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Is one cup of coffee worth $15?

A Panamanian brew called Esmeralda has brought the coffee-drinking world to its knees

KATE LUNAU October 22 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Is one cup of coffee worth $15?

A Panamanian brew called Esmeralda has brought the coffee-drinking world to its knees

KATE LUNAU October 22 2007

Is one cup of coffee worth $15?

taste

A Panamanian brew called Esmeralda has brought the coffee-drinking world to its knees

KATE LUNAU

Toronto residents have long been accustomed to emptying their wallets for a gourmet meal or fine glass of wine. But is Canada’s most expensive city ready for the $15 cup of coffee? Matthew Lee thinks so. Lee, 29, recently opened Manic Coffee, a café on the bustling outskirts of Toronto’s Little Italy. To celebrate, on Oct. 19 he’ll begin offering up a limited amount of Esmeralda Special—a heady Panamanian brew that’s brought the coffee-drinking world to its knees.

Can one cup of coffee really be worth $15? :íAll I can say is yes,” Lee says earnestly. “It is the most remarkable coffee I’ve ever had in my life.” Fragrant, floral and tea-like, with notes of jasmine and bergamot—these are some of the qualities connoisseurs ascribe to Esmeralda. Others seem to get tongue-tied at the very thought of it. “It’s amazing. That’s all I can say,” gushes Aaron Webb, a roaster at Discovery Coffee in Victoria, B.C. And Lee won’t just be offering standard Esmeralda in his café. He’s bringing in the legendary Esmeralda auction lot (a careful selection of the farm’s very best beans)—in other words, the crème de la crème of coffee.

Lee and Webb aren’t alone in their enthusiasm; the hype has been deafening. Esmeralda first caught the attention of coffee lovers in 2004—the year a coffee tree known as the geisha was discovered on Hacienda la Esmeralda in lush western Panama. As it produces less than a typical coffee plant, the geisha is rarely cultivated on Central American farms. But after owners sampled beans from the geisha tree—originally from Ethiopia, it flourishes in Panama’s high altitudes—they knew they had a winner. “It’s a flavour that’s never been found in the Americas before,” says marketing director Rachel Peterson.

That year, the auction lot sold for a record US$21 a pound, at a time when a pound of commercial-grade coffee was going for about 73 cents. It quickly became “a marketing thing,” says Mark Prince, senior editor of coffee appreciation site CoJfeegeek.com. One buyer (Kansas City’s The Roasterie) even hired an armoured truck to deliver it, presumably for protection against over-caffeinated fanatics.

The award-winning beans went on to smash record auction prices for two of the next three years. But this year’s crop—recognized as the best yet—blew the others away. At online auction in May, bidding got so frantic the site temporarily crashed. After eight gruelling hours, the lot sold for a stunning US$130 a pound—over 100 times the price of commercial-grade coffee (and roughly 10 times higher than non-auction Esmeralda Special geisha beans). 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters was one of seven winning bidders, and the only Canadian company, to claim a share of the 500lb. lot; it roasts the coffee exclusively for Caffe Artigiano in Vancouver.

Since then, Esmeralda hype has reached fever pitch. A Caffe Artigiano press release dubbed it “the World’s Best Coffee, EVER!” Journalists who attended a tasting event touting the $15 cup of coffee were gifted a halfpound bag, which sells in-store for $135. Owner Willie Mounzer has focused on making Esmer-

alda “an experience” for customers who order it: a manager personally delivers it on a silver platter. So who’s buying? “Anybody with a distinct palate; [people] in the industry; showoffs,” says manager Joaquin Quian.

Within the coffee community, Esmeralda backlash has begun. “It is out of control, in my opinion,” Prince says. He suspects some retailers have been “less than crystal” about whether their coffee is auction-lot or not— especially confusing since both bear the same name, Esmeralda Special. Prince himself bought three half-pound bags he believed to be auction-lot Esmeralda, only to find he’d been duped. (Non-auction-lot Esmeralda sells in cafés for about $5 a cup. Timothy’s will be offering half-pound bags of non-auction beans for $1799 as of mid-November.)

Price’s advice to consumers seeking auction-lot beans is to make sure retailers get specific about what they’re selling before forking over cash. But, he admits, the average taste buds probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway: “They’re both fantastic.”

Back at Manic, the auction-lot Esmeralda Special is definitely for real. Lee’s bringing in three pounds from Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters. It’ll probably only be enough for about 50 cups, he acknowledges, and even with the $15 price tag he doesn’t expect to make much profit. But it’s worth it, he insists. Just don’t ask for a paper cup—Lee draws the line at serving Esmeralda to go. M