Esmeralda

I am hesitant to post on this subject, mostly because by the time I have finished writing this post it will have become quite hypocritical.

I feel quite conflicted about this coffee, though when I say coffee I mean more as a concept than a cup as I haven’t tasted the 2007 crop (though did enjoy the 2006) 1. On one hand if I hear it spoken about again, or read another blog post on it (yes, yes – the hypocrisy) then I feel like I will go nuts. Its omnipresence online is immensely frustrating when you kind of wish people were talking about lots of coffees that are great and worth much discussion. Endless descriptions of people’s experiences, or excitement about it being served somewhere, or just referencing it and its price have become more than a little wearying to me.

That is on one hand. On the other hand it has generated unprecedented interest in Specialty Coffee, you can find dozens of articles in the press talking about the coffee, the places offering it or even the auction itself. And then there is the price. $130/lb is a huge of money, and whilst perhaps other lots within that particular auction didn’t sell for as much as some would have liked, it does make prices like $20/lb seem almost sensible, and $10/lb almost cheap for auction coffees (which of course is not the case, but I do hope it does lead prices higher) The price has given it power to generate column inches and also to prompt the previously disinterested to start asking questions.

A very confusing love/hate thing for me then – I appreciate the press it has generated yet resent its dominance. I worry that the industry will be seen as a one trick pony, that this coffee will become a “third wave JBM”. Then we have the wave of Geisha planting and no guaranteed reward for its crops 2

I am not saying this coffee isn’t worth the money. I am not saying that it isn’t an incredible coffee. I worry that unless we can move that attention to another coffee that hasn’t been bought for an incredibly high price, and isn’t some sort of digested novelty that we may lose some ground we have gained.
What are your thoughts? Has Esmeralda reached saturation point, or are we only at the beginning of its sparking of the public’s image and imagination? Thoughts in the comments please.

  1. Mark Prince Clovered some Esmeralda whilst we were in Vancouver but I can’t remember which crop it was  ↩︎
  2. I did a little reading a while back and found a study from Costa Rica in the 60s or 70s where Geisha was trialled and rejected (though mostly due to its yield).  ↩︎

15 Comments

  1. I don’t think it’s over, but I don’t think it matters. I am very skeptical of the ability of press to discuss anything with depth – I’ve never been satisfied with the amount of information given to me in a news story. On either coffeed or Coffeegeek, somebody said “At least it’s not Kopi Luwak anymore.” I think that’s all that has been gained.

    The best bets are in alternative media, like Chicagoist, who has interviewed both Doug Zell and Geoff Watts, or in advertising and the formation of some sort of “lifestyle”. Italians drink decent espresso every day because of tradition. Until there are numerous cafes serving decent espresso and brewed coffee and not offering 20 oz lattes, I don’t think much will change, at least here in the US.

    Another problem with coffee is that it is personally sacred. People who drink it do so every day, and it has importance to them. Thus, when you say “this is good coffee” no matter how nicely it’s said there’s a large portion of people who will also think that you are implicitly saying “the coffee you drink sucks”.

    The coffee that sells best in our shop is a Honduras that tastes like coffee, but with really outstanding body, acidity, and sweetness. It still only tastes like coffee, however. It’s not “marzipan, mandarin orange, etc.”. Some people might be receptive to coffee with explosive flavor (I like the term “scary good” for these), but more, unfortunately, are not. I could be wrong, but this has been my experience.

    I personally drink “scary good” coffee. My last bit of Mama Cata and a quarter pound of Biloya are sitting downstairs as I type this. I give it to my friends (I’m in college) and they notice the difference, but they also drink specialty beer. My point is that perhaps there is a desire for too much, too soon in terms of progress in specialty coffee. The shop I work at is the only coffee shop out of 10+ on campus that regularly cleans equipment properly. A market for incredible coffee exists currently, but the market for “just coffee” is much bigger. It’s not going to happen all at once; a tradition must be developed around it.

    Please pardon me if I don’t follow up, but I must get to writing a paper on Italian nationalism in the 1800s, which, coincidentally, had problems developing a common tradition.

  2. Long time reader, first time commenter. ;)

    I think that one of the big concerns with Esmeralda, currently, is that the price seems to be escalating by an exponential rate. I remember when people were making a huge fuss that this coffee took $21/lb. green at auction; last year, $50; this year, $130.

