Is £15 too much for the perfect cup of coffee?

By Madison Darbyshire for FT

Alain Ducasse has created a parfait cup of coffee.

While there is no wrong way to enjoy a caffeinated beverage, says Jakub Klucznik, the company’s cafelier (coffee-sommelier), they simply believe there is a very, very right way: an exacting, scientific and intensive process to produce an incomparable brew.

Among the offerings of the new Le Café Alain Ducasse in King's Cross, London, is a single origin filter coffee from Yemen that costs £15. Which is shocking, except its next cheapest cup is £13. Uncommon products have an uncommon price, says a spokesperson for Mr Ducasse, the French chef who has held 21 Michelin stars. Uncommon ingredients are a point of obsession for the café.

Mr Ducasse travelled the world for his beans, which can be harvested in quantities as small as 17kg each year (to buy 100g of the Yemeni beans will cost you £59). They are roasted in Paris by a two-time French roasting champion. The sugar is sourced from La Réunion island in the Indian Ocean, and the milk is imported from Normandy for ideal fat and protein content. Two different mineralities of filtered tap water are used, specific to the tenth particle per million. Almond and hazelnut milk is made bespoke in Montpellier, France, with nuts sourced from Sicily.

I am sourced from New York where coffee is anthropologically “light and sweet”. Mr Klucznik is kind. “Milk in your coffee?” he asks. “Would you put coke in your vintage wine?” With perfect Ducasse hospitality, he adds: “Of course, if someone asks, we’ll do it.”

The water, heated to a precise 91C, is poured in four stages in a circular motion to create the perfect balance of flavour and strength. This is not the coffee of the grab-and-go set. Indeed the café only begrudgingly provides to-go cups. I bring it to my lips. Do I taste the crispness of fresh grape? Red fruits? Orange peel and honeysuckle? I close my eyes and try. Every step of the process is to be savoured and mesmerised by, Mr Klucznik says.

But that is not the narrative that coffee has written for itself. It is a vice to be weaned off like nicotine or a no-good ex. Coffee spills down your blouse as you run to a meeting, and keeps new parents functioning. Coffee prides itself on tin-can utility, and consequently has lagged behind its peers such as tea, beer and wine in its quest for a luxury reincarnation.

Impatient customers queueing for their morning fix will have little interest in Mr Ducasse’s uncompromising six-minute filter coffee. And he has little interest in them. This is coffee for obsessives, a growing market, with speciality coffee shops in New York selling $18 and $24 cups.

Those I asked exclaimed: “15 quid? Was it brewed with beans crushed between the thighs of baby giraffes?” The existence of the £15 cup of coffee is a symptom of our fixation with taking things to their culinary extreme. Our preoccupation with the price tag illustrates our feverish consumption of things that are “things”, such as Cronuts and Hamilton tickets.

In pursuit of the hottest Instagram conquest for our culinary bedpost, we rarely stop to ask: was it worth it? In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I purchased a black filter coffee from a high-street chain. The barista blinked when I inquired about the origin of the brew he pumped from a Thermos. The paper cup felt flimsy and eruptions from the plastic lid scalded my hands. The bitterness accosted my newly refined sensibilities. It tasted distinctly of airport.

Perhaps it is easier to tell when something is bad, rather than distinguish between shades of greatness. Sometimes good is just good enough. I thought of Mr Klucznik. His elevated palette leaves him unable to stomach the bile most of us rely on to get through the day. “People who can drink all coffee are lucky,” he said. Indeed.

The writer is an FT journalist

Faris Sheibani