Serious Eats: Drinks

The Greatest Coffees of 2011

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

2011 went like most years: full of busy coffee travels, from Grand Rapids to Vancouver to Copenhagen, and like most great things, each moment went by just a little too fast. In the world of coffee, where each coffee changes crop to crop, roast to roast, brew to brew, remembering your favorite moments of the year can be hard—these drinks aren't (well, not in most cases) something you can bottle and enjoy in exactly the same way again and again and again. But maybe that makes those most delicious cups all that much more special? Here are some—though certainly not all—of the best cups of coffee we sipped in 2011.

Kenya Kiandu Roasted by Gimme! Coffee

Possibly the finest achievement from this longstanding New York State craft roaster, this coffee from Kenya's cooperatively run Kiandu mill jumped out of the bag. It was shockingly juicy, round, long-lasting like hard candy, and though it shouted loud with its big red berry flavors and bottom-of-the-peach-syrup-can sweetness, it revealed nuance and mystery each time I had the pleasure to try it. Roasted with just the care needed to express the incredible voice of these beans, this coffee was an out-of-the-park knockout. Last year's is understandably all sold out by now— but let's all cross our fingers for the next crop to be just as stunning.

Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Roasted by The Coffee Collective

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Though the legendary Esmeralda coffee—a coffee so prized that its high ratings and high prices regularly catapult it to the top of silly newspaper articles—is hardly a secret anymore, opportunities to drink it are still, for many of us, few and far between. And opportunities to drink the graceful, delicate brew as roasted and prepared by one of the most progressive roasters in the world? Well, they're fewer yet. At the risk of revealing the country-bumpkin-like, slow evolution of my own palate, I've had many cups of Esmeralda over the last few years, all of which were very pleasant and civilized, but none of which really rang my bell. This year's selection from The Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, on the other hand, was a floral, apricot, wake-up call, the renowned roastery's gentle touch allowing all the softly explosive lightness of this immensely special coffee to shine through.

Colombia El Paraiso Cappuccino Roasted by Cafe Grumpy

Being a coffee super-geek affords a lot of rare pleasures, not the least of which is getting to sample seldom available coffee creations during the barista competition season. A roaster local to me in Brooklyn, Cafe Grumpy, entered both one of its coffees and one of its baristas in the 2011 United States Barista Championship, the Colombia El Paraiso from farmer Jose Lizardo Rojas, prepared by contestant-barista Park Brannen. The coffees baristas select are often among the more special, small lot, too-costly-to-make-financial-sense-as-a-regular-cafe-offering sort, but if you're in the right place at the right time when a competitor is working out his drink, you might get to try something special. Like, in this case, a cappuccino made with the mapley-cacao El Paraiso, roundly sweetened by one of New York State's lushest milks, from Battenkill Valley Creamery. The single origin espresso roast's fresh, raspberry-tart acidity still sang in the cappuccino cup. This one was a winner with me.

Cold Brew Concentrate Brewed by Kickstand Coffee

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Not technically one cup of coffee, but the source of many, is Kickstand Coffee's cleverly deployed cold coffee concentrate. Brewed and bottled locally to their roaster Cafe Grumpy, Kickstand uses standard Filtron cold-brew drippers to create a lasting, flavorful, un-stale cold brew liquor that can be diluted in your house (or on a picnic, or on the prow of your yacht) over several days and drinks. There's something about the way these kids make their cold coffee that takes the slight bummer flavor out of the usual cold-brew interpretations—and for that, we're anxious for summer to roll around again soon.

Brazil Sitio Canaa Roasted by Tim Wendelboe

Another roaster legendary in the coffee world—the most chic, perhaps?—is Norway's Tim Wendelboe, named, interestingly enough, for World Barista Champion and owner Tim Wendelboe. The roastery's reputation is built not just on Wendelboe's prowess, but on a small, super-discriminatingly curated repertoire of beans, roasted to a much, much lighter degree than is customary in, say, dark, roasty North America. When I sampled their Brazilian Sitio Canaa this spring, I would not have first pegged it as a Brazil—none of the easy, family-friendly mellowocity I've come to expect from the world's largest coffee producing country was present in this delicate, nutty, slightly herbal, and super weird, acidic and sweet brew. It's coffees like this that turn your mind around a little, and keep us coffee lovers in the game.


What were some of your favorite coffees of 2011? Whether it's a single shot of espresso or beans you bought over and over again until they didn't make them anymore—which coffee's finish is still lingering in your memory?

About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographsof the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.

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