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Meet the People Who Want to Brew You a $29 Cup of Coffee

A glimpse inside the obsessive culture of java aficionados.

According to the National Coffee Association, Americans are drinking more “gourmet” coffee than ever: 61 percent of all coffee consumed now falls into that category, up from 48 percent in 2015. But as Tim Carman of the Washington Post observed, the term is amorphous enough that it still includes Starbucks… even “Starbucks from a can.”

For a look at truly special, world-class beans, step into Sey Coffee in Bushwick (right around the corner from the original Roberta’s). The New Yorker takes you there with this “Annals of Obsession” video, “Inside the World of High-End Coffee.”

The clip opens with Sey co-owner Lance Schnorenberg rhapsodizing over their Elida Estate Green Tip Gesha. “It’s one of the most expensive washed coffees in the history of coffee,” he says. “And we sell it for $29 a cup.”

That’s technically more expensive than Eleven Madison Park’s $48 pour-over (which serves two), but a steal compared to the $55 La Esmeralda that Klatch Coffee in Los Angeles sold in 2017.

At that time, the Hacienda La Esmeralda Cañas Verdes’ Geisha Natural held the record for the most expensive coffee ever sold at auction, at $601 per pound. The Elida Estate Geisha Natural varietal smashed that mark in 2018, going for $803, while the Geisha Green Tip Washed fetched $661. (So-called “geisha” coffee has its origins in Gesha, Ethiopia, and is now grown in Panama and elsewhere; Sey uses the more accurate, less problematic spelling.)

The New Yorker video has a whiff of Christopher Guest (i.e. Best in Show) in its portrayal of the self-described “coffee geek” world. There’s a woman who’s happy to spend as much on a cup of coffee as she would on a glass of wine, the man who’s tried 600 different kinds of coffee beans, the guy who’s spent 200 hours calibrating his grinder. There’s a look at cupping workshops, flavor profile wheels (the Green Tip Gesha has notes of “citrus oil, lilac, jasmine”) and a barista championship.

The difference between how places like Sey make coffee in 2019 compared to how coffee was made even five years ago is kind of like the analytics revolution in sports. They are consulting with their farmers on custom fermentations before roasting, and scrupulously measuring things like TDS (total dissolved solids) and extraction levels (as well as obvious things like weight and water temperature).

At a time when even third-wave giants Stumptown and Intelligentsia are now owned by the same company as Keurig and Krispy Kreme (yes, the one making headlines recently), there’s something to be said for a place that can put the name of the farmer on their coffee bags.*

*A representative from Intelligentsia wrote in to say that, despite the buyout, the company still features single-origin, direct-trade coffees.

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