In 2020, COVID-19 devastated lives and businesses, challenging the global specialty coffee community to its core. On the producing side, the pandemic added still another daunting challenge to growers facing endemic low coffee prices and an ongoing battle with leaf rust disease in Latin America. On the consuming side, roasters saw the pandemic shutter their bread-and-butter café businesses while many once-nomadic coffee lovers were forced to become at-home shoppers and brewers.

But growers, importers, roasters and retailers adapted and prevailed, often in remarkable ways. At Coffee Review, exceptional coffees continued to arrive throughout the year from an even greater range of origins than before the pandemic. Farmers and roasters deserve recognition every year, but especially in 2020.

Amplifying the Top 30

As usual, we capped a year of celebrating great coffees and those who produce them with publication of our annual Top 30 list of the most exciting coffees we tested throughout the year.

It’s always difficult, however, and even more so for 2020, to narrow the large number of brilliant coffees we test to an annual list of 30. In 2020, we tasted over 2,000 coffee samples and published more than 450 reviews. About one in four of these coffees scored 90 points or higher, and nearly 200, almost 10{ab5f2c9c740426ae4c9b4912729231eec62bb8d7f7c15dd2b52ffa544e442110} of the total, rated 94 or higher. This is a tribute to the intensifying capacity of the specialty coffee world, from growers through roasters to knowledgeable consumers, to produce, identify, and celebrate distinction in coffee.

(For those not familiar with how we conduct our blind testing and rating processes at Coffee Review, see How Coffee Review WorksFor what scores mean in respect to the wide range of coffee styles and qualities, see Interpreting Reviews.)

More Just Than A Score

And although we strive to make our ratings consistent and meaningful across all categories of coffee, scores and rankings taken alone have limitations. Certainly, a high score is an important factor in a coffee earning a spot on our Top 30 list or our list of the top coffees by category. However, keep in mind that our lists recognize the “most exciting” coffees, not necessarily the highest-rated coffees. We consider other factors such as value (price per pound), distinctiveness of style, uniqueness of origin or tree variety, processing method, certifications such as fair trade and organic, and general rarity. That explains why a 91-point decaffeinated coffee can appear on the list in 2020, while dozens of 94- to 96-point coffees do not.

Recognizing A Broader Range of Excellence

But we have come to feel that such flexibility is still not enough to fully recognize the range of excellence we are forced to overlook in the course of determining our top 30. In the early years of the Coffee Review Top 30, a score of 94 was likely to land a coffee on the list. This year, the vast majority of 94-point coffees did not appear on the Top 30 list. Even some 95- and 96-point coffees missed out. In any given year, particular categories or types of coffees are inevitably underrepresented or overlooked in favor of other high-fliers.

Finally, personal tastes vary. We discourage readers from relying solely on a coffee’s overall score to make purchase decisions. A somewhat lower-scoring coffee that fits one’s taste preferences, brew method, or social motivations may well prove more desirable than a higher-scoring coffee that isn’t one’s cup of, er, tea.

Introducing Category Rankings

So, in 2015, we began the practice of identifying fine coffees that merit recognition for excellence in their category even though they may not have attracted the highest scores of the year or landed a spot on our list of the Top 30 Coffees. This additional layer of recognition not only helps more coffee lovers find the types of coffee they enjoy, but it also rewards the farmers and roasters who achieve excellence in a category that may have been overlooked or underrepresented. For more information, visit our expanded rankings post from 2015.

From 2015 to 2019, we announced our top coffees by category in conjunction with the annual Top 30 countdown. However, the category recognition always took a backseat to the more dramatic Top 30. So, this year, for the first time, we’ve dedicated the first tasting report of the year to recognizing coffees that were among the best of the past year in their categories.

Decaffeinated Coffees and Darker Roasts

Most years, we struggle to source and review more examples of quality decaffeinated coffees and darker-roasted coffees. This year was no exception.  However, we hope that consumers who value these coffees appreciated the quality, if not the quantity, of the coffees appearing on this year’s expanded rankings list.

