Name: Tarrazú Asoproaa
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black
Coffee has long been a key component of Costa Rica's economy, and in the Tarrazú region coffee is especially important. In fact, lately coffee is reported as being Tarrazú's single most important product. It is not a stretch to imagine that there never has been much of anything else in the region that could assume such a recognition. On the other hand, it is also not a stretch to worry that the discrepancy has been stretched too far, and that the bottom could fall out from under a fair chunk of the coffee market.
Starbucks recently made headlines for adopting a Tarrazú crop as its most premium coffee, offering it at a record $7 per brewed cup and goodness knows how much per bag of beans. No doubt Starbucks invested a fair sum into developing a farm or two in the region, or at least convinced someone else to invest in the area with the promise of short-term rewards. Maybe the farmers borrowed or raised their own cash.
But here's the thing: For how long will Starbucks, or anyone else, continue to underwrite coffee farming as much as they have been in recent times? For as long as they expect to continue selling $7 cups of coffee. And for how long is Starbucks going to offer a cup of Tarrazú coffee for almost twice as much as a gallon of gasoline costs? For about as long as people will buy it, which, excepting an aggregate ten or twelve square blocks among New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and London, will not be for altogether too long. Ditto, by default, any fads that develop from serial copy-catting. Surely some of the resources directed towards the farms went to one-time purchases, and just as surely some went to ongoing commitments - employees, planted land, etc. It is inevitable that some Tarrazú farmers will wake up one day to find that their ascent up the economic ladder necessarily includes a subsequent descent. The suddenness and profoundness of the decline - that is in the control of various decision makers.
Hopefully production stays at current levels for a long time to come, because this coffee is brimming with personality. Gentle Brew did not charge premium prices for their Tarrazú, but it sure does brew into something special. It figures that Royal Coffee (whence Gentle Brew gets their green beans) has product notes, or "coffee cards," for all Tarrazú varieties except for the Asoproaa, and their help staff must all be on vacation for the month, so there is no accounting for the varietal in this review. But that notwithstanding, we have great coffee from a premium region roasted with mastery (and quite keenly brewed, if I may say so myself), so let us see if we cannot find something to say about so dynamic a beverage.
I use the word dynamic advisedly here, for while it is not remarkable for a coffee to have tasting notes, for example, as sophisticated as a wine's, it is quite special to have them pulled together into a level of character as engaging as the spirit. Even the color of the brew is personable: my notes say that it is "an excitable brown, a brown that wants to come out and play." The aroma opens up with a nuttiness, mainly chestnuts, and a bit of earthiness. But it is just playing. Soon there are some florals, entering slowly at first, but before you know it they are dominant. The chestnuts have not gone away, but they are no longer important. A subtle savoriness has become a robust flowerbed with winy undertones and a sweetness dangling on the horizon.
So now it is time to actually taste the coffee. There are the florals again, but they are mild, and an earthiness more becoming a very dark roast casts itself over the whole thing like rainclouds over a meadow. This is it, after all that? Nope - fooled again! "Gotchya!" giggles the coffee. "Why, you little scoundrel!" I reply, but really shame on me for letting it happen a second time, and in any event I am smiling along with the brew as I say it. Who could stay angry at something so delicious and playful? No sooner have I taken my third sip than an orchard of mixed fruits comes out of nowhere and bathes the palate. The earthiness is edged out towards the horizon, kept more for its balancing smoothness than anything else. The florals are still there, as are tannins, wininess, the cornucopia of fruit, and a delightful pungency as they meld together. What is missing, furthermore, is equally important here: acidity, and thank goodness for it. One would think that among citrus notes, wininess, and tannins there would be at least a token hint of astringency, but no. We have the good - plenty of it, really - without the bad.
Tasting the plethora of fruits leads me to believe that I am getting a vicarious mouthful of the local Tarrazú terroir. I certainly hope that that is the case, and that my visions of vast swaths of the region leveled down to make room for extra coffee fields that will soon be rendered vestigal and superfluous are all just paranoid delusions. Any region that can make coffee like this deserves an eternity of prosperity and success.