This year, St. Helena, a tiny little island in the South Atlantic, produced only 4,500 pounds of coffee. Two bags of the ’01 crop–maybe 270 pounds–made it to the U.S. One pound of this elusive bean found its way to my house.
It’s a pretty bean: small, almost round and dense. It’s beautifully prepared: like a pearl, it nearly glows. While that’s all well and good, the question is, how does it cup? With no small amount of trepidation, I decided to find out. How does one go about roasting a rare bean? Just like any other coffee… you take notes. In this case, lots o’ notes. The only tragedy worse than messing up a batch of rare coffee like this is to not note how and why, and risk doing it twice.
The St. Helena is precisely the kind of bean that makes me wish for a digital scale–measuring by volume requires a bit of guesswork with both small, dense beans and their large, less-dense cousins. The method I’ve worked out [based on advice from the alt.coffee newsgroup] is to fill the roast chamber as usual, switch on the air, and then add or subtract beans as needed until the surface of the bean mass lofts and bubbles just a little bit. At that point, I’m ready to give ’em some heat.
First crack starts quite quickly, and is remarkably uniform… the beans burble and pop nearly in unison. There is, it turns out, quite a pause between first and second cracks, a pause that in combination with the fragrance of this bean threw me a curve my first time through. I’ve become accustomed to roasting by nose, and when my nose suggested that second crack was fast approaching [the damp straw smell was entirely gone, replaced with the high, acrid-sweet scent that I’ve associated with the first wafts of the roasting coffee’s caramelizing sugars] I killed the heat.
That was, as it turned out, just a bit early. While still plenty drinkable, that first roast had left more brightness in the cup than I usually care for… it was still a bit sour. On the other hand, the result was certainly representative of the origin… when you roast light, you definitely taste the coffee and not the roast itself. Even lightly roasted, this coffee was rich, spicy, and had a surprising balance of brightness to body [even if brighter than I’d intended]. Most notable was the layered depth of flavors, and the long, long [did I say looong?] finish. You know the presence you feel on your tongue after sipping a great espresso? Ever experience that with brewed coffee? Remarkable.
A second attempt fared better still. Armed with my notes and stopwatch, and mindful now that this coffee is something of a late bloomer in the roaster, I had another go today. Roasted longer, I found three or more subtle degrees of caramelizing high notes to be nosed between first and second crack. The last of these was clearly at the onset of second crack, and, moments after dumping the heat I noted two or three barely audible snaps.
I tried to let it rest. Honest. But it was no more than 30 minutes later that I had my first sip. Still plenty of citrus brightness… a whole new layer of spice–pepper and clove predominant–and then another layer of dark chocolate, and another still of evergreen pungency. And then that long, long finish. This coffee makes me itch for one of Patrick Van Den Noortgaete’s syphon coffee makers, just so the experience of serving it could be as rich as the coffee itself.
St. Helena is highly recommended, and when it’s available next year, run, don’t walk to place your order. This year’s crop is already sold-out. Now, how to make what remains last….?