Creating Magic Coffee from Premium Science

If you watched the movie The Bucket List, about two terminally ill men living out their wish lists, you might have heard Jack Nicholson rave to Morgan Freeman about Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee.

Now Coffee Primero, a Gainesville company, is mimicking the exquisite taste of that coffee, without the expense and without the somewhat-unsavory way the original is made.

The original Kopi Luwak is produced from coffee beans that have been eaten then excreted by the palm civet, a small, cat-like animal that lives in Asia. The enzymes in the civet’s stomach alter the coffee beans to remove bitterness, creating an end product that is considered by many to be the best premium coffee in the world.

But, as you can imagine, given the process, Kopi Luwak is also expensive—selling for as much as $40 a cup and $600 a pound, says Ken Barr, CEO of Coffee Primero.

That’s why Coffee Primero’s Magic Cat, at $16 a pound, stands out in the coffee market, Barr says. The Kopi Luwak-like coffee is very close to the original without the huge price tag.

“It’s not like any other regular coffee on the market,” Barr says of his Magic Cat blend.

Process Originated at UF

Coffee Primero’s process was developed by former University of Florida graduate student Luis Martinez, who is now a partner in the corporation, and his professor Murat Balaban several years ago.

Using a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the duo figured out how to duplicate the magic that happens inside the civet cats. Rather than relying on a cat’s guts to alter the flavor, the Magic Cat beans are bathed in a blend of food-industry-approved enzymes simulating what occurs in the civet’s digestive system.

During the enzyme process, the beans’ proteins are broken down, which results in more amino acids. It’s the interaction between the bean’s sugars and amino acids that gives the coffee its aroma and flavor.

“A normal coffee company would put the beans right into the roaster, throw it in a bag and call it a day,” Barr says.

At Coffee Primero, the green beans sit in a warm enzyme soup and then are thoroughly rinsed and dried before roasting, where the heat neutralizes any remaining enzymes.

The result is a coffee that Barr says has dominant notes that are clean and chocolaty. “It’s a very, very pleasant, mild, bitter-free flavor,” he adds.

A Product with Wide Appeal

Barr had worked in electronics, real estate and investing before starting Coffee Primero. He decided to open the business because he was intrigued by the coffee and UF’s enzyme process. It wasn’t like the usual biotech discoveries coming out of the university. Coffee, he thought, was something he could handle.

He also liked the fact that he’s dealing with a product that has wide appeal. Eighty percent of adult Americans drink coffee and half of U.S. adults drink coffee every day, he says.

“Coffee is the second most valuable commodity after oil,” he says, “so you’re dealing with a huge market.”

And, while budget coffees have been experiencing sales downturns, specialty coffees have skyrocketed, according to Barr.

To prepare himself for this new venture, Barr says he “traveled quite a bit to learn all about coffee. I was lucky enough to have been trained by some of the best in the business.”

Premium at a Lower Cost

Magic Cat really opens up the door for coffee lovers to experience a coffee like Kopi Luwak because it’s not only affordable, but it avoids the obvious yuck factor in getting the beans out of dung.

“A lot of customers say our Brazilian is a dead ringer for Kopi Luwak,” he says. “The only difference is ours tastes cleaner.”

Customers have contacted the company and thanked them for producing this coffee and he now has a very loyal fan base, Barr says.

“They say, ‘I always wanted to try Kopi Luwak, but the thought of it coming out of an animal was off-putting. And most people didn’t want to pay $40 a cup.”

Currently, Coffee Primero isn’t marketing heavily, instead allowing their business to spread by word of mouth. The company has spent the past three years building facilities in an industrial area off U.S. 441 and also abroad and has only really been selling coffee during the last year.

One reason for the delay in full-scale marketing is that all the coffee is processed, roasted and packaged right here in Gainesville by the company’s four partners. But they have just built a new facility in Ecuador that will process some of their beans, which will greatly increase the production capability. All Coffee Primero coffee sold in the U.S. will continue to be roasted and packaged in Gainesville.

Even without advertising, each month sets a new sales record and the company is making a little profit after overhead costs, Barr says. This slower start also has allowed Coffee Primero time to explore several growth strategies.

For example, the company is looking into becoming a grocery-store brand once it increases its production capability. “We’re not big enough to handle a large account, yet. We’ve got to get our production capacity up first, because you don’t want to tell your big customers that you can’t deliver,” Barr explains.

Coffee Primero also is starting negotiations with big drink companies to use Magic Cat coffee in their products.

“We’re working with some large companies right now because of the unique properties of the coffee,” he says.

One of those properties is that the coffee retains its flavor even when old and cold. If you’ve ever tried to drink normal coffee after a few hours, you understand why that’s important.

“When you let that cup cool, that’s what separates the men from the boys,” he says. “That’s when you can really tell that our coffee is not like other coffee.”

 

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