Coffee Review introduced 100-point reviews to the specialty coffee industry in 1997. Over the years since then we’ve cupped tens of thousands of samples and produced reviews for nearly 3,500 coffees.
We are often asked, “What is the best coffee?” To which we give the obvious answer: “There is no single ‘best’ coffee.” Of course, visitors to our website can sort through the reviews to draw their own conclusions about which coffees are best, or at least best for them. Nevertheless, we’ve concluded that it’s reasonable for readers to expect us to identify coffees we’ve tasted over the past year that we’ve found particularly exciting and worthy of note.
So, with a nod to publications like Wine Spectator, which issues a top 100 wines list annually, we are pleased to introduce our first effort to rank the top coffees we reviewed over the past year in the “Coffee Review’s Top 30 Coffees of 2013.”
More than Rating Alone
Of course anyone can search our site for the top-rated coffees, but in compiling our Top 30 list we decided to apply a more holistic approach that combined quality (represented by overall rating), value (reflected by most affordable price per pound), and a ranking of other factors that include distinctiveness of style, uniqueness of origin or tree variety, sustainable certification, and general rarity.
Why did we choose to limit our list to thirty coffees? There is no magic to the number. It just seemed about right. In 2013 we will publish reviews of about four hundred coffees. Roughly sixty of these will score 94 points or higher. Obviously all of these 94+ point coffees are exceptional. But some are more unusual or noteworthy in one way or another than others. We are very fond of Ethiopian coffees, for example, but nearly two dozen coffees from this extraordinary, seminal origin earned 94 points or higher. We couldn’t include them all on the list. Our final list of top thirty coffees includes about half of all those coffees that scored 94 points or higher over the past year. Obviously some outstanding coffees were left off the list; on the other hand, every coffee on the list is remarkable or exciting in some way.
Some Top-30 Statistics
Regular Coffee Review readers will recognize many of the roasters and origins on the Top 30 list. Eleven of the coffees were roasted by Coffee Review advertisers, though that played no role in their original scoring or in their selection to the list. The average overall rating of the coffees on the Top 30 list is 94.4. The average price is $35.00 per pound, although many coffees high on the list cost considerably less.
Not surprisingly, the most frequently-appearing origin on the list is Ethiopia, with six appearances. Other origins with multiple coffees on the list are Kenya (4), El Salvador (3), Hawaii (3), Sumatra (2), and Panama (2). Coffees from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Rwanda also made the list, along with four blends.
Roasters from only two countries appeared on the list: United States (28) and Taiwan (2). Canada was noticeably absent. We reviewed many fine coffees from Canadian roasters, most notably Fratello Coffee Roasters, but no single Canada-roasted coffee cracked the Top 30. The same could be said of excellent coffees we’ve reviewed that were roasted in Thailand, Hong Kong and Korea.
Roasters from California and Washington State dominated the rankings, with six and five appearances respectively. Other states with multiple roasters on the list were Hawaii (3), Massachusetts (2) and Wisconsin (2). Ten other states placed one roaster on the list.
The Cost Factor
The average price of $35.00 per pound for coffees on the list is certainly not cheap compared to other unrated specialty coffees on the market. However, keep in mind that one of the selection criteria for the Top 30 coffees was value, or affordability, measured by price per pound. Many of the coffees on the list are priced in line with other specialty coffees, including a dozen at $20 per pound or less. Given that a pound of coffee produces the liquid equivalent of close to one case of wine, this means some of the best coffees in the world are priced less per serving than the famous (or infamous) Charles Shaw “Two Buck Chuck” wine.
Higher scoring coffees tended to cost more:
The three most affordable coffees on the list are the 94-point Tony’s Ganesha Espresso ($13.99/16 ounces), the 94-point Mr. Espresso Ethiopia ($12.10/12 ounces) and the 95-point Velton’s Holiday Blend ($17.00/16 ounces).
We hope you will find our list of top coffees interesting, informative and provocative. We welcome your observations and opinions about the Top 30 Coffees of 2013. Please tweet us or post your comments on our blog or Facebook page.
