July 12, 2006 – 11:12 pm
Letter from a cupping
What I learned from Hacienda la Esmeralda

There was a day during my four-month junket through Chad — just east of the Cameroonian border and south of the Sahara — when I saw through a stifling summer haze what can only be described as a reverie. Squatting beneath a pavilion of rough-woven grass mats, with butter and sodium rocks at their feet, were women of a wandering breed called Fulani. They didn’t so much squat, really, as they draped themselves through the air, without any visible supports or suspending wires. At least, I didn’t see any. They luxuriated, even in their most unguarded moments. One half expected to smell something floral when they passed. They were beautiful. And their skin, sheathing lithe, athletic figures and refined, delicate noses, was precisely the color of espresso and honey.

They didn’t belong in Gounou Gaya, not then, in 1998, and not now. Do not misunderstand: The stink of dead fish for sale and craven, ethnic combativeness that tinged so many transactions in that marketplace were a rich and endearing cultural melange to themselves. I came to navigate fairly well the cagey nature of the men grilling goat in the main byways and the fumes of fermented rice beverages in certain quarters. But the Fulani were apart — “sanctified,” in the strict sense — and not just by virtue of their nomadic lifestyle. To me, an outsider and a rare white face, they had me. They were more exotic than I, more irresistibly foreign and aloof and ethereal in their advanced, civilized movements. They laughed, scratched and blinked differently. Just the sight of them is without question one of my most distinct memories of Africa.

It is not entirely unthinkable to compare these people to the coffee I discovered last weekend. Or perhaps, it was my wife who more purely “discovered” it, in the form of a $100 debt incurred to secure a single pound. As it happens, it goes by the name “Esmeralda Geisha” or “Esmeralda Special,” so analogies involving mythical females have some obvious poetic merits. As an aesthetic experience, however, this coffee simply requires a separate classification, like Shakespeare or Michelangelo or Robert Browning (to stack the deck with a personal favorite). In fact, if there were deliberate engineering behind the Esmerelda, it could be said that the designer had achieved true genius, by definition a total transcendence of a genre, stunningly accessible to the most pedestrian of non-elites yet unleashed before the public, or the marketplace, was remotely prepared for it.

This is the best way I know to explain the intoxicant that is the Esmeralda, though no doubt other means will present themselves. It is, of course, not an engineered product but a complete gift of Ethiopian coffee trees peculiarly planted in Panama; subjected to mystifying soil and weather ideals; and endowed with cherries, whose internal riches, when roasted properly, appeal to the five senses with a multitudinous rush of honeysuckle, breakfast tea, sage, cane sugar, pralines, sweet basil, cabbage, wintergreen, maple syrup, nougat, tart cherry, lemon peel, Lily of the Valley, rose water and light tobacco.

I said the five senses. This is because, aside from flavor, aroma and mouthfeel, the Esmeralda sears agreeably through a sharp first pop to the verge of a merry second. When finished, it possesses a gracefully angular, unblemished oval shape that’s rare in my specialty coffee experience. It’s not unlike the soaring forehead of a Fulani.

The mounting triumph of “single-origin” coffee, in the parlance of its students, is often spread by and attributed to socially conscious programs with the stated aim of improving third-world work conditions, securing fair prices for disadvantaged farmers and developing a higher-quality end product — a sort of guilt-free upper crust of the market for America’s second largest import. Few programs seem to have completely cornered this responsible coffee trifecta. Practical and philosophical snags abound. For example: what exactly is a “fair” price for good coffee, if not what the market is willing to pay by default? Still, the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Best of Panama competition is emblematic of an effort to parlay unspeakable prices, by farmer standards, into unthinkable cup results. The Esmeralda secured an auction record sales price at $50.45 per pound for just five large bags. Just say “Carmen” or “Esmeralda” in reference to the formerly overlooked Latin country and coffee sourcers and Northwestern cafe owners will sigh and glance quickly skyward as if to intimate that such crops are divinely appointed.

And maybe they are. For despite the emphasis on more responsible and meticulous sourcing systems, the Esmeralda itself seems to support little else beside the completely mystical. Its flavor profile is both wildly vivid and maddeningly subtle. Finding the right descriptors is like breaking a code. I have struggled for hours to communicate just its mouthfeel: a shimmering, singular sheet of lipids that coats the tongue and lazily slides toward the throat with all the grace of velvet falling off a shoulder. The Esmeralda is an irrefutable and uncrackable Hammurabi’s code, a hieroglyphic tablet encoding all that goes into a truly good cup — unpredictable weather patterns, unalterable altitude, even the micro-climates within a single plantation.

