Equator and Ma'velous Team Up for Glimpse at Best Coffee in America

Categories: Coffee

Phillip_Ma_geisha_coffee.jpg
Molly Gore
Phillip Ma pours a taste of the geisha.
Ma'velous, that glimmering trove of coffees and gorgeous gizmos by Civic Center, is bringing in an extra special bounty to its already very special menu. But if you blink, you'll miss it. The goods? Granja La Esperanza Geisha, a lot of a rare and celebrated varietal roasted by Caitlin McCarthy-Garcia of Equator Coffees, and the beans that garnered her first prize at the 2013 Roasters Choice competition -- essentially the World Series of coffee roasting. At this moment, this just might be, in the roaster's words, "the best coffee in the country." And, at Ma'velous, it's $18 a cup.

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The thing is, there's not much left. It may last only a week. A small portion of the remaining lot is in the capable hands of Phillip Ma, and he's certainly the man to be making it. Flanked by world class coffees and the sleek and twisting apparati used to brew it, it feels like Ma is San Francisco's Willy Wonka of coffee -- if Wonka had more dapper charm and three lifetimes of coffee knowledge. Ma earned fifth place in the U.S. Brewer's Cup competition this year (layperson's translation: Superbowl of coffee brewing), brewing on the same device he'll be using to make the geisha: the siphon.

Resembling something straight out of Jules Verne's sketchbooks, the siphon is the only method that keeps temperature consistent throughout the entire brew cycle, manifesting certain complexities that never get to blossom with other devices, according to Ma. If you're curious about these devices, Ma'velous will brew you one coffee seven ways so can taste your way through the mechanics of it all.

The varietal, geisha, is an Ethiopian heirloom variety, and the fact that this particular lot was grown in the Americas -- Colombia, in this case -- is worth mentioning.

"It tastes like nothing else," says Devorah Freudiger, one of the resident coffee experts at Equator. "It is overwhelmingly floral, and even if you don't think you have a refined palate for coffee you will pick out the jasmine and honeysuckle aroma. Sweet and sparkling, it's a coffee you'll always remember."

The geisha comes from Cerro Azul, a farm owned by Granja La Esperanza that pays extraordinary attention to this particular varietal, enacting the highly unusual practice of grading the quality of coffee trees individually. This particular lot was selected from trees graded AAA for showcasing the geisha's qualities most intensely. Equator bought a very small lot, 77 pounds in a vacuum-packed box delivered by air. A third went into the competition, and the rest was roasted on one day and sold via presale through the website. A tiny bit remains to be roasted for tasting at the opening of Equator's new spot in Mill Valley.

So you'll have to hit up Ma'velous or Mokka in Berkeley -- who has one pound on site for brewing by pourover - -for a taste of the ephemeral nectar. Or you can take home an eight-ounce bag for $60. Still sound steep? Ma says this is cheap, considering the time, labor, and care invested in the beans.

"It's like having the best glass of wine or beer. Even a two ounce shot of single malt whiskey can set you back anywhere from two to ten times that amount. And here, the person behind the bar is hand crafting the coffee just for you," says Ma.

It's true, coffee takes a lot of work. A good single malt Scotch (to which I am not opposed, ever, at any time), grows into its character by sitting oceanside in the briney, coastal air, over years. Scotch is humanless for a good part of its life. During those years, coffee is never alone. Pruned and coaxed into a tenuous balance by arduous farming trials, coffee is delicately guided through harrowing environmental pitfalls year after year, meticulously washed, fermented, and dried.

I once met a coffee farmer who would walk through and touch his trees every night, reciting poetry to them, asking what they needed. A bit mystical, sure, but the fact remains that coffee depends first on the constant rapt attention and expertise of the farmer, who may lose his crop at the mercy of the weather on a bad year. It's a delicate practice, apt to fail at any step. And all this farmers do, against an unpredictable global market and an economy that continually drives the producing population into the cycle of poverty. Then "green buyers" are responsible for discerning the best coffees among these lots and bringing them stateside.

When beans go through roasting, all the information inside them that's been so carefully curated up to this point is poised to be possibly incinerated within a matter of minutes, sitting at the mercy of a roaster's equipment and experience. And then there's the barista, who must wrangle an army of variables into perfect harmony, carrying the last bit of the coffee's remaining integrity straight to you. And somehow, again and again, those honeysuckle notes make it all the way into your cup, intact. Sweet and sparkling. Now tell me, when we'll pay this much for salad and a burger whose provenance lies a stone's throw away, does $18 still sound like a lot?

I think not.

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