You will find outstanding coffees, great values, emerging origins, and outstanding farmers and roasters that deserve to be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. Use the list as a guide for purchasing the coffees that remain available for sale in the market this season and to seek out the origins, farmers, and roasters that deserve a first look in 2014.
Top 30 Coffees of 2013:
In the new world of high-end specialty coffee, botanical variety of the tree has become one of the main ways to differentiate and describe small lots of fine coffee. Grape variety has long been a differentiator in wine, of course, and increasingly dominates description and selling of certain fruits and vegetables. But botanical variety of coffee tree also has become an increasingly intensely explored path to higher return and more recognition for producers and roasters.
This month we tested thirty-one such small-lot coffees, each produced only from a single botanical variety of Arabica. In many cases these small lots had been subjected to special, customized fruit removal and drying, particularly drying in the whole fruit. Given the care that was lavished on these small lots, it is no surprise that as a group they attracted such high ratings: twenty of the total of thirty-one coffees we tested rated 90 or higher. Fifteen of the very highest rated, with scores ranging from 92 to 95, are reviewed this month.
The complete October issue is scheduled to post late this week.
An Agtron machine reflects light on a sample of coffee in order to objectively and accurately assign a number to the beans’ roast color. The smaller the number, the darker the roast. If you’re interested in some additional background, refer to a blog we posted in 2010: http://bit.ly/1b7fLNR.
The reason that I started thinking about Agtron readings is that it seemed like a lot of recent highly rated coffees had Agtron readings that were similar. To test my hypothesis, I looked at all of the coffees that received a score of 94 points or higher so far in 2013. There have been 50.
Of the 50 samples, over half (26) had a whole bean Agtron reading of between 51 and 56, which is considered a medium to bordering-on-medium-light roast. Given that Agtron scores range from less than 25 to more than 75, it was striking to me that more than half of the highest rated coffees fell in that narrow range. One might argue that the narrow range is simply a reflection of Kenneth Davids’ favorite roast level. And maybe these 30 or so roasters have figured out how to roast for Kenneth’s palate to achieve high scores? Personally, that seems a bit presumptuous.
I think it is more likely that quality roasters have found a “sweet spot” that frequently represents a tactful, appropriate roast level that appeals to their own palates, that of their customers, and ultimately Kenneth’s as well.
While I was under the hood, I tinkered a bit. When I looked at Agtron readings by origin, there was clearly variation, though it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from small sample sizes. That said, the average Agtron readings for origins that have more than one 94+ rating (# of reviews in parentheses) were as follows:
Panama (5) – 58.8
Ethiopia (20) – 56.2*
Sumatra (5) – 55.6
Hawaii (3) – 53.3
Kenya (9) – 50.9*
Average – 55.1*
* Excludes coffees reviewed as espresso
In other words, the five 94+ coffees from Panama were roasted the lightest. This may have been by design but I might also guess that roasters are especially careful with their expensive Panamas and err on the side of safety. (Whatever you do, don’t burn the Gesha!)
It’s interesting that the Sumatras were not the darkest roasted as a group. Conventional wisdom suggests that earthy Sumatras can take a darker roast but it seems that some roasters have been successfully challenging that line of thinking.
On average, the darkest roasted (mind you, still a medium roast) origin was Kenya. Perhaps the usual big fruit character and acidity common to Kenyan coffees begs for a more aggressive roast than more delicate Ethiopias and Panamas?
And, while the point of this piece was to look at Agtron readings and roast levels, it’s difficult not to notice that 20 of the 50 coffees that earned 94+ points this year were grown in Ethiopia. Impressive!
Earlier this year, we speculated that Coffee Review readership in Taiwan could exceed that of Australia if traffic growth rates continued. Well, it has happened, at least for September. Visits from Taiwan leapfrogged those from Australia, making Taiwan our fourth largest source of visitors, after only the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
If Coffee Review readership is any indication, coffee is hot throughout Asia. After Australia at #5, the rest of the top ten markets are also in Asia: Thailand, South Korea, Philippines, China, and Malaysia. Visits from China have increased 150% over last September.
This week, the highly respected Mayo Clinic published findings that suggest excess coffee consumption, defined as more than four cups per day every day, increases the likelihood of early death in people under the age of 55. The study concluded, in part: “On the basis of these findings, it seems appropriate to suggest that younger people avoid heavy coffee consumption (ie, averaging >4 cups per day).”
Hmm? That doesn’t sound like bad advice. However, other equally legitimate recent studies from equally credible medical sources such as the New England Journal of Medicine suggest a positive health impact from moderate consumption of coffee.
Alice G. Walton wrote a thoughtful, balanced piece in Forbes magazine this morning.
What is a coffee lover supposed to do? Give up coffee? Drink more coffee? From our perspective, the best course of action is to consume coffee, like everything else, in moderation (seemingly four cups or less per day?). If you have any concerns, check with your doctor, who can provide advice about coffee consumption specific to your personal health condition.
So, is coffee bad for your health? Based on recent studies, it seems coffee might be good for you and it probably won’t hurt you in moderation. Our advice: Drink moderate amounts of quality coffee… that is, better is more.
Based on reader feedback regarding last week’s “Who Cares About Coffee Anyway” blog post, it was clear that we needed to dig deeper than a top 10 list of coffee cities (based on per capita Coffee Review readership). Numerous readers asked where their hometown ranked. We decided that we needed to expand the list, perhaps to a top 100.
But it occurred to us that readers not residing in the top 100 cities would continue to wonder where their city or town ranked. Instead, we ran the numbers by state (for April – June 2013) so no one, in the United States anyway, would feel left out. Here’s what we found… breaking news: Washingtonians loves coffee. No surprise there.
However, the state of Washington was NOT #1 in terms of per capita Coffee Review readership. Hawaii is #1! That seems surprising at first glance but, when you consider that Hawaii is the only state that produces coffee commercially, it stands to reason that a lot of people have a vested interest in coffee news and reviews.
Here’s the top 10:
8. New York
10. New Hampshire
It was interesting to see where people are NOT reading Coffee Review. The lowest per capita readership by state is as follows:
48. West Virginia
43. South Carolina
Obviously, if you don’t have access to the internet, you can’t visit CoffeeReview.com. Many of the states ranked 41-50 have lower internet connectivity rates than those in the top 10. The above results were normalized for internet connectivity.
Now, keep in mind that plenty of folks in Mississippi, including my sister-in-law, read Coffee Review. However, as a whole, Mississippians just aren’t as interested in reading about coffee as people from Hawaii. To put it in perspective, if you live in Hawaii, you are five times more likely to read Coffee Review than if you live in Mississippi.
The remainder of the ranking is as follows:
14. New Jersey
15. North Carolina
29. South Dakota
32. New Mexico
33. Rhode Island
38. North Dakota
Later in the year, we’ll revisit the readership data and incorporate some additional factors, such as concentration of roasters and cafes, to add some texture to these admittedly one dimensional rankings.
Well, Coffee Review certainly does. Given that you’re reading this post, you probably care. The roughly one million people who visit CoffeeReview.com each year care, at least enough to visit. But what we’re really trying to get at is which cities are most interested in coffee… most passionate about coffee, if you will?
To answer that question, we looked at Coffee Review visitors by city (using Google Analytics; data for year-to-date 2013). Not surprisingly, the top cities in the U.S. were New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. Internationally, the top cities were London, Hong Kong, Toronto, Bangkok, and Sydney.
Obviously, a big driver of traffic is the population of each city. For example, you would expect New York City to have more readers than Seattle just based on the large difference in population, roughly 8.2 million versus 650,000, respectively. So, we normalized for population to calculate visits per capita, which is a better measure of how “passionate” a city is about coffee. Granted, there are many other, perhaps more meaningful, ways to measure how crazy a city is about coffee but here’s what we found based on Coffee Review traffic.
1. San Francisco, CA
2. Seattle, WA
3. Washington, DC
4. Minneapolis, MN
5. Atlanta, GA
It’s not surprising to see San Francisco and Seattle at the top of the list. Both cities have great coffee communities with plenty of outstanding roasters and cafes. In fact, there are probably coffee lovers in cafes in these cities reading this post on their laptop or mobile phone right now. Shoot us a tweet (@coffeereview) if you are.
