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Intelligentsia Springs the Serious Gour-MET Shit!

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 27, 2007 1:45PM

2007_09_esmeralda.jpgThe October foodie calendar kicks off in a major way Monday night when Intelligentsia hosts a tasting of the fabled Panamanian Hacienda La Esmeralda at their Fulton Street roasting works. Last May, Intelligentsia made headlines for purchasing 100 pounds of La Esmeralda for $130 a pound at the Best of Panama auction (okay, carry the one … yeah! That’s a lot of money for coffee). It’s the highest amount ever paid for coffee. On October 2, La Esmeralda will go on sale for an eye-popping $99 per half-pound and $55 per quarter-pound at all four of Intelligentsia’s retail locations (the three Chicago locations and in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood).

At those price points, La Esmeralda is not the type of bean that one can simply grind to spec and place in the cupboard for a later day. In fact, it’s supposed to make the organic Sumatra we normally buy from Intelligentsia seem like Taster’s Choice, by comparison. We talked with Geoff Watts, Intelligentsia’s main coffee buyer, about what makes La Esmeralda stand out among other blends and why he thinks it’s worth the price.

Chicagoist: Let’s start by asking how this coffee came to your attention.

Geoff Watts: La Esmeralda came to my attention at the 2003 “Best of Panama” competition. Every year coffee producers there submit their coffees, and the winners are auctioned off. I was there as a juror, and from the moment I picked up the cup of this, it was shocking and unexpected for a Panamanian coffee. It was like drinking a single malt scotch after a lifetime of Pepsi. All the judges were intrigued by this coffee. It reminded us all of an Ethiopian bean. It eventually won the competition by a wide margin.

C: You said that the winning coffees are all auctioned off at the end of the competition. How much did La Esmeralda sell for in its debut?

GW: It sold for $20 a pound. But this blend has taken on a life of its own since. It’s won four consecutive “Best of Panama” competitions, top honors at four consecutive “Rainforest Alliance” sustainability-certified competitions. It wins top honors pretty much at every competition where it’s entered. This coffee is like watching Ali box in his prime.

C: You said this bean reminded you of an Ethiopian coffee. Could you explain?

GW: When I started doing research on this coffee, I discovered that the beans come from a coffee plant called Geisha that originated in Ethiopia in the 1930’s. Sometime in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, some of the seeds made their way to Panama. The owners of the estate where La Esmeralda is grown knew that they had a few trees that were different from the others, but they simply harvested all the beans together for years. Then Daniel Peterson came to inherit the estate after his father’s passing and decided to harvest the Geisha beans separately, to see just what they had on their hands.

C: For people interested in buying this coffee or attending the tasting Monday, what should they expect for a taste profile?

GW: Most coffees are either floral or fruity; citric or like berries. La Esmeralda gives the drinker both. I notice a lot of jasmine perfume and lemony citrus when I drink it. Once we had the green coffee beans in the roasting works we roasted them as lightly as possible, in order to keep the sweetness of the bean at the forefront.

C: How would you recommend preparing La Esmeralda for consumption?

GW: I found it works best as a standard paper filter drip. There’s a lot of subtlety to this coffee, so using it as an espresso would make the flavor too intense. It could also work well prepared as a cold press, but you’d lose a lot of the acidity and those citrus notes.

C: What did you and Doug (Zell, Intelligentsia founder and owner) think after you realized you paid $13,000 for 100 pounds of coffee?

GW: “That’s a lot of money for some coffee.” (laughs) We saw the prices La Esmeralda was selling for at auction increase year by year, as the coffee’s reputation began to spread. This year’s auction lasted for twenty-four hours. We’re just glad that at the end, we managed to buy it.

Intelligentsia’s La Esmeralda tasting on Monday begins at 7 p.m. The cost is $25 and reservations can be made here. Hacienda La Esmeralda’s Daniel Peterson will be at the event, and guests will receive a complimentary quarter-pound bag of Esmeralda Especial, a non-auction lot selection from the estate.

Image via Intelligentsia’s web site.