Food & Drink

Java jolt: Sacramento grabs Top 30 honors among U.S. coffees

Head roaster Ryan Harden roasts a batch of Nicaragua Los Congos beans at Old Soul Coffee. Co-owner Jason Griest packages coffee for holiday sales.
Head roaster Ryan Harden roasts a batch of Nicaragua Los Congos beans at Old Soul Coffee. Co-owner Jason Griest packages coffee for holiday sales. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Sacramento’s reputation as a serious coffee town got one super-serious jolt Wednesday when industry arbiter Coffee Review released its list of the 30 best coffees of 2014 – and Sacramento had more coffees than any other city in the country.

In fact, Temple Coffee and Old Soul had two coffees each among the top 30, bringing Sacramento’s total to four – twice that of any other city.

Bye-bye, “Cowtown.” Hello, “Coffee Town” – as in premium, world-class java roasted, brewed and served right here.

“I find it remarkable,” said Ron Walters, co-founder of the Berkeley-based Coffee Review, which has long been considered the industry leader in tasting and ranking premium coffees. “It’s not just a couple of flukes. When you look at Temple and Old Soul, they are both producing consistently remarkable coffees, which is very hard to do.”

Led by longtime coffee authority Kenneth Davids, Coffee Review “cups” – or tastes – nearly 1,000 coffees annually, winnowing out the very best and publishing ratings out of 100 on its website. Scores in the low 90s or higher garner attention for a coffee roaster and often mean brisk online sales. For comparison, Starbucks coffees typically score in the mid-80s.

Coffee Review began trickling out its Top 30 with plenty of fanfare last week, announcing three each day online and on Twitter. It soon became clear that Sacramento was in for something special when Old Soul nabbed the No. 29 slot – and those in the know realized that at least three other coffees in town had earned higher scores throughout the year.

“Kenneth Davids is the author of the first coffee book I ever read. To me, he is a living legend,” said Old Soul co-owner Jason Griest. “For him to say our Nicaragua Los Congos was one of the top 30 coffees he tasted this year, it really emotionally hit me. It was a big culmination for me in my life. When I saw it online, I called my mom and dad, and suddenly I burst out crying. I’m 40 years old and I don’t cry often, but that was a very emotional moment for me.”

Old Soul also got the No. 12 position with a coffee from Ethiopia, while Temple earned the No. 19 and No. 5 slots with coffees from Kenya and Panama, respectively.

“To score 92 points is a really good coffee. To consistently score 92 to 94 points is remarkable,” said Walters.

Riding the momentum from Coffee Review’s praise, Old Soul has packaged three 12-ounce bags of its highest-rated whole bean coffees (including two from the Top 30) in a gift box set for $69.

Sales online have been brisk and are expected to sell out quickly, though sets were still available late Wednesday, when roaster Ryan Harden was racing to keep up with demand, filling coffee bags with freshly roasted beans and packing up boxes to meet online orders.

“It’s crazy to see how much business (the Coffee Review rating) generates,” said Harden. “We’ll have our busiest roasting week ever. We’ve sent off more online orders this week than in our entire history.”

This new era in coffee – in Sacramento and throughout much of the U.S. – has taken root over the past decade as small coffeehouses stood up to coffee behemoth Starbucks in the only way they could – by upping the ante for quality and redefining how coffee should taste.

These new coffee visionaries, dubbed “third wave,” but now mostly called craft coffee or fine coffee, began showing more nuance and restraint in the roasting process, allowing intricate flavor notes to shine through. Whereas coffee once tasted like burnt toast or maybe carried a touch of nuttiness or chocolate, the new premium coffees reveal notes of berries, honey, cocoa, lemon, jasmine and currant, among others.

What’s more, the best of these coffee purveyors make numerous trips to coffee regions in Central and South America and East Africa to secure the most expressive coffee beans. Sometimes they stay in hotels without hot water. Often, they sleep on the floor at a coffee farm. The idea is to build relationships, track down the finest coffees and oversee production and shipping to insure they can roast and serve the very best to their U.S. customers.

For Eton Tsuno, director of coffee at Temple and something of a legend among coffee insiders, his biggest investments are time, miles in the air and tasting thousands of coffees at the source.

“I’m out of the country eight months of the year. I go all over,” said Tsuno, who at 30 years old has been working in coffee half his life. “When I’m in Costa Rica, I’ll buy from maybe five or six different producers, but I’ll probably taste 300 coffees just to pick that much. In Brazil, I’m cupping 500 coffees just to get what we need.”

All that work has its rewards. In addition to online sales and a growing throng of local coffee aficionados, Sacramento’s coffee reputation is finally getting some major buzz throughout the country.

Says Tsuno, “People who are really into coffee know a lot of the companies here. But a lot of people still think of Sacramento as the Bay Area’s ugly stepchild. We’re trying to pull our way out of that.”

The Bay Area? Only three of its coffee-rich cities – San Jose, San Rafael and Oakland – ranked in the top 30.

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

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