Very Expensive Coffee, is it worth it?

14

December 10, 2012 by Beans Ahoy

There has always been talk of expensive coffee. Most recently with Elephant Black Ivory Coffee (http://news.sky.com/story/1022257/elephant-dung-used-to-make-black-ivory-coffee). There is usually a market for what economists call a veblen good, that is a good which works contrary to the price/demand mechanism to actually increase sales as price increases. There have been a number of apparently ultra exclusive coffees that have demanded ridiculous prices. Kopi Luwak, Black Ivory, some Geisha coffee, and some Blue Mountain, but is it really worth it with coffee like Black Ivory selling for $1,100 a kilo? Arguably, no coffee can ever be worth that, but it’s unlikely to stop people drinking it though.

There is an argument that coffee that has passed through the digestive tract of an animal such as a civet cat with Kopi Luwak, or an Elephant with Black Ivory somehow takes away the natural bitterness to coffee. They say it is richer and more bodied than other coffee. Put simply this is nonsense. I am sorry to be the barer of bad news, but the whole ingested coffee idea ultimately has little impact on taste to anyone except the most skilled of tasters. More of an impact is created with the roast of the coffee. As always the roasting remains the most important element of a cup of coffee. A perfect roast can make a substandard bean taste very good, and a bad roast (too much or too little) can make a top quality bean taste awful.

There is another problem with civet coffee. The original idea had been to let civets wonder the jungles alone and select coffee straight from the bushes, the theory being that the civet will only consume the good tasting fruit, which indicates a perfectly ripe bean. They would then return to their human made dwellings at night to be cared for and the dropping would be collected, an incredibly laborious process to produce just one cup. Reports have surfaced however that some coffee growers are keeping civets in cages and force feeding coffee of all stages to produce civet coffee. This completely defeats the purpose of civet coffee, and is appalling abuse. It is important to point out though that not all Kopi Luwak producers behave like this, and as we always say at Beans Ahoy, it pays to find out about your coffee.

Kopi Luwak is a very traditional Indonesian tasting coffee. If you are wondering what it tastes like but don’t want to spend the huge sums involved then try a Java or Sumatra coffee and it will be very close. There is heavy richness to these coffees mainly produced by the volcanic soil they grow in, but I would not say that there is anything particularly special about Kopi Luwak, and whilst I have not yet tasted Black Ivory, I suspect that the taste is very much representative of the areas general coffee. The price of Black Ivory is also somewhat amusing. If Kopi Luwak is expensive because it is produced in only small quantities, because admittedly it takes a lot of civet poops to produce a pound of coffee, then certainly an elephant would not have the same problem? A quick Google search has taught me that an elephant can eat up to 300kg of food a day, of course the elephant won’t only eat coffee, but quite how this coffee can be particularly rare, I have no idea.

What this really boils down to is a marketing exercise. There are expensive goods in all industries. A lot of it is the marketing and the brand image surrounding the product, rather than the quality of the product itself. The best advice for very expensive coffee is to be realistic. If you don’t like the taste the first thing to do is check that you are making it correctly, the next is to say that you simply don’t like it. Some of the flavours in these coffees just don’t mix with peoples palates. That’s not to say that you can’t tell whether it’s a good quality or not even if you don’t like it, but some flavours will simply be preferred by some people, and disliked by others. Be honest and don’t feel you have to go with the crowd on a particular coffee. I for one think Kopi Luwak is vastly overrated, whilst at the same time I think some of the Colombian coffees are underrated, because people over look them as a ‘mass production’ country.

In reality drink what you enjoy. Some expensive coffees are very good, and you are most likely going to land up with a far more complex flavour if roasted properly than your average Starbucks cup, but don’t for a moment think that quality is only related to price. Like wine, price often indicates a mystique around the product, rather than a quality product. Do some reading on good coffee, you can find material not only on this site but also on the hundreds of sites out there about coffee.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Very Expensive Coffee, is it worth it?

  1. The Coffee Bear says:

    Agree entirely. This cat crap coffee and now elephant dung coffee is just that crap. You can sell anything to anyone but these guys should remember “you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all the time” I have cupped both Kopi luwak and Weasel Coffee, this is the weasel puke coffee. The Luwak was nothing special and carried little to nothing of note. The Weasel was much the same when I had roasted it BUT when roasted in Vietnam it was different and I think had something added in the roasting because when the beans were roasted just by themselves we could not replicate the taste-so what are we drinking? The prices charged are just plain silly. Again- A fool and his money are easily separated.

