An In-Depth Look at the Top 30 Coffees of 2021

Coffee Review’s list of the Top 30 Coffees of 2021 represents our ninth annual ranking of the most exciting coffees we tested over the course of the year. This annual effort supports our mission of helping consumers identify and purchase superior quality coffees and, in the process, helping drive demand and increase prices to reward farmers and roasters who invest time, passion and capital in producing high-quality coffee. The Top 30 celebrates and promotes coffee roasters, farmers, mill operators, importers, and other coffee industry professionals who make an extra effort to produce coffees that are not only superb in quality but also distinctive in character.

In 2021, we tasted more than 2,000 coffee samples and published more than 500 reviews. These reviews focus primarily on the highest-rated coffees, which are of most interest to our readers. This year, roughly one out of four of the more than 2,000 coffees we tested scored 90 points or higher, and over 200 of them, an impressive 10% of the total, rated 94 or higher, a tribute to the ever-intensifying innovation and dedication of the world’s leading coffee producers and roasters.

However, it is important to remind our readers that the coffees that appear in the reviews on our website represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of distinction and quality. Remember that we cup blind; we determine ratings and main descriptors for a coffee before we learn where it came from and who roasted it. For those curious about how we conduct our testing and rating processes at Coffee Review, see How Coffee Review WorksFor what scores mean in respect to the wide range of coffee styles and qualities, see Interpreting Reviews.

However, despite our efforts to make our ratings consistent and meaningful, numbers taken alone have limitations. You may well take more pleasure in a lower-rated coffee that matches your taste preferences than a higher-scoring coffee that isn’t your style. We do our best to characterize a coffee’s character in the “Blind Assessment” paragraph of our reviews and even more succinctly in the “Bottom Line” paragraph that concludes each review.

Hard Choices: Narrowing Down the List

All of the coffees that rated 94 points or higher in 2021 are particularly worthy of celebrating, as are the exceptional coffees that hovered just behind them. Obviously, not all of the more than 200 coffees earning 94 points or more in 2021 can appear in the Top 30. We forced ourselves to select the 30 we felt were the most exciting and distinctive.

As in past years, we selected and ranked our Top 30 coffees and espressos based on quality and distinctiveness (represented by overall rating), value (reflected by most affordable price per pound), and consideration of other factors that include uniqueness of origin or tree variety, certifications such as Fair Trade and organic, and general rarity.

Top 30 Origins: Panama Tops the List Again

Miguel Meza of Paradise Roasters, roaster of No. 1 Panama Mama Cata Mokkita, shown in Kona, Hawaii. Courtesy of Miguel Meza.

In each of the nine years that we have published our Top 30 list, our top pick has been a single-origin coffee—meaning a coffee from a single country and region (and usually from a single farm or cooperative). This year, we selected the 97-point Mama Cata Mokkita produced by the Garrido family of Mama Cata farm in Boquete, Panama, and roasted by Paradise Roasters in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Mokkita, one of two coffees that achieved a 97 rating this year, displayed an exceptional, essentially flawless structure—juicy, complete, balanced, deep—together with striking, tropical-themed aroma and flavor notes the review summarizes as “other worldly.” The Mokkita variety is apparently a distinctive strain of the already rare Mokka (also spelled Moka, Mocca) variety that was selectively cultivated by Mama Cata.

José David Garrido, producer of the No. 1 Mama Cata Mokkita, with Mokkita tree on Mama Cata farm in Panama. Courtesy of Miguel Meza.

Our choice of the Paradise Mama Cata Mokkita means that, for the third year in a row, a coffee grown in Panama topped our list. In 2020, it was the GW01 Finca Sophia Olympus Geisha roasted by GK Coffee in Taiwan. In 2019, the Elida Estate Geisha Green-Tip Natural roasted by Dragonfly Coffee Roasters. Previous No. 1 coffees were produced in Hawaii (2018), Yemen (2017), Kenya (2016) and Ethiopia (2013). Panama also scored firsts in 2014 and 2015.

With five appearances, Ethiopia was the most frequently cited origin in our 2021 list, including the 97-rated Barrington Testi Ayla Double Ethiopia, this year’s second-ranked selection. Hawaii was second in number of placements this year with four. Panama and Colombia each had three coffees on the list, and Yemen two, the only other origin with more than one. Filling out the list were 13 origins represented by one coffee each, together with one blend.

Coffees from Ethiopia appeared five times in this year’s Top 30. A picker from southern Ethiopia harvesting ripe fruit. Courtesy Kenneth Davids.

Top 30 Statistics

Average Ratings. The average overall rating of the coffees on the Top 30 list for 2021 was 95.3 out of a possible 100, in line with past averages.

Cost per Pound: From Very High to Reasonable. In 2021, the average price of the coffees on our Top 30 list was $124.83 per pound. This very high average was driven by a handful of extremely expensive coffees. For example, the top-rated, particularly rare Mama Cata Mokkita cost an adjusted $600 per pound. On the other hand, the second-ranked coffee, the Barrington Testi Ayla Double Ethiopia, cost an adjusted $73.27 per pound, and the No. 7 Simon Hsieh Bull Demon King a reasonable $33.00 per pound.

