In an ordinary building in a nondescript warehouse district in Rancho Cucamonga, California on a sunny Saturday morning, there’s a crowd gathered in a lobby waiting to pay $125 for two cups of coffee from Klatch Coffee.
Jane Lee and Arnold Moon awoke in the Bay Area at 3:30 AM to drive six hours to Southern California’s suburban Inland Empire to taste the most expensive coffee on the planet.
In case you’re wondering, these beans did not pass through the digestive tract of a small animal. Elida Geisha Natural gets its blueberry, jasmine, and citrus notes from the high altitude terroir, sustainable growing practices, and careful processing at Lamastus Family Estates. Those fruity beans fetched the highest price ever paid for coffee through the Best of Panama Auction earlier this year, a whopping $803 per pound.
“This is a rare opportunity to experience tasting this level of quality and price,” says Lee, when asked why she would make such a long trek for a couple cups of Joe.
The commodity coffee farmers who sell bulk Arabica beans to giant commercial operations have been grappling with some of the lowest prices in more than a decade, dipping below $1 per pound this summer. But meanwhile, the auction prices on these award-winning specialty beans are soaring to unimaginable new heights as roasters, like Klatch Coffee founder Mike Perry, compete to get the best of the best.
“For first place winners, you can sell it as, ‘This is the best coffee according to this competition,’” says Erwin Mierisch, former operations manager for Cup of Excellence and now of the family-owned Fincas Mierisch coffee company. “It totally is bragging rights.”
There are about a dozen companies around the world willing to spend serious cash on these types of carefully cultivated beans that have won the approval of judges in national competitions such as Best of Panama and Cup of Excellence. The majority of those buyers are located in Asia’s growing coffee hubs, global centers of commerce like Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo. So while Perry was at the forefront of direct trade movement back in the late nineties, Klatch Coffee is almost an outlier in the club. The company is based an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles, in an area better known for its proliferation of chain restaurants and suburban strip malls than its innovative dining scene. But Perry’s commitment to quality beans—and his ability to get them—have garnered him a following among aficionados across the world, from Saudi Arabia to U.S. gourmet hubs like New York City and San Francisco.
“I studied chemical engineering but I fell in love with coffee,” says Perry, who opened his first Rancho Cucamonga shop 25 years ago to support his wife and young kids while he was still in college.
He was offered engineering jobs out of school but decided to expand his coffee business instead, opening his second location in 1997 where he started roasting his own beans. He quickly realized that while he could control the roast, if he wanted to improve, he’d need to find better beans than the ones his importer was selling. Soon, Perry was on a plane to Costa Rica, and he has been visiting various growing regions every year since. “The extra time and work of sourcing trips make the costs higher, but I get the first choice of the best coffee,” he says.
That’s why Lee and Moon are Klatch Coffee subscription members. And that’s why they were huddled in Klatch Coffee Roastery and Training Lab’s colorful waiting area with a multigenerational group of coffee geeks at 10 AM on a Saturday morning, eager to throw down $125 for the Elida Experience.
The pricey tasting featured two cups of pour-over brewed from two Best of Panama 2018’s highest-rated and most expensive geisha beans, a varietal known for its nuanced floral aromas and silky mouthfeel that is particularly well suited to Panama’s high-altitude volcanic terroir. Both of the 2018 geisha winners hail from the Lamastus Family’s 1918 plot of land called Elida Estate, set 5,500 feet high on the edge of UNESCO-protected Volcan Baru National Park in Boquete, Panama.
And both of those entries broke last year’s previous world-record-setting price of $601 per pound for Hacienda La Esmeralda Cañas Verdes’ Geisha Natural at the same competition.
The $803 Elida Geisha Natural, “naturally” dried as a whole cherry for nearly a month, is a light, citrusy floral brew that’s more reminiscent of tea than coffee. “It’s not an everyday coffee,” says Moon.
Its more affordable sibling, Elida Geisha Washed, pulled in $661 per pound, after receiving the highest score ever recorded by the auction’s international panel of judges. It got 92.66 points out of 100 for the stonefruit and bergamot notes that came through after the fruit was “washed” from the inner bean, which was left to dry for about a week. “I gave it the highest score in my life,” says Perry, who was a judge on the blind tasting. “I wasn’t the only one in love with that coffee.”
Though Perry was the first person to bring Lamastus’ coffees to the United States, he still had to bid on these prized beans just like everyone else. To get his cut, Perry teamed up with a group of roasters led by Yoshio Suzuki of Saza Coffee in Tokyo, who sat by the computer bidding for nearly seven hours. “It’s hard to go to the bathroom,” says Perry. “You’re cursing people who outbid you.”
Suzuki managed to get 100 pounds of the highest rated Elida washed beans for a total $66,100 split between about a dozen roasters spread around the globe. The only other company in the U.S. to get an allotment was Dragonfly Coffee Roasters out of Boulder, Colorado.
That group was out-bid on the tea-like Elida Geisha Natural when the price pushed upwards of $80,000 for two bags of beans.
But when Perry and Suzuki found out that Taiwan-based Black Gold Coffee Co. won the auction, they reached out to the owner Vincent Wang, asking if they could buy some off his $80,300 prize. “At first he didn’t want to, he wanted to be the only one in the spotlight,” Perry laughs. “But we’ve been friends a long time.”
Because of these direct lines to other discerning buyers—these folks hang out at coffee events and meet up in airports around the world—Perry managed to score the equivalent of around 200 cups, some of which will be available through mail-order in late November and again when he opens his first Bay Area outpost in San Francisco this winter.
Perry and others in this niche scene are opening shops closer to the growing segment of affluent coffee drinkers who can afford to taste these types of record-breaking beans. But more importantly, they're trying to figure out how to spread the wealth around in the countries that produce these beans by encouraging roasters to directly engage with other coffee farmers who are growing high-quality beans that have not yet been recognized.
“The success of farmers like the Lamastus’ has certainly had a positive impact on other coffee farms in that area,” says Peter Giuliano, chief research officer for Specialty Coffee Association of America. “But stories, like Mike’s, of local coffee roasters developing relationships with coffee farmers, that's the kind of thing that does help people across the world.”