  2. blake D says:

    As founder of Black Ivory Coffee I wanted to weigh in on this conversation having worked with civets, elephants and with coffee growers in Indonesia, Thailand and Ethiopia.

    1) Claim that elephant or civet digestion does not affect the bean is FALSE. Here is an article from the University of Guelph that talks about his work with me in Ethiopia: http://www.uoguelph.ca/news/archives/005780.html The enzymatic reaction does affect flavour and reduce bitterness.

    2) Roast more important than bean? I AGREE with your comment about the impact of roast on bean and that it is impossible to take a bad bean and make a great cup of coffee. This is why I spent 2 months cupping at different coffee farms in Northern Thailand. It is also why I roast lighter (City Plus) so the consumer taste the bean and not the roast.

    You left out brewing process. I have paired Black Ivory Coffee with a balancing syphon because it compliments the flavour best. Try your beans with different brewing methods and ask yourself if the cup profile changes?

    3) Civets in cages are a huge ethical problem and it is why I stopped working with these animals. Also many farmers simply rub dung on the beans and try to pass it off as the real thing. It is nonsense that civets only pick the ripest cherries in the wild as they also eat dead insects and garbage. Safe to say they are not the most discerning.

    4) Quantity fed: Black Ivory Coffee was developed in part to address the problem about creating income for elephants and their mahouts who were “put out of business” due to the ban on the use of elephants in logging. It was not a pure marketing ploy. It is meant to have a social impact. Elephants in captivity eat a lot but I need to ensure that I do not replace their diet only supplement it. As a result very little is fed and elephants being elephants choose when to eat so it does not happen every day.

    5) Marketing exercise? Yes and no. It is a very unusual story that has garnered a lot of attention. I would be lying if I did not appreciate the press. That said I would not have spent 9 years honing the process if all I wanted was a good story. First priority is a very good cup of coffee.

    6) 100% agree with your comment about making sure you are preparing the coffee correctly.

    Thank you for letting me in on this conversation. Come to Chiang Saen and I will happily show you the entire process and a cup of Black Ivory Coffee will be on me. Should your readers wish to write to me with questions I can be reached through my website at http://www.blackivorycoffee.com

    Thanks,
    Blake

    • Beans Ahoy says:

      It’s great to have the input from the producers, so thank you.

      A study by a Dr. Hofmann of the Technical University of Munich has recently shown that there are over 30 chemicals responsible for making coffee bitter, 15% of this is attributable to the caffeine itself. The main proponent however is the chlorogenic acid lactones, which is the product of roasting the coffee. These further break down to increased levels of phenylindanes in heavier roasted coffee which in turn are even more bitter.

      I would question the conclusion by Mr. Marcone that it is proteins that create bitterness. I am no food scientist, but I have yet to taste a protein rich food, either cooked or raw, that is bitter. The ones that come to mind are soy beans, egg, and meats like beef and buffalo. In the case of soy beans, this is as high as 39% plant proteins, yet there is no bitterness.

      As I indicated in the article, I don’t believe that even a particularly skilled coffee taster could detect the coffee passed through the digestive tract of an animal. The article you linked seems to support that with the statement: “Although certified blinded human tasters could find little difference in the overall flavour and aroma of the beans…”.

      In relation to the Civets selecting beans, they may be a little more choosy than you think as all animals will avoid consuming under ripe vegetation of all types. The very high levels of pyrazine and other developmental chemicals can make animals (including humans) very ill.

      The other issue you have to consider, and I am sorry to say this, is the price. I have been lucky to have tasted the finest coffees from almost every coffee producing country around the world. I have yet to encounter a coffee worth $1,100 a kilo, and is why I believe the product to be a Veblen good.

      Thank you for the invite and your contribution, and I will let you know if I make it out that way.

      • blake D says:

        Hi,

        I will revert back with more information from a food science perspective but let me address the laymen issues first: civets (and I know them well having worked with about 1000 of the animals in Ethiopia) and price/Veblen good.

        1) Civets: We need to make a distinction between civets eating coffee in the wild and those in captivity. Civets in captivity are often fed parchment coffee or sometimes cherries mixed in with banana. They eat the beans because the banana masks the taste. There is no need for them to discern how sweet it is. Further they are usually hungry and will eat whatever is given to them. I do not need to discuss the ethical issue as I am sure you are already familiar with it.

