By Jane Gleeson
How far would you go for a perfect cup of joe? And how much would you be willing to pay for it? For coffee connoisseurs like Jeff Bickley, the answer might surprise you.
Bickley is the co-founder of Gayo Kopi, a Detroit-based startup company that distributes Wild Kopi Luwak, branded as the “world’s most rare specialty coffee.” And at upwards of $1,000 per pound, also the world’s most expensive.
It all began with a trip to Bali, Indonesia, last March, where Bickley and his wife, Denise, discovered “the most exquisite coffee” they had ever tasted. Returning to Michigan with coffee on his mind — and specifically the Indonesian variety known as Kopi Luwak — Bickley began his search for something comparable.
“But nothing in the U.S. came close to the coffee experience I had in Indonesia,” says Bickley, an admitted coffee fanatic.
That’s when he began brainstorming about how to bring Kopi Luwak to the American market. As the CEO of web design and internet marketing agency Brown Box Branding of Detroit, Bickley was certain he could fill the void.
After extensive research, he established a partnership with a supplier of Kopi Luwak and launched Gayo Kopi, becoming one of the first companies to bring authentic Wild Kopi Luwak to the United States. According to Bickley, Gayo Kopi coffee sets the standard for the sourcing and processing of truly wild Kopi Luwak, and has been acclaimed by such organizations as the Specialty Coffee Association of America, Specialty Coffee Association of Indonesia, Specialty Coffee Association of Europe and the Indonesian government.
Bickley is confident that this rare, luxury coffee, despite it’s hefty price tag, will find a solid U.S. following. With a soft launch in July, the company is gearing up for strong sales leading into this holiday season.
“It is estimated that 5,000 percent more Kopi Luwak is being sold online each year than is actually made, so fraud is rampant with this product." – Jeff Bickley
Following his trip to Bali, research led Bickley to the realization that the majority of Kopi Luwak coffee being sold in the United States was either fake or was being sourced from caged Asian palm civets, also known as luwaks. The small nocturnal animals typically roam freely in the Indonesian jungles, ingesting coffee cherries as part of their diet. The droppings from these animals, which include Kopi Luwak coffee beans (the undigested “pit” of the cherries), are collected and processed by farmers.
“It is estimated that 5,000 percent more Kopi Luwak is being sold online each year than is actually made, so fraud is rampant with this product,” Bickley says.
A key differentiator
Caged animals make a difference in the quality of Kopi Luwak coffee, says Bickley. The Asian palm civets that roam free sniff out the best and most ripe coffee cherries, which grow on coffee trees in the forested highlands of Sumatra. The animals ingest the cherries, along with other native jungle fruits that are part of their diet. The natural process of digestion removes the bitterness and gives the coffee beans left behind a unique flavor.
“It’s a process that can’t be replicated,” says Bickley.
The fact that the coffee cherries are infused with exotic fruits during digestion marks the difference between caged animals and those that roam freely, Bickley says.
“Caged animals are fed a diet of only coffee cherries and no fruit,” says Bickley, which makes a significant difference in the flavor of the droppings. “They are also living in deplorable conditions,” he adds.
“I want to call attention to the inhumane treatment of these animals in Indonesia,” says Bickley, noting that Gayo Kopi has established a partnership with the most well documented producer of Kopi Luwak in the world.
“Our producer has every certification available to guarantee their coffee is sourced by only free-roam wild civets, and have associations with other animal rights activist groups that are leading the way in strengthening these certifications,” Bickley says. “All of our beans are certified through the Indonesian government to ensure no caged or force-fed animals are used in their production.”
Experienced farmers collect the Kopi Luwak droppings from the jungle. The beans are washed in fresh mountain spring water until the water runs crystal clear and there are no particles left behind, says Bickley. The beans are then dried and sorted to ensure they are free of any physical defects according to Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) standards. The entire process is controlled by experts whose knowledge about coffee and the land has been passed down through the generations, says Bickley.
The beans are then shipped directly from the farm to the Gayo Kopi processing center in Dearborn, Mich., where they are roasted using a proprietary roasting process.
“Each batch is unique,” says Bickley. “Because the civets are eating seasonal fruits, the coffee flavors are nuanced. The roasting process is adjusted for each new batch to highlight the unique flavors. The smallest difference here can result in a noticeable variance between cups, so it’s essential we get it right with such high quality and expensive beans.”
The finer things in life
Bickley says the company’s target market began with individual consumers. “We believe it will be a popular gift item because it’s such a unique offering.” This is what he refers to as Phase I of the company’s marketing approach.
“Phase II will be high-end restaurants,” he says, noting that people who dine in five-star restaurants and pay hundreds of dollars for a meal will likely be willing to spend the extra money for a perfect cup of coffee. That perfect cup, he says, could be as high as $23.
“Our idea is to appeal to the higher end consumer who enjoys the finer things in life,” Bickley says.
The biggest difference between Wild Kopi Luwak and other specialty coffees? “Our coffee brings together more than 100 experts over the course of months to collect and process a coffee with the unique flavor, aroma and body only truly wild artisan Kopi Luwak can boast,” Bickley says. And, it probably goes without saying: Cream and sugar are not required.
The Price of Perfection
Gayo Kope co-founder Jeff Bickley believes his specialty coffee is the perfect gift for the coffee aficionado. But it doesn’t come cheap.
3.53 ounces - $89
7.06 ounces - $168
14.12 ounces - $325