I moderate a forum on LinkedIn.com called the Specialty Coffee Retailer. It’s a place geared for coffee people from all over the world to have discussions, network, ask questions and more. Not long ago someone posted a question asking what the forum members thoughts were on Kopi Luwak, specifically on the taste and aroma. Now, for those of you who don’t know, here is a brief education on Kopi pulled from Wikipedia:
Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, refers to the beans of coffee berries once they have been eaten and excreted by the Asian palm civet (a small weasel-like animal). The name is also used for marketing brewed coffee made from the beans.
Producers of the coffee beans argue that the process may improve coffee through two mechanisms, selection and digestion. Selection occurs if the civets choose to eat coffee berries containing better beans. Digestive mechanisms may improve the flavor profile of the coffee beans that have been eaten. The civet eats the berries for the beans’ fleshy pulp, then in the digestive tract, fermentation occurs. The civet’s proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet’s intestines the beans are then defecated with other fecal matter and collected.
Although kopi luwak is a form of processing rather than a variety of coffee, it has been called the most expensive coffee in the world with retail prices reaching US$600 per pound. Genuine kopi luwak from wild civets is difficult to purchase in Indonesia and proving it is not fake is very difficult – there is little enforcement regarding use of the name “kopi luwak”.
Back to my story. So, in the lively discussion someone mentioned a “Civet coffee (that) retails at $575/lb. USD is worth every dollar because it is among the finest in the world.” to which I answered, “Let’s face it, there’s a sucker born every day. Anyone who thinks that $600 a pound coffee is $586 better tasting than my excellent Sumatra Mandheling either: 1. Stupid 2. Lying 3. Both“. OK, so I’m not the most…ummm…bashful of persons. Call a spade a spade I say.
NOTE: My intent is not to slander a person or embarrass or defame them, but to address the postulation. I believe and practice the mantra that it is not the person I challenge, but rather the action (or behavior or doctrine or business model). I am not accusing a person, but am calling out “the doctrine” of Luxury Coffees. My intent is education. My tool is a cupping. My results will be here for all to read and see.
From there I wrote the following:
Also, anyone who wants to see a scientific experiment directly related to our discussion here, go purchase the book “The Wine Trials” and read it.
The first part of the book speaks to the science of blind comparisons. Interestingly, our brains actually make things taste better when we pay more (hmm). That does not mean we don’t actually enjoy it more, it just means paying more equates to an increased pleasure expectation in the brain. Thus, a $75 wine will be described as better quality than a $15 wine simply because we paid more, not because it is better.
In the blind tastings not only was there no difference in the price paid-taste pleasure relationship, it was inverse. Wines under $15 scored higher than more expensive wines consistently. Now, we are not talking about crappy “under $15″ wines, but good ones.
Now, I am not suggesting that all expensive wine is crap and all $15 wine is the best, but the facts prove that customer’s enjoyment of a wine was directly and positively affected when they paid more for the wine.
Coffee is the same. I guarantee it!
If someone here wants to be part of an experiment, I’ll do a blind tasting with your $50, $100, $200 or $600 a pound coffee and a couple of my $15 a pound or less coffees. I’ll use my Director of Coffee Nick (who has an amazing palate and great ability to describe tastes). I’ll do it blind under specific and controlled environment and post the results. I’ll even do it a few times with some of my other trainers/seasoned employees who would be a good fit for such a test. And then we’ll see if your coffee is really that much better.
Any Kopi, Jamaican, or other “luxury” coffee distributor willing to take my challenge?
The gauntlet was down, the challenge proffered and I waited to hear from any “luxury coffee” dealer that would take me up on my challenge. I did not expect anyone to, because deep down anyone selling a $600 pound of coffee has to know that such a challenge would be a lose-lose scenario. Risk 1 – the coffee doesn’t rate as high as other great coffees from the same region selling for less than $20/lb. (OUCH!). Risk 2 – the coffee rates at or slightly higher than the comparison coffees and thus brings into serious question why the coffee is so expensive (still ouch!).