        Wild Civets: The myth about them choosing the ripest cherries was created by a coffee roaster in Seattle as a way to promote Kopi Luwak. Having witnessed civets tearing apart garbage to get at rotting meat in Ethiopia and Indonesia leads me to believe they are not very selective. Of course ripe cherries are sweeter but they will eat one that is semi ripe and do not go around spending hours selecting the finest berries when it is just as easy to eat an insect, trash or larger, more nutritionally available fruit. Again I am not saying they will eat unripe the point is if the story is true about choosing the RIPEST and I hope I can now lay this claim to rest.

        2) Price: The price of $1100/kg is suggested retail. I do not sell retail. Further, Black Ivory Coffee is usually presented in china cups and for a single serving that costs around $40-50 you receive 4.5 cups. Hence, the cup price, albeit small cup is around $10. This is roughly double the price of a latte in a five star hotel. Note: five star hotels is where I sell Black Ivory Coffee.

        2b) Veblen: I never thought I would see the word Veblen after I finished taking micro and macro economics. Thanks for bringing back the pain! 😉 Of course Black Ivory Coffee is a Veblen good as is any luxury product and I am happy to tell the world this. Why else can Hacienda la Esmeralda command over $100/lbs or Nike $200 for a pair of shoes. Yes you may have very good beans but the inputs required from a cost perspective do not reflect the much higher price. Do you ask Mercedes this question or for that matter Turtle Wax? Do you also know that I supply brewing and roasting machinery to each hotel to serve my coffee or that I fly out to every hotel to ensure that it is served properly? These are costs. My volume is small in both production and sales and I guarantee my costs are much higher as I have to deal with coffee and elephants and proper service to my customers. Further, how many producers give 8% of SALES back to charity? This figure does not include the money that goes back to coffee growers or the women who pick the deposited cherries. In North America it is a challenge to give even 1% of pre tax profit. I know because I worked in this sector prior to producing Black Ivory Coffee full time. Here is a link to demonstrate this statement about percentage contributed: http://www.imaginecanada.ca/files/www/en/citizenship/one_percent_commitment_sept_2007.pdf

        Like I said I will revert back shortly with taste. For now, let me tell you that proof is in the pudding. You can come here, try it then write about it. I guarantee you can tell there is a different taste with Black Ivory Coffee. I can’t promise it will be your favourite coffee ever as I do not know your taste but I believe if you are spending a lot for your cup it better taste different to your regular cup of coffee. I agree with you though that for Kopi Luwak the average consumer cannot tell the difference. I hardly can and I have been focused on this area for almost 9 years (full time and as a hobby).

        Thanks,
        Blake

  3. The Coffee Bear says:

    Blake, interesting comments however maybe you can think on this.

    1) There are studies that say that coffee beans are changed when having traveled trough the digestive tracts of Civet cats and articles that say there is a change but does noting for the taste and studies that say it makes no difference at all. Are there studies suggesting that coffee beans passing through the digestive tracks of Elephants improves coffee? I have not seen one.
    2) What part of the molecular structure is changed and how does the effect the actual coffee taste. As coffee is all about taste there must be some sort of benefit.
    30 How much does the mahouts get from the $1100 per KG? If for their benefit I would think a very large proportion.
    3) If we got coffee from the region and the Black Ivory (nice name by the way) and I gave it to my tasters what differences would they find, if any and what difference would our lab find in the chemical structure of the coffee?

    I am not convinced by any of this Civet, Elephant or Weasel coffee hype however I am open to been convinced.

    • blake D says:

      Hi,

      I should add that I am working with Dr. Marcone on Black Ivory Coffee and he is conducting the research now so no studies out just yet. I am trying to get a patent but it could take some time for everything to go public. That said, I will get back to you and answer you as best as we can shortly. Fair question on your part though.

      Coffee in my opinion is more than taste. Smell and presentation is super important. Let’s use steak as a comparison. Try BBQ’ing a steak in your backyard in the summer with your friends and try that steak. Next prepare that steak in your house in Feb (if you live in a cold climate) alone. I will bet that summer steak will win out. Smell is our strongest sense and this is why I grind Black Ivory Coffee by hand, fresh at the guest’s table (I only roast in 1 kg batches and ship out whole roasted bean.) That said, taste is super important. This is why I roast lighter so that the guest can taste the bean and less of the roast influence. It is also why I spent 6-8 weeks touring coffee farms cupping coffee in Northern Thailand.

