Coffee – Everyone’s an Expert!

On a recent trip back to New Zealand, I ran into a friend who had just returned from a two week vacation in Bali. We had not seen each other for about 10 years, and he was very excited to hear that I was in the coffee business in Indonesia.

“I have brought back this fantastic coffee from Bali”, he enthused, “I would love to hear your opinion on how good it is”. It turned out that he thought this coffee was so good, that he had begun negotiating an exclusive import agreement with the roaster on the Island of the Gods.

Later that day I swung by his office and waited for him in the lobby while he concluded a meeting. We went up to his office, a nice corner one that afforded a stunning view across Wellington Harbour to Eastbourne. I was impressed, he had done well. I was less impressed when he brought the highly anticipated coffee from the small bar fridge where he had been storing it (on advice of the roaster in Bali). Apart from the advice on storage being flawed, I also had a chance to identify the coffee by its packaging as a very low grade Bali Robusta, served in many of the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak cafes that cater for tourists.

My friend prepared a brew of the coffee in question and asked for my opinion. I could see in his eyes that my status as “coffee expert” was in danger of becoming “coffee amateur” if my thoughts did not in anyway conclude with his. I have drunk this particular brand of Robusta many times, and was not disappointed to find my palette recognized it immediately and responded as expected.

“So what do you think of this coffee?”, I asked, “Why do you like it so much”?

My friend answered that it had such a unique, nutty, almost baked corn flavour that he found very exciting, the problem in NZ is Robusta is almost impossible to find, as all the roasters I know of focus on the higher quality, more funky Arabica’s from around the world. This means that the Robusta drunk while in the tropical paradises of Bali, Vietnam or India immediately perk up the tasters interest. The obvious staleness to the coffee in question, packed in plastic wrap with a line sketch of Bali on the outside, reinforced my friends view that this was indeed something unique.

Coffee quality is indeed often in the eye, or the mouth, of the beholder- but unlike wine, many drinkers still struggle to identify origins, let alone quality of the coffee they are drinking. In many ways everyone is an expert- but without the empirical set of skills that would make them so in other culinary fields.

Unbelievably less than 2 days later I ran into another friend who likewise had recently returned from a holiday to Bali. Obviously tourism seems to be on the up-and-up on the Island, which is great after the bombings in 2002 and 2005. This friend had purchased some “weasel shit coffee” called Kopi Luwak. Was I aware of this wonderful coffee? Did I want to try some with him at his house over dinner?

Later that night, after a great Kiwi tradition of roast Canterbury Lamb and Pavalova (god bless his wife), I got to see the coffee in question. It was commercially packed “Kopi Luwak” from Semarang, Central Java. Now true Kopi Luwak is indeed coffee that has passed through the palm civet, and been deposited out the other end. By definition. However it is also the registered brand name of one of Indonesia’s more well known roasters. In fact, under the list of ingredients on the back of the pack, it is noted that “Luwak special extract” is added to normal coffee which is inside the package. Nothing against the roaster, they are honest about what they are producing. However my friend had been led to believe that this was the real deal by a hawker in Bali. The coffee retails for about $0.80 in Supermarkets here, my friend parted with $25 for “the real-deal-poop-and-all-Kopi-Luwak”. Rather than break the mood I politely sipped the coffee and told a few tales of my own about chasing the Luwak with the delightful Prof Massimo Marcone around a village in West Java.

On return to Indonesia I meet a friend who had returned from Europe with a mottli collection of Italian, French, German, Spanish and even Albanian Espresso blends. He professed his desire to start importing one, some or all of these coffees into Indonesia and wanted my opinion on which were the best. To be fair, we decided to blind taste them against a range of locally available espressos. By local, I mean locally roasted by a range of specialty and bulk Indonesian Coffee roasters. This friend is no culinary slug, having spent much of his life behind an oven in restaurants around the world. He even has a couple of Michelin Stars under his belt from a café in Europe. On saying this, his coffee cupping skills are perhaps not quite up there with his food sensory abilities, but they are passable.

We cupped in total 12 coffee samples. In the end it worked out that 4 out of the top 6 and 6 out of the top 10 were the local samples. My friend was amazed, “how can this be!”, he mused. Despite the fact that the 6 samples he brought from Europe were probably bottom shelf supermarket variety espresso blends, the freshness issue indeed played a part in bringing the local specialty espresso blends to the top of the list. I must admit that I cheated a little- obviously I know my own blend as well as the two other local specialty roasters blends very well- and awarded them top marks accordingly. However; interestingly my friend also picked the same top 3 as me, albeit in a slightly different order.

These days indeed it seems everyone is a proclaimed expert on coffee. In Indonesia unfortunately the power of the brand still ostensibly is accepted as quality. So the Italian marquee brands, plus the US café green giant type brands still rule the roost. But hey, we can not complain. Specialty coffee in one form or another has moved in leaps and bounds over the last few years here. Even in good old café suave NZ, where specialty coffee has ruled for the last 2 decades there are some gaps that need tamping.

© Alun Evans, Merdeka Coffee, all rights reserved.