So, I was contacted by a Kopi seller who humbly and graciously offered up their coffees for the cupping. Ade Makmursyah from Kopi Luwak Nusantara in Jakarta Selatan, Indonesia stepped up to the plate and offered his product for my challenge. Even after I informed him that it would be a blind cupping (no one will know which coffee is which when compared against other coffees from the same region) he said he truly wanted to hear the results and was willing to let the chips fall where they may. Thanks to Ade for sending me 2 – 500 grams samples of two different wild collected Kopi samples with a potential retail value of $1200 or more (I hired Brink’s Security to guard my office). Also for his patience as this event has taken longer to put together than originally thought.
The premise of the event is this: 6 coffees from Sumatra/North Sumatra/Indonesia are to be blind cupped by 7 coffee professionals according to SCAA cupping protocol (not exact, as quantities of certain coffees were limited, but otherwise following accepted basic coffee cupping protocol)
A huge shout out to the following:
- Jeff Ulrich and the Bunn Corporation for again saving my butt (lots of puns there) and providing a last-minute need – an H5X Hot Water Tower (which we then realized we had to keep and purchased).
- The following persons for agreeing to judge, assist, write about or otherwise make this event possible:
- Steve Kessler and Andy Helmkamp (mis-reported as Andy Timko – sorry Andy), Anodyne Coffee Roasters;
- Mitch Disselkoen and John Gibbons, Uncommon Coffee Roasters;
- Allen Leibowitz, Zingerman’s Coffee;
- Sam Mirto, Ferris Coffee;
- Justin “The Man” DeWaard, Rowsters Coffee;
- Johni “The Spoon” Medeiros, Magnum Coffee;
- Nick Van Slett, Max Mills, Sherry White, JP’s Coffee and Midwest Barista School;
- Myron Kukla, Writestuff (freelance writer, journalist and long time friend of JP’s!)
Article in the Holland Sentinel – 2/20/14
Article in the Holland Sentinel – 2/21/14
Article on M-Live – 2/21/14
Article on WZZM13.com – 2/23/14
Article in Global Coffee Review Magazine – 3/4/14
Article in UK’s Caffe Culture.com – 3/6/14
OK, let’s get on to the final results.
So, the day started when all the cuppers showed up around noon. We went into the training room and spent approximately an hour discussing the premise, goal and process of the event and how the results would be tallied (and later audited for accuracy). The premise of the event has already been covered previously in this post. The goal, to restate simply, was as follows: “Send me your expensive “luxury coffee” and I’ll prove my $15/lb. is as good or better!”
A couple of notes:
- If we had the time, we would have calibrated the judges palates. The difference in scores for each coffee would have been less.
- Because only one judge was a certified Q-Grader, all judges did not have the same training and methodology.
- Some judges have sourced, cupped and worked at only one company, so their training comes from that company, not SCAA cupping guidelines.
- We did not follow SCAA criteria exactly. This test was not meant to publish a certified review of a particular coffee (to learn more about coffee ratings click here or here).
- We roasted each sample in a sample roaster, thus each coffee had the same handicap.
We had three cups per sample, 6 samples to cup and 7 cuppers to evaluate. At 1PM, the first sample was presented to the cuppers. Each sample took approximately 20 minutes to cup and evaluate before moving on to the next. We were done with the cupping at 3PM and by 3:30 were having a celebratory beer and sharing results.
Well, let’s first see our cuppers in action
Following are the samples:
Sample 1 – Sumatra Wahana Estate (dry processed)
Sample 2 – Sumatra Kopi Luwak Gayo ACEH (civet digestion)
Sample 3 – Sumatra Silimakuta (wet hulled)
Sample 4 – Sumatra Bataraja (control sample – crap coffee grabbed from a drying screen from a poor area of Bataraja while in Indonesia)
Sample 5 – Sumatra Kopi Luwak Lintong North Sumatra (civet digestion)
Sample 6 – Sumatra Dolok Sanggul (wet hulled)
(further information on these coffees is available, but for the sake of simplification is not listed)
The chart shows the coffees based on highest to lowest score rank. The Kopi Gayo scored the highest with an averaged score of 78.2. The next closest coffees were the Dolok at 77.6 and the Wahana at 75.4. Then the Kopi Lintong and the Silimakuta scored a 72.1 and 71.5 respectively. And the Bataraja, almost not worth recording, was a 51.4. The only reason it even scored that high was because of its incredible inconsistency. Some cuppers had no defects in their samples and the cupper with the most had 12. That’s why the spread is 43.5 points.
