1997.

Honey-processed drying at Finca Las Mercedes, El Salvador. Courtesy of Jason Sarley.

Balancing Innovation and Tradition

Consequently, one of the great challenges of reviewing coffees in recent years is finding ways to honor the traditional in coffee while simultaneously honoring innovation and experiment, particularly with regard to how a range of  processing methods influence the cup. And, of course, communicating these new and different expectations to readers.

Fortunately, we had some practice at such flexibility early on, because even in 1997, certain coffee types that many coffee drinkers enjoyed deviated from the classic washed norm. Sumatra coffees, for example, traditionally displayed a musty-fermenty character often glamorized by the term “earthy,” a cup fault that, in 1997, would get an El Salvador coffee thrown off the cupping table. Yet, many coffee drinkers loved Sumatras. We resolved this contradiction by rewarding Sumatras in which the earth notes were basically fresh, like just-turned humus, for example, or wet fallen leaves, while punishing those that displayed a sharp, damp-basement mustiness.

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We achieved a similar, though sometimes more precarious, solution for “natural” or dried-in-the-fruit coffees that showed suggestions of fruit ferment — in those days, usually coffees from Yemen or eastern Ethiopia. Here, we looked (and still look) for fruit that displayed what we came to call “clean” ferment: sweet, wine-like or brandy-like ferment tones, free of excessive bitterness or compost notes.

The New Anaerobic Challenge

Nevertheless, none of such parsing and balancing quite prepared us for the first samples of coffee we received several years ago that had been subject to versions of what is often called anaerobic processing or carbonic maceration. These early anaerobic samples tended to come across as exuberant, unapologetic exercises in creative taint. Anaerobic innovators have managed to quiet down some of the most challenging of these taste characteristics while maintaining the originality, complexity and fruit encouraged by the method. And we have done our best to work the more extreme anaerobic samples into our reviewing system in a way that will point coffee adventurers toward their twisty, fragrant surprises while warning off purists and indirectly suggesting they might be happier with, say, a nice conventionally washed El Salvador.

Coffee cherry drying

Anaerobically processed coffee cherries drying in the whole fruit at Elida Estate in Panama. Courtesy of Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea.

A Shift from Innovation at the Consuming End to Innovation at Origin

Before going on to a subject that has consumed us the most over the years — how to apply a 100-point rating system to coffees that express themselves so differently (not to mention the challenges and puzzles of how to rate coffees in the first place) — we need to recognize an often-overlooked aspect of the latest storm of experiment by coffee producers.

Until very recently, most product innovation in coffee happened in consuming countries, not in producing countries. Farmers were relegated to producing predictable “quality” versions of familiar coffee types associated with their respective regions. A good Costa Rica was expected to taste like a good Costa Rica, for example, or a good Kenya like a good Kenya.

Trends in product differentiation, in those days, were carried out primarily by roasters and retailers. The popularity of espresso and its beverage spin-offs, for example, irrevocably changed the coffee world, though not particularly to the advantage of producers. The same could be said for the current popularity of cold brew.

Dark-Roasting as Consumer-End Product Differentiator

And, of course, the practice of dark-roasting all coffees, regardless of style or origin, can also be seen as a product differentiation move carried out on the consuming end of the supply chain. In, say, 2000, how could roasters demonstrate to coffee-naïve, inexperienced consumers that “specialty” coffees tasted dramatically different from coffees sold in supermarkets or the corner diner? These specialty roasters bought far better green coffees, of course, but a surer solution was to dramatize the difference by roasting all their coffees dark, no matter where they came from. And it wasn’t only Peet’s and Starbucks that dark-roasted everything around 2000. So did scores of smaller roasting companies.

Darker roasted coffee bean samples. In around 2000 most specialty coffees were sold dark roasted.

When we founded Coffee Review we often needed to search for medium to medium-dark coffees that gave us something to write about, that provided a level of differentiation that exceeded the distinctions in style or darkness of roast that dominated the specialty marketplace. Over the years, we have done our best to identify what we feel are the best dark-roasted coffees, the coffees that celebrate both the character of the green coffee and the chocolaty, bittersweet appeal of a darker roast, although that, too has been a bit of a challenge when it gets to assigning ratings.

