On Coffee Killing and Civet Poo

An Interview with Coffee Expert Alexander Niño Ruiz

/ by Noah Charney

Alexander Niño Ruiz is part of the team behind Crno Zrno (which translates as Black Bean, and is pronounced “churn-o zern-o”), a new, boutique coffee roaster and miniature coffee bar in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Alex is from Colombia, so he knows a thing or two about coffee, and is part of a very small, but passionate rise of proper, artisan coffee roasters in Slovenia, a movement which includes the excellent Stow and Escobar roasteries. I spoke to Alex about the magic behind “monkey butt coffee,” coffee’s three phases, and why the best, most expertly-prepared coffee tastes, to me at least, more like tea.

At the recent Vrhnika Coffee Festival in Slovenia, I moderated a tasting of some of the world’s most expensive coffees, including the famous Kopi Luwak, which features beans consumed and excreted by wild civets. When we spoke you mentioned that you’re no fan of this weirdly famous coffee. How is Kopi Luwak produced these days that makes you question its quality and appeal?

What makes Kopi Luwak expensive is the narrative that comes with the bizarre processing of this coffee, but not its inherent quality. Very little is known about the coffee processing after harvesting. While remarkably few people can distinguish between a washed or natural coffee process, surprisingly the story of the animal's fecal matter from which the most expensive coffee of the world comes is part of popular culture. 

Critics of Kopi Luwak argue that this coffee process is unacceptable, tastes bad, sends a wrong message to the consumers about what high quality is, promotes animal cruelty to meet the demand of a luxury market, and doesn't serve the interests of coffee growers. I believe that what makes Kopi Luwak less expensive nowadays is not a decrease in the quality of the products but a decrease in the quality of the story, along with a rising awareness and traceability of what actual high quality coffee is.  

Tell me about the three coffee phases, and what was the turning point that led to the current phase 3?

There is no mention of coffee in the bible, in fact only in the 17th century does the first coffee house in Europe appear. What we see today in coffee, a ubiquitous drink that we can purchase in every store in every corner of the world, is the result of the first wave of coffee, in which coffee stopped being a Middle Eastern eccentricity, to become a mass commodity. It was only in the 19th century, with the appearance of Folgers coffee in the United States, that coffee became part of every table. Coffee consumption increased exponentially with the rise of modern industry, vacuum packaging, the appearance of coffee makers, and instant coffee, that was popularized as a byproduct of World War II.  

The second wave of coffee started in the west coast of the United States, with Peet's and Starbucks, as a reaction to the "bad coffee" culture of the first wave. Focused on regional coffees and drove coffee drinkers to search for a good cup of coffee in their favorite coffee place. It made coffee a social experience, to the detriment of the artisan process of producing coffee. It made espresso, and espresso drinks such as cappuccino and lattes, the kings of coffee consumption, and placed the culture of the Italian café bar in the center of the American and European coffee culture. From there, it was exported to the rest of the world.  

The third wave of coffee connoisseurship, the trend we are living nowadays, is an attempt to rescue the value of coffee as an agricultural product in which neither the supply to masses, as in the first wave, nor the marketing of the social experience of the coffee house, as in the second wave, but the quality of the product as such takes precedence. That means that coffee beans are sourced from individual farms, rather than countries. Roasting consist of preserving the individual characteristics of each bean, rather than incinerating the coffee, to make it taste consistent with a brand, and the work of the barista became to produce a pure, clean cup of coffee, while transmitting to the final consumer the story of the origin of such a peculiar flavor. 

Tasting your coffee, I find floral, mineral and fruity “notes” to it that I more associate with tea. Why is it so different from more “normal” everyday coffee?

The regional characteristics of climate, soil and agricultural practices give each coffee a unique taste profile. The coffee that you tried in Crno Zrno was a washed Caturra from a crop harvested last June in the farm El Aguacate, in Sandoná Nariño, the southern coffee region of Colombia. This coffee grows on a coffee farm with a volcanic soil which is situated between 1700 to 2000 meters above sea level, and whose proximity to the equator guaranties enough sunlight to the crop, so that the plants don't suffer from "dye back." 

The main difference between specialty coffees and commodity coffees, which you call "normal" and are more readily available to consumers, is the grade of roasting. Large roasters always tend to achieve a consistent flavor and fulfill the expectations of its clients. Doing so, they are indifferent to the origins and character of each coffee. Consistent flavor is achieved through dark roasting and the usage of blends. Roasting the coffee dark annihilates that complexity of the coffee, creating more oils and bitter flavors. This way, the sensorial complexity and the regional specifics of the coffee get lost. Specialty coffee, on the other hand, uses a lighter roast, which preserves the acidity of the coffee that works as an umbrella to convey different tastes, aromas and flavors. In short: Dark roast, typical for "everyday coffee," kills the acidity in the coffee, and with it the story of the origin and the peculiarity that makes this coffee unique. 

It is not a coincidence that you have mentioned tea: I prepared your cup of coffee using a traditional pour-over technique called V60, in which the coffee is extracted through percolation. That means that the hot water passes through a bed of coarse ground coffee and a paper filter. This method has been used in traditional tea houses in Japan since the end of World War II, and highlights the aroma and aftertaste of the coffee preserved by our roaster. That is why it resembles the experience of drinking tea.

Thanks for your time, Alex. And can I get another cup, while I’m here?

To learn more about Crno Zrno, visit their website.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.