Coffee buffs line up for HK$110 cup of java

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2007, 12:00am


Even in a caffeine-mad city where virtually every street corner has an outdoor patio tailor-made for coffee lovers, there was some serious buzz about the latest brew.

Customers lined up last week to be the first in Canada to try the special cup of java, with a special price tag. The coffee costs C$15 (HK$110) a cup.

You may be thinking that is one big cup of coffee, but no, that was for an eight-ounce cup of joe.

What is so special about the coffee? The descriptions by caffeine connoisseurs are akin to the rhapsodies of wine lovers.

'It's intensely fragrant and aromatic,' said one aficionado. Another raved about its 'bright, sweet acidity' and called it 'explosively floral on the palate'. If your taste is refined enough, you might get a hint of tangerine and jasmine and a smattering of mandarin once it has cooled.

Hundreds of people have found out already whether the coffee really is worth the price tag. Cafe Artigiano, where the brew is on offer, reported that visitors from Seattle and Portland had made the trek to Vancouver to try it.

Willie Mounzer, owner of Cafe Artigiano, explained: 'It will change the way you think of coffee.'

When local roaster Vince Piccolo, of 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, came to Mr Mounzer to tell him about the coffee, he did not need much convincing.

The coffee even has an impressive name: Hacienda La Esmeralda Especial. It comes from a farm in the mountains of western Panama. At an auction this year, the coffee broke records with its price tag of US$130 for 0.5kg.

Mr Mounzer said he couldn't lose. He figured that even if the coffee wouldn't sell at C$15 a cup - the price required to justify the amount spent on the beans - he would have been happy to sit in the warehouse with Mr Piccolo and drink it themselves.

But in Vancouver, where carrying the right take-out cup is a status symbol, Mr Mounzer said he was confident the C$15 coffee would sell.

Mr Piccolo said some people might think it was crazy to pay such a high price for beans, but coffee lovers' palates had become more sophisticated over the years.

'It's not just a Vancouver thing. I travel worldwide and people don't just love coffee, they love great coffee.'

In recent years, there had been a huge interest in better beans from Asia, especially South Korea and Japan, Mr Piccolo said.

The highest price previously asked for a cup of coffee in Vancouver was C$6. To Darcy Lawrence, a C$2-cup-of-coffee kind of guy, the C$15 version is out of his price range.

'I would be willing to spend that money if it was all going to charity or all directly to the farmer in Panama,' Mr Lawrence said. 'To me, a C$15 cup of coffee is a sign that Vancouver is becoming a city that considers itself world-class.'

On the website, the excitement over the coffee is a lot more laudatory. Coffee lover Mark Prince suggested that the way to appreciate Hacienda La Esmeralda Especial was to go beyond thinking of it as just coffee. 'You have to approach it not as coffee, but as something culinary and exploratory first and foremost. Once you get past that hurdle, a whole new world opens up.'

For serious coffee drinkers like Mr Prince, a new threshold has been passed in Vancouver. The next milestone wouldn't be increasingly expensive coffee, he hopes, but converting ordinary coffee drinkers into those who made each cup a culinary experience. For that C$15, may be a small price to pay.