The roast pendulum has swung back the other way, of course, first gradually, then decisively. The change from selling coffee primarily on the basis of different roast style to focusing on the sensory surprises the bean itself brings to the cup was, I believe, what ultimately liberated the current wave of creativity and experiment among coffee producers. With subtle differences highlighted by coffee-first, lighter roast styles, and success rewarded by well-publicized high scores in green coffee competitions (and, in some cases, high ratings at Coffee Review), many small and medium-scaled coffee producers rapidly evolved from anonymous producers of premium coffees sold by grade into market-savvy, innovating boutique coffee producers, taking risks growing Geisha and other distinctive-tasting, low-volume varieties while experimenting, sometimes radically, with altering the cup through processing method.

See also  Celebrating the Top 30 Coffees of 2020 825670622 173 Coffee Review's list of the Top 30 Coffees of 2020 represents our 8th annual ranking of the most exciting coffees we checked throughout the year. The Top 30 promotes and celebrates coffee roasters, farmers, mill operators, importers, andother coffee market specialists who make an additional effort to produce coffees that are not just superb in quality but likewise distinctive in character. Over the past 12 months, we cupped over 2,000 coffee samples and released more than 450 evaluations, both substantial boosts over past years. The coffees we picked to review were mostly high-rated coffees, which are of a lot of interest to our readers. This year, about one in 4 coffees we checked scored 90 points or greater, and almost 200, nearly 10 % of the overall, ranked 94 or higher, a tribute to the ever-intensifying innovation and devotion of the world's leading coffee manufacturers and roasters.(For those curious about how we conduct our blind screening and ranking procedures at Coffee Review, see How Coffee Review Works. For what ratings indicate in regard to the wide variety of coffee designs and qualities, see Interpreting Reviews.)Exceeding Numbers. However in spite of our efforts to make our ratings consistent and meaningful, numbers taken alone have limitations. You might well like a lower-rated coffee that matches your taste preferences more than a higher-scoring coffee that isn't your design. We do our finest to identify a coffee's character in the "Blind Assessment" paragraph of our reviews and much more succinctly in the "Bottom Line" paragraph that concludes each review.Limiting a Crowded FieldAny coffee that rates 94 points or greater, in fact, any making 90 points or more, deserves special recognition. Obviously, we might not put all of the nearly 200 coffees that made 94 points or more in 2020 on the Top 30 list. As in previous years, we selected and ranked our Top 30 most interesting coffees and espressos based upon quality (represented by general rating), value (reflected by a lot of budget-friendly rate per pound), and factor to consider of other factors that include diversity of design, individuality of origin or tree range, accreditations such as Fair Trade and natural, and general rarity.Number 1 for 2020The No. 1 coffee of 2020 is the 98-point GW01 Finca Sophia Olympus Geisha produced by Finca Sophia in Panama and roasted by GK Coffee in Taiwan. It is the 4th time in eight years that a coffee of the well known Geisha variety grown on a Panama farm has earned the leading spot. Nevertheless, it is the first time a roaster from outside the United States has appeared at the top of the list. Gary Liao and the GK Coffee team at 2020 Taiwan International Coffee Show. Photo courtesy of GK Coffee. Leading 30 Statistics Typical Ratings. The typical general ranking of the coffees on the Top 30 list for 2020 was 95.0 out of a possible 100, the like in 2019, and normally in line with previous averages of94.6 in 2018, 94.9 in 2017, 95.0 in 2016, and 94.8 in 2015. Expense per Pound: From Shocking to Reasonable. One can't directly compare the average prices of Top 30 coffees from year to year because the mix of coffees differs drastically. The coffee that earned the No. 1 area this year-- the 98-point Finca Sophia Olympus Geisha roasted by GK Coffee in Taiwan-- won first place in the washed Geisha category of the 2020 Best of Panama green coffee competition and was consequently sold at auction for a price that broke all previous records for sale of a green coffee: $1,300.50 per pound. Which implies that the roasted coffee awarded our leading score retailed for the equivalent of nearly United States $4,000 per pound!On the other hand, if we omit that norm-busting figure, the typical cost of the staying 28 non-cold brew coffees on our 2020 list was $55.46 per pound, down from the record $71.77 per pound embeded in 2019. Sixteen of the coffees on this year's Top 30 list cost less than $30 per pound. Five expense less than $25 per pound, and three were priced at less than $20 per pound, specifically No. 17 Thanksgiving Coffee, Moka Java (96 points; $14.50/ 12 ounces); No. 22 Café Kreyol, Organic Red Honey Ramirez Estate Microlot (92 points; $12.99/ 12 ounces); and No. 30 Skytop Coffee, Peru San Ignacio Calazobo Lot 2 FTO (93 points; $15.00/ 12 ounces).Still a Bargain. If we leave out a handful of outliers like the top-rated, record-breaking and exceptionally unusual Finca Sophia Olympus Geisha, great coffee stays a relative deal compared to other elite beverages. Take red wine, for instance. Pre-COVID-19, we regularly paid $12 to $15 in restaurants for a glass of outstanding however normally not