Friday, July 25, 2008

The famed Esmeralda

I had the privilege of tasting Price Peterson's La Esmeralda coffee from Panama with George Howell of Terroir Coffee Co. last week. If none of these names mean anything to you, well, then this is as good of an introduction to the world of micro-roasted specialty coffee as you're going to get.

I was on my way to Portland, Maine, for a weekend away with the girlfriend and made a detour to Terroir Coffee in Action, Massachusetts, to pick up some beans I had ordered. Specifically, a bag of La Esmeralda from Panama, and a coffee called Mamuto from Kenya.

The Esmeralda is well known among coffee aficionados for setting a record at auction the past few years. Last year, it went for an astounding $130 a pound to roasters, and consumers could purchase it at retail for $200. People were lining up at a cafe in Vancouver to pay $15 a cup. The coffee itself is the geisha variety, a type of bean that traveled to Panama from Ethiopia hundreds of years ago and just recently reappeared at Price Peterson's farm. While the auction lot went for a ton of money, other beans from the same estate could be had for much more reasonable prices, between $20-$40 a pound.

When I arrived at the company, someone at the front desk told me the coffee was being roasted right then, and that it needed to be brewed and tested it before the company would package it and send it out. I was told I'd have to wait about 30 minutes to get it. My girlfriend gave me a look that said "do you seriously want to wait? Can't we just continue with our vacation?" I ignored this look, and asked the woman if George himself was around.

"Um, sure, let me see if he's free."

I looked kind of sloppy that day, wearing just a t-shirt, khakis and flip flops, since we were driving for three hours, so I'm sure people there were wondering who I was. Fortunately, I've talked to George several times during the past year for articles I was working on (that never got published), so when George came out and I introduced myself, he recognized me.

"Hey, want to come back with me and taste the Esmeralda? We're testing it right now."

I almost fainted with excitement. This is like taking a trip to your favorite winery, and the winemaker happens to be around and invites you to taste barrel samples with him to determine which ones go into their super premium meritage blend. My girlfriend sighed, resigning herself into a further delay of our trip.

The office itself is modest, a brick building on a back road in Action, Mass., or about 25 miles northeast of Boston. When you walk in, you see some cubicles with workers making calls. On the walls are various coffee bean posters, with one, I think, detailing types of diseases that affect coffee beans (couldn't tell for sure, it was in Spanish).

But through a white door, you enter the tasting/storage area of the building, where all the fun happens. There's a long table in the middle of the first part of the room where samples are sniffed, slurped and savored, and off to the side are several Technivorm Brewers - a special machine that supposedly heats water to its proper temperature to fully extract the flavor from the grinds. Blocking the path to the back part of the office, where the beans are stored in various types of large sacks and special vacuum-sealed packages, is another table with a La Marzocco espresso machine, in all its glory.

George's daughter, who works for him, brought over the first batch of coffee to the long testing table, pouring it into short glass cups. It was very light in color, and looked tea-like in its transparency. That comparison was apt because the smell and taste reminded me of Darjeeling tea. That was followed by a striking citrus flavor that mellowed out to a buttery richness in the finish. Beautiful.

George decided the coffee was roasted too light, so we tasted the next batch. This version seemed heavier in the mouth, a little more syrupy. Some of the tea flavor was muted, but the citrus still came through. George decided this was better, and had the batch bagged. I walked out of there a happy, happy man. (note - I got a call from George a day later, saying in re-tasting the coffee, he thought it was too light, so he was reshipping new bags to customers).

If you drink starbucks, dunkin' donuts, or any other major coffee brand and want to see what all the fuss over micro-roasted, artisan coffee, try the Esmeralda if you have a chance. You'll never think about coffee the same again.

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