Rare coffee from Panama brews excitement at Old Soul

07/24/2013 12:00 AM

07/24/2013 2:01 PM

It's called a cupping, and to anyone not in the coffee industry, it's an odd-looking, practically obsessive exercise.

Everyone stands around a table, staring at coffee cups or small bowls. There is ground coffee, hot water and spoons.

Sniff, slurp, rinse, repeat.

At Old Soul and other top coffeehouses, cupping – and slurping – are common practices, the standard method for sizing up their newest and greatest coffee acquisitions.

But a recent cupping at Old Soul was different. There was more excitement and reverence. Old Soul's co-owner, Jason Griest, was actually nervous, practically jittery with anticipation as the process began on a recent weekday morning.

That's because this particular coffee, called Panama Elida Estate Natural, was something of a life mission for Griest. Around the shop in midtown, he and his employees refer to it as the "unicorn," a coffee so uncommon and mesmerizing that Griest spent the better part of three years trying to import it from a highly regarded farm in Panama that dates to 1918.

It's been nearly 10 years since he first tasted it at a coffee event in Atlanta – and he's never forgotten.

The grower in Panama practically guards his coffee, refusing to sell it to those he doesn't know, lest a roaster with poor skills and quality control ruins the coffee's stellar reputation.

"They have to do a very good job with our coffee. We only take serious people," said Wilford Lamastus, whose grandfather started the Elida Coffee Farm. "About 80 percent of the people who buy my coffee, I know personally, and they have been to my farm. I cup with them. They check out the plantation, check out the conditions."

As a drinking experience, the Elida inspired fits of elation as Griest and Old Soul roaster Ryan Harden searched for words to express what they were tasting and feeling.

Elida Natural is a complicated, temperamental coffee that needs meticulous roasting to express its floral, exotic fruit and sweet flavor notes while reining in a host of other flavors that just might overwhelm the typical coffee lover.

Yes, coffee, much like wine, can showcase a variety of flavors beyond the cocoa, honey, bitter and smoky notes common in standard coffees.

"This coffee, to me, is a bit like God in a cup," Griest said.

At the cupping, Harden took one sip of the Elida Natural, shook his head and smiled. He was picking up hints of watermelon and plenty of sweetness.

"Jesus, things shouldn't be this good," he said under his breath. "Amazing. I've been waiting for it for a very long time and there was so much buildup, but this lives up to the expectations. This might be it. I don't know where we go from here."

In Sacramento in recent years, serious "third wave" coffee shops have sourced better and better coffees to meet the increasingly discerning demand. In 2010, for instance, Temple Coffee created a major stir nationally when one of the coffees it roasted, called Guatemala Hunapu Antigua Bourbon, scored a 97 from the prestigious Coffee Review – the highest in North America that year. That coffee sold out in hours, inspiring rapid purchases from afar via Temple's website.

The long-awaited arrival of the Elida Natural coffee has been a major event at Old Soul, even though its availability is limited. Old Soul has created special posters and packaging with which to sell whole beans. It may even have a tutorial so serious coffee lovers can see how different Elida Natural is from typical Panamanian coffee.

Like the 97-point coffee at Temple, much of the quality depends on the roasting. Coffee is shipped green, or raw, and is generally roasted on site at many top coffeehouses. For Elida Natural, Old Soul did several small test batches, shifting variables such as time, temperature and airflow, and measuring how the drinking experience changes.

After four such tests, Harden and Griest arrived at a roasting profile that satisfied them.

This is the kind of meticulous work Lamastus likes to see.

His 150-acre farm and his coffee are special in several ways, he explained. For one, the coffee is grown at 6,000 feet elevation, the highest coffee farm in Panama (near Volcán Barú National Park). This slows down the growing process and intensifies the flavor.

"The higher you are, the coffee will yield a better cup. The time of flowering to harvest is longer. This gives the bean – the coffee fruit – more time to develop flavor," Lamastus explained by phone. "The acidity enhances the flavors in the cup."

Beyond that, the "natural" process is different than the standard "washed" technique, which uses water to strip the outer skin from the coffee cherries and then clean and ferment the beans. The "natural" process is much more hands-on and challenging. Whole coffee cherries are dried in the sun, which allows the skin to impart fruity flavors to the bean.

Said Lamastus, "Coffee people should know this is a totally different cup of coffee. It's sweet, bright and full of fruit. If they are willing to try something different, this is a good option."

One of the attractions of Elida is how its flavor profile differs from the typical coffee from Panama, according to Griest and Harden, who say its characteristics seem much more like a prized Ethiopian coffee.

Will that distinction be lost on the typical coffee enthusiast?

It doesn't matter, said Harden.

"When you break it all down, it's just really good coffee," he said.

Jonesing for this coffee?

The Panama Elida Estate Natural will go on sale at Old Soul's three Sacramento stores (not including the Sacramento International Airport location) on Aug. 5. The whole beans will be sold in a special 250-gram package (just over 8 ounces) for $20.

Sacramento locations:

1716 L St. (in the alley between K and L streets); 812 21st St.; and 3434 Broadway

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.

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