extraordinary wine. If we leave out the $4,000 Geisha, this year's Top 30 coffees averaged $55.46 per pound, which breaks down to $1.20 per 6-ounce cup of brewed coffee, or one-tenth the cost of a good however probably less distinguished glass of wine purchased in a restaurant. And those high-rated coffees Coffee Review defines as good values cost considerably less than $1.20 per cup.Outrageous costs asked for a handful of exceptionally rare and recognized coffees can be seen primarily as a small sign of a changing coffee scene, a minor sideshow in the larger cultural drama of coffee's journey from commodity-priced workday fuel to a mature fine beverage, worthy of research study and educated connoisseurship.Nevertheless, the Higher the Price the Higher the Rating. As in previous years, greater scoring coffees on our 2020 list tended to cost more than lower scoring coffees.98-point coffees (2 ) $2,088.97/ pound97-point coffees (2) $49.03/ pound96-point coffees (8) $44.62/ pound95-point coffees (7 ) $69.16/ pound ($42.91 if we leave out one outlier)< Growing Regions for the Top 30 CoffeesIn each of the 8 years that we have actually published our Top 30 list, our leading choice has been a single-origin coffee-- suggesting a coffee from a single country and region (and generally from a single farm or cooperative). Previous No. 1 coffees were produced in Panama (2019, 2015, and 2014), Hawaii (2018 ), Yemen (2017 ), Kenya (2016 ), and Ethiopia (2013 ).This year, with eight appearances in the Top 30, Ethiopia was the most often acknowledged origin. Hawaii was 2nd with four coffees on the list; Kenya and Panama third with three each, Colombia fourth with 2.Roasters in the Top 30Four roasting companies placed 2 coffees each on this year's Top-30 list: Paradise Roasters (No. 2 and No. 13); Taiwan's Kakalove Café (No. 3 and No. 9); JBC Coffee Roasters (No. 5 and No. 7); and Red Rooster Coffee Roaster (No. 8 and No. 20). This concentration of coffees from particular roasters is definitely not by design. We make an identified effort to increase the number and range of roasters that appear in the Top 30.< img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-20615"loading="lazy"class="wp-image-20615 size-full" src ="https://how-to-brew.coffee/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/celebrating-the-top-30-coffees-of-2020-2.jpg"alt width="1080"height="1080"srcset=" https://how-to-brew.coffee/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/celebrating-the-top-30-coffees-of-2020-2.jpg 1080w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Paradise-Team-300x300.jpg 300w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Paradise-Team-1024x1024.jpg 1024w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Paradise-Team-150x150.jpg 150w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Paradise-Team-768x768.jpg 768w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Paradise-Team-60x60.jpg 60w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Paradise-Team-75x75.jpg 75w"sizes="( max-width: 1080px )100vw, 1080px "> Miguel Meza and the Paradise Roasters group, roasters of the No. 2 and No. 13 coffees of 2020. Photo courtesy of Paradise Roasters. As we did last year, we limited looks in the Top 30 to an optimum of 2 coffees from the same roaster, regardless of how many high-rated coffees a roaster may have produced. While that may appear like an approximate limitation-- and it is-- it's crucial to remember that our list represents our assessment of the most" amazing"coffees of the year, not always the highest-rated. We felt that it would not be really exciting (to us or others) if the Top 30 list were too much controlled by roasting business that produced a particularly large number of highly ranked coffees over the course of the year. Instead, we felt readers would share our enjoyment about an incredible coffee from a roaster that wasn't already on the list, instead of a likewise outstanding coffee from a roaster that already had two on the list. Adam Walsh, Director of Quality at JBC Coffee Roasters, roasters of the No. 5 and No. 7 coffees of 2020. Photo courtesy of JBC Coffee Roasters. That said, Coffee Review has been, from its beginning, devoted to starting with what we actually experience in the cup, not with product classifications or marketing considerations or fashion. It is true that we take into consideration extrinsic factors like value, rarity and sustainable intentions into account when we narrow the variety of candidates from more than 200 to just 30, but ultimately, sensory quality and distinction in the cup, as identified by blind-tasting and as reflected in score, is the entry point for consideration and one of the primary factors that affects where coffees arrive on the list.< img aria-describedby ="caption-attachment-20619"loading ="lazy "class ="wp-image-20619 size-full "src="https://how-to-brew.coffee/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/celebrating-the-top-30-coffees-of-2020-4.jpg"alt width="849"height="651"srcset="https://how-to-brew.coffee/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/celebrating-the-top-30-coffees-of-2020-4.jpg 849w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Kakalove-Team-Cropped-300x230.jpeg 300w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Kakalove-Team-Cropped-768x589.jpeg 768w"sizes="(max-width: 849px) 100vw, 849px "> Caesar Tu and the extended Kakalove Cafe team, roasters of the No. 3 and No. 9 coffees of 2020. Image thanks to Kakalove Cafe. Roaster Geography Of the 30 coffees on the list, 26 were roasted by companies in the United States, and 4 by