We are pleased to announce Coffee Review’s Top 30 Coffees of 2013, our ranking of the most exciting coffees we have reviewed over the past year. We started posting the Top 30 Coffees at a rate of three per day on Monday, December 2. The list below will be complete when we reveal the top three coffees on Wednesday, December 11:
We selected the top thirty coffees based on quality (represented by overall score), 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, certification, and general rarity. Once we developed our list, we reviewed it to eliminate duplication of very similar coffees.
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 written reviews for nearly 3,500 coffees. We are often asked, perhaps a little naively, “What is the best coffee?” To which we give the obvious answer: “There is no single ‘best’ coffee.”
Nevertheless, when we look at our website data to see how people using Google find CoffeeReview.com, we see search terms like “best coffee beans” or “best coffees of 2013.” Of course, those who visit our website can sort through the reviews to draw their own conclusions. Yet, as much as we might want to resist making a year-end “best coffees” list, it is certainly reasonable for informed coffee lovers to ask us to identify the best coffees we’ve tasted recently or those that have excited us the most.
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.”
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 put them all on the list. Our final list of top thirty coffees includes about 10% of all coffees reviewed and about half of those that scored 94 points or higher. 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.
We hope you will find our list of top coffees interesting, informative, and provocative. 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 your ongoing attention in 2014.
At the beginning of each month, we publish a new feature article with reviews. The planned cupping calendar for 2014 is shown below:
January – TBD
February – Real Blend: Blends Produced from Three or More Origins
March – Specialty Coffees of Brazil
April – Specialty Coffees of Colombia
May – Coffees of Central Africa: Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo
June – Coffees of Hawaii
July – Specialty Coffees of Indonesia and East Timor (excluding Sumatra)
August – Decaffeinated Espresso Blends and Single-Origins
September – Natural- and Honey-Processed Coffees from Central America & Mexico
October – Coffees of a Single Variety, from a Single Lot
November – The New Competitive World of K-Cups
December – Seasonal Offerings for the Holidays
Please note that the previously listed January 2014 review subject (Real Blends: Blends Produced from Three or More Origins”) has been postponed one month. Cupping will occur in January and the article will appear for February. The schedule is subject to further change.
The window during which we accept coffees for these review articles is the tenth day through the twentieth day of the month prior to publication. For example, we will test coffees for the May article during the period April 10 through 20. However, professional travel or other distractions may lead to modifications of the 10th through 20th schedule, so we request that all roasters submitting coffees for a given article first query Jason Sarley at Jason@CoffeeReview.com before sending their coffees.
We welcome feedback regarding our proposed cupping calendar for 2014.
I’m here in El Salvador for “Let’s Talk Coffee,” a yearly meeting of mostly small-holding coffee producers, roasters, importer and exporters, and development agencies. It’s sponsored by Sustainable Harvest, a long-time pioneering American importer of cooperative and small-producer coffees.
I came here in part to deliver a presentation on Robusta coffees. It was part of a string of presentations and cuppings focused on exploring Robusta in a specialty coffee context. Conversations on Robusta are increasingly urgent in specialty coffee events for several reasons, all of them at bottom pushed by anxiety about the impact of global warming on Arabica production, particularly production of lower elevation Arabicas. Arabica is a very fussy plant in respect to temperatures, and as global temperatures rise more and more regions of Arabica production are being stressed by changes in rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, and intensified pest infestations like the latest leaf rust outbreak here in Central America. Robusta, of course, grows at a much wider range of elevations (though it cups best when grown at higher elevations) and is much hardier than Arabica.
So some specialty roasters, in fact, quite a few, are asking – can Robusta truly be developed as a viable fine coffee? They want to know more about Robusta, understand it better, and perhaps support its development as a complement to the best Arabicas. The very best Robusta producers, like those in India, feel that they have achieved that goal of making Robusta specialty. Others of us, like me, feel that, although some producers in India have done very well, in order for Robusta to truly contribute to specialty a new attitude is necessary, an attitude of interest, openness, and experiment.
Which was the focus of my talk. I don’t want to rebrand Robusta; I want to unbrand it so we in specialty can finally find out what it is and can be. The Arabica world is not static – look at the development of new varieties, like Gesha, the successful experiments with unorthodox processing methods – the new naturals, honey-processing, etc. We don’t really know what Robusta is from a potential specialty perspective, only what it is now, as represented by the dispiriting output of the current relentlessly quality-destructive industrialized Robusta supply chain.
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.
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.
Sneak peek from the lab… According to Kenneth:
“We have cupped about twenty Guatemalas with about ten more to go. We’ve encountered a very wide and impressive range of cup profiles, particularly in the way they reflect the cup tendencies of various botanical varieties of Arabica, from deep, meaty Pacamaras to intense, high-toned, perfumy Geshas. Highest rating so far is 95; lowest is 85. The average rating will be quite high, probably close to 90.”
Our September article, featuring coffees from Guatemala, should post on or about next Tuesday, September 3.
Did you know, the first Guatemala we ever rated was a Starbucks Antigua in April, 1997? What do you think it scored?
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.
