Thursday, May 28, 2009

That Good Ol' Legendee

In 1996 Trung Nguyen made a serious investment in creating some coffees and coffeehouses that set new world-class standards.

One of their major projects was to hire a team of German scientists to learn why Kopi Luwak (weasel/civet/chon) coffee tastes so incredibly different and good. Trung Nguyen knew they could never service 800 coffeeshops and the mass market with Kopi Luwak, which is a painstaking and slow coffee to process. So they reasoned, why can't we duplicate what the furry little beastie is doing to the coffee beans when they are in his stomach?

The German scientists, being what they are - the world's top coffee scientists in R&D - were successful in isolating six natural enzymes that are responsible for the partial digestion of the bean cellulose structure, bringing the release of flavor elements that were previously unavailable, and also neutralizing any bitterness in the bean.

When TN first applied this process to their coffee, they chose a mix of beans that was popular in the cultivation of Kopi Luwak, a mix of Arabica, Robusta and Excelsa. This bean mix creates a bold profile underlying the smooth and bitter-free nature of the Kopi Luwak process.

However, as time went on and the world embraced more and more an all-Arabica fetish, many Kopi Luwaks were produced by feeding civets 100% Arabica. This creates a Kopi Luwak that has incredible high tones and a wonderful aroma that permeates the room upon opening. Arabica enthusiasts were pleased, but many people felt that the brewed coffee was not bold enough.

Trung Nguyen created the new Legendee Gold in ground format to approximate the taste of 100% Arabica Kopi Luwak. This was fine and wonderful, but they also stopped exporting the original, bolder formula. Since 2007 we have not been able to get the "Classic" Legendee, but recently we were able to buy it from the factory in Vietnam and have it shipped to us here.

So, Classic Legendee is back! At least, in the bean form. We celebrated by hosting our coffee social at our warehouse with Classic Legendee "on tap" and drank ourselves silly and hyper on Legendee.

We hope you share our excitement in the return of this Classic.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Today's coffee prices

I have been surprised to see the grocery store prices of many coffees coming down. Importing costs are incredibly high right now, and Customs and the FDA are requiring more paperwork from originators than ever before. There was a day long ago (4 years) when paperwork was simple and customs saw its job as to catalog everything that came in and watch out for specific problems. Now, customs' job seems to be to prevent all importing. Between multiple exam fees and two extra rounds of paperwork and double fees, it is obviously either a hidden tariff situation or simply a bald attempt to put small importers out of business by making the importing cost exceed 300% of where it stood 4 years ago. More on that another time...

So, with all coffee importer prices going up, why are we seeing bargains at the grocery store?

Take one example that I decided to follow through: New England Coffee placed a huge stand in all the Market Baskets in our area with 10-ounce bags of coffee selling 2 for $5.00. 2 for $5.00??? That wouldn't cover the cost of decent beans, much less packaging and marketing and the store's markup. What's up?

First, when coffee sales are down, coffee companies try to offer themselves as sacrificial lambs to the supermarkets. Coffee is one of the time-honored "loss leaders" that supermarkets use to pull customers in. That means, they sell the coffee on promotion for a small loss and hope to make it up on the grocery bill.

Second, coffee producers often target a special blend or different coffee for these promotions. Often, these blends will use inferior beans or have some other issue. To whit:

I picked up several of the sale coffees and turned them over to look at them. They looked like the usual New England Coffee product but they weren't. Nothing written about the coffee... just the flavor. Yes, they were all flavored coffees. I noted the one-way vent and squeezed the bag to sniff the aroma. Nothing happened. Thinking the bag was defective I picked up another and squeezed. Pop! The bag exploded all over me. Oops, time to hang the head and look contritely at the stocker down the aisle until her wan smile tells me that it's okay, it happens, and they will clean it up.

But now I look down at my coat. It is covered with fine brown powder that does not resemble coffee grinds. I try to brush it off with no success; it has permeated the fabric. I note that the grind of the coffee is totally uneven, much of it simply a fine powder. Other coffees brush off my clothes, this clings. What's more, it reeks of artificial caramel-vanilla fake hazelnut flavor. I smell like a bad room air freshener.