Taiwanese companies. Roasters from 12 U.S. states are represented. Hawaii and Virginia connected for the most coffees represented in the Top 30 with 4 each; California and Colorado were 2nd with three each.Increased Innovation by Coffee Growers Coffee growers can promote taste differences in the green coffee they produce primarily in two ways. They can plant tree ranges that produce much better or more interesting coffees, and/or they can process the coffee (eliminate the fruit from the beans and dry them) utilizing techniques that affect the taste of the cup in appealing or different methods.Tree Variety. There are stars and superstars among the hundreds of ranges of Arabica grown on the planet today, and coffees from these more distinguished ranges frequently earn high ratings at Coffee Review. This year was no exception. Variety was recognized for 19 of the Top 30 2020 coffees. Among the 19, six popular ranges appeared twice: The celebrated Geisha (likewise spelled Gesha), the respected and old Bourbon, the famous Kenya ranges SL-28 and 34, the just recently emerged Ethiopia variety Wush Wush, and the standard requirements Typica and Caturra. Among the ranges that appeared as soon as were 3 that stand out in bean appearance in addition to cup character: the tiny-beaned Mocca and the giant-beaned Maracaturra and Maragogipe.< img aria-describedby ="caption-attachment-20622"loading ="lazy" class="wp-image-20622 size-full" src ="https://how-to-brew.coffee/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/celebrating-the-top-30-coffees-of-2020-5.jpg"alt width ="955"height =" 669 "srcset="https://how-to-brew.coffee/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/celebrating-the-top-30-coffees-of-2020-5.jpg 955w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Hula-Karen-Cropped-300x210.jpeg 300w, https://dlo9n43mpvj20faa12i3i3lh-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Hula-Karen-Cropped-768x538.jpeg 768w"sizes="(max-width: 955px)100vw , 955px"> Karen Patterson planting Kona Mocca ® seedlings at Hula Daddy, manufacturer and roaster of the No. 6 coffee of 2020. Image thanks to Hula Daddy Kona Coffee. Processing Method. The trend towards distinguishing coffee cup character through using unconventional processing techniques accelerated in 2020. On last year's list, for example, among the 25 coffees for which processing technique was plainly recognized, 11 were produced utilizing variations of dry or "natural" processing, suggesting the beans were dried inside the fruit rather than after the fruit has actually been eliminated, as is the case with more standard wet-processed or "cleaned" coffees. That 2019 figure was up from 7 such natural-processed coffees on the list in 2018 and 6 in 2017. Danielle and Jean Orlowski, with Scarlett(center), of Hala Tree Kona Coffee, producer and roaster of Honey Typica Anaerobic, the No. 15 coffee of 2020. Picture thanks to Charla Photography.In 2020, nevertheless, we saw a turn toward hybrid or experimental variations that largely transcended the old washed vs. natural processing classifications. Real, of the 25 coffees on the list that identified processing approach, 5 were prepared by the natural technique and ten by the orthodox washed method. But eight were processed using ingenious strategies that defy conventional processing category: anaerobic (restricted oxygen ferment), thermic (heat used to skinned or pulped beans), or different hybrid approaches. These techniques included typically radical experiments with fermentation, as soon as seen as a bothersome however needed action in eliminating fruit residue during the orthodox cleaned procedure, however now being approached as an innovative tool to innovate cup character. And this year three additional coffees on the Top 30 list were processed by variations on the honey technique, meaning that some fruit flesh or "honey" was allowed to stick to the beans during drying.Less EspressosWe saw only two espressos make this year's list, both single-origin Kenyas (No. 7 JBC Coffee Roasters, Karimiuki Espresso; No. 11 Simon Hsieh Aroma Roast, Kenya AA Area Phoenix Special) compared to 5 espressos on the 2019 list and 6 in 2018. This drop-off may be related to the impact of COVID-19. Coffee Review cancelled its usual espresso report at the beginning of shelter-in-place guidelines because our espresso tastings are occasions including interaction among several participants. Events, conferences, and competitions where espresso developing is included likewise were cancelled, and coffee consumption patterns moved from coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants, where espresso brewing is generally included, to brewing at home, where non-espresso techniques like drip and French press are more typical. Possibly roasters were not investing their restricted time and energy in producing high-end espresso blends during these times of take-home and shelter-in-place.Continued Achievement in the Face of COVID-19In spite of the extraordinary obstacles brought on by COVID-19 on the back of continuous financial- and weather-related problems in coffee lands, everybody along the specialty coffee chain appears to have persevered. Evaluating from the excellent quality and difference of the coffees we checked this previous year, the majority of specialized growers, millers, importers, roasters and exporters not just withstood, but frequently triumphed. Please enjoy our list of the Top 30 Coffees of 2020.And all the best from Coffee Review for a happy and flourishing brand-new year, full of both coffee surprises and the peace of mind of the fine and familiar.