Bags of 96-point Simon Hsieh Bull Demon King, the No. 7 coffee of 2021. Courtesy of Ron Walters.

What this suggests is that one can’t meaningfully compare the average price of Top 30 coffees from year to year because the mix of coffee prices varies greatly. A handful of very expensive coffees can dramatically skew an average. Nevertheless, as in past years, higher scoring coffees in our 2021 Top 30 tended to cost more than lower scoring coffees:              

97-point coffees (2) $336.63/pound
95-96-point coffees (21) $138.00/pound
92-94-point coffees (7) $23.66/pound

One of the selection criteria for the Top 30 coffees is value, measured by price per pound relative to coffees of similar quality. Many of the coffees on our list are priced in line with similar, though usually less distinguished, specialty coffees in the marketplace. Eight of the coffees on the list cost $30 or less per pound. See our complete list of the Best Value Coffees.

Roasters in the Top 30

Five roasting companies placed two coffees each on this year’s Top-30 list: Paradise Roasters (No. 1 and No. 16 ); Hula Daddy Kona Coffee (No. 5 and No. 20 ); JBC Coffee Roasters (No. 14 and No. 28); Kakalove Café, Taiwan (No. 4 and No. 15), and Red Rooster Coffee Roaster (No. 10 and No. 17). This concentration of coffees from certain roasters is certainly not by design. In fact, we make a deliberate effort to increase the number and variety of roasters that appear in the Top 30.

Karen Patterson planting Kona Mocca® seedlings at Hula Daddy, producer and roaster of the No. 5 coffee of 2021. Photo courtesy of Hula Daddy Kona Coffee.

To that end, this year we consciously limited appearances in the Top 30 to a maximum of two coffees per roaster, regardless of how many high-rated coffees that roaster produced. While that may seem like an arbitrary limit—and it is—it’s important to remember that our list represents our rendering of the most “exciting” coffees of the year, not necessarily the highest-rated. We felt that it wouldn’t be very exciting (to us or others) if the Top 30 list were too much dominated by a handful of roasting companies that produced a particularly large number of highly rated coffees over the course of the year. Instead, we felt readers might be more excited about an amazing coffee from a roaster that wasn’t already on the list, rather than a similarly incredible coffee from a roaster that already had two on the list.

That said, Coffee Review has been, from its inception, committed to starting with what we actually experience in the cup, not with product categories or marketing considerations or fashion. It is true that we take into account extrinsic factors like value, rarity and sustainable intentions into account when we narrow the number of candidates from a couple hundred to just 30. But, ultimately, sensory quality and distinction in the cup, as determined by blind-tasting and as reflected in rating, is the entry point for consideration and one of the primary factors that influences where coffees land on the list.

Roasting Company Geography

Of the 30 coffees on the list, 20 were roasted by companies in the United States. A record-breaking eight coffees were roasted in Taiwan. For the first time, a coffee roasted in Japan and another roasted in Peru appeared in the Top 30. SOT Coffee Roaster from Osaka, Japan, roasted the No. 3 Colombia Wush Wush Dynamic Natural and Finca Tasta from Peru both produced and roasted the No. 25 Coral.

Tree Variety and the Top 30

Distinctive tree variety continues to appear to play an important role in the success of 2021’s Top 30 coffees. There are stars and superstars among the hundreds of varieties of Arabica grown in the world today, and coffees from these distinguished varieties continue to dominate the very highest ratings at Coffee Review. They include the still-rare and expensive Geisha/Gesha variety (six examples on the 2021 list); the ancient heirloom Bourbon (three), and the indigenous landrace varieties of Ethiopia (three). Wush Wush, like Geisha an Ethiopia variety gone on the road, shows up twice (once as grown in its homeland Ethiopia and once as grown in Colombia). Two strains of the tiny-beaned Mocca/Mokkita appear in the top five coffees of 2021.

On the left, the tiny beans of the rare Mocca variety; center, beans of the ancient Bourbon variety; and right, the somewhat elongated beans of the Geisha/Gesha variety. Courtesy of Kenneth Davids.

Processing Method and the Top 30

The number and variety of processing methods (how the skin and fruit flesh are removed from the beans and how they are dried) has exploded in the past several years, as producers seek new ways to differentiate their coffees and make them more distinctive in the cup. This year, 29 of the 30 coffees making the list arrived with a clearly identified processing method. Of those, over half were processed using methods other than the traditional washed method.

Ten were processed using variants of the dry or “natural” method, meaning the beans were dried inside the fruit rather than after the fruit has been removed, as is the case with wet-processed or “washed” coffees. Three were processed using some form of anaerobic (sealed vessel, limited-oxygen) fermentation. One was processed by the honey method (skins are removed, but the beans are dried still enveloped in all or some of the fruit flesh). This showing is evidence of the continuing trend toward use of processing method as a creative tool for crafting distinctive cup profiles.

Please enjoy our list of the Top 30 Coffees of 2021.

All the best from Coffee Review for a happy and prosperous new year, full of both coffee surprises and the reassurance of the fine and familiar.

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