James Freeman, founder and CEO of the high-end roaster, calls it "celestial," adding that he can hear "angels sing" whenever he takes a sip. In addition to a cardamom sesame cookie, the carefully-brewed hot coffee also comes with an informative pamphlet, where customers can read about the farmer who grew the beans.
But is it really worth its $16 price tag?
Last week, Blue Bottle began selling its Port of Mokha coffee at all 26 of its locations. Customers can also purchase a bag of the blend for $65. The new item is the result of a partnership with Port of Mokha, a startup that supports Yemeni coffee farmers by helping them to develop the infrastructure to process their beans. It also offers them micro-loans that can be paid back in the form of coffee cherries, rather than cash.
"We're getting rid of cycles of debt, and trying to get a country to regain its self-confidence," explained Port of Mokha founder Mokhtar Alkhanshali, in an interview with 7x7. Over the last year, for instance, the company has funded six weddings in Yemen.
"Customers are paying $16 to experience one of the best cups of coffee they've ever tasted," Freeman said, pointing out that the price is a reflection of Port of Mokha's "interventionist" work. Over the past two years, Port of Mokha has aimed to create a more stable infrastructure for the farmers "in the midst of violence and insecurity," explains Freeman.
"By paying what we pay, we are compensating an intervention... and covering pre-payments to producers for the first microlots [a type of coffee] of their lives," he added.
Freeman also noted that producing the coffee comes with "all sorts of expenses" that most producers don't have to worry about, such as bringing moisture analyzers to the mill and lab in Yemen. Fuel prices in the country are also inflated at present, due to the ongoing civil war.
Still, to the average coffee shop customer (a cardamom cookie and story pamphlet notwithstanding), paying $16 for a cup of Port of Mokha might seem excessive. It remains to be seen whether enough will take the plunge (or sip, as it were) for the company to continue selling it, and support Yemeni farmers.
"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," an apathetic drinker wrote in a recent Los Angeles Magazine article.
Blue Bottle's competitors, like Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia, also demand high prices for coffee. This new wave of coffee businesses are committed to growing, roasting and carefully brewing their own, "single-origin" beans. While incumbent players (Starbucks first comes to mind) typically source from several locations for a more standard blend, these high-end roasters harvest beans in very specific locations, altitudes, and temperatures.
Based in Oakland, Calif., Blue Bottle has gained a large cult following and seen relative success in its 14 years of operation. The chain has expanded to 23 locations in the U.S., and another three in Tokyo. That's a far cry from the 186-square-foot potting shed where Freeman first launched the company in 2002. To date, Blue Bottle has raised more than $120 million in venture capital funding to date, from high-profile investors including like Chris Sacca and Instagram founder Kevin Systrom.