Because it is patently uncool for legitimate coffee professionals to gush over gag novelties for coffee tourists — i.e., kopi luwak — the media needs an alternative outlet to feed its overly simplistic “since it’s the most expensive, it must be the best” obsession. This is what we once called the nouveau riche stereotype: knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing (credit to Oscar Wilde’s quote on cynics). Coffee from Panama’s Hacienda La Esmeralda farm fits the bill nicely, and the worldwide media parade hit the streets with the news that their Esmeralda Special fetched $117.50 a pound at auction this week.

So far, this week’s hit parade includes NBC Bay Area, who yesterday reported on an industry cupping of the Esmeralda at the Flora Grubb Gardens: Cupping Coffee With Bay Area “Titans” NBC Bay Area. “Titans”? Are NBC headlines not-so-subtly plugging the DVD sales of their long-canceled TV series?

Even more bizarre, the article cited the L.A. Times — which decided that a coffee cupping among Bay Area roasters in SF’s Bayview district was newsworthy in the Southland: ‘Cupping’ with the boutique coffee titans in San Francisco | Daily Dish | Los Angeles Times. (Nice photo in the L.A. Times, btw, stolen below.) But beyond Bay Area cuppings, Esmeralda news and cuppings have reached as far as London’s The Guardian: Is the ‘world’s best’ coffee worth it? | Life and style | guardian.co.uk.

L to R: Colby Barr, David Pohl, Phil Anacker, Andy Newbom and Ryan Brown at the Esmeralda cupping at Flora Grubb Gardens. Credit: Deborah Netburn

Of course, we’re no better — having written about the Esmeralda Geisha breaking price records in 2006 and publishing our own road-testing experience with the coffee in 2007. The trouble is that while the Hacienda La Esmeralda farm produces some fantastic coffees (the farm also scored highest at a Rainforest Alliance cupping in April), they’re hardly the only player. But with the way human psychology works sometimes, you might never know that.

The cruelties of second place

All it takes is scoring ahead of another coffee by a few, relatively insignificant digits to make all the difference when forced rankings are involved. CoffeeRatings.com uses such a forced-ranking system, and we can honestly say that the differences between our #1 and #5 are insignificant enough to flip-flop their order with something as subtle as the day’s humidity.

Subjective matters of personal taste aside, who can honestly discern the clear superiority of a coffee that scores 88.60 versus one that gets an 87.69? But we are invariably asked by anyone unfamiliar with our Web site, “What is your #1 coffee?”

Curiously enough, the Hacienda La Esmeralda did not win the 2009 Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year (pdf, 57kb). That went to a coffee from composite triple beatC.I. Viramax Colombia S. A., and La Esmeralda came in second. And the 2008 Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year went to a coffee from Colombia’s C.I. Racafe & CIA S.C.A., where La Esmeralda also came in second.

Of course, there’s no dishonor in perennially placing in second. Its price tags at auction and the familiar consistency of La Esmeralda contribute to its prominence in the press as the world’s ‘best’ coffee. But good luck finding this kind of hype for one of the recent Colombia winners. On the top, there’s only room for one. Adding others to the mix would only be too confusing.

UPDATE: June 12, 2009
Newsday published a brief series of photos from the aforementioned cupping event, explaining a cupping along the way: The elaborate art of coffee cupping: Step by step — Newsday.com.