Too Many Coddled Microlots?

This shift has its critics, however, and along the way has caused some soul-searching at Coffee Review. To what degree have our reviews encouraged a market for tiny, coddled microlots of highly differentiated coffees sold for big bucks while potentially discouraging high-quality versions of classic styles of coffee sold in larger volumes at reasonable but affordable prices? To help compensate, we have focused some our recent reports on traditional coffee types. But, on the other hand, we are dedicated to describing and rating coffees based on what we taste, not what we think we ought to taste. This commitment means that if we get a microlot sample with an original, astounding cup, we need to reward and honor it even if it sells at what seems an outrageous price. By the same token, we need to resist any temptation to flatter the producer and roaster by assigning a high score to a coffee based simply on a prestigious name or extravagant price.

And Yes, Those Ratings

The practice of assigning 100-point ratings to coffees has become so common since we debuted the practice in 1997 that, today, the coffee world hardly seems to notice the problematics of applying a language (numbers) that suggests certainty and science to the complex, subjective experience of a beverage. (I describe our broad thinking on this issue at How Coffee Review Works and The 100-point Rating Paradox.

What has changed over 25 years at Coffee Review with regard to ratings? Well, to state the obvious, the ratings have definitely gotten higher.

Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea founders Barry Levine and Bob Williams featured in the New Haven Register newspaper in 1995, two years before Coffee Review launched online. Courtesy of Barry Levine.

It’s true that back in 1997, we awarded a 93 to an apparently splendid Kenya from Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea, though there were a lot more lowball scores back then, far more than we publish today. Willoughby’s, founded in 1985 by Bob Williams and Barry Levine, placed two coffees in that first 1997 Africa coffees report, the 93-point Kenya and an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe we rated 90. Willoughby’s continues to offer a Kenya and an Ethiopia, both in the same basic washed coffee style as those two samples we tested in 1997 (though now sourced from specific cooperatives and roasted considerably lighter than the 1997 samples). Nevertheless, when we tested the 2021 samples blind, both came off the table only one point higher than the versions Willoughby’s sold in 1997. My co-cupper Kim Westerman and I both had the (splendid) Kenya at 94. Kim initially had the Yirgacheffe at 93 and I had it at 90; we compromised at 91. These results are tributes to the steadiness of the Willoughby’s coffee team, as well as to the unusual consistency over the decades of the best Kenya and Ethiopia washed coffee types. But I also hope it suggests that we at Coffee Review have been consistent, as well.

Better Coffees and More of Them

The main reason for today’s generally higher ratings is better coffees, and more of them. We only publish reviews of about one third of the total samples we test, so obviously, the more coffees we test the higher the average scores. And, as noted earlier, most specialty coffees we tested before about 2000 came from large lots described with relatively generic language, often simply the name of the growing country and, at most, one qualifier: Kenya AA, Colombia Supremo, Guatemala Antigua, etc. Tree variety was largely ignored and processing method taken for granted.

This label from San Diego’s Bird Rock Coffee Roasters suggests the selectivity and the emphasis on variety and processing method typical of contemporary small-lot specialty coffee.

