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.
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. 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?
Machines that utilize a pod, capsule, or K-Cup packed with ground coffee to brew a single serving of coffee (or espresso) are very popular. According to the latest data from the National Coffee Association, thirteen percent of the U.S. population drank coffee made in a single-cup brewer.
We first evaluated coffees brewed on single-serve machines in our January 2004 article – At What Cost Convenience? Testing the New Single-Serve Coffee Systems. We compared the systems from Flavia, Melitta, and Keurig, the emerging market leader. Keurig-brewed K-Cups earned the six top scores (85+) and even produced a 90-point cup: Timothy’s Colombian La Vereda.
We reviewed single-cup brewers again in two December 2005 articles:
In January, 2009, we reviewed single-serve brewing systems that use pods or capsules to brew espresso: Convenience First: Espresso Pods and Capsules. Both the Nespresso and IllyCaffe systems fared well, with scores in the high 80′s and even a 90-point review.
We revisited single-serve systems again in April 2011 – The Single-Serve Compromise and, most recently, in April 2013 – The (Not Quite Arrived) New World of K-Cups.
With the growing demand for convenient single-serve coffee and espresso brewing systems, and strong margins for manufacturers, new and upgraded single-serve coffee systems are coming on the market quickly. In July, we will evaluate four of the newer single-serve capsule espresso systems, including the Keurig/Lavazza Rivo, Starbucks’ Verissimo, the Canadian/Italian Singolo system, along with the well-established Nespresso system.
We track the search terms that readers use to find CoffeeReview.com. Recently I noticed quite a few readers looking for information about low acid coffees. One reader was even trying to find out what acid was added to coffee.
Well, to answer the question, acid is generally not ADDED to coffee. It occurs naturally and actually provides what Kenneth Davids calls a “sweetly tart spark” that adds a liveliness to coffee. However, for those of you who seek lower acid options, let me point you to our January 2012 article and reviews of low-acid coffees.
There was one 90+ point option: Brazil Cafe Zinho Esperanza Honey by Water Avenue Coffee.