      I wholly agree that bean origin is important and it’s why I go nuts when someone tells me that Kopi Luwak from Sumatra is the same as my coffee! I hesitate to put a percentage on what percentage bean origin and production process influences the taste but it is big and choosing the right bean is super important and personally I think I (along with my roaster) can do a better job at choosing a bean than an unsuspecting civet. 🙂 Thai coffee is unique in that I think there is a certain astringent taste (in a good way) that you do not find with many other origins. You can find this in Black Ivory Coffee. That said, there are other notes of really ripe fruit and earth that is completely different if you were to do a side by side cupping using the same beans. Also, the brewing machine plays a part in the taste. I use a syphon so the taste is lighter/softer.

      When a scientist wants to publish a study he needs to have it peer reviewed. I am not a scientist (but work with one) but your peer review is welcome. When any coffee gets so much attention it is open to inquiry. I just hope I will not have to write these long emails to too many others. 🙂

      Will come back with more!
      Blake

  4. The Coffee Bear says:

    Blake, Thanks for the reply. Only problem I have is you did not answer the questions so I will simplify them.

    1) How much does the mahouts get from the $1100 per KG?
    2) What part of the molecular structure is changed and how does the effect the actual coffee taste.
    3) If we got coffee from the region and the Black Ivory (nice name by the way) and I gave it to my tasters what differences would they find, if any and what difference would our lab find in the chemical structure of the coffee?

    AS to a few points in you reply. When tasting Gesha coffee at the leading farm in Panama they put Gesha in all sorts of cups, mugs, glass containers including China cups and the coffee in the “pricy” cup gets better marks so using fine china is just show and tricks the mind into believing it is a better product in the cup when in fact there is no difference.

    As for “your” coffee being the same as Kopi Luwak, well that is clearly wrong as Luwak is from Sumatra and what I understand your coffee is from Thailand! Clearly different beans, different sail, different processing so therefore different taste.

    • blake D says:

      1) The wives of the mahouts earn on average US$13.20/kg of Black Ivory Coffee for 45 MINUTES for the collection of beans. Contrast this with the minimum DAILY wage in Chiang Rai province that is approximately US$7.70/DAY.

      $7.70/ Day is also the approximate Fair Trade Daily Wage http://beta.fairtradecalculator.com/ so you can see this pays well.

      In ADDITION to this wage, my employees at the sanctuary receive free medical insurance, housing, food, a living stipend and food for the elephants. This needs to be included when calculating Fair Trade pricing.

      None of the above amount INCLUDES the 8% of my wholesale price that helps support two elephant veterinarians, medicine to treat sick elephants and financial assistance in the construction of a new medical laboratory. On this last part, the contribution is still small because sales are just starting.

      The above pricing also does not include the purchase price of my coffee cherries from the farmers.

      I trust this now answers your first question. I should also hope you now see that my price is very fair.

      2) Reverting once I speak with Dr. Marcone.

      […]

      Kindly re-read my earlier statement. I indicated that I go nuts when people say Black Ivory Coffee tastes the same as Kopi Luwak. In Canada (where I am from originally), going nuts means to get angry. Black Ivory Coffee does NOT taste the same as Kopi Luwak for all of the reasons you mentioned. I even gave an example of how the astringent taste to Thai coffee is unique especially compared to Sumatran. I wish you could repeat this to more people! Incidentally for two years before coming to Thailand I conducted my initial trials at an elephant camp in Sumatra so I know very well the taste difference pre and post elephant for both Sumatran and Northern Thai origins. As I mentioned before, bean origin plays a big part but so does the elephant.

      Finally, when you say you are not “convinced by the hype.” Do you mean you are not convinced there is a taste difference? Please clarify what “hype” you are referring to?

      To be credible I have allowed film crews to film my production and to taste the coffee, blood work has been conducted on elephants to prove it is safe (not to mention they eat coffee naturally in the wild), bacteriological testing has been done and compared to Thai FDA standards to show it is clean. I have been open with you regarding my contributions. […]

      • blake D says:

        I also forgot to add that the Mahouts and wives do not pay for the coffee. I supply it to them so they are not burdened with any costs. Any of the tools required for collection I also pay for and supply.

        […]

    • blake D says:

      The study by Dr. Marcone was peer reviewed to show that bitterness was reduced and flavour has been changed. You say “articles” show otherwise. Can you please cite this?

