I S ANY COFFEE worth $35 a pound? The long answer would be that it all depends on your values, your palate and your sense of style. The short answer would be that it depends on your wallet.
Hooking up with a high-priced coffee can become a high-maintenance affair. Instead of merely being a morning stimulant, a pot of coffee becomes an investment. You feel obligated to take care of it properly, to whisk it away from the burner before its prized volatile oils dissipate. You find yourself carefully pouring a freshly brewed batch into an insulated thermos, then carrying the vessel with you all day, sneaking sips in midafternoon.
That is what happened to me last week when I brewed some Kona, the prized coffee grown on the slopes of Hawaii's volcanic mountains. It is a limited crop that is hand-picked and commands a price of $35 a pound at the handful of area Starbucks that recently began selling bags of it. The Kona sale is part of a Starbucks campaign pushing distinctive, if rare, coffee beans.
The Seattle-based national chain was not the first to bring Kona to Baltimore. Local roasters such as Key Coffee Co., supplier of the Daily Grind coffee shops, have handled Kona for years. Key's Kona, which costs $30 a pound, is sold at the Sunday morning Farmers' Market in downtown Baltimore, The Wine Source in Hampden, the Daily Grind in Fellsp Point and the Big Bean Shop in Severna Park.
Baltimore Coffee & Tea has carried Kona since 1992. It goes for $27.67 a pound, said Stanley Constantinides, one of the owners. Several times a month, Baltimore Coffee & Tea sells Kona and the even pricier $37-a-pound Blue Mountain Jamaican coffee by the cup. The next scheduled pouring of Kona, at $1 to $1.50 a cup, is set for Monday at the company headquarters at 9 W. Aylesbury Road in Timonium.
One thing national outfits like Starbucks are good at is creating a marketing buzz. Even Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley seems to have fallen under Starbucks' spell, reportedly pressing company executives at a convention in Las Vegas to put more of its shops in Baltimore. Proprietors of local coffee operations whom I talked with disagreed about the need for more Starbucks in this town. What Baltimore needs, they contend, are neighborhood coffee shops owned by people who live in the community.
As Nicholas Constantinides, Stanley's cousin, points out, Starbucks tends to shy away from less-yuppified neighborhoods like Old Town in East Baltimore where for years Constantinides and his family have operated Eagle Coffee, a roasting operation.
Still Starbucks sells a mountain of beans. This was evident when I showed up at the Starbucks in Mount Washington to buy a bag of Kona. At first I was told the Kona beans had sold out, but then an enterprising staff member found a bag hiding on a top shelf, and I snagged it, a half pound for a mere $20.
When I got this coffee home, I tasted it six ways to Sunday. I brewed it, I sniffed it, and I even "cupped" it.
Cupping is a tasting ritual practiced by professional coffee buyers. I read about in The Joy of Coffee the authoritative1995 tome written by Corby Kummer. Now that I had some top-dollar coffee in my house, I had an excuse to give the procedure a try.
I put two tablespoons of ground Kona coffee in the bottom of a cup. I added 1/2 cup plus two tablespoons of water that had been filtered, boiled then cooled to 210 degrees. I waited for a couple of minutes, as the grounds formed a crust or "dome" on the top of the cup. I plunged a silver soup spoon through the crust and took a deep whiff of the aromas.
When professional coffee tasters break the crust they can, I have read, sniff out defects in the coffee. Their noses can detect ferment, a bad thing, in the beans. My nose detected only the fragrant, floral, nutty bouquet of coffee.
Next, in preparation for tasting, I poured in another tablespoon of hot water in the cup. This was supposed to help settle the grounds at the bottom of the cup. But after I added the tablespoon of water, plenty of grounds were still swimming in my cup.
Using a soup spoon -- Kummer recommends silver, which dissipates heat -- I skimmed off the scum, the floating grounds and the light tan foam, from the top of the cup and tossed it into an empty cup.
I waited until the coffee was lukewarm, then the slurping and sucking started. Once again, using the silver soup spoon, I drew out a sample of coffee from the cup and pulled it, like a vacuum cleaner, over my tongue. "At the beginning," Kummer said in the section of his book describing the sucking phase of cupping, "the sweetness and body will be clear, but the acids will be muted."