Updated: Apr 10, 2018
I am frequently asked this question and you may not be surprised that I don't believe there is an answer. I would never make such a judgement on a single coffee myself, knowing that coffee is highly subjective and that the brew method, roast level, processing and mood all play a part.
However, there are people in the market who tout certain coffees to be the best, whether based on high prices, historical preferences or just to make more sales. Therefore we have put together a list of such coffees and arguments as to why we don’t agree.
Kopi Luwak (Cat-shit coffee)
This Indonesian coffee is processed in the stomachs of Asian palm civets. In the wild the civets eat the ripest coffee fruits with the beans coming out processed in their faeces. The novelty of its production as a luxury good, relative rarity due to processing method and the reported superior flavour (by its sellers) make it the world’s most expensive coffee.
There are many problems with this. Firstly, in supplying the demand for those wanting to show off this special coffee, many of these civets are not wild at all. Battery farms are used with the civets kept in small cages. They are mistreated and force fed coffee cherries, rightfully attracting the ire and protests of animal welfare groups. The purported quality of this coffee is also thus diminished, with the civets not selecting perfectly ripe cherries and the stressful conditions negatively affecting digestion. This is an awful trade that shouldn’t be supported.
Secondly, there are plenty of fakes. Anything that sells for a high price attracts fraudsters.
Thirdly, respected coffee professionals generally deride the flavour for being stale, lifeless bath water. The SCAA published a great article about the crimes of this coffee in 2011. Sadly, is hasn’t put a stop to the trade. It would seem that for some people boasting is more important than both taste and ethics.
Don’t buy this coffee. It certainly isn’t the world’s best.
The Blue Mountain coffee of Jamaica is certainly nice. It’s very well balanced, coffee-tasting and pleasant, great for following a late afternoon lunch. In the 80’s in gained a reputation for high quality, which it is, but coffee has moved on a long way since then.
It lacks the bright acidity, big flavours and complexity of the East African coffees which have become so popular in more recent years. I generally have a preference for these coffees and they are typically cheaper; Jamaican Blue Mountain demanding a high price.
Be aware that there are many fake Blue Mountain coffees because of the high price it fetches. Most of the Jamaican Blue Mountain harvest is sold to Japan so there is little left for elsewhere. Therefore, I would say that its prevalence in China means not all of it is legit.
One more note on Blue Mountain. Farmers have planted the Jamaican variety in Papua New Guinea and Kenya. Kenya’s environment and higher altitude has resulted in a fine Blue Mountain coffee with brighter acidity, and a lower price tag.
There are a number of other island grown coffees that sell for high prices as a result of their rarity. Like the Jamaican Blue Mountain, they are smooth coffees, pleasant and relatively low in acidity. Probably the most famous is Hawaiian Kona. We’ve tasted excellent light-roasted Kona, exceptionally sweet and mellow with notes of lemon cake, chocolate and caramel.
Other examples of island coffees are from the Galapagos, St. Helena and Bali. Although enjoyable, I feel they don’t always equal value for money with so many other excellent coffees available.
There’s a misconception that Italy produces coffee. It does not. Instead the name refers to coffee roasted in Italy or is roasted in the Italian style, that being dark roasted and suitable for espresso. This coffee is sometimes burnt and always bitter, occasionally with an acrid acidity.
Because of Italy’s long history with coffee it is sometimes assumed that Italian coffee is the best in the world. According to Italians it is but they have a different coffee philosophy, rooted in ways that are difficult to change. This belief has been passed on to many others, particularly with the rise of Starbucks, although you’re unlikely to see Italians adding that much milk, if any, to their coffee. So good Italian coffee is bitter sweet and hits a spot in the way lighter roasted coffee does not. However, a lot of Italian blends are also low to commercial grade and the taste will reflect this.
Supermarket or ground coffee claiming to be the best
If a coffee is on a shelf in a supermarket, is pre-ground, does not have a roast date, is ambiguous in its origin then it will not be the best.
So what is the world’s best coffee?
The coffee industry has many layers with different aims but it is the specialty layer that takes most care in sourcing organic coffee, extracting the most flavours and giving back added benefits to communities through direct trade. It is for this reason industry professionals consider specialty coffee the best.
One way to identify the best available coffees in the specialty market is to see where there is highest demand. In recent years this is the Geisha variety grown in Panama, Hacienda La Esmerelda, and other 93+ graded (out of 100, many consider 80+ to be specialty) coffees. Ethiopia, Colombia and Kenya are consistent producers of this high level coffee and it is among these, when roasted to perfection, which we can consider the world’s best.
Leave your comments below about the best coffees you've had!