Currently the predominant style in high-end, artisan roasting is certainly light roasting or medium-light roasting, which allows the roaster to highlight the character of the bean rather than the roast. However, there is no question that many coffee lovers still prefer the bittersweet bite of dark roasts, even if the subtle varietal characteristics have been muted by darker roasting.
In the early days of Coffee Review, I often resorted to more familiar cooking analogies to explain the impact of roasting on coffee taste. For example, I compared roasting coffee beans to toasting bread. At the simplest level, I would explain the some people like their toast barely warmed and others prefer it nearly black. The barely warmed bread tasted more like, well, the bread, while the blackened toast may make the taste of the original bread unrecognizable.
The analogy inevitably was extended to consider the type and quality of the bread, which might inform how to toast it. If the bread were a hearty pumpernickel, it’s character might be maintained or even enhanced during longer (and/or higher temperature) toasting. The argument went that big, distinctive Sumatras, for example, could handle darker roasting better than, say, a mild Kona.
The point of all of the analogies wasn’t to convince the consumer to choose a lighter roast, rather to help them understand the impact of the roasting on their coffee tastes.
When I was in the mood for a livelier debate over the merits of dark roasts, I would draw the analogy to cooking steaks. In this analogy, clearly dark roasting is considered a bad thing. Even if most chefs and steakhouses will cook a steak to medium-well or well-done if asked to do so, they probably don’t show a grayish brown steak in their marketing materials. In fact, most people cringe at the thought of cooking a Wagyu Kobe rib-eye steak to “well done.”
For my tastes, the steak analogy holds for dark roasting high quality coffee beans. Personally, I want to taste the terroir, the distinctiveness of origin, and the hard work of the coffee farmer appropriately enhanced by a tactful roaster.
My personal preferences aside, I was interested in looking at how Kenneth Davids and Coffee Review actually score dark roasts relative to lighter roasts. Kenneth addressed the issue as early as our June 1999 article titled Extreme and Not-So-Extreme Dark Roasts. Quoting Kenneth from the article:
I often am accused of “not liking” dark-roasted coffee. Whereupon I try to explain that what I don’t like are bad dark roasts: thin-bodied, burned dark roasts. Tactfully developed dark roasts, those in which the sugars have been caramelized rather than burned and in which enough fat survives to smooth the cup, are fine with me. And if some nuance also survives, or better yet, transforms in some interesting way under the impact of the roast, so much the better.
The problem may be that many coffee lovers, and even a few coffee professionals, don’t understand that, at least up to a point, it’s not how dark you roast the coffee, it’s how you roast it dark. You can roast it slowly and sensitively, keeping the temperatures in the roasting chamber from escalating at the end of the roast, or you can, essentially, burn it and destroy it.
I admit that I do have difficulty appreciating “French roast” blends, the consensus name for blends brought to the very most extreme dark end of the roast spectrum. No matter how skillful the roastmaster, very little tends to survive with these roasts except a rather thin-bodied bittersweet sensation.
There is, of course, something attractive in the right kind of burned taste. And certainly bitter combined with sweet is a paradox that runs pleasurably through human cuisine, from sweet-and-sour East Asian dishes to Campari to bittersweet chocolate. But I often wonder whether people who buy French roasts wouldn’t be happier with roasts that are a little less extreme, and preserve a bit more sweetness, brightness, and nuance to go with the bitter tones. Perhaps they don’t understand what to ask for, and buy “French roast” because they’re not fully aware of the range of possibility on the dark end of the spectrum and don’t have names for those possibilities.
In that cupping, the highest rated coffee earned 88 points, which is a solid score but far lower than the highest scoring coffees on Coffee Review. What do we see if we look at all of the dark roasts that Coffee Review has reviewed over the years?
Using the advanced search tool on CoffeeReview.com, you can see that Coffee Review has reviewed over 1,000 coffees that are classified as “medium-dark,” “dark,” or “very dark” as measured by their agtron numbers. If you’re not familiar with agtron readings, you can learn more on our page about interpreting reviews.
Of the more than 1000 dark roasts reviewed, 276 scored 90 points or higher. That’s solid. Of those, only three dark roasts earned 95 points, all of which were medium-dark roasts:
Among “dark” dark roasts, there were numerous coffees that scored 90 points or higher, though with less frequency.
There was one 93-point “dark” roast, also an espresso:
Looking at the coffees categorized as “very dark,” several managed to score 92 points, again, all espressos:
It’s interesting to note that all five of the highest scoring “dark” and “very dark” coffees were espressos. I don’t find that surprising. Dark roasts with lower acid levels tend to show well with espresso brewing, especially if presented in milk. However, 3 of those 5 espressos were decaffeinated coffees. That is a bit surprising. I’d be curious if any roasters or baristas have observed a similar pattern that might suggest a beneficial link between dark roasting and decafs for espresso brewing.
One other observation that relates back to my earlier comment about pumpernickel toast, of the coffees that are listed above, the three single-origin coffees are bold, distinctive coffee beans: A Kenya and two mochas, one from Yemen and one from Maui. It seems that these bold beans held up very well to tactful dark roasting.
Are you afraid of the dark? Let us know your thoughts about dark roasted coffees and other roasting analogies.
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. More than a 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?