    The difference I’m seeing is that last year, the hubbub seemed to be about how far this coffee would go. “Ooh, I wonder just how expensive this coffee can get!” But no questions as to whether it was worth it; the Esmeralda Especial certainly warrants $5/cup. It definitely stands on its own as a spectacular coffee – not only to afficionados who can pick out the delightfully fluorescent notes

  3. Long time reader, first time commenter. ;)

    I think that one of the big concerns with Esmeralda, currently, is that the price seems to be escalating by an exponential rate. I remember when people were making a huge fuss that this coffee took $21/lb. green at auction; last year, $50; this year, $130.

    The difference I’m seeing is that last year, the hubbub seemed to be about how far this coffee would go. “Ooh, I wonder just how expensive this coffee can get!” But no questions as to whether it was worth it; the Esmeralda Especial certainly warrants $5/cup. It definitely stands on its own as a spectacular coffee – not only to afficionados who can pick out the delightfully fluorescent apricot notes and the like, but also to newbies who can tell, “Jeez – this coffee is delicious!”

    But this year, at $130/lb., there seems to be an unspoken understanding that at $130/lb., we’re past paying for what’s in the coffee – now we’re paying for the privilege. To me, it’s almost impossible to say that this coffee is worth the same as ten pounds of Ecco Reserve, or *twenty pounds* of the Carmen Estate’s coffee, which is spectacular for many of the same reasons (crisp, clean, sparkly, fruity).

    My guess is that it stops here while people start spending their money on other coffees. I don’t think that the Especial will be the next JBM (though there will invariably be labeling issues, at this point), but I think we can definitely characterize it as the rising tide that lifts all ships.

    After all – after charging $10/cup on a cup of Esmeralda Especial, how hard is asking $3/cup on a #2 or #3?

  4. One thing I didn’t touch on before was the price, which I think is fine when viewed against the quality of the coffee, and the supply and demand. In a larger context, there’s a self-defeating good: the price draws attention, but puts itself out of range for many people who might try a cup. $15 a cup seems too much for the general public to pay for trying a coffee like this for the first time. $5 would be more in line, since many people already pay that for coffee-containing beverages. From coffees that I’ve had, Intelligentsia’s Bolivia micro-lot from earlier this year, and any of the washed Yirgacheffes I’ve had, and the Biloya Special all fit into the $5 a cup or less range. If you want to give people a scary good coffee to try, why not those? (Disclaimer: I’ve never had Esmeralda, auction or non-auction, but I have had the Mama Cata Gesha, the coffee that finished behind it in this year’s BoP.)

    So in this sense, I agree with Mr. Hoffmann that the publicity is problematic in that it overshadows other coffees. But it’s also one of the few ways to get publicity. This is why I went almost off-topic in my first comment to say that the media probably isn’t the best way to accomplish things, and it shows here. The act of spreading good coffee happens at street level when a cafe strips down their menu to smaller and simpler drinks and concentrates their efforts in making coffee and espresso really well. Replacing your “flavored syrups” menu with a “coffee offerings” menu sends a strong message that an entirely different paradigm exists.

    Yes, it’s in the press. But how many of the readers/viewers who drink coffee actually have access to Esmeralda? And will it really hurt that much if someone makes it poorly and the customer feels like it’s wasted money? Will they actually say anything? Who will fess up to paying $15-$20 for a bad cup of coffee?

    I hope that my comments about the importance of tradition/culture and the shops themselves don’t seem too out there. I feel they are pertinent in the sense that for those who care about spreading good coffee, press about an extremely expensive coffee that not many people have the chance to taste might not be such a giant setback. My feeling is that yes, the Esmeralda situation might be harmful, but a much greater harm is done by other things.

  5. I think the issue that scares me the most about a coffee with this much publicity and hype is that someone new to specialty coffee will inevitably go into one of the shops serving this coffee (or a coffee like this), they will pay the five, ten or 20 bucks (depending on how close you are to Chicago) for the cup, they will drink and say, “Wow, that was not that great and I’m never going to make the mistake of spending that much on a cup of coffee again”.
    I’ve cupped some roasts of this coffee (from roasters who will remain unnamed) and thought they were Indonesians, they were so bad. This is a really difficult coffee to roast and similarly preparation choice and care is a HUGE issue with something like this. Just to have the coffee come out of a clover isn’t enough; I had the ’06 brewed out of a clover at Stumptown and swore I was drinking some fruity air, there was so little body. Blame Stumptown, blame the clover, but the fact of the matter is: if the stars don’t align to make a fantastic brew, you may never sell a coffee like that to that customer ever again. If I was just an average guy off the street, I might have asked for my money back.

