My earlier post on Fair Trade coffee drew plenty of responses. Some readers were eager for guidance on tasty Fair Trade blends, and encouraged me to keep looking. Others provided tips of their own. All these suggestions were included in The Notion's Fair Trade Coffee Tasting Extravaganza, which was held on Sunday at the lovely Camaje restaurant, on Macdougal Street in Manhattan.
Our panel consisted of four tasters: Julia Azzarello, a chef and cooking teacher at Camaje, whose resume includes stints at the distinguished New York restaurants Chanterelle and Allison on Dominick Street; myself; Daniel Gross, former Starbucks barista who was fired for union-organizing efforts; Helen Hurwitz, a Brooklyn-based reference librarian and bec fin. Doug Henwood, Nation contributing editor and publisher of the Left Business Observer, handled the tasting logistics and compiled the results (and is co-author of this Notion report).
All coffees were freshly ground and identically brewed in a French press for four minutes, and presented with only letter codes, without milk or sugar. They were graded for body, acidity, and balance on a 1-3 scale, and for overall quality on a 1-5 scale (with 5 being the best). All the companies whose coffees we tested sell exclusively fair trade, and most of the coffees we tried were also organic.
The rankings, and some comments.
Gorilla Yirgacheffe 4.25Broad consensus that this was the best of all ten coffees tasted. Rich & deep, with nutty, spicy, and chocolatey notes. Gorilla is Brooklyn-roasted, with an appealing logo, and the company also runs a lively cafe in Park Slope (at 5th Ave. and Park).
CounterCulture Yirgacheffe Ambessa 3.75A close second (clearly, Yirgacheffe from any vendor has something going -- it's a tiny town in Ethiopia with climate conditions that are uniquely coffee-friendly). Also rich & deep, though not quite as much so as the Gorilla; winey, velvety, nutty, "a very nice cup of joe." Counter Culture is based in Durham, North Carolina; the company also has a shade-grown line, for those of us who worry about the birds.
Equiterra, from The Fair Trade Coffee Company 3.56Some internal dissent on the panel despite the high overall score. Fans found it refreshing and fruity; detractors, chalky, and slightly muddy. Shows just how subjective coffee-tasting can be! Equiterra is a blend of Indonesian, Central American and East African beans, roasted inGarwood, New Jersey.
Dean's Beans Oromia 3.50Well-balanced, complex, bold, with a good mouth-feel. One taster found it reminiscent of Guinness. Dean'sis a company worthy of notice not only for fine coffee, but for paying the farmers above the fair trade price.
Gorilla Nicaragua Segovia 3.50One taster found it homey; another said it had no life. Perhaps these are two ways of saying the same thing.
Equal Exchange Black Silk Espresso 3.25Spicy, cinnamon-y, chocolatey. Equal Exchangeis the oldest and largest fair trade company in the U.S., and also sells tea and chocolate.
Vermont Coffee Company Cafe Alta Gracia 2.63Earthy - perhaps too much so; muddy, bitter even. The beans are from the Dominican Republic, roasted in Vermont. (In another illustration of the wild subjectivity of coffee tasting, the reader who recommended this coffee thought it was the best "in the world.")
Vermont Coffee Company Decaf 2.25Mellow and bright were the kind words; others found it lacking in flavor, and one taster was put in mind of bile. Luckily, Roastmaster Paul Ralston doesn't want you to buy it unless you live in Vermont; he didn't entirely approve of our nationwide taste test because "readers should find a local roaster to support." (In fact, we did liked the Brooklyn coffee much better.)
CounterCulture Nicaragua decaf 2.25Has more body than the Vermont decaf, but opinions differed on the taste: some found it citrusy and spicy, but one thought it vomit-like. Makers of specialty coffee -- and caffeine avoiders -- always insist that decaf is just as good as real coffee, but it ain't necessarily so.
No CO2, from Dean's Beans 1.88Despite its high-minded intentions - this Peruvian coffee is produced with no net ozone emissions> - it was the stinker of the lot. Grades ranged from mediocre to awful; tasting notes included words like "metallic," "soapy," and "burnt toast."
While the devastating rout of No CO2 confirmed what we knew from our sad Cloudforest encounter -- that political sincerity alone does not a decent cup of coffee make -- we did learn that there is plenty of fine Fair Trade coffee out there. So if you've been holding out on this innovative, socially conscious sector because you don't think it will taste good, you're fresh out of excuses. We intend this report not as the last word on Fair Trade coffee, but as an incitement to your own explorations.