1. Vancouver, Canada
2. Toronto, Canada
3. Taipei City, Taiwan
4. Melbourne, Australia
5. Sydney, Australia
Vancouver is another great coffee city. There must be something about the Pacific Ocean or Pacific time zone that makes people passionate about coffee. Thanks for visiting, Vancouver. Take note, Toronto, your readership is growing much faster in 2013 than that of Vancouver (64% vs. 37%) so you may well surpass Vancouver soon.
We’ll refine our ranking process and revisit the data later in the year. For example, we can look at roasters and coffee shops per capita. Send us your thoughts on how to improve the rankings. Perhaps, with your help, we can crown a U.S. and world “coffee capital” for 2013?
We haven’t published an article about decaffeinated coffee since July 2010. At the time, the samples we cupped “tested my optimism,” to quote Kenneth Davids. Only one of the 50 decafs we cupped earned a score of 90 points, namely Decaf South America Blend by Cafe Valverde.
However, it appears that decaf drinkers in 2013 have reason to be more optimistic. Over the past three years, we have discovered several fine decaf coffees and espressos that earned 90 points or more. So far in 2013, we have rated two decafs at 90 points or higher:
Looking back in 2011 and 2012, Doi Chaang Coffee (Vancouver, BC), Coava Coffee (Portland, OR), and Fresh Coffee Beans and Tea House (Hong Kong) also earned scores of 90 points or higher for their decafs.
Based on recent search results on CoffeeReview.com, many of our readers are looking for quality decaf coffees. We would be interested to hear from other readers and roasters who have found or are producing exceptional decafs.
What does a 96-point coffee taste like? Well, you can find out for yourself. Three coffees in 2013 have received ratings of 96 points… and at least two of them are still available from the roasters. Our blind assessments of these remarkable coffees appear below.
“Delicate but lush; piercingly sweet. Honey, jasmine-like flowers, tangelo-like citrus, hints of chocolate and fresh-cut fir in aroma and cup. Lyric, flower-saturated acidity; full but lively mouthfeel. The tangelo note in particular resonates inside immense sweetness in the finish.” – Kenneth Davids, February 2013
Note that another 96-point coffee reviewed in 2012 is still available at George Howell Coffee:
“Crisp, sweetly pungent, elegant. Guava, citrus, backgrounded caramel and dark chocolate in aroma and cup. Rich, active, juicy acidity; syrupy but lively mouthfeel. Very sweet, long, flavor-saturated finish.” – Kenneth Davids, October 2012.
In March, Papa Lin’s Coffee Roasting earned 96 points for its Ethiopia Ninety Plus Kemgin W2:
“Succulent, richly intricate. Wild strawberry, dried blueberry, rich mousse-like chocolate, fresh ginseng, lush flowers in aroma and cup. Complete, exhilarating acidity; full, syrupy mouthfeel. Flavor-saturated finish, crisply drying with a persistent ginseng note.” – Kenneth Davids, March 2013.
Finally, Temple Coffee also produced a 96 point Ethiopian coffee:
“Immense and intricate in flavor and aroma, balanced in structure. Crisp, nut-toned chocolate; lush night-blooming flowers; ripe tangerine; pungent sandalwood in aroma and cup. Sweetly tart acidity; full, syrupy mouthfeel. Quietly but profoundly flavor-saturated finish.” – Kenneth Davids, April 2013.
We understand that Temple may have sold out of this lot but check on their current Yirgacheffe.
As we approach the mid-way point of 2013, we decided to take a look back at the top espressos from the first half of the year. Six espressos earned 94 points, the highest score for an espresso so far in 2013. Three of these coffees are from U.S. roasters:
As of today, June 19, the first two still appear to be available on the roasters’ websites.
The other three espressos that earned 94 points are produced by roasters outside the United States. Two are from roasters in Taiwan:
The other espresso was produced by The Coffee Academics in Hong Kong:
We’re looking forward to sampling more great espressos in the second half of the year.