    Ultimately, it’s a love/hate thing for me as well, James, because when it’s done well, it’s amazing (I think my words were “holy sh*t”), but when it’s done poorly, you may have lost a potential specialty coffee customer -for all of us- forever. This maybe a little severe, but you get the point.

  6. I’ll take Richard’s thought progression to the next level and say that to me, it is not nearly just that people are paying for the privilege to taste this coffee. It has become a status symbol among the collectors (read: the roasters) of this coffee, a way to differentiate themselves from the pack of new roasters setting up shop all the time, and certainly has the effect of putting on display their massive accumulations of wealth relative to other specialty wholesalers. (I know…it’s only one or two bags apiece, but even still, how many specialty roasters could get that much at that price?)

    From that angle, and from the inside of the industry, the coffee begins to fade in importance and it becomes almost political or gossipy. “Who’s got some? Is it the Especial or the non-auction lot? What are they doing with theirs?”

    Yes, the coffee is noteworthy because of its rarities. But I’m with you, James, in standing up for the unsung myriad amazing coffees that have yet to be discovered on such a large scale. And I think that fact–the fact of more and more of these coffees coming online, added to the wave of mediocre coffees already on the market–will keep the scenario Ben K posited from developing, where regular folks who had a less than stellar brew went away thinking they did not experience anything great. Think of how many times you’ve ever been at a table at a nice restaurant and someone–a nongeek–actually refused a bottle of wine after the server opened it and let him taste it. There are just too many wines (=coffees) out there and too few people who really know enough about what to taste for to turn their noses up at a mediocre brew for fear of stating the semi-obvious fact that the emperor may indeed be lacking a scrap of clothing.

  7. This is only the beginning, I believe. We’ll look back and find that esmeralda was really not that expensive. Just a hunch.

  8. My concern here in the states is that small American towns that are just starting to see a touch of specialty coffee there is already concern from going from gas station oil sludge quality for .53 with free refills to a $1.50 cup of a fabulous SO. They see me opening a shop and they can make the $1.00 turn to get that quality. But, all of this “sustainability” talk (as a whole) has me concerned that in a few years that customer will have to pay $4.00 or $6.00 a cup for that same quality cup I could offer now for $1.50. I am positive that the farmers and their families need more money, but if you listen to Peter G and others, I just don’t see an end to it. I think we are “living in our own little world” and forgetting about the economics on this end as well. People in small town (and to much of a degree Big City) America are not going to walk up to your air pot and pay $5 per cup for a standard Ethiopian Yirg out of an air pot or press.

    Start thinking of how much little profit there is after you pay $21.00 USD per sq ft for 1,500 sq ft for a moderate potential five year lease, the build out and all that goes along with it. Then when you get all of that going, making those payments and trying to get those customers – a year or two later you find yourself having to charge that $5 per cup to people that have no idea why when you opened you charged $1.50 for the same quality cup. I just think the whole sustainability issue doesn’t cover the coffee shop owners end of sustainability. I hear no talk of that end – at all.

    Not trying to be rude or anything…I hope I have clarity in what I am writing here.

  9. Re: The rising tide that lifts ALL boats

    I guess that’s true in the sense that it contributes to a culture that values good coffee and, so, in the long term will become more willing to spend more on good coffee, but I think we need to delve a little deeper. Who is buying this stuff? ie. is it just preaching to the converted? If it isn’t, are the people who buy it actually encouraged to pony up more dough for specialty coffee in future? (Putting aside completely the question of where it would go or how this could be abused.)

    If we look at it in a more immediate sense, a few weeks ago I remember someone digging up all the BoP auction figures and demonstrating that each year over the past three years Esmeralda has sold for more and the average price for the other coffees has fallen.

    Over the medium term, let’s suppose that prices for quality coffee do increase. How does this affect the farmers who need the price increase the most? Are they going to be capable of producing the kind of coffee that merits whatever stratospheric price top notch coffee might get up to? (That might sound like cynicism, but I’d actually be interested in an answer to the questions!)

    Re: The rising tide that lifts ANY boats

    Ben’s point about the potential for disappointment is a good one.

    I agree that there are plenty of unsung heroes out there, but what if the ludicrous Esmeralda prices had never happened? Would they be any worse off? On some level, at least, I don’t really see that we should necessarily be putting the burden of improving other coffee prices on Esmeralda.

    I guess one practical question to ask is whether Esmeralda has enabled the buyers to charge more for other spectacular SOs. I wouldn’t know the answer, but I sometimes allow myself a quick perusal of overseas roasters offerings and it seems to me that many roasters offering Esmeralda do have other SOs on offer at prices that seem relatively high. Maybe that’s something?

