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Guatemala: El Injerto remains the crown jewel

March 20-29

This past 9 days of cupping has been one of the most enlightening, gastronomic experiences I have had in my career. The Central American coffees that the Stumptown is bringing to the table this year are of unprecedented quality. Central America is a coffee growing region that has long been touted for having stellar quality, “mild” coffees. Mild is a reference to the washed process the coffees undertake along with their subtle, clean and sweet nature. There is nothing subtle or mild about our ’07 Centrals.

As it should be, Duane and I first stopped in Guatemala to cup through each lot of our El Injerto Bourbon, Pacamara and Maragogype coffees with Arturo Aguirre Jr., the producer. Some of you may remember him from our ‘Meet the Producer’ event last October in Portland but let’s cut to the chase. KILLER! As you guys know I’m new at the Stumptown but in the past I have gotten my mitts on a couple of El Injerto bourbon samples. It’s the benchmark for Guatemalan coffees. This year’s edition is better than I have ever tasted. Brilliant bing cherry, meyer lemon and, of course, the famous layered chocolate cake notes that range from milk to bittersweet have enchanted my dreams for a week now. The Pacamara had a whole other citric flavor profile. It was gentle and sweet like a tangerine but heavy-bodied and savory, reminiscent of Finca El Puente. It’s going to make itself a home at the Stumptown. The Maragogype is a “big” coffee just like Barolo can be a “big” wine. The baker’s chocolate, fresh cannabis and a subtly sweet, mandarin orange acidity were smoking in the lab.

So, it’s lunchtime and where else would we eat in Guatemala City other than the Aguirre’s home. Marielena Aguirre, Arturo sr.’s wife, invited Duane and I over to eat with her and Arturo jr. It was amazing to get her perspective on the family business while scarfing down her homemade tortillas. It was even more amazing to just share time in her home, continuing to make that connection between the Aguirre family and our Stumptown family. After all, this is what it’s all about.

The following day I took Arturo with me to cup some experimental coffees that I have been working on with a producer in Alta Verapaz. I brought the blue prints for a raised drying bed to Don Horst Spitzke last year and he built it at his farm to be one of our instruments for these experiments. The Bourbon Tekesit flaunted beautiful orange citrus and black tea notes and the parchment is flawlessly clean coming off of those beds. The experiment that truly shocked me though is sort of a “soaked/semi-washed” experiment. The cup translation is possibly the most unique Guatemalan coffee that I’ve ever tasted. Last summer during a visit out to visit the farm I asked Horst to take 5 fanegas/quintales of fully ripe cherry, the equivalent of 500 pounds, pulp it through the demucilager (leaving a large amount of mucilage on the bean), skip fermentation, soak it for 12 hours in a tank of water and take it directly to the beds for drying. What does all of this coffee jargon mean?….unique and truly exceptional flavors from Guatemala. For those of you who have been fortunate enough to indulge in a snifter of Ron Zacapa from then eastern end of the country, you’ll meet its coffee counterpart soon. Super sweet sugarcane and molasses dominate the profile of this cup. We are buying a trial amount of coffee for this crop and we’ll take it from there. Keep a look out for our Guatemalan coffees early this summer.

Well it was on to dinner with the Aguirre’s afterwards, the entire family this time and attempts at coaxing Arturo sr. into a visit to Portland this spring. He’s as humble as they come so it won’t be easy. I have my fingers crossed.

Costa Rica: A new queen emerges from the Dota Valley

OK, so our short trip to Guate was a huge success. Duane and I hopped in a cab, headed to the airport in Guatemala City, and couldn’t stop chatting about how impressive the previous days’ cuppings had been. We checked in for the flight, passed through customs, made the obligatory purchases at the Ron Zacapa shop and sat down for a beer. It hit us then, “Oh yeah, we’re headed to Costa Rica.” Costa Rica is a country for whom I have both a deep love and loathing when it comes to the coffee scene. Mega-mills and high yield varietals have taken this country from once being at the top of the ladder for Central American quality production to the bottom rung in the past decade or so. The past 5+ years have seen a movement, a revolution if you will, take place with Micro-mills popping up through-out the West Valley, Central Valley and the Valley of the Saints aka Tarrazu. Francisco Mena and his team at Deli Café are some of our friends on the ground leading the charge. Armed with precise milling equipment and an absolute focus on ripe picking, the future of Costa Rican coffee is about to change for the better and dramatically so.

It all started a couple of weeks earlier when Jimmy, Duane and I received a big box of pre-shipment and offer samples just a week before we departed on this trip to Central America. To say that we’ve been waiting in anticipation for these samples since Duane’s January visit to Ticolandia is ridiculously understated. Jimmy roasted the samples up on a Wednesday night for us to cup the next day. I didn’t get more than an hour or two of sleep. Dreams of La Esmeralda and Don Pachi danced in my head as I wondered if there really is Geisha in Costa Rica. Yes, I said Geisha. You see Duane, Francisco and our old pal Ricardo Hernandez from La Candelilla stumbled across a small farm this past January that was filled with a tree with striking resemblance to the fabled Geisha trees in Panama. Of course D bought up all the coffee immediately and we’ve been waiting with sweaty palms and fingers crossed for two months now.