This plantation’s owner, Price Peterson, speaks generally about the forces of nature that shape the Esmeralda, coming off as unsure about the specifics. The Esmeralda Special comes from a small valley on a much larger farm, and Peterson is currently unsure how — or if — he can expand on a maddeningly limited miracle crop.

“We now know that this remarkable cup is the result of climate (cold), variety (Gesha), careful harvesting and inventive processing,” Peterson says. “Due to the climate and variety, it is also a low yielding coffee, only producing about 100 bags at present.”

Coffee’s metaphysical elusiveness, of course, is what makes it impossible to master. Roaster and industry author Kenneth Davids writes that a coffee’s taste is the result of as many as 850 distinct substances, compared to about 150 involved in vanilla — one of food science’s most complex flavors. Arabica beans entail more than 2,000 elements in all. In a country where the most stellar fruits and vegetables are now mass engineered as a matter of climate-controlled science, coffee is still hand picked on vast, weather-dependent estates in mostly poor countries. Like oil, it is a vast natural resource and one of western culture’s great foreign dependencies. As a stimulant on whom millions lean, it is the world’s most addicted-to pharmaceutical.

These seductions have spurred everyone from Napoleon to modern competitive barista Jon Lewis to pen soliloquies to stellar coffees, though Lewis, for one, chose to underscore the role of the preparer in a monologue for the United States Barista Championship that was at times both soaring and overwrought.

He visualized world crises mediated by espresso diplomats. He later added, “There’s a flowering, a fruition, a consummation” — the poetry of the plant, perhaps? — “coffee in the hands of the barista.” Lewis was admittedly performing for judges tasked with evaluating his skills, not just the coffee itself, but his speech conveniently illustrates a genial contradiction in the rarified movement to de-commoditize coffee by delighting in its apexes: the focus on the coffee versus the focus on the barista. In some places, the latter bent even veers into classic American rock star-ism complete with airs of celebrity and delusional egos. As found in most of society’s upper strata, this person-centeredness can result in well-meaning but comically unyoked sermons on virtues such as, say, focusing on the coffee.

A recent essay in Barista magazine — the low-budget, cult-status bible of coffee preparers — came close to encapsulating this contradiction. Chris Tacy, the Web consultant and sporadic coffee writer, began by defining espresso as “one of many ways to experience coffee.” He added that his statement is “almost a bit profound.” He rightly advances the argument that, despite commercially accepted norms of engineering coffee blends for espresso, preparing single origins in this way — that is, in an espresso machine instead of a drip brewer or French press — offers a greater understanding of individual crops and can rival a blend for enjoyment in the cup.

What’s misleading, however, is Tacy’s underlying premise that this is something new. One wonders, historically, which came first in the advancement of espresso: Simple coffee brewed through a portafilter or a blend of logical complements? More germane, however, is the established track record of amateur espresso enthusiasts and many professionals who have used coffee from a single country to prepare espresso for years, and not just out of convenience. They may have been the minority, but their practice is not new. The Esmeralda is a stellar reminder of why: because coffee is elaborate all by itself. It doesn’t need our help.

Tacy was right on one key point. Espresso is simply another way to imbibe coffee. It always has been.

Which is to say that I subjected the Esmeralda to my own decidedly amateur espresso skills. When I mentioned this intent publicly, similarly afflicted drinkers wondered if it wasn’t akin to feeding cash through the coffee grinder, atomizing an entire grocery budget into the air. Indeed, the price tag had me counting individual beans throughout the roasting process in a sort of compulsive determination not to lose a single granule. However, any lingering doubts over the potential for waste (there’s the grind adjustment, the messy distribution process and the loss of some ground coffee to machine crevasses and moving parts) disappeared with the first sip.

I am convinced the Esmeralda includes trace amounts of illegal methamphetamines. I have written newspaper reports on meth addiction, and so feel qualified to note the striking similarities — most notably the astounding ability of both to become your Answer to Everything, sort of like a Leatherman pocket multi-tool, but edible and more addicting. Insecure about your weight? Meth can help, they say. Need to study 72 hours straight for an accounting exam? All you need is meth. Are you paralyzed with a fear of dating? Meth, friend!