Decaffeinated Coffees

Readers interested in reasons, both technical and commercial, why decaffeinated coffees often fail to match the sensory distinction of untreated coffees will find some answers in our 2015 report on decaffeinated coffees. We cupped fewer than a dozen decaffeinated coffees in 2020 and reviewed just the two excellent samples listed here, with one cracking our Top 30 list.

 

Darker Roasted Coffees

Close up photo of darker roasted coffee beansOver 25 years of reviewing coffees, Coffee Review has not awarded many very high ratings to dark-roasted coffees. And even those that have earned high scores of 94 to 95 points tend to be medium-dark to dark-roasted rather than the ultra-dark “French” roasts that many consumers enjoy.

As noted in our most recent tasting report featuring darker-roasted coffees (Darker-Roasted Coffees: Confessions and Amends, August 2017), we want to help readers “find the very best darker roasted coffees produced today, coffees they will genuinely enjoy without changing their fundamental expectations about how a coffee should taste. This is why, whenever we come across an obviously darker-roasted coffee on the cupping table, we find ourselves pulling for it.”

Yet, for the past several years, Coffee Review has struggled to source and review more than a handful of definitively dark-roasted coffees. Many of these coffees are espressos and many are roasted by companies in Taiwan. Coffee drinkers who are interested  can use our advanced search tool to find darker-roasted coffees that have earned 90 points or higher.

In 2020, we recognize the following fine darker-roasted coffees and espressos:

Other Coffee Types That Often Fly Below the Radar

Blends (Non-Espresso)

The perception and the reality of non-espresso blends have changed dramatically since our first tasting report — House Blends — was published in February, 1997. Then, blends for brewed coffee were often simply a way for roasters to provide coffee drinkers with a consistent, straightforward cup at a reasonable price. Today, we see top roasters producing far fewer blends, as they concentrate their efforts on roasting distinctive and exciting single-origin coffees. On the other hand, the blends we do see are often aspirational efforts aimed at creating a sensory experience as surprising as any fine single-origin coffee, yet less predictable. Witness the following top-rated blends from 2020:

 

Certified Fair Trade or Organic

Red Rooster’s 96-point Ethiopia Shantawene, the No. 8 coffee of 2020 and a top coffee in the Organic and Fair Trade category. Courtesy of Tony Greatorex.

The topic of fair-trade and organic-certified coffees is far too complex to address in a meaningful way here. Those who are interested in exploring the organic-certified category further might start by visiting our most recent tasting report on the subject: Organic-Certified Coffees from Africa: Benefits, Challenges and Complexities.

Suffice it to say that we reviewed a range of outstanding organic and fair-trade certified coffees in 2020, including the following that merit particular recognition:

Geographic Regions

About four years ago, we noticed that our Top 30 list was beginning to be dominated by coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya along with Central America coffees produced from the Geisha variety. The main reason for this imbalance is tree variety: Ethiopia, the birthplace of Arabica, grows a rich assortment of very distinctive-tasting, often indigenous varieties; Kenya coffees come mainly from the great SL28 and S34 varieties; and the Ethiopia-derived variety Geisha remains the source of some of the world’s most striking coffees, particularly as it is grown in Panama.

So, starting in 2015, we decided to extend special recognition to coffees from geographical regions that tend to rely on equally admirable but less distinctive-tasting tree varieties, plus add a category for coffees from Central America not produced from trees of the Geisha variety. We continue this practice for 2020, even though most (but not all) of these regions turned out to be well-represented on our 2020 Top 30 list.

Asia-Pacific (Not Including Hawaii)

No coffees from this large and varied region appeared on our 2020 Top 30 list, a change from previous years in which Sumatra coffees in particular figured prominently. In 2020 we did review two outstanding Sumatras that hovered just at the edge of the Top 30; they are recognized below. And for the first time we honor a coffee produced in Taiwan, in the growing district of Alishan, long renowned for its tea but now producing small volumes of distinctive coffees.

 

Alternative Africas (i.e. not Ethiopia or Kenya)

Boon Boona’s Burundi Karahe was produced by Karehe Cooperative and imported by JNP Coffee, both of which are lead by women. Photo courtesy of JNP Coffee.

