Serious Eats: Drinks

Are Coffee Microlots Worth the Money?

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Coffee cherries at varying stages of ripeness. [Photograph: jakeliefer on Flickr]

Fancy shmancy coffee shmoffee: What's all this froufrou (read: expensive) coffee "microlot" stuff we keep hearing about lately, and should you be paying more attention to it?

What are Coffee Microlots?

A "lot" of coffee is not just what you need to drink on Monday morning to get you going: In industry terminology, it means the combined efforts of what gets produced during a harvest season. Sometimes that comprises a single farm's output, but it could also mean a particular co-op's yield, or the result of a certain process undergone at a mill or washing station (where the beans may come from various nearby producers).

So then a "microlot" is basically a way of classifying part of that greater whole for one specific reason or another. That could mean separating out the coffee from one geographical part of a single farm, or one farmer's haul apart from his fellow co-op members' crop, or even a single day's harvest or process.

Partially because of the extra work involved (sorting and classifying) and the fact that there's always a risk of something going wrong (which could be financially disastrous for the producer), these coffees are often purchased at a premium—which naturally means they wind up costing a bit more on the shelves. That and, well, sometimes they're totally mind-blowingly exceptional. A fantastic microlot is, in essence, the grand cru of caffeine.

The Famous Microlots of Hacienda La Esmeralda

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Picking coffee cherries at Esmeralda. [Photograph: haciendaesmeralda.com]

Case in point: Possibly the most famous series of microlots in the coffee world, this year's harvest from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Boquete, Panama, has recently started cropping up on roasters' catalogs—and yes, it's very expensive. The coffee, from a farm owned by the famous-to-coffee-people Peterson family since 1996, is extraordinary for its truly unusual flavor profile: It makes a light and delicate floral, citrus-forward cup more akin to those from washed Ethiopian coffees than the coffee's neighbors in the rest of Latin America—or even on the rest of the nearby land.

Part of the difference is due to the variety of coffee plant that exists in this distinguished section of the family plot now known as Esmeralda Special. Called Geisha (probably after the Ethiopian town and local cultivar Gesha), the plants that make this golden cup were likely introduced to this Panamanian soil sometime during since the 1930s as an experiment in terroir and transplanting. The coffee-migration project was eventually mostly forgotten, until Daniel Peterson unearthed the mystery of the most delicious segment of his family's farm through repeated tasting of particular sections of its yield.

But can you taste the difference? You'll have to shell out a little dough to find out.

Where to Buy

Unless you're lucky enough to find a nearby cafe serving it by the cup, you can check out Stumptown Coffee Roasters' batch of the farm's jasmine-soft Mario Carnaval lot, which comes in a stunning glass jar ($75 for 12 ounces, roasted and shipped once a week due to the limited amount available); U.K. roaster Has Bean's got two (count 'em —two!) different microlots of the coffee available, the peachy and floral selections called Colga and Naranjo (each £17 for a half pound bag); and we at Counter Culture Coffee have a short supply of the orange-blossomy Mario San José ($34.95 for 8 ounces; the next roast date is August 23).

You can even buy the beans green and roast them yourself, courtesy of home-roaster superstore Sweet Maria's. (Warning: If you've never roasted coffee before, don't try it out on Esmeralda: The only thing more bitter than amateur-roasted coffee gone badly is the heartbreak of dumping all those lovely beans—and dollars—in the trash.)

Would you fork over big-time cash (comparably speaking, anyway) to taste an exceptional coffee? Would you be more willing if it were a glass of wine instead of a cup of joe?

About the author: Erin Meister (just "Meister" to friends and enemies) trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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