      With regards to protein rich foods not tasting bitter that is because they have not undergone proteolysis. Look at some type of aged cheeses. Cheese which is stored for a long period of time is rich in proteins but not bitter as it ages, proteolysis still takes place and the protein rich cheese becomes somewhat more bitter.

      In the case of coffee which has gone through the digestive track the proteolysis causes the protein to break down and come out of the bean (they solubilize). The peptides which are left (still in the bean) then react with sugars to form favour compounds. Over all there is less protein there and therefore less bitter.

      […]

  5. The Coffee Bear says:

    Mr Dinkin,

    In you production of 70KG you earned $77,000.00 and paid $924.00 to the wives of the mahouts. medical care in Thailand has been covered by universal health since 2001 replacing the means testing system prior to 2001. Housing, food, a living stipend and food for the elephants I would think are the norm in Thailand in particular for workers living on a reserve. It is interesting that you buy the coffee in, is this Fair Trade coffee as well or only Fair Trade once processed through the digestive tract of an elephant? Do you own the reserve or just use the elephants. Your 8% is generous and I am sure will shortly be acknowledged on their website by the elephant charity you support.

    As to my cuppers- luckily I make the decision on their jobs and having preformed well over the last 15 years I would think they will have no trouble with your coffee should there be any difference to other Thai coffee.

    As for the Gesha, not only did I ask for information in far more detail but Hacienda La Esmeralda accommodated our requests allowed, even encouraged testing of any kind, supplied details of where the coffee was grown, picked, dried, milled and bagged. Like us they believe the taste is all important, […] The taste is everything, by the way taste is governed by large part by smell, block you nose and you can taste almost nothing. So to answer your question -did we dig into Gesha coffee – you bet we did. You see my clients are coffee connoisseurs who know more about coffee than most. Almost all our coffee is pre-sold, price is very low on my clients list of priorities. We have seen all sorts of coffee, claims and re-makes of coffee, some are wonderful coffees, many awful, lots are hyped but fizzle out but when all said and done there are some wonderful coffees that do not need hype, […] they are just really good coffee and stand alone to be tried, tested and enjoyed.

    I am sure to taste your coffee soon and look forward to it.

    • blake D says:

      Mr. Coffee Bear,

      […]

      Employees and employers must pay into social security. In my case I pay both ends.[…]

      Free housing, food and a living stipend are not the norm for a mahout. If it was they would not have had to beg on the streets. The government has cracked down on begging in urban areas but the tough economic condition for mahouts remains. […]

      My 8% is not mentioned on GTAEF. I hope it will be soon! Likewise I will be adding GTAEF’s link more prominently on my website and providing a donation button too to help them fund-raise.

      […]

      As for taste you have proven yourself wrong. Blocking your nose and not having a sense of smell prevents taste. Hence you could argue smell is stronger than taste. Further, I am not saying it is one or the other but I believe you are. I am saying smell is just as important. I also find it gob smacking that you are critical of people who want to enjoy an entire experience (smell, taste and sight). I take it you have never eaten in a nice restaurant? In your world proper dishes, grinding at the table and a fancy setting is misleading. For me, Chefs and Food and Beverage people, these items come together to create an experience.

      […] Here is a link to the judging card: http://www.usbaristachampionship.org/PDF/2013-usbc_sensory_scoresheet.pdf

      Can you see categories such as crema, functional cup used, visually correct cappuccino, visual presentation, attention to detail, professionalism? How many of these can you taste?

      Need more? This is a quote from zecuppa.com, ” Without our sense of smell, flavor would be limited to the tongue senses of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Many nuances of a coffee are reflected in the smell, or “the nose”. Subtle floral notes, for example, are experienced most clearly in the aroma, particularly at the moment when the crust is broken during the traditional cupping process.

      […]

      Cheers,
      Blake

  6. The Coffee Bear says:

    Blake,

    […] charge $1,1,00 per kg for coffee (all links under Press on YOUR site states this) if you sell for something else state it. The science on all this coffee is not conclusive and leaves much doubt but you do not want it tested. […]

    IF the coffee is that wonderful it will stand the scrutiny without the hand grind, china cup […]. It will hold its own, JUST like Gesha does.

    Good luck with your project.

  7. Beans Ahoy says:

    I have censored all personal attacks, please leave them at home. This is coffee, not politics. This article will now no longer accept posts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: