By OLIVER STRAND
In Ristretto, Oliver Strand, the curator of the Times Topics coffee page, explores the world of coffee gadgets, coffee beans and why it’s never been easier to get a perfect shot of espresso.
Last week’s online auction of the 2010 crop from Hacienda la Esmeralda was an exercise in tedium, eight hours of proxy bidding that kept coffee buyers in Oslo and Tokyo glued to their iPhones well past their bedtimes. (As one successful bidder noted, it takes less time to buy a Picasso.)
It seems you’ll spend the day staring at a page that bears a separated-at-birth resemblance to New York’s alternate-side parking calendar when you’re in the running for a lot of the Geisha cultivated by Hacienda la Esmeralda. Simply put, it’s the best coffee in the world.
As opinions go, it’s as close to a consensus as you’ll find in coffee. The Geisha plants produce coffee so delicate, layered and lively it brings to mind honeysuckle, sugary citrus peels and white peach. Duane Sorensen of Stumptown Coffee Roasters said in an e-mail message that it reminded him of “fresh-squeezed orange juice, bergamot, nutmeg and Champagne.” Today it bewitches and bewilders buyers much as it did in 2004, when it appeared seemingly out of nowhere to take top honors at the Best of Panama auction.
That year, the coffee went for $21 per pound when other premium beans sold for $1.25 to $2.50 per pound. In 2007, the coffee went for $130 per pound. On May 25, that record was shattered when a 400-pound lot went for $170 per pound. Irrational exuberance? Perhaps. Though Geisha isn’t a novelty: unlike civet coffee, it commands its price because of how it tastes, not because it came out of a cat’s digestive tract.
The results of last week’s auction weren’t as dramatic, but in many ways they were more interesting. The bidding topped out at $36.50 per pound, and the overall results were the strongest since 2008, when Hacienda la Esmeralda held its first solitary auction and started designating coffees, especially the so-called Mario lots, according to a system that brings to mind Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Both Hacienda la Esmeralda and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (usually shortened to DRC) are small and serious family businesses with limited productions and cult followings. They also share a certain aloofness, though it’s hard to match the Skull-and-Bones-like method DRC uses for allocating wine, which can cost as much as $3,000 per bottle: They choose you, and if your numbered bottles show up at auction, you won’t hear from them again.
Usually, a vineyard will put its best wine under one name and the rest under a second label. Yet despite its tiny size, DRC produces six pinot noirs (plus one chardonnay). A bottle of Romanée-Conti, the most important label, might be one of the most desired objects in the world, the remaining five pinot noirs are nearly as prized. The message is simple: Every DRC wine has a distinct character, and every one is exceptional.
This year, Hacienda la Esmeralda offered 78 lots divided into seven designations: Mario Carnaval, Mario San José, Mario Enero, Barú, Caballeriza, Naranjo and Colgá. The most prestigious are the Mario designations, which are all from the same part of the finca but harvested at different times: Mario Carnaval in February, Mario San José in March and Mario Enero in January.
Mario Carnaval commanded the highest prices, followed by Mario Enero. But the four lots of Caballeriza were close behind, followed by Mario San José. Even Colgá, the least-expensive designation, went for $20 per pound and up. Every Geisha is distinct and exceptional.
And most of it is heading to Asia. It’s coffee’s eastward march, with Japan, Korea and Taiwan accounting for 42 of the 78 lots, or 54 percent of the total. Japanese bidders snatched up 32 lots, the most of any nation. Needless to say, the record-breaking lot of $170.20-per-pound Geisha is also going to Japan. The United States followed with 18. Norway, the Netherlands and Britain seem to have a taste for Geisha, as do Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Canada. Italy and France? Nope.
The coffee is in transit now, and it should arrive in the United States by late June.
Expect to see it offered shortly after. Some of the roasters with winning bids include George Howell Coffee Company, Klatch Roasting, PT’s Coffee Roasting Company and Stumptown Coffee Roasters. If you D.I.Y., Sweet Maria’s, which sells green beans to home roasters, was in on two lots of Mario Carnaval and one lot of Mario Enero.
Counter Culture Coffee won a lot of Mario San José and will start roasting the week of its arrival. It will cost about $35 for an 8-ounce tin. Most likely, the supply will be exhausted by the end of July, a reminder that coffee is a seasonal product.
“Every so often we think to ourselves, ‘Are we rewarding this coffee because it’s excellent, or are we rewarding it because it’s weird?’ ” Peter Giuliano, the coffee buyer for Counter Culture Coffee and one of its co-owners, told me by phone, explaining that the “hyper-floral” Geisha is basically a Panamanian coffee that tastes like it’s from Ethiopia. “Then we put it up against the best coffees, and we think that it’s justly celebrated.”
Counter Culture Coffee wants everybody to celebrate. The company will include the Mario San José in its Friday noontime cuppings, which are free and open to the public (the New York training center is located in Chelsea, at 37 West 26th Street).
“If you taste coffee consciously, you can get what’s special about this coffee,” Giuliano said. “This is for people who learned enough about coffee to know what their preferences are, and who can identify flavors like fruit or chocolate. But you don’t need to know a lot about coffee to get it. All the flavors are there, and you can really taste it. The cool thing about this coffee is it delivers.”
This post originally appeared in Ristretto May 26, 2010, a regular New York Times T Magazine feature written by Oliver Strand.