As we've been explaining in these pages, coffee varieties are the diverse selection of both man- and nature-made plant types that produce different sorts of coffee, each with its own unique characteristics.
But have you ever had the chance to truly compare different varietals—a word we use to mean the end product of the harvest of different plant varieties side by side? Few drinkers, enthusiasts and consumers actually have, and Grand Rapids (and Washington, DC) roaster MadCap (working with the Rodriguez family of farmers in El Salvador) is among the few out there working to change this with the MadCap 2013 Varietal Series.
In what's both somewhat of an anniversary celebration (the roastery-cafe turned 5 this year) and a unique distance-learning package, the MadCap Varietals Series deployed last week to thirsty, curious coffee fans around the nation. The unusual package of coffees, which sold out before it was even roasted (this was intentional, to guarantee freshness), brought together an unusual offering: eight varietals of the same origin, carefully grown and harvested at a consistent elevation, and processed in the same fashion.
The packages of eight 45-gram tins of coffee shipped last week simultaneously to consumers as well as tasting events. Roasted in one day-long session and simultaneously shipped, the eight varietals are meant to be tried all at once—in fact, tasting events took place throughout the week in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington DC, and Austin, as well as people's homes and informally in cafes. The idea was for as many people as possible to taste these coffees at their freshness peak, ideally in groups, ideally even on the same or similar days, in order to get them at their best and inspire dialogue. (This kind of thing creates a collective sensory experience, sort of like a coffee version of the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka.)
Rarely, if ever, have non-farmers (or even non-professionals) had an opportunity to cup varietal against varietal under consistent conditions. Largely because it requires a huge amount of work. MadCap attempted a smaller version of this with the Rodriguez family in 2010, releasing four varietals from the same origin. For this year, the roaster and their partner farm gathered eight: Caturra, Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon, Pacamara, Elefante, Typica, Orange Bourbon and Pacas. The package, which is sufficient to brew at least one healthy-sized serving of each coffee, is supported by an online tasting guide with background information on the agricultural history of each variety of coffee plant.
Tasting the coffees side by side (and MadCap's curatorial hand even extended to suggesting a tasting order) is both subtle and revelatory. Though the coffees carry the same tune, some are the melody—like the full-bodied, cocoa-rich Caturra—and some harmonize, like the fruitier, more delicate Orange Bourbon. As any coffee taster will tell you, comparative tasting is the only way to really gain a depth of understanding of exactly how subtle the differences from coffee to coffee can be. Tasting the same origin side by side by side by side with an array of varieties expands on that idea yet again. We can't wait to taste twenty varietals next year!
Though the MadCap 2013 Varietals Series is sold out, a small amount of the Elefante, Pacamara, and Naranja y Amarillo (blend of yellow and orange bourbons) will be available from MadCap in mid-July, so you can set up your own mini-tasting.
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 the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop.