You can’t always judge a “book” by it’s “cover” but you should always trust your roaster
Sometimes, you have to wonder about awards. I used to look forward to the Oscars. They were an event in my home and we would plan our evening around the show. It was like a sporting event. We would wait with anticipation to find out who won the major awards of the night; cheering on the films, actors and directors we loved; booing those we didn’t. The Oscars defined the world of film for us and we relied on the bestowing of the gold statuette to guide us to the best films on offer for any given year.
Later in my life I was lucky enough to move to a town that had a small but thriving independent movie house. I was lucky, as well, to befriend people with an abiding interest in the remote corners of film. They opened up my eyes to a world beyond the multiplex and convinced me to give the myriad small films on offer — those that lacked the budget to mount multi-city ad campaigns to build the traditional blockbuster’s impenetrable wall of hype — their due. As time went on, my notion of the world of film expanded beyond the narrow constraints of the Oscar contenders and led, eventually, to the realization that an ultimately restricted show like the Oscars — or, for that matter, any awards show — could not possibly contain or represent the incredible variety of quality films on offer every year. The Oscars’ limited definition of what constitutes an award-winning film began to reveal itself for what it was; a specific expression of subjective taste. The films — all immaculately produced and directed, to be sure — were of a certain quality. They were “oscar worthy” films but certainly not, necessarily, objectively, the best films.
I’ve come to view the bestowing of almost any award through the same lens of circumspection with which I grew to view the Oscars. There is no award system that can hope to represent the sheer variety of quality present in any one sphere. The two coffees in question here — Ritual’s CoE Matalapa, La Libertad, El Salvador and their Finca Moreno, Santa Barbara, Honduras — perfectly illustrate this point. One is a recipient of a prestigious award: the renowned Cup of Excellence. The other is a recommendation from a friend with a passion for, and an intimate knowledge of, both, coffee in general and a specific knowledge and expertise on the coffee on offer at Ritual Roasters. One has the endorsement of an internationally recognized award system. The other is a recommendation by a friend.
Lest one read into my analogy things I don’t intend: the Cup of Excellence (CoE) program is a rigorous annual competition designed to ferret out the best coffee any individual participating country has to offer. It’s a prestigious competition and the winners are rewarded with higher asking prices for their agricultural toil and increased awareness of their product in the marketplace. The genius of the program is that any one producer in any one country can enter his or her beans in the competition: from the largest, wealthiest land owner to the smallest, most destitute producer. Through the CoE program, many producers have been able to make a name for themselves and significantly increase the asking price for their green beans. This has been a boon to producers who wish to transition away from the losing financial game of producing a commodity product towards the far more lucrative area of premium coffee bean production. There. See, I like the CoE program. Ok. So, now, let’s get down to business.
What I’m drinking now: Ritual’s CoE Matalapa, La Libertad, El Salvador and Finca Moreno, Santa Barbara, Honduras
Ritual’s CoE Matalapa, La Libertad, El Salvador is a Cup of Excellence winner. In the pour-over cone it produced a clean, sweet, pleasantly lively, light to medium-bodied cup with a mild herbaceousness that emerged as it cooled. In the press-pot, much of the acidity was muted revealing a smoother cup that, somewhat magically, went from medium to full-bodied as the cup cooled. The press-pot seemed to pull out more of the herbaceous character (mint?) and revealed just a hint of something like vanilla. This is not a coffee that hits you over the head, as it were, with it’s various characteristics. It’s a subdued, subtle brew. Elegant, subdued, this is a high quality, solid, if uninspiring coffee.
One of Ritual’s roasters recommended the Finca Moreno, Santa Barbara, Honduras on a recent trip into Ritual. It was one of his favorite coffees in the house, he said. It — and by extension, he — did not disappoint. In my tasting notes I used words like “creamy”, “caramel”, “lime”, “citrusy” and even “earthy”. This, my friends, is a complex coffee. In both preparations I use (the pour-over cone and french press) the body and mouthfeel were amazing. Thick and viscous the Moreno coated the mouth with a heavy liquid that belied the fact that this was still, basically, water soaked in seeds for a few minutes. It was rather surprising. This was one of those coffees that I could drink day after day, week after week and be completely satisfied. And I did. And I was.
That’s another thing. I don’t normally judge a coffee based on it’s longevity. I am a firm believer in freshness. For the most part, seven to ten days is the limit for me. After that, I have found that the flavor of most beans suffers a great deal. Just ask my roommates or take a gander at my coffee drawer and you’ll find I have no compunction with abandoning a half-full bag of beans if I feel that it is suffering from a bad case of old age (don’t worry, I treat people much, much better) but these beans … well … they were like the Energizer Bunny of coffee beans.
I became sick a few days after picking these up. Consequently, I had little drive or opportunity to go after a fresh bag. With my nose plugged up like the Netherland’s coastline, even the freshest, most flavorful coffee would have tasted as flat as a two day old, open-topped can of soda. But the Finca Moreno wasn’t done surprising me yet. I had my doubts when I opened up the bag after my sickness was merciful enough to, at least, allow me to taste my food again but the flavor, the aroma, the body and mouthfeel; there was not a single component of flavor that suffered in any unpleasant way even after two weeks past the roast date.
If I were to hold a contest in my kitchen between these two coffees, the Finca Moreno would have won, hands down. It’s bag had no sticker on the outside proclaiming victory in any sort of competition. What it did have was the enthusiastic endorsement of the person the fewest steps away from my morning cup of coffee. CoE judges are remote endorsers of quality coffee. The everyday person off the street is not likely to have direct contact with a CoE judge. Even if they did, there are several steps between the moment of judgement and the moment you dip that two tablespoon scoop into your bag of beans in the morning. All of them have a direct effect on quality. How was the batch that ends up in your drawer at home handled at origin? What were the conditions of it’s trip to our shores? How was it stored before and after shipment? How was it delivered to the roaster? How did the roaster store it? Finally, how was it roasted? A CoE winner has as much potential to end up being a bad cup of coffee as any other bean and there are any number of steps — from bush to cup — that can influence that end result. Neither of these was a bad cup of coffee but one was more complex, had more character and a better personality than the other.
In this day and age the price of information has hit rock-bottom. And it’s all about the information. Want to know where the best restaurant is? Yelp or Google is there to serve you. Want the lowest price on this, that or the other widget? There are any number of sites dedicated to providing you a complete list of competing prices for any given product. Want to know which movie you should see tonight? There are a myriad different ways to get a recommendation. From movie rating sites to the ever increasing number of possible awards there are to give to films today (even the poor Oscars have had just a little of the shine taken off the statuette with the plethora of awards shows and film festivals that cater to every conceivable taste), it’s obvious that there is no lack of information in this modern world. It’s the quality of information and, more specifically, the personal utility of that information that matters. I want my information as fresh as I want my coffee. I want relevancy. I allowed my movie aficionado friends to trump the Oscars, I allow the music fanatics in my life to trump the radio and I will allow the roaster I know to trump a CoE label any time at all.