So finally, I get to the Annex at 8am with a salivating tongue to find Jim setting the table. The samples are perfectly roasted and Duane is on his way. We grind the first table of 9 samples and dip into the fragrance. The coffees were so sweet that I almost forgot there even was geisha in the mix. Flavors ranging from bright meyer lemon, to ripe peach, to apricot, to mango to milk chocolate and on and on and on will make you lose your train of thought instantly. I lived in Costa Rica for several years. It’s a coffee that I thought I knew in and out. I tasted hints of potential greatness from certain pockets of the country but this table was unlike any experience I have ever had with Costa Rican coffees. Cafetin 100% Typica is like that lovely, classy lady you’ve had your eyes on for years. She’s perfumey and sweet, curvy and luscious. She’s just flat out sexy. La Salaca 100% Villalobos is a basket of tropical fruit with complex acidity that will have you wondering ‘what just happened’ for an hour after you tasted it. Agrivid, Montes de Oro, Los Manantiales and the rest of these micro-mills have such distinct, individual flavor that we’re gonna have to put on a little celebration at the Annex this summer.

El Quemado 100% Geisha wasn’t even on that first table!

But the new queen of the Dota Valley was on the 2nd table and you couldn’t miss her from a mile away. I’ll never forget Jimmy’s face as he peaked back at me over his shoulder as I approached the 8th coffee on this 2nd table of Costas. He was laying in wait to see my reaction to the dry fragrance of the coffee. Holy shit! That saturated sugarcane sweetness; that flower basket of jasmine and rose petals; that maple syrup intensity and high % cacao note is geisha.

Don’t think Price Peterson’s Hacienda La Esmeralda or Francisco Serracin’s Don Pachi though. It’s lighter on the Esmeralda’s citrus and bergamot and doesn’t have the distinct berry that Don Pachi carries. Instead it has a super sweet peach juice flavor and beautiful hints of Clementine and tangelo. It all belongs to us for this year and the unforeseeable future. You guys are gonna freak out for it.

Panama: Don Pachi returns in mesmerizing fashion

So our last day in San Jose is a Monday and we found ourselves us at early morning cupping with Francisco at Deli Café. My flight for Chiriqui, the northernmost province of Panama and home the country’s entire coffee production, was scheduled to leave at 10am. Well at 9am I am just getting out of Deli and crossing my fingers to get to the airport in-time for the check-in. No dice! The counter is shut down and the folks at Air Panama inform me I won’t be getting on that flight, which happens to be the last one until Wednesday. I couldn’t get on any other flights within a 3 hour radius of Boquete, home of the Panamanian geisha and, my final destination. At the last minute Francisco and I decide to hop in his rig and drive down to Panama. 9 hours later we are at the Panamonte hotel and ready to crash out. I have an appointment with the Peterson’s tomorrow and a date at the cupping table with Hacienda La Esmeralda Geisha.

So it’s me, Abel (Esmeralda’s cupper) and the geisha at 9am. We’re at 1500 meters above sea level (4600 ft) in the town of Palmira de Boquete, at the Peterson’s cupping lab overlooking the valley and the roasts look beautiful. Conditions couldn’t be more ideal. And as always she sparkles like a precious gem stone in the cup. The fragrance is like papaya drenched in maple syrup, fresh cut sugarcane and jasmine. The upfront flavors are just how they’re supposed to be, complex citrus, mango, papaya and intense bergamot. The Peterson’s seem to be perfecting their craft each year and we’re proud to represent their coffee at the Stumptown.

Later that same afternoon I was able to make it up to Finca Lerida to visit my old friend John Collins for a round of cupping. Boquete is one of my favorite origins to visit because no matter who I am in town to visit, I habitually bump in to old friends. Johnny was there to greet us as were Tony Vasquez from Don Pepe Estate and Francisco Serracin from the fabled Don Pachi Estate. We collected samples from a lot of the best coffee farms in Panama for a late afternoon cupping. Many of these producers want some advice on lots they are preparing to enter into the Best of Panama auction the following day. I don’t know of any coffee buyer in the world who wouldn’t salivate at the thought of an auction lot table with coffees from Elida Estate, Finca Lerida, Don Pachi, Don Pepe Estate, San Benito, Dona Berta and Los Lajones amongst others all to themselves. I’ll tell you what, with flavors ranging from lemon zest to tangerine to cantaloupe to bakers chocolate I think a few of these guys will have coffees on the final table at the BoP auction; a table that is easily one of the world’s finest displays of stellar quality.

That following day was dedicated to Francisco Serracin Sr., Don Pachi himself. Don Pachi is the man solely responsible for bringing the geisha seeds from Costa Rica to Panama. You see, these seeds made their way to Panama from Ethiopia via Costa Rica. Costa Ricans planted the seeds decades ago because of the coffee tree’s exceptional resistance to rust. Unfortunately the majority of farmers later pulled these varietals out of their farms due to its low productivity. Fortunately for us at the Stumptown our friends at El Quemado kept their plants intact on their farm. Moving forward, Don Pachi picked up some geisha seeds from the agronomical research center in Costa Rica, CATIE and brought them to his farm in Callejon Seco de Boquete. The rest is history. We’ve been cupping his geisha the past couple of weeks and it’s better than it’s ever been. This coffee is much more berried and sweet than it’s La Esmeralda counterpart although doesn’t have the same tea-like and citrus flavors. Honestly, I think I’m leaning towards Pachi as being ever-so-slightly superior to La Esmeralda this year. Maybe I just fell under the spell of Don Pachi’s charismatic display of immeasurable coffee knowledge, while the dominating scent of jasmine wafted through the farm, as the geisha trees endured the year’s first flowerings. Nah, the proof is in the cup. Pachi is the heavyweight this year and it’s another Stumptown exclusive.

-Aleco