We originally created this award category to balance the yearly outpouring of great coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya, origins that have tended to dominate the higher ratings for Africa coffees at Coffee Review. Over the past few years, however, the African Great Lakes region – Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the far eastern Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo – have generated more and more superb and distinctive coffees. Peace is gradually returning to troubled parts of this region and the great local Bourbon-related tree varieties, excellent terroirs, hard-working producers, and coffee-savvy development efforts have conspired to create more and more exceptional coffees. Here are only three of many we tested in 2020. (For more on this region, see our 2018 report on African Great Lakes Coffees.)

The Caribbean

We rarely see many coffees from the Caribbean in the Coffee Review lab. Since we began reviewing coffees in 1997, we’ve only published reviews for several dozen coffees grown in the Caribbean, most of which were from Jamaica. And just six of these coffees earned 90 points or higher. Increasingly more frequent and more destructive hurricanes and tropical storms have crippled entire Caribbean coffee industries in brutal ways that can take years to remedy. Add the 2010 Haiti earthquake, one of the most destructive in history. Finally, aside from the special situation of Jamaica Blue Mountain, a common theme among other Caribbean origins is high internal consumption of coffee coupled with low production. Local markets absorb most coffee produced regardless of quality, discouraging the development of better, export-quality coffee.

However, in the last year or two, we’ve seen a small but concerted effort by innovative, entrepreneurial, and socially progressive producers and roasters to reenergize the production of quality coffees in the Caribbean. In fact, for each of the past two years, a coffee from the Caribbean has earned a spot in the Coffee Review Top 30 (No. 18 in 2019; No. 22 in 2020).  In 2020, we reviewed just two coffees from the Caribbean, both of which earned 90+ points and both still available for sale on roasters’ websites as of January 16, 2021:

  • Café Kreyol, Organic Red Honey Ramirez Estate [Dominican Republic] – 92 points (No. 22) Review | Buy
  • Davila Kafe, Jacmel Haiti – 90 points Review | Buy

 

Central America (from Non-Geisha Varieties)

Coffees of the celebrated Geisha (also Gesha) variety have come to dominate the highest ratings we award coffees produced in Central America. Here, however, we recognize three superb Central America coffees that were produced from varieties other than Geisha:

 

South America

A major trend impacting South America in 2020 was an ever-increasing number of coffees differentiated by experimental processing methods. They showed up from all countries, but particularly from Colombia, where coffee authorities are now allowing export of coffees processed using alternative methods in addition to the familiar Colombia wet-processed style. Two of these new style Colombias are honored below. We also recognize a characteristically sweetly mild and chocolaty conventionally processed Peru carrying both fair-trade and organic certification.

Espressos

Fewer coffees than usual intended for espresso brewing appeared on our 2020 list, perhaps owing to the impact of the pandemic closing down or limiting café activity while encouraging sale of coffees intended for conventional brewing at home. Plus, at Coffee Review we canceled our usual annual report dedicated to espressos because of the problems involved in applying the espresso method to a large number of samples using remote procedures.

Michael Johnson (left) and the masked-up JBC Coffee Roasters team, roasters of the 96-point Karimiuki Espresso, the No. 7 coffee of 2020. Photo courtesy of JBC Coffee Roasters.

Nevertheless, we did manage to review a wide range of fine espressos in 2020. The continuing trend to focus on distinguished single-origin coffees rather than on blends seems to be as increasingly at play in the world of espresso as it is in brewed coffee. Here we honor three exceptional 94-rated espresso blends that did not make the Top-30 list, as well as three extraordinary single-origin espressos that did.

Espresso Blends

Single Origin Espressos

 

Despite complications the COVID-19 pandemic injected into the challenge of coffee production already under stress from low prices and the Latin-American coffee rust disease crisis, coffee producers and their exporter/importer and roaster allies managed to produce an extraordinarily varied and aspirational range of fine coffees in 2020. We were privileged to sample many of them, and to report on them here and throughout the year. We dedicate this and future reports in 2021 to the tenacity and creativity of the specialty coffee world in the face of continued daunting challenges.

The post The Year 2020 in Coffee: Challenges, Trends, Surprises & Knockouts appeared first on Coffee Review.

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