After the first three sips, I was one-hundred percent sure it was the best coffee I’d ever tasted.
It was fruit-forward without being overly acidulated. It wasn’t bitter so much as earthy. It was aromatic and it was balanced and it smelled like dried cherries but not enough to distract from the natural terroir of the beans and it tasted so, so, so round. Ten times rounder than any other coffee, at least.
And it was worth every penny of the $16 price tag, especially since it came with a cookie, an informational pamphlet, and fifteen seconds of unbroken eye contact from the barista as he stated, “you’re about to have a very (pause) special (pause) cup of coffee (pause, wink).” He stood there, eyes still locked with mine, pouring pourovers like he’d done nothing else his whole life. Like he was a bartender in an old-timey Western stuck in a sisyphean feedback loop drying the same glass with the same towel over and over and over and over.
Blue Bottle’s Port of Mokha pourover is still likely the best coffee I’ve ever had, I’m just less confident now that I’ve drank it from a paper cup at my desk, sans brightly lit minimalist ambiance and barista wink. Then again, there’s no reason to believe any other cup of coffee I’ve had could compete, since 95% of those cups were either Folger’s Black Silk from my Mr. Coffee or the caffeine-riddled Big Gulp nightmare known as Starbucks’ trenta red eye.
But one thing is incontrovertible: This coffee had the most spectacular, awe-inspiring, life-affirming backstory of any I’d ever drank. As the pamphlet explains, an aficionado named Mokhtar Alkhanshali retraced coffee to its origin in the Arabian Peninsula—his own family is from Yemen—and lived with local coffee farmers for a year while helping process the beans and promising he’d find a market for their product.
According to a 7×7 article, he gave out micro loans to the farmers, many of whom were women who had been previously taken advantage of by loan sharks, to uplift the local grower community as it was being torn apart by drought and military conflict. And, so sayeth the pamphlet, “When conflict cut off air travel, Mokhtar escaped on a dinghy across the Red Sea, guarding two precious suitcases of coffee… It’s a miracle this coffee is even here.”
My God! He went into his ancestral homeland and helped the local community and retraced coffee to its origins and smuggled the beans out of a war zone in a dinghy so he could get them to a blind tasting where it beat out tons of other award winning coffees and now its in my cup?!?! Screw taste, screw price, screw the really delicious cardamom sesame cookie that came with it—someone make a Kickstarter to fund the feature film about this dude’s story and I will literally throw money at it.
But the more I drank the miracle brew and tried to think about all the flavor notes and aromas and mouthfeels and push the power of origin-story suggestion out of my head, the more it just tasted like coffee. It was kinda bitter. It kinda tasted like metal. I had work to do, so maybe I should just chug it to ensure a quicker caffeine rush.
Even resident office coffee snob, executive editor Matt Segal—he’s been given the distinction against his will because he’s the only person working here who actually knows the temperature at which one should make espresso—couldn’t taste the specialness. “It’s mellow, but I’m not sure I’m tasting $16 of flavor,” he said. “It’s like there’s a hint of sour in it or like it’s from the bottom of the pot but without the nasty acidic stuff.“
I wanted to taste the dried strawberry, coffee blossom, and crystalline notes that coffee farmer Hussein al-Haba suggested I would on the pamphlet, and I think I did for a second, but only in the sense that there’s a picture of an elephant in your head after you read the sentence, “Think about elephants.” I wanted to taste the story inside the cup, but I knew damn well that if the barista had poured me a cup of normal Blue Bottle coffee I would have tasted the same thing.
There’s a special kind of self-loathing that sets in when you feel you’ve been outed as a simpleton, even if it’s just to yourself. I felt the same way when a bartender who had poured my Scotch once asked me if I could taste the spirit’s “outstanding salinity.” I had to swallow hard and mumble, “Yeah, it’s super, errrrm, briny?” and hope he didn’t throw me out of the bar for being a fraud and thinking his liquor just tasted like liquor.
No part of me doubts that for those who are actively entrenched in the coffee world, and for those who have a passion for the drink that goes beyond satisfying a necessary caffeine addiction, the Port of Mokha coffee tastes like dried fruit and plum wine. And I’m sure that Scotch I had was the most saline of all the Scotches. But for me, an apparent coffee idiot man child who regularly drinks swill, there was no transcendent “aha!” moment where everything began to make sense. This was not my messiah coffee.
Is it worth it? Depending on the ease with which you can give up $16—absolutely! By drinking it, you’re actively supporting an important social entrepreneurship venture which seems more important than any amount of cherry skin notes and neutral acid. Is it your one-way ticket into the cool-kid, I-understand-coffee-now club? Probably not. The cool kids are never that cool anyways.