Coffee is not only one of the world’s most popular beverages, it’s also a commodity traded on Wall Street. But while professional traders buy and sell Arabica or Robusta beans, consumers can choose from hundreds of coffee types, some of which are created in fascinating ways.
Like other fine delicacies such as wine and chocolate, coffee is a diverse compound with a wide range of qualities. Some of these qualities are linked to the region, the coffee was grown. And others are related to processing and brewing methods used.
Many of coffee’s distinctive qualities are perceived subjectively, though, and so different people appreciate different coffees in their own way. Just as some people can drink the house table wine and enjoy milk chocolate, others drink only the finest vintages and consume only the darkest chocolates. Some with refined palates for the many distinctions of coffee are willing to pay handsomely for the coffee that fits their tastes perfectly.
So, as to the question of whether the most expensive coffee varieties are worth it, the answer is that they are to the people who care about the qualities that distinguish one coffee from another. This, of course, raises the next question of what those qualities are, exactly, and how they contribute to a coffee’s overall quality. After briefly but thoroughly exploring this question, this article will proceed to list some of the most expensive coffee varieties in the world, including a bit about their backgrounds and the qualities that make them so prized.
Elements of Great Coffee
Coffee has its own vocabulary of flavors that connoisseurs use to distinguish them from one another.
One of the most valued qualities of coffee, and one of the least understood, acidity is really a measure of a coffee’s dimension and brightness, not its sharpness or bitterness. The actual acidity vs alkalinity (pH levels) remains fairly constant among coffees of all flavors. In coffee, acidity can also refer to its dryness, which is akin to how a wine may taste and feel more or less dry in the mouth.
Here are some ways a coffee’s acidity might be described and compared:
- A lemony tartness vs a mild melon-like tang;
- A strong and noticeable quality versus a mild, nearly imperceptible one;
- More like caramelized sugar or fruit juice.
In addition to the quality of the bean itself, the type and quality of a coffee’s roast, such as dark or light, also influences its acidity.
The body of a coffee refers to its weight, or how it feels on your tongue, due primarily to the sediments it contains. It may feel like heavy whipping cream or fat-free milk or somewhere in between. Body also reflects how the different ways in which you brew it influences that weight and feel. This is typically one of the simplest factors for those new to the nuances of coffee tasting to notice.
Other common descriptions of body include:
Generally, the better the quality of the coffee you’re drinking, the sweeter its flavor. Some of the various distinctions of sweetness include:
- Honey, brown sugar, or maple syrup
- Molasses or darker caramel
- Fresh fruit.
All coffees have hints and suggestions of other flavors buried inside them. Some examples include:
- Nutty flavors like candied walnut or toasted almond
- Gardenia or rose floral notes
- Fruit flavors like nectarine dried cherry or blueberry
- Dark chocolate or vanilla bean
- Buttery or smoky
- Spicy or sour.
Also referred to as a coffee’s aftertaste, the finish of a coffee is the taste it leaves on your palate after drinking it — the lingering after-notes. Qualities of a coffee’s finish include:
- Texture — smooth or rough
- Duration — lingering or fleeting.
Typically detected first, however, before you drink it and notice all the other qualities, a coffee’s aroma is the fragrance, scent, and other olfactory properties it possesses. While the aforementioned qualities you measure with your tongue, this one you measure with your nose, much like a sommelier sniffs a glass of wine before sipping it.
For this reason, you can think of aroma as a precursor to other factors of taste. Common descriptions of a coffee’s aromatic qualities include:
- Floral or flowery
Note that a coffee’s aroma does not refer to the way the roasted beans smell prior to brewing but how the freshly brewed coffee itself smells.
Finally, other qualities you may hear coffee tasters use to describe fine coffees include clarity, texture and balance.
The World’s Most Expensive Coffee Beans
While the average coffee cost between $9 and $12 per pound in the supermarket, some coffees can cost as high as several hundred dollars. In addition to the qualities of a dynamic flavor profile described above, other factors that can influence a coffee’s price include the size of a season’s yield and whether the beans were mechanically or manually processed.
The following are some of the most expensive coffees in the world based on some or all these factors.
1. Kopi Luwak
This coffee is world-renowned for the way it’s processed. The feline is known as the toddy cat, or Asian palm civet is a creature that consumes just the freshest and sweetest coffee cherries. The cherries then ferment through the animal’s digestive processes and get excreted in the creature’s feces.
After roasting, these beans have an incredibly sweet taste derived from the enzymes the civets secrete during digestion.
Kopi Luwak coffee is banned by some coffee certifiers due to concerns about animal cruelty.
- Price: up to $50 (farmed) to $600 (wild) per pound
- Location: Indonesia
- Taste: It possesses a complex flavor pallet combining rose, plum, and tea.
2. Black Ivory Coffee – Most Expensive Coffee
Derived from Arabica beans cultivated and roasted by the Black Ivory Coffee Company, this unique coffee is made similarly to Kopi Luwak coffee, except, instead of being fermented through the digestive processes of civets, it’s elephants who are fed the fresh Arabica coffee cherries and digest and excrete them for processing and roasting. The elephants’ stomach acids give this coffee a rich and robust flavor.
Black Ivory Coffee Company promotes itself as helping to protect elephant populations, like many things in conservation, the issue is contentious.
- Price: $1,100 per pound
- Location: Thailand
- Taste: It is considered sweet with tastes of chocolate and cherry.
3. Ospina Premier Grand Cru
One of Colombia’s oldest coffee plantations is owned by the Ospina family. It is grown at high altitudes in volcanic ash. Their flagship brew is Dynasty, Gran CAFÉ, Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru.
- Price: $120 to $900 (per 5 lb bag)
- Location: Colombia
- Taste: It has a warm nutty and caramel flavor with a clean, smooth finish.
