It wasn’t long ago that your choices at a coffee shop were simple: Do you take yours black? Would you like room for cream?
But coffee culture has come a long way in recent years, and in many ways coffee has gone the way of wine. Each bean comes complete with a host of information, including the country of origin, the varietal of bean and often the name of the farm where it was grown. And each cup reflects not only the philosophy and methods of the roaster, but also the soil and microclimates where the beans were grown and the processes by which it was harvested and fermented.
Thanks to changes to both sourcing and the global supply chain, coffee roasters have access to a wider variety of coffees, including micro-lots of rare varietals that exhibit very specific (and often unique) flavor profiles.
And for those who love exploring the diversity of flavors available in coffee -- which can exhibit a wide range of character from notes of chocolate and nuts to hints of citrus tropical fruit, flowers and herbs -- the choices available in today’s coffee market are exciting to say the least.
Rare coffee fetches rare prices
But, much like fine wines or rare spirits, these specialty coffees come with a price. That price is determined by the quantity of beans produced, the quality of those beans and the quality of the processes used to harvest and ferment them. In the case of rare coffees, they’re often difficult to grow, so they take more labor and attention than more common disease resistant varieties.
The gesha varietal is a good example. The jasmine-scented, unprecedentedly fruity coffee has origins in Ethiopia; but thanks to tropical agricultural initiatives it made its way to South America in the 1950s and '60s. But it wasn’t until 2004 that the coffee was discovered by the global coffee world during an internationally juried coffee competition in Panama.
Since then, it’s popularity quickly grew. Within just a few years, the coffee was being planted not only throughout Panama, but in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Today, the rare high quality coffee is among the most sought out finds in coffee shops across the world.
Among local roasters who’ve taken an interest in both gesha and other rare, delicious finds is Ryan Hoban, owner of Pilcrow Coffee.
In 2017, Hoban won the America’s Best Espresso Competition with a gesha varietal from Finca el Obraje in Columbia. When he returned to Milwaukee, he was curious to see how the market would respond. So he offered shots of the rare espresso at the Pilcrow tasting room for $9 each.
"People loved it," he says. "And it was an experience that made us confident that we could bring back a gesha -- or another really special coffee -- and our audience would get excited about it."
Three coffees to get excited about
Beginning this week, Hoban is rolling out three very special coffees -- including two geshas -- at Interval, 1600 N. Jackson St. Each coffee will be available by the cup in the cafe or in whole bean format for grinding and brewing at home.
The first is Aurelio Villatoro Cup of Excellence #5 (Guatemala), a washed caturra which won first place in an international coffee competition focused on Guatemalan coffees.
"Rare coffees, like gesha, typically win competitions like this," says Hoban. "But this coffee is really unique. Normally a washed caturra drinks with nutty, darker chocolate profile; but this one drinks like a Kenyan coffee with big bright acidity and tropical fruit. It’s what we call a unicorn coffee…"
"It’s farming, so it’s about the weather, the soil and human intervention," he adds. "But having met Aurelio Villatoro and his family, the coffee is also a testament to the intentionality in their process and how well they care for the coffee. Beans are picked at the appropriate ripeness and processed within 6 hours of harvest.
Of the 300 pounds of coffee produced, Hoban says he purchased about a third. The Aurelio Villatoro is available for $10 a cup, with 12-ounce bags of whole beans available for $40.
The second and third coffees are geshas sourced from Finca el Obraje (Colombia). One is natural process, and the other washed.
"We use Pablo Guerrero’s coffee in our signature Storyteller Blend," says Hoban. "Overall, he grows really beautiful coffee. And this is no exception. A good gesha has this really crazy florality, and almost a green tea-like quality. In this case, I call it ‘green tea champagne’ because there’s just this natural effervescent texture about it."
Hoban says the natural is more fruit-forward, with notes of Concord grape and fruity pebbles; the green tea flavor comes in on the finish. Meanwhile, the washed offers far more of the gesha’s floral character along with a pronounced "green tea champagne effect."
The Finca el Obraje Gesha is available for $14 a cup, with 8-ounce bags of whole beans available for $50.
All three coffees are available beginning this week and through the holiday season (or until they sell out).
"All three of these coffees really spoke to me," says Hoban, "On the one hand, the decision to carry them is somewhat selfish; these are the coffees I really want to drink. But we’ve also always wanted to push the envelope in terms of the coffee that we’re introducing to the Milwaukee market."
Hoban says his goal is to make the coffees which are being sold by high end roasters across the nation -- including George Howell, Intelligentsia and PT’s -- accessible to coffee loving consumers in Milwaukee.
"You shouldn’t have to go online and buy a rare coffee from another roaster," he says. "We should have it available here."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.