The True Black Gold
I didn’t think seriously about coffee as a luxury good before, although some have considered it an issue. I got curious about it a few days ago when I was watching TV with my wife. Both got shocked when we learned about Black Ivory Coffee. It’s arguably the most expensive coffee in the world, challenging Kopi Luwak. The latter was the most desired among the world’s priciest coffees during the last decade, although its demand has fallen sharply lately. Serious concerns regarding wild-animals exploitation, low traceability, and poor quality control damaged Kopi Luwak’s reputation and hype status.
Before Black Ivory Coffee, I knew about the infamous Kopi Luwak and the terrible wild-animal exploitation behind it.
Thanks to the Specialty Coffee Movement, I learned to appreciate the Coffee Value Chain, including the hard work and sophistication that is part of it.
I started to write this article out of curiosity. Below you will find some of the most expensive coffee beans in the world, as well as some interesting facts about them.
So, while I was doing some research, I asked myself some critical questions regarding luxury. In turn, I found studies of luxury psychology that might help us understand why pricey coffee is so seductive.
Why do we want luxury goods?
Luxury is one of the most fascinating -for some is off-putting- desires we have. It challenges some of the most conventional motivational theories, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Moreover, some would say that our lust for luxury is evidence of our flawed rationality.
It’s hard to understand why we put so much effort into acquiring expensive and unpractical goods. Economic, cultural, and psychological studies point out that we want luxury goods because they make us feel more successful and influential as a symbol of elite status. Yet, a more recent study challenges our traditional views about luxury, as it suggests that people with higher self-esteem are more likely to seek self-directed pleasures, like luxury goods.
During the past decade, luxury coffee brands have grown in presence. Some would claim that it’s due to the Specialty Coffee increasing notoriety, while others would assert that it’s the result of a sad combination of eccentricity, snobbism, and vanity.
While it’s evident that Specialty Coffee is more expensive than Commodity Coffee, great coffee doesn’t need to have a hefty price tag. In this regard, it’s pleasant to learn that coffee beans are among the most sold fair trade products in the world.
In this article, I share with you some key insights and information about pricey Specialty Coffee. Some of them are traceable, fair-traded, and are ethically grown and selected. Unlike most Kopi Luwak, which is tagged as the most expensive coffee globally by most blogs out there.
What’s wrong with Kopi Luwak?
Indonesia is one of the most influential and heavy coffee-consumers among dominant coffee-producing countries. Historically, Indonesia has a rich and complex coffee culture, so it’s not a coincidence that Java Island gave coffee one of its best-known aliases due to its starring role during the early decades of coffee trade with Europe.
Still today, Indonesia is among the top five coffee-producers in the world. Although Kopi Luwak originated in Indonesia, it isn’t part of Indonesian mainstream coffee culture. Moreover, it only became known outside of Indonesia in the late nineties. Its popularity overgrew until it turned into a hype among the wealthy and eccentric all over the world.
Kopi Luwak is still an expensive product because it still is scarce and valued. Some producers are trying to offer traceable and high-quality coffee, processed only by wild and free Luwak. Researchers have proposed some alternatives to standardize the Kopi Luwak quality and relevant insights to consider. Several experts from the Specialty Coffee Association claim that Kopi Luwak isn’t any good and has low-quality features, like excessively low acidity and weak desirable aromatic notes. Moreover, they have found better quality in Specialty Coffee Beans processed “regularly” when comparing the same coffee beans but as Kopi Luwak.
Is Black Ivory Coffee any better than Kopi Luwak?
Black Ivory Coffee is a coffee brand that offers elephant-processed coffee beans as premium coffee. It offers similar features like lower acidity and bitterness, which many coffee consumers consider desirable. Still, it’s hard to claim that it’s significantly superior to world-class single-origin Specialty Coffee.
According to the company, Black Ivory Coffee has “notes of chocolate, malt, spice, a hint of grass and without the burnt or bitter taste of regular coffee.”