4. Hacienda El Roble
This shade-grown and sustainably-produced coffee is expensive due to its relative scarcity. Only a small quantity of these beans, approximately 22 kg, are produced in any given year. The original owner of the coffee trees that produce the beans roasted for this coffee initially purchased them believing they were a particular Geisha coffee varietal widely valued, only to later find they were of a type altogether different and unknown.
- Price: Over $100 per pound
- Location: Colombia
- Taste: It is floral and aromatic with a creamy body and a complex flavor pallet combining notes of grape, honey, lemon and lemon-peel acidity. It has a clean taste with a long, lingering aftertaste.
5. Hacienda la Esmeralda “Especial” Geisha
These coffee beans grow on the slopes of Volcán Barú in Panama at more than 5,000 feet above sea level. The growing conditions produce a high-quality coffee that has garnered numerous top honors in coffee competitions around the world.
Of the coffees on this list, this is among the easiest to access, with many major roasters carrying it from July through September.
- Price: $50 to $150 per pound
- Location: Boquete, Panama
- Taste: It boasts prominent features of lavender, juniper berry, and rose.
6. Saint Helena Coffee
This coffee was a personal favorite of none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who cultivated it while in exile at the end of his life.
The high price is largely due to its growth in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Being approximately 1,200 miles off the western coast of African, it costs a great deal to export to the rest of the world.
- Price: $80 per pound
- Location: Saint Helena
- Taste: It features hints of citrus with a refined caramel flavor and aroma.
7. Fazenda Santa Inês
Over the years, Brazil has remained a consistent supplier of high-quality coffees, and this is among its finest, as evidenced by its extensive consumption across the world. These particular beans are fed natural mineral spring water as they grow in a mountainous region of the country. This particular coffee is said to taste its best at room temperature.
With a production history dating back over a century, these beans are cultivated at the base of the Brazilian Mantiqueira mountain range.
- Price: $50 per pound
- Location: Brazil
- Taste: The mineral water these plants drink gives them a noticeable clean, clear, and crisp flavor profile that includes rich, juicy fruit and smooth, sweet caramel. It is this coffee’s sweetness and fruitiness, however, for which it is most known.
8. Finca El Injerto Peaberry
These beans are manually processed by separating out from a total harvest of fresh coffee cherries only the smallest and most uniform, called the “peaberries.”
The family that cultivates these beans, the Aguirres, place a strong focus on sustainable farming practices and protecting biodiversity in producing this coffee.
- Price: $40 per pound
- Location: Guatemala
- Taste: It is renowned for its powerful floral and fruity flavors. You’ll particularly note a potent citrus flavor and, as the coffee cools, a dryness to the texture, like wine.
9. Hawaiian Kona Coffee
Many retailers carry Kona blends they are not the same as pure Hawaiian Kona Coffee. To be called a Kona Blend, a coffee only needs a small percentage of Kona beans, and as such, most Kona Blends contain only 10% Kona beans and 90% lesser-grade coffee beans. The lesson here is to read those coffee labels carefully to make sure you know what you’re drinking. Authentic Hawaiian Kona Coffee contains only coffee beans grown in Kona, Hawaii.
Note that the cost of Kona coffee beans is somewhat inflated due to complicated trade rules regarding Hawaiian exports.
- Price: $30 to $60 per pound
- Location: Hawaii
- Taste: It is generally considered a sweet and fruity coffee but it has a unique and hard-to-describe flavor. You’ll have to try it to decide for yourself.
10. Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee
Blue Mountain Coffee grows at high altitudes of approximately 5,000 feet in a high-rainfall region. The combination of such an abundant water supply and ideal growing conditions produces an incredibly mild-flavored coffee. For this reason, many people now use it as their daily morning coffee.
Jamaican Blue Mountain is one of the most popular luxury coffees in Japan. They have a special day for it.
- Price: $40 to $70 per pound
- Location: Jamaica
- Taste: Some describe Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee as having virtually no distinct taste whatsoever. It is likewise appreciated for its notable absence of bitterness.
11. Los Planes
Coming from a particularly large bean, due to its origins on a large Central American farm, this coffee is widely enjoyed for its pleasant taste.
In the 2006 Cup of Excellence series, an international coffee competition, this coffee earned the Sergio Ticas Yeyes family second place and a 95.3 rating out of a hundred score.
- Price: $40 per pound
- Location: El Salvador
- Taste: This refreshing coffee features subtle fruity notes, including raspberry and blackberry, combined with notes of brown sugar and caramel.
12. Carmen Patiño / Lucas Pinchao
These are two Colombian coffees with comparable flavor profiles and qualities.
These coffees won first and second place, respectively in the 2014 Cup of Excellence.
- Price: $25 per pound
- Location: Colombia
- Taste: Both of these coffees feature a complex combination of savory and sweet flavors that eventually give way to more caramel-like flavors that become more distinct as the coffee cools to room temperature.
13. Biftu Gudina
A newer coffee to this elite group comes from the Biftu Gudina Cooperative, which was established in 2012. Like some other coffees on this list, Biftu Gudina enthusiasts typically enjoyed the coffee best at room temperature.
- Price: $25 per pound
- Location: Ethiopia
- Taste: This distinctly flavorful coffee blends notes of tangerine and jasmine with a wine-like dryness.
How Refined Is Your Palate?
How much would you pay for a pound of coffee, or even just a cup? How refined and discriminating is your palate? Remember, as with anything, one person’s champagne is another person’s soda water.
Now that you know what makes some coffees so expensive, you have to decide what the right balance of flavor profiles, production factors, and price are right for you. As you can see from this list, you have plenty of delectable choices to explore from regions all across the globe.