True ‘exotic' coffees are now within the reach of the hospitality trade. For the imaginative hotelier or restaurateur willing to develop a menu of occasional coffees, it is now possible to buy in small quantities which will not break the bank, and sell at extremely satisfying prices in the cup.
The principle on which their service works is that very unusual coffees may be far more expensive to buy in than a 'house' coffee, but because they are usually bought in as a very special limited-edition item, the quantities involved are quite tiny, and the selling-out price in the cup can be extremely high.
This new source for the hospitality trade is the trio of Peter de Bruyne, John Sherwood and Guy Wilmot. Their Jamaican interest is a long-standing one - they acquired one of the most famous coffee businesses there thirteen years ago, and are one of only two registered importers of Blue Mountain to Europe.
Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is one of the very few coffees which actually deserves the over-used word 'legendary'. It is certainly one of the most consistently-expensive coffees in the world, and probably the one in most danger of fakes and counterfeits as the genuine coffee must come with a certification from the seller.
The first taste of 'JBM' often surprises consumers because it is very mild and lacking in bitterness, but its reputation means that it can be sold at a very high price indeed by the cup or cafetiere. To also sell one of the tiny souvenir barrels of the coffee is an extremely profitable business.
It is the 'exotic' factor which draws top hotels and restaurants to appreciate the possibilities of a 'coffee menu', says Peter de Bruyne, and this in turn has led to the formation of Sea Island Coffees to serve such a market. The principle behind the service is to source coffees which are so rare or unusual that they will attract great attention on a menu.
The sources are extraordinary. Ethiopia qualifies for an 'island' coffee through the Lake Tana monastery, in the middle of a lake. It was these monks who first brewed the beverage from the fruit brought to them by a goatherd - or, if you prefer the alternative legend, who received coffee from the archangel Gabriel. In yet another legend, it is where the Holy Grail was supposed to be kept.
Hawaii is a known coffee source, but the Sea Island Maui Mokka is an extremely unusual one - tiny round beans, with a very exotic taste, and a 'wonderful fruitiness'.
St Helena, the island on which Napoleon was exiled, produces a genuinely rare coffee. The island has never produced more than a tonne in any year, and the three partners have an arrangement with the island's governor to assist in re-planting work. "St Helena coffee is creamy and understated with a beautiful smoothness," says Peter de Bruyne. "It's not a powerful coffee, we call it 'a bag full of fruit'. And there is a wonderful story to it to put on a menu - it's the Napoleon Valley estate."
A unique item which many chefs would love to see on their end-of-meal list is from New Caledonia, a Melanesian island. It is wonderfully rare, with only a thousand kilos grown each year, it is naturally low in caffeine, and as the island is a 'department Francaise', the primary customer is the Elysee palace. "The rest," says de Bruyne, "comes to us!"
The high-ticket coffee menu is a distinct reality, says Sea Island.
"In countries such as Russia, Belgium and Italy, restaurants and hotels use 'coffee menus'. And restaurants in Japan specifically look for exotic coffees, as the affordable luxury at the end of the meal. In Moscow, at the top of the menu, we've seen Kopi Luwak (the so-called 'weasel coffee' ) at $50 a cup. In Belgium, we've seen the coffee menu beautifully presented in what appears to be a cigar box, with coffee in little pockets, the way some hotels present their teas.
"Restaurants in the UK have not been used to looking for exotic coffee, but, in a certain number of high-end restaurants and hotels, there is that same interest in the 'affordable luxury'. An exotic coffee menu will achieve interest and really will put you into another sphere of beverages."
The cost, say the Sea island partners, is not as high as might be expected because, these being rare coffees, the caterer buys them in what might otherwise be considered surprisingly small quantities. They go on a menu as precisely that - rare coffee, available only until it runs out, maybe promoted as a special for a weekend or a week, at a high price for a serving through a French press.
"This is not a question of replacing your normal coffee, but supplementing itâ¦ and where too many caterers waste time trying to claw pennies off a kilo of everyday coffee, the difference per cup between that and truly great coffee is minimal.
"But there is a big difference in the selling price."
By Ian Boughton