Tasting Rare and Expensive Coffee From the Indian Ocean

On the island of Réunion, Maximilia Vitry produces a light, flavorful brew called Bourbon pointu
Maximilia Vitry

Helen Soteriou

Maximilia Vitry with her high-altitude coffee trees.

Don’t mention instant coffee to Maximilia Vitry. She isn’t too impressed by it. In fact, she thinks it is a very bad way of drinking coffee, and she would know.

Vitry, 60, farms some of the world's best and most expensive coffee beans. She lives with her son on the French-owned island of Réunion, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, at an altitude of 3,200 feet. She has about three and three-quarters acres of land, an acre of which is dedicated to coffee trees. The altitude and cool, dry climate account for the high quality of the beans.

Vitry's family used to grow fruit as well, but now it's all about the coffee — specifically an Arabica mutation called Bourbon pointu, which she sells to the local cooperative under the brand name La Café-Hier. (Réunion was originally called the Île de Bourbon, and the beans have a conical shape ending in a point — pointu in French.) Café-Hier is a neat pun: a “caféier” is a coffee tree; so “café-hier” means "coffee yesterday" — apropos because coffee trees on the island were decimated by disease in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the industry was revived, at the instigation of a Japanese enterprise, only in the early 2000s.

During harvest season, from August to December or January, the ripe red "cherries" — the fruit surrounding the coffee beans — are picked in the morning, then picked up for processing by the cooperative in the afternoon. From her acre of coffee trees, Vitry produces about 660 pounds of beans annually. These sell at retail for as much as $225 a pound.

Vitry says she drinks two cups of coffee a day herself (she brews with the drip method), and she is part of a jury of coffee tasters on the island. She describes her coffee as being very light and flavorful with hints of citrus, red or black fruits, cocoa, and dry fruit — but, she adds, the characteristics are dependent on the crop and time of year it's harvested. Once she has brewed her coffee, incidentally, she doesn’t throw out the grounds: She uses them to exfoliate her face and body.

Here are Vitry’s tips for brewing and drinking coffee:

1. Let all the water filter through the grounds before drinking.

2. The water should not be too hot — around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Don’t drink too fast; sip little by little.

4. No sugar, no milk, just black.

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