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The Lonliest Island - St. Helena's Golden Cup
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
This 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.
St Helena is a late bloomer. It develops
peak flavors at the onset of second crack.
I like it best a few snaps beyond that.
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 siphon
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
Now, how to make what remains last....?
-deCadmus, July 8, 2001
The Island of St. Helena Coffee Company