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Java Lust

If It Were Up to John Martinez, Everyone Would Be Drinking Estate Coffee
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

It was early January and John Martinez had just come back from a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii to make sure his source of Kona coffee was secure. The specialty coffee world had been rocked in late 1996 when it was discovered that for years a Berkeley, California, roaster had been adulterating pricy Kona coffee beans by blending them with cheaper beans from Latin America.

"He fooled a lot of people who should have known better, but not me," says Martinez, owner of J. Martinez & Co., the Atlanta-based coffee importer and roaster, and a former tobacco executive. Martinez wasn't fooled because he doesn't buy beans simply labeled Kona any more than wine négociant Louis Jadot buys grapes labeled Burgundy. Both merchants want to know exactly where the raw materials came from, who grew them, who processed them and what they look and taste like.

The green Kona beans Martinez roasts himself come from 10 farms selected from some 50 farms in the Hona Unau Valley. What he sells to customers, however, isn't Kona or Kona Style but Hona Unau Estates Kona Coffee. His Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee says "Estate Selection" because it, too, is carefully chosen from a few selected farms. Martinez's Jamaica High Mountain comes from a single estate, Baronhall, as does his Costa Rican Tarrazu coffee, which is grown at La Minita Hacienda.

These great coffee estates express their own terroir, that combination of soil, climate and topography that give their coffee beans a taste and aroma as distinctive as wines from the legendary estates of Burgundy.

Estate coffee is the mantra of John Martinez, coffee négociant. It hasn't enabled him to reach nirvana yet, but he's getting closer by the day, and he's bringing the coffee world along with him.

Estate coffee is very much like estate-bottled wine. When America was in its wine infancy--about the same time we all drank coffee from percolators--most wine labels read California Chablis, Rhine wine or Burgundy. The grapes could have come from anywhere. But as we became more sophisticated, we demanded more specific information. Where in California? What grapes? Who bottled the wine?

The specialty coffee industry is where the California wine industry was in the late 1960s or early 1970s, according to Martinez. We can tell the difference between an earthy Sumatra and a high-acid Central American, but beyond that few of us know much, or even know what to ask. Would a sophisticated wine drinker be satisfied that he was drinking a California Cabernet Sauvignon or even one from the Napa Valley? Of course not. Yet coffee drinkers are perfectly comfortable simply drinking Costa Rican coffee. Some may go beyond a country designation and ask for a regional definition, such as Tarrazu. But few would seek out a specific estate like La Minita, the Lafite of Central American estate coffees (featured in the Autumn 1995 Cigar Aficionado).

"Of course, there are good and bad estates, farms or haciendas, called fincas, in Costa Rica," says Martinez, "but by and large, when you buy an estate coffee, you're getting a certain guarantee of quality, just as you are when you buy an estate bottled wine."

Not all coffee Martinez sells is estate coffee. Estate coffee from Colombia, for example, is very difficult to obtain. "Like most coffee-producing countries, Colombia is made up of many small farms, as small as a half acre. Picture 50 or 100 Juan Valdezes," Martinez says. "These farmers take their coffee to a central mill to be processed. And it's the mill that puts its name on it."

In such situations, Martinez approaches the mill owner and makes "an arrangement," as he puts it. "I say to him, if you buy this type of cherry berry [the unprocessed coffee bean] and process it this way, I will pay you X cents above what the commodity traders will pay you," he says. Guatemala, on the other hand, has many estates, but no one estate that Martinez believes he can consistently count on. So he combines two estates for a consistent taste.

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