When is too much too much?

3 May

This post deals with Jamaican Blue Mountain and Kopi Luwak coffee, two coffee’s I’ve never tried and so my opinion of these coffee’s may be seen as snobbery but please bare with me, there is a point
Recently a independent roastery in London started selling what they claimed to be a superior Kopi Luwak coffee pricing slightly over £200 /kilo. Assuming a brew ratio of 75g/litre then you’re looking at over £5 for a 12oz cup of brewed coffee (Alternatively that’s £2.80 for a double espresso).

In the speciality facet of coffee industry there is a, seemingly immediate, criticism of these extremely high-priced coffees, often being dismissed as a gimmick. Granted I’ve not had a chance to try Kopi Luwak, but I remain highly skeptical about whether this can be a cup of a quality matching the price point it garners.

The poster child coffee, as it were, which receives this dismissal of being over hyped and under-performing is Jamaican Blue Mountain. Again a coffee I’ve never sampled, but one largely dismissed as being largely not worth the price it demands.  That said I will admit a curiosity was raised within me as I was starting in coffee and I have tasted a coffee described as a poor mans JBM, although pleasant enough of a coffee it certainly didn’t inspire me to spend five times what I had spent for a similar coffee.

This raises me to thinking at what point does a coffee simply become too expensive to be worth paying for either experience or enjoyment.

“What are we paying for?” becomes the question to rise from this train of thought for me.

Admittedly this was a slightly rambling way of getting there but I think the thought process in getting to this point helps to frame the question from where I’m coming from so…

What do we pay for?

The obvious answer is the beans, but why is this bag of Brazilian Pulped Natural worth twice the price of another bag of Brazilian Pulped Natural?  There are certain things, both tangible and intangible that we equate to value aswell.

From the tangible side of the ledger there’s the varietal, the farm, possibly a micro-lot, the altitude, the crop yield, how well the coffee stands as a representation of the origin, a unique quality to the bean and the roast style (at the end of the day an amazing coffee over-roasted becomes mediocre coffee.)  The intangible is slightly harder to quantify and list due to the nature and the individual regarding the value of coffee.

Coffee’s with uniqueness to them are valued, which is why I think micro-lots are making a small dominance in their availability and price they demand.  Obviously with this we’re paying extra for the extra work of the farmers in separating off this part of the farm, and processing it completely separately from the rest of the farm.

Where the two coffees I used as an example fall down is that the information about the coffee is hidden behind the marketing.

For Kopi Luwak the most you can expect for the information is that it’s Sumatran coffee and if you’re lucky it may indicate that it’s an Arabica.  This doesn’t tell you a great deal at all. You can extrapolate the processing method given that it’s Kopi Luwak (by the way; is there an official or recognised name for this processing method?) But other than that, you have no information about the yield of the crop, the altitude, the varietals, etc ad infinitum.

For Jamaican Blue Mountain a certain nugget of information should be remembered, this being that 90% of all Jamaican Blue Mountain is shipped to Japan.  That remains 10% going to the rest of the world.  From the people selling JBM this leaves a very obvious marketing opportunity in Japan;  If they’re willing to pay for Jamaican Blue Mountain in such high amounts, then logically the more providence that can be given to what is being sold the more they can sell it for, so leave the ‘dregs’ for the wider market with no point of reference to the larger capabilities of this coffee. So what we are left with is a similar amount of information.  Although in some cases you can get the terroir information down to a greater degree of accuracy. A lot of the time Jamaican Blue Mountain will be blended between farms and lots in order to create a representative cup.

I’m sure there are people who beleive that their Jamaican Blue Mountain is the best coffee they can possibly get and can justify spending £50/kg or there abouts for their coffee. But I wonder if they’ve ever tried Australian Skyberry which is, from what I’m lead to understand an incredibly similar cup for a fractional price compared to it’s more prostigeous alternative.  It also wouldn’t suprise me if there were people who drink Jamaican Blue Mountain as part of the “Keeping up with the Jones’s” attitude that exists, and would do so regardless of the taste.

Perhaps trying to quantify value in words is impossible to do due to the personal nature that value represents, however as I previously said I don’t believe either or indeed any coffee could be representative of value in terms of flavour or experience or of spectacle to justify £200/kg or £50/kg respectively for Kopi Luwak and Jamaican Blue Mountain.

I will say again, I’ve not had either of the coffee’s I used for examples, I used simply because they are the most well-known in this price bracket, am I being tight in not trying these coffees and yet being so willing to dismiss them?


2 Responses to “When is too much too much?”

  1. Roland 4 May, 2010 at 6:27 am #

    Can’t comment on the Kopi Luwak, but I tried the Blue Mountain once. Unfortunately, this was fairly early on in my coffee education. That makes it hard for me to compare it with a good, more recently tried coffee – but I think I’d support the overpriced consensus. I remember it as smooth and balanced, but not remarkable or even particularly interesting.

    So I wouldn’t pay that much (~£15 for 250g) for Blue Mountain… But I might for a different coffee. I wouldn’t rule out paying that for a good single estate microlot, with good information and some interesting/unusual taste descriptors. I couldn’t afford it regularly – but possibly as a treat. For me, the value that the coffee has comes from a) being destinctive (something I would say Blue Mountain isn’t) and b) being sold by someone you trust to have the very highest standards (again I don’t really see that with Blue Mountain).

    • awlred 4 May, 2010 at 6:53 am #

      I completely agree Roland, after I put the post up I remembered I’ve had coffee than ran at £10 for a 250g bag from HasBean, specifically the Bolivia Café Palmeiras Cup of Excellence and started thinking about the differences between these, and as you say the selling point of Jamaican Blue is the that it is smooth and balanced, something this coffee is aswell. But the Palmeiras is also remarkably tastey, chocolate and plums coming out of your ears. It also is very versatile. I, to my shame, allowed a cup to go cold and took a swig not realising and it was still delicious, it just tasted so chocolatey that I finished the cold mug, something which usually puts me of.

      Also going back to the blog post, it’s of very limitted availability and has some providence in being Cup of Excellence ranked which raises the price bar some what. A very lovely cup however not for everyday, a rare treat is always a pleasure.

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