Next, let me recount some of the cuppers comments on the winning Kopi:
- Super soft or little acidity
- Light to medium body, soggy crackers, with slanted balance and vegetal sweetness
- Dirt, sweet, caramel, nutty, and a pleasant balance
- Out of the 21 sample cups only 3 had a minor taint and none had faults. The taints were described as “sour acidity with slight ferment”
On the next two samples (6 and 1) the results were not un-similar. I could list a bunch of adjectives here, but suffice to say there was little difference between the winner, Kopi Gayo, and the Dolok and Wahana. As a matter of fact, one could say it was a three-way tie when you account for the various cuppers and various scores. And I’m sure if you brewed up a cup or pot in your usual manner, you would find the flavor descriptions and characteristics of these 3 coffees to be not unlike any 3 coffees from the same region, but different farms.
After the three-way tie was a two-way tie. Of the 5 real samples (#4 was a joke) 2 of them averaged just below specialty grade, 1 a bit below specialty grade and 2 more between good and very good. Arguably, any of the coffees would taste better had they been lovingly cupped by someone who knows the coffee and roasted it. But, that is how coffees are cupped (at least by most roasters). We wanted to cup and assess and compare base quality of a coffee, in line with accepted SCAA cupping guidelines (NOTE – of the two most experienced cuppers, one a Q Grader, there was only 1 score out of 12 that was over 80 point, the baseline for a coffee to be considered “specialty”).
So, what am I to say to this? How do I follow up my bold and brash statements, “…there’s a sucker born every day. Anyone who thinks that $600 a pound coffee is $586 better tasting than my excellent Sumatra Mandheling either: 1. Stupid 2. Lying 3. Both”. Well, I believe I am proved right. The 2 Kopis scored at or lower than 2 other very good Sumatra coffees from the same region. It was a statistical dead heat. There was no difference, save some nuance of minor taste difference or uniqueness, that made the cuppers fall off their chairs and wonder “would I take their American Express card for more of the amazing Sample #2.”
One other item to notice with the scoring is the difference in total scores between all judges. Most of that is due to lack of training and lack of calibration. If all cuppers had the advantage of having gone through the Q Grader training and we calibrated prior to cupping, the total score differences between judges would have been much less. There is always a bias as we are all unique, but the goal of having an objective industry quality standard is precisely so that industry can all identify “the best” as the best. Otherwise everything is subjective and what you think is good and what I think is good may be two very different things. Quality must be measurable, preference is not.
Yes, Kopi coffee is all marketing and no-show. Not to say it is, or cannot be, a good or even great coffee. But, in our cupping we found no quality difference to offset $585/lb. No amazing taste that was unique to Kopi. No massive discernible difference in acidity, taste, flavor, body or other aspect of a cupping competition that made spending so much money a must. Nothing that would suggest that Kopi deserves the exorbitant prices charged…outside of supply and demand, perceived “luxury” status or uniqueness. So, when a luxury coffee drinker says, “Oh my word, that is the most amazing coffee I’ve ever had”, it is inevitably based on emotion, not quality.
NOTE – I emailed back and forth with Ade, the supplier of the Kopi after I had the results and he asked me if i would also have some “regular customers just taste the coffee”. So, I brewed a Clever of Sample #2 and Sample #6 and went out to have a few people try it. Out of 11 people, 9 preferred the Kopi. There is I am sure a reason for it, else they would not have chosen it. The answers I got were, “less bitter, smoother, not as complex” and those who chose the non-Kopi said they preferred it because it was more complex, was more interesting and had more balance. So, possibly the Kopi processing does reduce acidity some leading to a flatter or smoother coffee. But, when I asked them would they pay $600 for a pound as compared with $14, none handed me the cash. Matter of fact, none would pay any more for it. It was simply a taste preference based on two samples in two cups.
Again, thanks to Ade and his providing Kopi for this comparison. Thanks to everyone who cupped and helped and spent the time setting this up with me. And let’s continue to spread the gospel of real-great-coffee and combatting marketing-hype (in it’s many forms, not just Kopi).
- Is Kopi less relevant today because in the specialty coffee industry we understand to get the best coffee, we pick only ripe cherries?
- Have you ever had Kopi? What are your thoughts on it?
- Is there a place in the coffee industry for “luxury coffee”?
If you are interested, here are some more pictures of the event (click to enlarge).