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Mike Sugarbaker

Cup of expensiveness

4 min read

So I just paid $5.50 for a small cup of coffee. It wasn’t an espresso drink of any kind, no milk, no flavorings, no nothing. Just eight ounces of very rare coffee.

Specifically, it was Panama Esmerelda Reserva, which sells for $103.90 a pound at retail, post-roast, whole bean. I spied it at Stumptown when I stopped in for my regular half-pound. Stumptown has garnered some national fame for popularizing and supporting single-source, often organic coffee varieties, going beyond fair-trade coffee to things like coffee auctions and being part of the special incentive award Cup of Excellence. They’re the ones who’ve been providing beans to Ritual Roasters, that overnight hipster legend back down in the Mission in SF, while they get up to speed on roasting their own. They get talked about in the same breath as a handful of other roasters across the nation as part of a supposed “third revolution” in coffee, one that “treats coffee like wine.”

And so here was some coffee priced like wine. Hype, or real revolution? For the price of a roughly equal amount of decent wine at a restaurant, I could find out. What would you have done?

Okay, don’t answer that. But I did it.

The best part about getting coffee by the cup at Stumptown’s Annex is the Clover machine, which looks like a cross between a home espresso maker and an adorable robot. Spread a couple tablespoons of grounds on its disc-shaped platform, and watch it sink a few inches down to be showered with hot water from the nozzle above. After a few seconds, the water drains and the platform rises again, covered with used grounds ready to be scraped away. After a total of 90 seconds, your cup fills with supposedly perfect coffee. So hey, right there, I paid for a little quality performance art.

But how was the brew? Well... I did let it cool as I walked home with it (and with K’s hazelnut soy latte). That might have made a difference. Anything might have; as I entered, the baristas were just cleaning up from the daily 3:00 cupping, in which hot water is poured over grounds of each variety in the shop, in two separate cups for each. Why two cups of each? Because one bad bean can throw off a cup of high-end coffee, so when seriously evaluating, you always make two cups as insurance.

Maybe I got a bad bean. Or maybe the subtleties of Panama Esmerelda are just lost on me (a real possibility – I’m the kind of foodie that still loves Rice-a-Roni deep in his heart). Or... maybe we’re just looking at a little piece of tulipomania here. As the “third wave” coffee trend gains momentum, more and more coffee buyers are going to be competing for the work of these small growers. Which is awesome for the growers, and probably good for coffee lovers as a whole, but it does mean that now and again, a small crop will get bid up to unreasonable levels. At least, it will if it turns out there’s a market for premium coffee that costs seven times more than the other premium coffee.

I’m not saying it was a bad cup of joe. It was good, even great. Did it beat sweetie’s double hazelnut soy latte? Well, yes it did, because hazelnut syrup always tastes kinda fake. But if I’d gone down to Pix and gotten her a Hazy Latte with their housemade hazelnut butter, it’d have been a close race indeed.