Walk into any coffee shop in the Twin Cities or browse the online offerings from local roasters and you're bound to come across one.
It's often the option not available in the carafes behind the counter, requires a pour-over or is the bag with a price tag north of $25.
It's the ultra-exclusive, single-origin roast and it goes by many names: limited edition, reserve, micro-lot, nano-lot. But what does it mean? Why does it cost so much? Is it worth it?
That all depends on the experience sought by the coffee drinker. Sam Nargan, director of coffee of Wesley Andrews in Minneapolis, said there is often apprehension that yields to surprise when trying a small-lot coffee.
"People are usually blown away," he said.
Single-origin coffee, which defines beans sourced from a particular region and not mixed with other beans to make up a blend, has been mainstreamed for decades. What defines a micro-lot coffee is exclusivity and assiduity.
The beans from these roasts come from cherries grown on trees planted on prized, but small, plots of land on select farms. It could be ones with the most nutrient-rich soil or in locations with optimal conditions (elevation, exposure to sun, precipitation), or a varietal that requires diligent care. Yields are a small fraction of a full harvest and can require additional drying and processing.
In other words, micro-lot coffees are the ones that receive VIP treatment. And the extra attention from coffee cherry to roasted bean is at the root of the higher cost.
Intense flavors, limited runs
"What makes these coffees appealing to the consumer is usually just how flavorful they are," Nargan said. "Single-variety coffees can be very fruit-forward and taste like stone fruit, blueberries, jasmine and black tea."
For the coffee drinker, the difference in a traditional single origin and micro-lot is often in the distinctness in the flavor profile.
"What makes them interesting is that they come from one place and usually one farmer, sometimes one variety," Nargan said. "This gives you insight and transparency into what the farmer is doing to maintain the coffee each harvest season.
"Once a roaster builds a relationship with a farmer, meaning you are buying their coffee year after year, you can notice minute differences in the cup that can be factors on the farm, such as rainfall, hotter and lower temps, picking less ripe cherries, etc."
Therein lies the rub with specialty coffees. They are very seasonal. Intensity of flavor is susceptible to many factors and can vary from crop to crop. With micro-lots, or even smaller nano-lots, there is little margin for error. It makes staying in tune with farmers, processes and conditions a necessity. It means roasters are often more actively involved at the source than just buying beans at auction or choosing off a list from an importer.
Wesley Andrews currently offers a Pink Bourbon varietal from the Huila region of Colombia, its official name rooted in the name of the grower, Miguel Angel Ordoñez. The coffee boasts late-arriving acidic notes of kiwi and grapefruit. The cost ($23 for an 8.8-ounce bag) is high, but so was the coffee at import.
"Paying a higher price for a quality product goes a long way and your dollar is directly going to the individuals who grew your coffee," Nargan said. "I think that is pretty awesome."
A global perspective
As the name implies, limited-edition roasts are available for a short time, while the supply of raw or green coffee lasts. It often ranges from a few weeks to a few months.
Over the winter, Five Watt featured a Kenyan coffee that had notes of apple, cooked pear and chocolate. How were those flavors possible? Part of the reason was the soil. The farm where it was grown was near Mount Kenya, which is rich with red volcanic ash. But while that offering has run out, more are on the horizon.
Joe Marrocco, vice president of coffee sourcing with Spyhouse, said they have an extensive lineup of micro-lots on the runway this year, including coffees from Honduras, Burundi and Rwanda.
Roots Roasting in St. Paul has a rotating micro-lot in its lineup, called Special Gatherings. Earlier this year Roots featured an especially tangy coffee from Yemen, an emerging market recently opened to export, that had notes of rhubarb and raspberry. This summer it has shifted to a triple-washed coffee from Rwanda.
Coffees grown in eastern Africa, including neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, are considered the most fragrant and fruit-forward in the world.
"We're about halfway through our single-origin Rwandan offering, with about two months left," said Roots founder Pete Poire-Odegard. "It is a super-refreshing coffee with a lot of light notes playing on the backdrop of this smooth cup — sweet-lime, angel food cake and cinnamon."
It also has the versatility of being adaptable for drip coffee, espresso or cold brew. The cost for Special Gatherings is $20 for a 12-ounce bag.
While Roots has single-origins from Guatemala, Ethiopian and Indonesia, and leans into traditional roasting methods, Special Gatherings holds a special place for Poire-Odegard. It's where his team can experiment with sourcing.
"The higher price point at retail allows us the flexibility to purchase coffee that costs us double or more our usual cost and find something 'bombastic,' as I like to request from our importers," Poire-Odegard said. "We usually just buy five to nine bags of a coffee at a time for our Special Gatherings and run with it until we get low and start sourcing our new one.
"We currently work with five importers and I put out requests for amazing coffees from them trying to jump continents at every change to keep things fresh."
As micro-lot offerings come and go during the year, several area roasters feature select roasts when they become available.
Dogwood Coffee: Colombia Red Bomb
Hailed as "Red Bomb," the coffee is processed in two fermentation stages: first the coffee cherries are submerged in open tanks for 120 hours, then for another 50 hours after they are depulped before they are washed. Black cherry and white grape are the flavors that come through after brewing. Cost: $26, 12-ounce bag; three metro-area locations, dogwoodcoffee.com
Get Down Coffee: Rwanda Shyira Lot B
CJ Porter Born, director of coffee at Get Down, said this is "sure to be a crowd pleaser" with flavors of cane sugar and tangerine. It's part of a recent wave of specialty coffees from Rwanda. Cost: $21, 12-ounce bag; 1500 44th Av. N., Mpls., get-down-coffee-co.myshopify.com
SK Coffee: El Salvador Cup of Excellence #7
Lauded as "juicy, but not too wine-y" with berry and lemon flavors, this natural processed coffee was scored as one of the top coffees at the 2021 Cup of Excellence international competition. Cost: $28, 12-ounce bag; 550 Vandalia St., St. Paul, skcoffeeplease.com
SK: Koji Process Finca Gascón
Sam Kjellberg, founder and roaster at SK, called this Guatemalan variety "the most unique coffee we've come across. The farmer literally puts koji spores (grain mold used in soy sauce, sake, miso) on the cherries as they are drying. Instead of imparting a specific flavor profile, it enhances the inherent qualities of the coffee variety, like salt in a dish." It's where fruit meets umami, but is in very limited supply. Cost: $20, 4-ounce bag; 550 Vandalia St., St. Paul, skcoffeeplease.com
Spyhouse: Guatemala Las Moritas
Few coffees are able to retain the natural fruit flavors of the coffee cherry through the roasting process and caramelization of sugars. A big reason this coffee does is honey processing, which leaves a thin layer of the fruit after the skin and pulp are removed from the cherry that is absorbed into the bean when dried. The result with Las Moritas is a mango and macadamia nut profile. Cost: $24, 10-ounce bag; six metro-area locations, spyhousecoffee.com
Wesley Andrews: Colombia Miguel Angel Orgonez
It has a delicate sweetness and floral and citrus punch that is associated with Ethiopian coffees, but comes from the Huila region of Colombia. Grapefruit acidity is a signature. "It is a Pink Bourbon variety which has an interesting back story, but flavorwise has many of the same characteristics as Gesha," said Sam Nargan, director of coffee. Cost: $23, 8.8-ounce bag; 111 E. 26th St. Mpls., wesleyandrews.cc