I lift the glass of bird excrement to my lips and close my eyes. Am I the latest contestant on I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here? No, I am sampling a coffee, a rare delicacy that has recently arrived in London.
Jacu is a new coffee shop and restaurant in Westminster that opened at the end of January. Its main attraction is its eponymous coffee, produced by the Brazilian bird, the jacu, which seeks out and eats the best coffee cherries in the wild, then excretes them. These droppings are collected on a farm in Brazil, then washed, roasted and turned into coffee beans.
The Jacu cafe is the only place in the UK where you can buy the coffee by the cup. It will set you back a whopping £30, regardless of whether you opt for an espresso, latte, cappuccino or macchiato.
The price is justified, according to Arif Graca, the shop’s owner. “I don’t think that we are expensive,” he says. “If you are, say, drinking a large glass of wine in a good restaurant, this can be easily £30.”
As if to hammer home the point, Graca serves the jacu espresso in a wine glass and shows me the “special way" to drink it. First, I am encouraged to put my palm over the mouth of the wine glass, leaving a slight gap, then swirl the liquid and take a whiff.
Much like a wine tasting, it is all about savouring the drink. “It’s an experience,” Graca says. The jacu espresso does smell like coffee, of course, but there are undertones of something sweeter – an almost marshmallow-like scent. Graca hands me a pot of jacu beans to smell, too, and they have a powerful odour, like a coffee-scented Yankee Candle. He gives me a bag of standard Colombian coffee beans, so I can compare. They smell like gone-off milk.
Already, then, I’m aware that this coffee is not going to be like any other that I’ve tasted. And I’m right. Usually, I find espresso bitter, so I try to down it quickly. The jacu espresso, by contrast, was so smooth and sweet that I wanted to savour it for as long as possible.
It tastes like the love-child of a coffee bean and a glass of red wine. It has the same caffeine content as a regular espresso but a more pleasant aftertaste – so, unlike with standard coffee, I wasn’t reaching for a mint.
I also sampled the macchiato. This creamy concoction was not as strong as the espresso but was slightly too sickly for my liking. I’d recommend you stick to the espresso – the bean is at its best when not diluted.
The jacu’s coffee is delicious. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised – a few years ago, another premium coffee produced in a similar way was all the rage: kopi luwak, made from civet excrement.
This coffee, once sold by the bag at Harrods, was brought to the West by Tony Wild, former coffee director of Taylors of Harrogate, in 1991. It exploded in popularity and, to keep up with the rise in demand, coffee farmers kept civets in cages to mass-produce the beans. Wild later campaigned for Harrods to stop selling the coffee.
Animal-lovers might fear that the jacu bird could face the same fate as the civet. Graca says this will not be the case. “They’re living wild. They are free living in the jungle and [that’s why] the prices come so high,” he says. The farm in Brazil, which produces Jacu’s organic coffee, had to produce a certificate to assure retailers they will not cage the birds. This was at the insistence of Harrods, as the retailer once sold jacu coffee beans (at £1,400 per kilo).
Given the coffee’s unique taste and story, can we expect more coffee shops to jump on the jacu bird trend? Quite apart from the carbon footprint involved, it's unlikely, says Freda Yuan, coffee expert and three-times UK Cup Tasters Champion, who has not yet tried jacu but has sampled kopi luwak.
“The majority of the main export and import for most of the big specialty roasteries remains pure arabica coffees,” she says. “Animal-processed coffee alters the and potentially even damages the coffee’s own terroir attributes.”
Despite its novelty value, I was impressed by the cup of jacu, and within 10 minutes of opening the cafe was full of customers, clearly unfazed by the drink's £30 price tag. Depending on its success, Graca hopes to open further outlets in Mayfair, Soho and the City. With such a discerning bird as his source, he might be onto a winner.