But today, most of the coffee lots we review are small, highly selected and clearly differentiated by both tree variety and processing method. Such precise focus usually (though not always) nets higher scores than coffees from less-differentiated, larger lots. For example, the Geisha variety of Arabica, now famous for its startlingly distinctive cup, first showed up in Coffee Review in one review in 2005. Last year, in 2021, we reviewed nearly 60 Geishas, over 10% of all reviews we published for the year.

Yet, fine Geishas processed by the orthodox washed method are relatively easy to appreciate and describe. Their original, sometimes surprising aromatics are pleasing to most coffee drinkers and come enveloped in a familiar, seductive structure: balanced, sweetly bright, satiny to syrupy in mouthfeel.

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On the other hand, some of the latest, most unorthodox trends in experimental processing are considerably more challenging in the cup and have mightily tested our rating system. Faced with a coffee expressing a particularly extravagant version of hybrid processing using anaerobic ferment, we often remark that some coffee drinkers will find the sample a 96 while others might rate it 76 (if they keep it in their mouths long enough to actually taste it). But we don’t give split grades, so we either battle through to consensus on a rating on a controversial coffee, or give up and average, splitting the difference between one cupper’s very high score and another’s perhaps middling score.

Specialty Gone Global

We have seen specialty coffee as concept and practice spread far beyond the U.S. and a handful of other regional hotspots during our 25 years of publication. Our many reviews of coffees roasted in Asia, particularly Taiwan, reflect this worldwide trend. In the U.S., we have recognized and celebrated the spread of fine specialty coffee to virtually every part of the country. Our reviews reflect that growing geographic diversity, as do our frequent reports on roasters by region.

Low Green Coffee Prices and Poverty in Coffee Lands

For our entire 25 years, we have lamented the destructive toll of unremittingly low green coffee prices on coffee distinction, on the environment, and on the wellbeing of smallholding farmers. Currently, coffee prices paid producers have jumped, mainly owing to reduced supply caused by a drought and freeze in world-leading coffee producer Brazil, secondarily to the global pandemic. Unfortunately, this mainly weather-driven spell of higher prices is doubtless another chapter in coffee’s history of booms and busts. Encouraged by today’s higher prices, producers will plant more coffee, and inevitably, four or so years from now, when those newly planted trees mature, coffee prices will head back down again to unsustainable levels and stay there until another major crop failure temporarily gooses the market back up.

The only long-term solutions to the boom-bust cycle in coffee are either the revival of a cartel designed to stabilize prices through control of supply like the one created by the International Coffee Agreements in 1962 through 1972 (a very unlikely scenario), or a gradual elevation of coffee to the status of genuine specialty beverage. We are in favor of both solutions, but we can only help, in a small way, with the second.

Some observers speculate that the current jump in price for all green coffees will discourage production of the highly selected and differentiated small lots of coffee that appear so frequently in our reviews. The theory runs that producers will be content to sell larger lots of ordinary coffee at decent prices and forgo the hassles involved in producing small, selected lots of distinctive coffee.

I do not think this will happen on any major scale. I expect that leading producers and exporters will gratefully take the latest long-deserved price increases for their fine yet less exceptional coffees, while continuing to swing for the fences with prestigious, differentiated small lots that will make and maintain their names, brands and reputations.

Gender, Race and Global Warming

We have reported on many other themes and issues through the years, including gender in coffee and race in U.S. coffee.

Hovering in and over everything, however, is global warming and the plague of coffee-influencing disasters it has set off or exacerbated: the Latin American coffee rust epidemic starting in 2010, entire coffee industries in Malawi and Zambia destroyed by drought, Caribbean coffee industries crippled by an increase in hurricanes and tropical storms, exceptional new weather patterns everywhere, and the pressure to grow coffees at higher and higher elevations to offset warmer temperatures.

Among the more heartening developments in response to global warming are recent efforts by World Coffee Research (WCR) and other coffee agencies to produce disease-resistant hybrid varieties of Arabica that are both disease-resistant and distinctive in the cup. Not too long ago, cup character usually appeared to be an afterthought among agronomy-minded scientists busy developing new disease-resistant coffee varieties. What has changed their minds, of course, is the success of varieties like Geisha in attracting much higher prices in the marketplace and, generally, the growth of a market in which cup distinction is rewarded by higher (sometimes much higher) prices. In the next two years, we hope that enough coffees produced from the newly developed F-1 varieties (touted as disease-resistant and distinctive in the cup) will be available on the retail market for Coffee Review to mount a tasting report focused on them.

Stay healthy and stay tuned as we embark on a 26th year of publication that doubtless will be crowded with innovation, with challenge, and, of course, with some very fine and surprising coffees.

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