So now we see what is going on. I look closer and see that the apparent one-way-valve is a fake, it is not a valve, it is a sticker that looks like a valve. It's flat. Or else, it's a new cheap type and none of them are working. And the quality of the coffee and the overwhelming artificial scent tell me that we have cheap coffee poorly ground, loaded with artificial flavor to cover up low quality.

Now I understand the 2 for $5.00 special, it is just a specially-developed loss leader. None of the coffees on the stand are part of the company's regular line at all. It saddens me to see things like this at the market and I wish companies would not sully their names with this sort of thing. But I move on, embarrassed to be the dodo that spilled the coffee at the store, but at least secure in understanding how this special price can seem to buck the trend of coffee pricing.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kopi Luwak - poor misunderstood civet!

Like most gourmet coffee information available on the web, there are many conflicting stories and information about this gourmet delight. It always amazes me how little effort many reporters, for instance, will go to to verify their information on a story.

Kopi Luwak coffee is "processed" by the palm civet, a shy cat-like creature who hunts at night and likes to dine on the ripest of coffee berries (coffee comes from the bean, around which are the berries, or "cherry" fruit. The (relative clean and vegetarian) animal leaves the coffee seeds in their droppings, which are collected, thoroughly cleaned, and roasted. The digestive enzymes of the civet break down coffee's typical acids and structures in a way that no other processing can duplicate, accomplishing two things: Creating the world's smoothest coffee and releasing flavors that cannot be accessed by normal roasting or handling.

The result is truly the world's "best" coffee by many definitions. The aftertaste is haunting and persistent, and one cup calls after another... which would be a terribly expensive thing if one was to believe the hyperbole about $60-a-cup coffee.

In reality, we recommend people carefully measure out their beans before they brew, allotting about 50-55 per cup, and if brewed a cup at a time, Kopi Luwak comes down to about $2 a cup. That's less than a latte at Starbucks. So, while people like to conjure images of tycoons burning $100 bills and drinking $60-a-cup coffee, that's just a fantasy.

Some Kopi Luwak myths:

Myth 1: All Kopi Luwak is similar in taste. Not true - the civets can dine on any number of coffee species and the resulting brew will be quite different. What is consistent is the smoothness and hidden aromatics that are released... but the basic flavor of the coffee can change quite a bit.

Myth 2: All Kopi Luwak comes from Sumatra.
The civet palm and its close relatives are found throughout Malaysia and certain regions of South East Asia, plus the Philippines. The Philippines offers up a notable version of their civet coffee, called Cafe Alamid (Civet Coffee), which typically comes from a civet feeding on mixed coffee species of Liberica, Arabica and Robusta. This civet coffee has a totally different and bolder flavor profile than Sumatran Arabica. But it still "tastes" like Kopi Luwak. It's hard to explain, but even though the coffees are different, you know it's Kopi Luwak each time. It's almost like recognizing a particular roast, like French Roast. The coffees may be different but French Roast has a particular characteristic you can't miss.

Today I tried an experiment. We have been carrying the My-Kap product that allows people with Keurig K-Cup brewers to brew any coffee in re-used cups. It was painful, but I measured out 55 or so beans in a scoop and ground them relatively fine, then put them in an empty K-cup and snapped on the My-Kap and brewed myself a cup of Kopi Luwak coffee. Sacrilege, perhaps. But I had to know.

The result was somewhat to be expected. There was nowhere near the bright, fresh flavor of brewing in a Vietnamese Phin Filter, Melitta one-cup or French Press. But the cup still tasted like Kopi Luwak and it still carried that incredible aftertaste that stayed with me for a half an hour after enjoying the cup. I wouldn't recommend this as a way to optimize Kopi Luwak, but it did produce a cup of coffee that most people would have found exceptional, and it told me that people who buy the coffee and brew it in their Keurig will probably not be disappointed.