    Re: The wearisome occurrence and re-occurrence of Esmeralda on the internet

    You do know that you don’t actually have to read everything, right? ;P

  10. Oh yeah; and one other thing …

    You can do FOOTNOTES in wordpress?! That’s freakin unbelievable! OMG, in my best teenage american girl impression, I’m, like, sooooo totally there!

  11. I think the rise to a $5 cup will be slow, and will always be for super premium stuff. In order to have the coffee itself cause a price rise like that the price per pound would have to totally skyrocket. A 12oz cup might use 20g to 30g of coffee, depending on how you brew I guess – for those 30g to add even a dollar to the cup cost the prices would have to rise enormously.

    And Luca – you need this plugin for your footnotes.

  12. The rise to a $5 cup may be slow, but it will be steady. Proctor and Gamble are already waking up… slowly moving to Arabica blends. Commodity coffee is slowly rising all across the board… I mean, McDonald’s coffee is killing Starbucks in taste tests… I want to believe these companies are listening and that coffee, in the BIG picture, is on an upswing.

    This is awesome for us. If commodity coffee is on the road to improvement, this means we can truly be Specialty Coffee. We can hold our roll int he highest regards and begin to keep prices on the rise. Not necessarily for us and our businesses, but in an effort to improve the lives and standards of coffee farmers globally. Imagine a world where farmers have the resources (in both education and finance) to grow both high quality green and have smiling, well taken care of employees… How can a man not get behind such a notion?

    So, how does the auction lot coffee fit into this all… It is a but a signal flare in a very large sky. A call to all who are watching that says, “Look over here, we did something crazy!” Was a $130 the best thing for those of us in the know? I don’t necessarily think so. However, for the future of coffee it is as my high school history teacher would call a ‘major Y’ in our story. It is a point where we have taken a turn, eyes have been opened, and we can’t go back.

    Will this happen again next year? I’m skeptical. I hope that all in all, way more money is poured in the BoP auction. That other companies will throw in for these coffees… and that we will maybe… just maybe see a record breaking average price per pound in the auction… and I mean an average supported by high prices in all directions…

    Bottom line, I celebrate this coffee, but I am ready to lay it to rest. Besides… it’s really getting old. Literally.

  13. I’ve been lucky enough to taste, I think, every roaster’s version of this year’s crop, and while it’s true that the coffee is worth $10 a cup because it is just that spectactular, I haven’t actually paid for any of it. I think this is for good reason, because it’s being used to showcase really great coffee and the media coverage will bring people who haven’t ever been to a specialty coffee shop in. And hopefully, higher demand in retail shops will help drive wholesale prices.

    But I don’t see the Geisha madness ending any time soon, and while all the attention may be getting tiresome, I think it’ll continue to be a gain for the industry.

  14. My wife and I own two shops in downtown Pittsburgh. We have the area’s first Clover. We offered a few pounds of Esmeralda (Intelli) by the cup, at $22/12oz on the Clover.

    To go on a quick tangent- most folks haven’t been using enough coffee in their Clovers… leading to this “tea-like” – clean and weak drink that occasionally gives it a bad rap. 30g usually does not cut it. End tangent.

    From experience with other coffees on the Clover and discussing the matter with other experts, we decided to use a 44g dose. At our cost of $198/lb this translated to a coffee COST of $20- so we charged $22. We sold out of our order within 10 days but basically didn’t make any money. That wasn’t the point, however.

    We bought the Esmeralda because we wanted to try it ourselves, and while not every customer was lining up to buy a cup, nearly everyone asked about it when they saw it on the Clover menu. I had great conversations about specialty coffee and direct trade with many customers that I directly attribute to the high price of the Esmeralda.

    On top of the great opportunity to discuss and educate our customers about our industry, we also got the interest of the local TV news. Sure they came down just because we were charging $22, but really is that a bad thing? We ended up with a 5 minute spot discussing specialty coffee, the Clover, and the Esmeralda. If nothing else it definitely causes people to think that perhaps there is something better out there than what I’ve been drinking at the gas station, hotel, etc. every day. It generated additional interest in our business where we strive every day to do things the right way and serve a higher quality product where my margins aren’t nearly as big as the competition. Most customers notice but some folks need something bigger to get their attention- this did it.

    It’s not something I would have on my menu year round even if it was available, but the coffee was wonderful and I was happy to be able to offer it for a little while.

Submit a comment