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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Lowly joe brewed to new heights

When Mike Gregory first started selling an 8-ounce cup of coffee for $15, it was the price that gave folks a caffeine-like jolt. "People were kind of...

Seattle Times staff columnist

When Mike Gregory first started selling an 8-ounce cup of coffee for $15, it was the price that gave folks a caffeine-like jolt.

"People were kind of shocked," says the owner of Trabant, a Pioneer Square coffee bar.Not so shocked, though, that they didn't drink it all up.

Same thing happened at Zoka coffeehouses in Seattle. Owner Jeff Babcock put "the most expensive coffee in the world" on the menu for $13 a cup. If you liked it, you could buy a pound of beans for the heart-stopping fee of $180.

"They blew right through it, about 150 pounds of it," Babcock said in wonder the other day. "People were coming in saying 'Hey, look, it's the most expensive coffee in the world. I've got to try that!' "

Fifteen dollars per cup of coffee. And we went for it. The Manhattanization of Seattle is complete.

I realize money is no object for some people. And that some sectors of our once-grounded city long ago blasted off into fiscal outer space.

Like did you know there's a cocktail at El Gaucho steakhouse downtown that costs $480? That's not the pitcher price. It's made with a liqueur called Grand Marnier Cent Cinquantenaire (actual slogan: "Hard to find, impossible to pronounce, prohibitively expensive").

The point is, with luxury, the price is part of the allure. I get that. But I'm someone who still reheats yesterday's coffee dregs, and it was news to me the lowly joe was now as precious as fine wine.

Local coffee fanatics say it began a few years ago in a converted trolley shed in Ballard, where two Stanford grads designed an $11,000 coffee maker called the Clover. It uses a piston-created vacuum, a microfilter and precision heating to brew what's being hailed as the ideal single cup of coffee.

There are a dozen cafes with these machines in this state. I went to Trabant to try one out. I wanted that $15 cup, bad, but they were sold out. So Gregory, 28, graciously "handcrafted" me a cup of Papua New Guinea, which goes for a far less tear-inducing $20 per pound.

It took me back to chem lab. He weighed 22 grams of beans. Set the water to 202 degrees. Then debated, for longer than you might imagine one could, whether to brew for 38 seconds or for 40.

"Those 2 seconds can make the difference between a chalky or a smooth finish," Gregory said.

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The Clover clicked and whirred like something in Wonka's factory, then sprayed out 8 ounces of black fluid. The menu vowed "snapping flavours of strawberry-rhubarb and smoky cedar." At first blush it was just rich java. But as it cooled I had to admit: It was fruity. Woody. Unusually delicious.

Gregory then made a Kenyan brew, in which "crisp lemon, raspberry and orange marmalade are featured." I don't know about all that, but it was citrusy. And tasty.

Four-dollar-per-cup tasty? Fifteen dollars? Why stop there?

"It can all seem a bit absurd from the outside, but you should have tried that $15 cup of Panama La Esmeralda," Gregory said. Then he gently taunted: "That was one indescribable cup of coffee."

It's been said that the definition of luxury is "those things you have that I think you shouldn't have." That's how I feel about the $15 cup of coffee. It's insane. It's a society loose from its moorings. You definitely shouldn't have it.

Especially not until I get my lips on one.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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