The Esmeralda is similarly indispensable. Press some on a summer afternoon, and as it cools it becomes a gin and tonic, with an aromatic Lily of the Valley garnish. Drink an espresso shot before a Rotary luncheon and you have light hors d’oeuvres. Or if the meeting involves older women: petit fours. Just this evening, in fact, I whipped together an Esmeralda-based macchiato and consumed it alongside a plate of ziti. Only one descriptor came to mind: peach melba.

Instead of bathing only myself in elitist Esmeralda bliss, however, I chose to test the very limited supply on rabid coffee drinkers in the American norm — those who routinely purchase cups of cafeteria drip or pay $5 for chain-store lattes. Co-workers immediately presented themselves: the genial photographer, the inscrutable editor, the dashing cop reporter and the crusading columnist. All had heard my lurid, unhinged coffee ramblings and thought the fixation with origin was more than a little daft. Undaunted, I invited each of them to a weekend cupping. “Sounds like a hazing ritual,” one colleague said.

I was, quite frankly, insecure. Mostly because they had forced me to reveal what I paid for the Esmeralda using Chinese water torture, and I had become concerned that no matter how extraordinary the coffee, there was no way they would find it 20 times as good as their normal fare. But this is where the Esmeralda taught her most beguiling lesson. Coffee is reflective of its end user.

There’s the archetypal consumer mindset that whispers, “I am what I order at Starbucks,” a slightly less smarmy variation of the I-am-what-I-drive American standard. But I’m not talking about a voluntary identification with a coffee drink. The Esmeralda claims you, and tells you what you are. If you do not like her, that is your problem. To appropriate A.A. Milne, you may be worthy — who knows? — but to taste and pass an opinion is only to sit in judgement upon yourself.

At 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning, my phalanx of neophyte-tongues congregated around my cupping table, a turquoise disc salvaged from a grandmother’s garage and set atop two large and outdated upright stereo speakers. Unlabeled were four glass bowls containing Panama’s No. 2 coffee of the year, “Bambito Estate;” a middling Yemen I had procured from a Cypriot; a bit of Starbucks Sumatra, straight off the grocery store shelf and surely stale as a bird nest; and the Esmeralda herself.

I tried hard not to tip them off, honest I did. It was my own first taste of the Esmeralda, and I wanted to do it honorably. No pre-slurp image-mongering for me. To the novices, the consumption of the dry aromatics was a perfunctory affair, with the initial sniffs of the dry grounds more self-conscious than studious. They grew more attentive for the wet-grounds stage, as the olfactory experience evolved rapidly with hot water — well, except for the Sumatra. Dirt to mud was the aromatic progression. The Esmeralda, when wetted, smelled as if she’d sprouted water lilies from sweetly tainted seeds.

Then the crusts were breached. The young lady hovering over the Esmeralda had been clueless about her spoils. I watched as the redolent burst caused her eyes to fly open. Others “hmmm”ed and “huh”ed over their bowls, but she of the cafeteria drip looked up as if to say, “This must be it.” My own first slurp viciously spited any attempt at a poker face. “Holy …” I said, and then quick unanimity was achieved. Flowers — gardenia, honeysuckle, lilies — all were valid. And tea, most definitely Earl Grey. And syrup, maple. Slight sweet cabbage. And on and on we marveled, letting the Esmeralda do what she had come to do: tell us about ourselves.

Only the Starbucks achieved similar like-mindedness. The descriptions ranged from dirt to asphalt. Such a canvas, it could be said, has already been painted black and is only good for neon finger paints. The other coffees gave us something, a lesson that we tend to describe the taste experience in terms we like. If an origin holds traces of licorice, for example, and one is not a fan of licorice, one might be prone to saying molasses instead. This is an ivory canvas, on which neutrals work best.

The Esmeralda, in reality, is not a canvas at all. It is a finished and indescribable work of stunning abstraction in which you find your soul. My reporter friend became a sylph, sparkling and wordless under the Esmeralda’s influence. The photojournalist, the only one with a traveled appreciation for espresso, spent what seemed like hours exploring the tableau. The crusading columnist raved. The editor nodded, critiqued, grinned. And I basically wrote this.

Ben Szobody