Coffee is the world's most popular beverage after water, with over 400 billion cups consumed annually. The coffee bean is the seed of a cherry from an evergreen tree that grows in a narrow subtropical belt around the world. The three major growing regions are: Latin America and the Caribbean Islands, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and Indonesia. Coffee is also grown in Hawaii, India and in Southeast Asia. The term "varietal coffee" refers to an unblended coffee from a single country, region, and crop.

How do varietal coffees differ in flavor and characteristics? Virtual Coffee asked some of the premier specialty coffee roasters in the country what their favorite varietal coffee is-and why. We begin our series with a piece by Geoff Watts, director of coffee, Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters and Tea Blenders of Chicago.



By Geoff Watts

To me, the term "favorite" is somewhat static and exclusionary in its very essence. In the culinary realm and in the worlds of music and art, I've always felt that the greatest joys lie in developing an appreciation for differences, whether they be as startling as the taste of tiramisu next to a crunchy dill pickle, or as subtle as the slight stretching of a beat that injects tension into a drum pattern.

Coffee is a perfect venue for such explorations; the spectrum of flavor nuance and character between origins-or between regions within origins-is wonderfully expansive. Add to this the dynamic nature of roasting and brewing, and it becomes clear that nearly every single cup takes on a certain-if subtle-level of individuality. How then is it possible to pick one coffee and elevate it above its peers? Or even five or six for that matter? Perhaps the best solution for me is to frame things in another manner. Here's the scenario: I've just purchased a ticket to Saturn, and due to luggage restrictions, I can bring only one type of coffee. How's that for a bind?

Without hesitation, I climb aboard the inter-stellar ship with a full bag of Guatemalan beans. I am secure in my choice because I believe the coffees produced in this country are as complete as any in the world. Coffees from the historically under-rated Fraijanes region in particular have captured my heart, the great ones possessing striking fruit tones and rich chocolate notes with a body like a gymnast: lithe and well-defined, if slightly compact. At their best, these coffees offer a complexity I would call swashbuckling-full of vigor, with enough attitude to make Han Solo stand down, yet they are tempered with a mild underlying sweetness that endures from start to finish. To ask for anything more would be shamelessly greedy. But perhaps that's all right in this case, considering the breadth of variety this country has to offer.

So, let's blend in some beans from San Marcos, grown in the cloud forests of Guatemala's Pacific coast. I find these beans to be a bit softer, with pronounced flavor notes of chocolate and spice. For a bean from Central American, this coffee has an exceptionally lush body and a depth that makes each sip sublime. Or maybe I should add a heavyweight from the renowned Antigua region to my already brimming bag. Coffee from this region is well balanced and elegant, with generous layers of dark chocolate, fruit, and spice flavors delivered with a stirring and assertive sense of grace.

I find the versatility of Guatemalan coffees particularly alluring. They are equally suited to drinking in the morning, sipping all day long or accompanying a fine dinner. Roasted several seconds into the second "pop," until the oils are on the brink of emerging onto the surface of the bean, these coffees shine like no other, producing aromas that sing like a siren and intoxicate from across the room.

For anyone who has the opportunity, I highly recommend a visit to the growing regions of Guatemala. Guatemala is a country of stunning beauty, with a compelling charm that is a tonic for anyone who has grown used to the relatively sterilized environment of the more developed nations. It is a place rich in substance, with an enduring spirit that is vital and seemingly timeless. And the coffee rocks.

Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters and Tea Blenders was founded on a simple premise: buy, roast, and sell the finest coffee available anywhere. Intelligentsia purchases its coffee either directly from the growers-many of whom they have met on their travels to origin-or from the world's most renowned importers. Intelligentsia's coffees are roasted fresh daily in vintage German roasters. Intelligentsia is the winner of Chicago Magazine's "Best of Chicago" (1997-Present), and their coffees are served in Chicago's finest restaurants.


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