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Coffee: Articles: A Tarrazu Triple Play

There is a story to be told of the tempests that occur when people debate what is, and what is not Tarrazu. The short version is this -- Tarrazu can at once be defined by the geo-political border that is Tarrazu county, by the ICAFE designation of what is a Tarrazu finca, and by the micro-climate that exists within a particularly mountainous region of Costa Rica that produces very hard coffee beans with distinctly spicy, aromatic qualities and bell-like brightness. I'm running with the latter of these three definitions, and I'm willing to let ICAFE and the SCAA sort out the rest.

With this in mind, I've assembled a number of Tarrazu coffees with the idea of formally cupping them to compare their characteristics -- but I keep drinking them instead! It doesn't help that I've had little time at the roaster recently -- the lion's share of what I roast lately is straight away ground and brewed. Even so I've managed to pull out the silver spoon long enough to jot down a few notes...

[Update - I've had a second go at it, and have formalized cupping notes for each of these coffees... which is why you'll now find the charts and graphs that were missing before. On the whole my opinions haven't changed... but I'll make a point to distinguish between my first and second cupping notes just the same.]

La Minita Estate
What can I say that hasn't already been written a thousand times before, and more eloquently? La Minita, a pioneering estate run by Bill McAlpin -- something of a organizational and horticultural wizard -- year after year produces some of the very finest coffees in the world. Long before I was a fan of roasting my own coffee, I was a fan of La Minita.

At a light city roast it is richly aromatic and spicy. Its acidity is sparkling and clean. It's layered with complex spice flavors... when I hit just the right spot in the roast it tastes something of apple pie with its fruity and savory notes. It's still clean and refreshing as the coffee cools. If you like iced coffee, this is your cup.

That much said, it's all too easy to destroy the unique characteristics of this super premium coffee. A moment or two of distraction is all it takes... anything beyond a City roast, and you might as well be drinking just about any other Central American coffee. Full City? Second crack? Fughetaboudit. Is this a bad thing? Certainly not in the hands of an experienced roaster. But if you're just cutting your teeth, I'd get some practice with a less spendy coffee first.

Dota "Conquistador"
Dota is a valley within Tarrazu, some distance removed from many of the other growers. While still a Tarrazu coffee [and these days brokered by La Minita] it's got its own personality. It's not quite so fragrant as La Minita, not quite so bright either. It's got a winey characteristic that fans of East African coffees will appreciate, with some fairly powerful bitter chocolate notes as well. While not a full-bodied coffee by most measures, it does have a surprisingly long, lush finish. I think if I were to cup it blind I'd think it more related to a Yemen than a Tarrazu. 

[Just for kicks I did cup it blind against a Yemeni coffee... and while it was easy to distinguish which was which, the difference was conveyed less by flavor characteristics, and more by the aroma.]

Dota has a bit more range in terms of roasts... some heat after first crack will burn away some of the brighter notes and reinforce the chocolate. Still, go easy... this coffee shouldn't stray too far from the City limits.

Tres Rios
The appellation for this coffee comes from Sweet Maria's... Tom Owen says it was brokered as Holland Especial, and the name didn't seem to fit. No matter, by any other name, this is one sweet coffee.

Tres Rios is not the product of a single Tarrazu finca, it's a co-op blend of regional coffees. As such, there's really no telling what next year might bring to the region... so get some of this fine stuff while you can. Not quite so bright as La Minita, but nearly as spicily aromatic, Tres Rios is another Tarrazu cup that's brisk and clean right to the finish. 

At a City roast the Tres Rios reminds me very much of coffees from the Kona coast... it's got something of that same "evergreen" quality to it -- piney, balsamy, call it what you will -- it's a flavor that I thought was distinctive of Kona, and I couldn't be more pleased to find something of it in a cup that costs less than half as much.

I've found that Tres Rios contains 30% or more peaberry content. That may play a contributing role in the profile here, as the peaberry type beans roast differently [more quickly] than the flat beans in the mix, making for more flavor complexity overall.

Unlike the other Tarrazu's compared here, Tres Rios is quite forgiving of the roaster, and can take a range of roasts from a very light City to a very deep Full City -- and if you want to experiment with a deeper roast, this bean will take some heat.

And there you have it... Three coffees from Tarrazu -- one of the very best growing regions in the world -- and each distinct in flavor and aroma. What traits do they share? They are each bright, clean coffees, and beautifully prepared. Maybe someday the Tarrazu appellation won't matter so much... what counts, after all, is what's found in the cup.

-deCadmus, July 8, 2001

See also:
Sweet Maria's