Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Incredible? Panama La Esmeralda at Broadway Coffee

Here's something interesting - and maybe even incredible. 

It's pretty neat that Broadway Coffeehouse is serving Stumptown cold brew on tap. That's remarkable, but doesn't quite ascend to the level of wow.

But what might just be mind-blowing is the prospect of Panama la Esmeralda on tap here in Salem. Frankly, it's almost too-good-to-be-true, so perhaps some caution is in order (more on that below).

Hacienda la Esmeralda is one of the world all-stars in coffee. They grow an heirloom Ethiopian variety called "gesha" or "geisha." Latin American soils and climate + ancient genetic variety = amazing.  It is so highly sought after that it's sold by auction.

For many years Esmeralda was sold in the "Best of Panama" auctions - and almost always brought the highest price and highest cupping scores. In 2004 it took the coffee world by storm, taking a then-unprecedented $21 a pound.  (For comparison, the current minimum Fair Trade price is $1.40 a pound, and bulk commodity coffee goes for less.)  Most other uber-specialty lots of coffee go in national auctions, like the Best of Panama, but as Esmeralda has grown in popularity and esteem, the farm now appears to conduct their own auctions for a bunch of different micro-lots. Moving up!

Last year at Best of Panama a lot of Esmeralda sold for $75 a pound - that's green, unroasted coffee! This year (2012) it looks like Stumptown purchased a lot directly from the farm for $45.50 a pound.

Price isn't always a good proxy for quality, mind you.  Too often price is a proxy for status rather than quality - just think of trophy wine and other luxury goods.  Still, roasters thought there was something unusual about Esmeralda and were willing to pay for it.

And whether the cold brew is from this auction lot (possibly 2011 rather than 2012) or another (there was also a peaberry*), you can try some. In Salem!

So for $3.50/$4/$4.50, this is a crazy-good deal for one of the world's finest coffees.

Now, some caveats. We've been lucky to taste a handful of gesha coffees over the years, and they ranged from beguiling to magnificent. If you're really into coffee, they might blow your mind. If you just "like" coffee and find other beverages like beer or wine or scotch interesting, you'll probably also find a gesha coffee different and interesting (though most likely not mind-blowing - at the end of the day, it's just coffee, a decoction of caramelized seeds).

But if you drink coffee with cream and sugar or with flavorings, though, they are probably not worth the premium. The layers of fruit over lively acidity are something to behold, but they shine straight-up, not cut with the other stuff.

However, we've never tasted a cold brew gesha. Who knows what the cold brew does to the flavor.  Cold brew usually is a mellower brew, with less acid, so there's some risk. The brightness and liveliness - often citrusy - are an important part of the distinctiveness of a gesha coffee, and without that it might be underwhelming and much less brilliant.  In a muted expression, would it still be special?

There's also a chance the brew is the result of unsold inventory - maybe the coffees were too expensive and didn't sell, and so this is a way to transform old coffee into something less expensive that will sell. Stumptown doesn't show a current lot of Esmeralda, but the google turns up some older listings from 2011.  The brew might not be from the freshest coffee beans. So the pricing and timing suggests some caution on this offer.

But you know what? If you're into coffee, you can't miss this! You gotta jump!

In beer terms? Much more unusual - even rarer - than, say, Pliny the Younger. Much.

So there you go. Some hype and some caution. If you drink coffee regularly, it's worth trying. If you don't drink coffee often - don't worry, it won't change your life. It's like birds - for your coffee "life list" you need Esmeralda, but if chasing after rare birds isn't your cup of tea, well then, this isn't your cup of coffee.

* Late add:  Another tweet suggests it's the peaberry, and a fact sheet dates the lot to December 2011. The wonders of a cached page show it sold retail for $41.25/12 oz, equivalent to $55 a pound.  This is top-shelf stuff.


  1. This is effing insane. The NY Times is reporting that a lot of Guatemala el Injerto (a Stumptown staple) has gone for $500.50 a pound!

    The piece has updates on other el Injerto lots as well as more on Esmeralda history and pricing.

  2. This is, as Joe Biden might say, a big fucking deal. Glad you took it on.

    1. Nice of you to stop by! Hope Mac and the rest of wine country is treating you well.