Unlike Kopi Luwak, the Black Ivory Coffee Company claims that it chooses top-quality Thai Arabica coffee beans to be processed -digested- by their elephants. Moreover, the company assures that they rescued elephants from illegal exploitation and their health and overall wellness are in experts’ hands. Still, I could say that it would be better to let elephants go instead of using them to produce exotic coffee beans.
In short, Black Ivory Coffee is more traceable and has better quality controls than Kopi Luwak. Yet, it’s difficult to demonstrate if it’s worth $1,000 per pound.
Does it deserve to compete with Top-Class Specialty Coffee?
Jamaican Blue Mountain
Jamaican Blue Mountain has been consistently among the most valued coffees for years. Unlike Kopi Luwak and Black Ivory, its price doesn’t have anything to do with the fermentation process. Put simply, Blue Mountain offers a unique aroma, with a minimal production capability and strict quality controls to award certified production. It’s more than enough to create more demand than coffee bean producers could satisfy, ever.
To be certified as Blue Mountain Coffee:
- Plants need to be grown between 900 and 1500 (3000 and 4900 ft)
- Coffee must come from the parishes of Saint Andrew, Saint Thomas, Portland, and Saint Mary.
- It’s a variety with limited production because it’s constrained by the small extension of the Blue Mountains range.
- Must be handpicked, hand-sorted, and it requires a more extended than average maturation period.
- 80% of Blue Mountain production goes to Japan, leaving only 20% for other markets, including the local one.
- Very low bitterness and exquisite sweet notes make it very desirable, even for untrained coffee lovers.
I couldn’t find enough commentaries about its unique floral and sweet aroma. Most reviews come from sellers, and James Hoffmann asserts that it isn’t superior to the best South American, Central American, or East African coffee beans in its World Atlas of Coffee.
Have you tried it? Do you think it’s worth the price?
The Gesha coffee variety is one of the most desired Arabica beans in the world. Yet, Panama Gesha is one of the most famous because of its unique terroir and microclimate.
For several years, the Best of Panama auction has been luring the wealthiest coffee buyers on earth. Lamastus Family Estates, Hacienda La Esmeralda, and Finca Sophia are among the better known Panama’s Gesha Producers, although few others.
Panama’s microclimate brings together some of the most desirable coffee production conditions: it has potassium and calcium-rich volcanic soils, with a mountain range close and above the 2,000 meters height, adequate humidity, and rain.
In 2020, the Best of Panama winner claimed $1,300 per pound of coffee. A new record for the auction has awarded over $1,000 per pound for Panama Gesha coffee producers, year after year.
The aromatic profile can vary considerably, depending on the coffee producer, fermentation, and roast. However, most experts claim that Gesha is complex and rich, offering floral, fruity, and sweet notes.
Ospina Gran Café Grand Cru Classé Premier Grand Cru
The Ospina Estate, in Antioquia, Colombia, claims to raise the Colombian coffee level above and beyond its worldwide reputation.
The Estate has a long tradition of top-quality coffee growing, selection, and roasting. It was created in 1835 by two Ospina brothers. Today, the fifth generation of the family manages the Ospina Estate, which has become a larger and more influential organization, with strong bonds to the political and social Colombian elite.
The most exclusive and expensive variety is the Gran Café Premier Grand Cru. It’s a very exquisite coffee that grows above 2,200 meters in height. Although I haven’t found neutral sources to speak about its aromatic profile, different sources claim that it offers a nutty aroma with fruity and chocolate notes.
It sounds tempting, for sure. Yet, it costs more than $700 for every 250 grams.
Are you ready for luxury coffee?
I think that luxury coffee can be an honest, sophisticated experience. I decidedly reject Kopi Luwak, as I believe that most of it unethically produced. Moreover, it does more harm than good for coffee culture.
On the contrary, Black Ivory is a valid alternative, although I would prefer to try a Jamaican Blue Mountain, a Panama Gesha, or the Ospina Estate coffee varieties.
I enjoyed the pleasure of tasting the Elida Estate Gesha at Bajareque Coffee House in Panama’s Casco Antiguo. I can tell first-hand that luxury coffee is an experience worth trying for coffee lovers.