Strange Brew

A Linden Hills coffee shop sells the world’s most unusual and expensive cup of coffee

It smells like strong coffee, and that’s it.

The steaming brew sits cooling in a brown Styrofoam cup.

An employee at Coffee & Tea LTD in Linden Hills has just handed over the shop’s – make that the world’s – most expensive and unusual cup of coffee.

It’s called kopi luwak, or civet coffee, named for the tree-dwelling, raccoon-like animal that plays a pivotal role in its production.

The animals are often confused for cats, but their faces are more pointed like raccoons. They aren’t classified with either species, though, and the family has its own branch of the evolutionary family tree.

An eight-ounce cup costs $10, and those who want to bring it home can buy the beans at $420 a pound.

“You can go buy a latte at some of these places for that price,” said owner and master roaster Jim Cone, who has sold the coffee for about a decade at the small shop.

He won’t reveal how much he sells, but it’s enough to place a couple orders per year. It’s shipped straight from a source in Indonesia. He keeps the raw beans in a glass container and roasts them in small amounts as needed, he said.

“People usually ask about it more than they buy it,” Cone said over the skittle of spinning beans in the 1910 coffee roaster perched in the shop’s front window. A pair of flat leather belts spin feverishly like bicycle chains spinning a drum over a gas-powered flame.

Cone, who opened the cluttered coffee shop in 1979, said he’s known about kopi luwak longer than that. He describes it as having a rich and carmel-like taste. “I think it’s so rich, it isn’t something I would have with a meal.”

He compared the cup to a fine glass of wine; it might be too much to drink everyday, but it’s a satisfying sip from time to time.

“I can’t think of any customer that’s had it and hasn’t been impressed with it,” he said.

Cone said he looks for excellent and unusual coffees to sell at Coffee & Tea LTD. (He also owns another store on the first floor at the Mall of America.) Kopi luwak is among the dozens of varieties he sells.

Other coffee shops have considered and passed on the civet coffee.

“We don’t feel the value is in the cup,” said Scott Kee, purchasing and distribution director for Dunn Bros Coffee.

The company isn’t averse to higher-priced coffees, but Kee thinks higher-quality coffees than kopi luwak are available in that price range. It’s been selling a $50-per-pound Hawaiian roast this holiday season, for example, he said.

Caribou Coffee also doesn’t sell civet coffee.

“This is just such a rare product that it wouldn’t be a great fit for someone like Caribou,” the company’s roastmaster Chad Trewick said. “From my perspective, as a tasting professional, I think what you get when you purchase this coffee is an experience and an oddity.”

The digestive process does something to the beans, he said. The stomach juices mimic some of the fermentation that happens when preparing coffee, diminishing some of the acidity and giving it a smoother taste, which he described as earthy and musky.

Still, Trewick said he’d rather offer Caribou Coffee customers something with some of the same woodsy qualities in a more affordable price range.