Growing up as a child of Disney and having two much younger siblings, the word Esmeralda brings to mind the beautiful gypsy that captures the heart of the mistreated Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Now that I’m older, and I’ve read Victor Hugo’s classic, another Esmeralda is seducing my mind and my senses — the coffee of Hacienda la Esmeralda. When we started out the day to find glass jars for herbal tinctures, I had no idea our adventure would include tasting the most expensive coffee in the world. The day started off like any other day . . . chaotic with no set plan on how to be productive. So we decided to congregate over a cup of coffee at Velvet to organize a game plan. When we stepped inside the tiny café with room for only a few stools, there it was among the Hario siphons and V60 pour-over bar: a large brown bag with handwritten words “Esmeralda.” We had heard about it, but we certainly never considered getting our hands on the most sought-after coffee in the history of mankind.
How much? I quickly asked. I was stunned to learn it was only $10. Wow, I can feel the judgement of your shocked eyes through the computer screen. Only ten bucks for a single cup of coffee? Is this kid a trust fund baby or something? No, no. Hear me out before you write me off as a privileged snot. First of all, I’ve paid $6 for a cup of Intelligentsia coffee in Los Angeles; everything is expensive in that city. I’ve also reluctantly paid $7 for a horrible iced coffee in Savannah (that girl completely tricked me, but it makes for a good laugh now). So, I’ve already had extremely expensive coffee experiences before whether I wanted to pay the amount or not. Fiending for caffeine in an unfamiliar city is no joke people. Crazy stuff can happen and life can get real weird when it’s 3pm and you haven’t enjoyed your daily dose of java. All kidding aside, paying $10 to taste coffee that has sold for up to $170/lb seemed like a good deal to me. Yes, Esmeralda has sold for $130 to $170 a pound. Think about how much you pay for a bag of coffee and then reflect on the mind-blowing difference in the cost of your standard cup and a cup of Esmeralda.
When I imagine the bidding process for Esmeralda at auction, I picture frenzied day traders on Wall Street shouting offers and throwing their arms in the air to win the attention of the poor soul responsible for putting this coffee into the hands of obsessed fans. I’m not exactly sure how some people get ahold of bags of Esmeralda, but I do know Japan and the US seem to be the coffee’s most adoring fans. And we are so happy Stumptown roasted this fantastic coffee so we could experience this unique elixir.
Why is it so special? Those were the exact words I used when I asked Velvet‘s owner Tamara Muro about the famous beans. The beans come from the Gesha tree, a plant with Ethiopian lineage. Somehow some Gesha seeds traveled to the highlands of Panama during in the 1960s, and so began the growth of the most famous coffee producing estate on the globe. The coffee is grown at a high altitude of over 1400 meters in an area that is frequently blanketed in misty fog. I was told a drive to the harvest site includes a 15 hour jeep ride on an unpaved road through hills and thick forests. Additionally, the coffee has become so valuable due to market costs, the trees are protected by guards with machine guns. Did that get your attention? I certainly perked up a little bit.
Asking why this coffee tastes better than any other coffee is like comparing a fine French Burgundy to a $2 bottle of Charles Shaw (two-buck-chuck for you avid Trader Joe’s shoppers). Like wine, a cup of Esmeralda cannot be expressed in words; instead, it must be tasted and experienced. We sprung for a cup of Esmeralda brewed in a vintage Hario siphon. Watching the alchemical process of brewing coffee in a siphon is not only intriguing, but also enhanced the experience. So much care had been put into filling that ceramic mug that I felt pressured to enjoy it.
We ordered a cup of Stumptown Indonesia Gajah Aceh (brewed with V60 pour-over) for comparison. It’s one of our standard go-to brews with notes of blackberry marmalade and tamarind. Point is, we know we like the Indonesia and we were eager to see how the two compared. When the two cups arrived, the scrutiny began.
The first few sips of the Esmeralda were delicate, subtle. It tasted like really great coffee, but I wasn’t blown away. Then it continued to cool and new flavors developed. Light citrus flavors gave it the perfect astringency. I could taste wild-picked, vine-ripened berries (blueberries and maybe a little strawberry), but the finish was like that of a fine tea enjoyed with tiny cakes in a British Tea House. I was a little perplexed about the familiarity of the flavor, but I finally realized it reminded me of the aftertaste and aroma of the bergamot in Earl Grey tea. A long finish with earthy notes that clung to my tongue without overwhelming my palette made this cup a memorable coffee experience.
But the wow factor came when we compared the Esmeralda to the Indonesian. Even though we’ve enjoyed the Indonesian many times before, compared to the Esmeralda it tasted like barely-flavored water. It was flat, uninteresting, and kind of sad. We guiltily pushed the cup of Indonesian aside to save it for when there was no more Esmeralda to savor. The rare complexity of the Esmeralda affirmed its role as the champagne of the coffee world. It is truly a cup to be sipped and considered rather than chugged and consumed. This is a cigar lover’s coffee. Some people might even taste tobacco; in fact, the man on the stool next to mine compared the Esmeralda to the best cigar he had ever smoked. No matter, if you are a tea lover, a coffee lover, a wine lover, you will appreciate the richness of this powerful brew.
Drink to good health!