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.