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Why Should You Pay More For Coffee?

Coffee prices have literally changed history for good and bad. They have brought down and propped up dictators and stimulated economies in more ways than one. Coffee is a commodity – in fact it is the second most traded commodity on earth behind only oil.

Coffee prices fluctuate, that is a given, just like any other commodity. However, the problem is that the coffee that you want to drink is not a commodity. It is a value-added product produced with painstaking and costly attention to soil, fertilizer, climate, location, picking methods, drying, sorting, shipping, and roasting. An Arabica bean grown on the Don Mayo Estate in Tarrazu Costa Rica with cupping scores in the 90s demands a completely different cost structure than a generic robusta bean grown in Vietnam to be mixed with industrial espresso blend.

As consumers, you must at least be aware of the full coffee chain and its consequences. As with any product, you need not know every single step in the process, but you need to know enough to be able to discern quality. One may not know how the McDonald’s order line works, but you know enough to know that you aren’t going to get a worthwhile steak out of it.

Commodity beans are usually grown in long, flat rows in full sunshine. They can be Arabica beans, but also Robusta. They are grown in mass, fertilized in mass, picked in one fell swoop, and sold in one massive batch – just like any other commodity. This is fine for Folgers, coffee ice cream flavoring, but it’s going to taste…generica and of low quality. There is no value added to the crop. The farmer gets low prices, but can harvest and sell in bulk. This is why you can get Folgers or Maxwell House so cheap. The name of the game is cost reduction.

In contrast, a farmer who grows specialty beans usually doesn’t plant in rows. The trees are in shade. The environment is protected. Pesticides are applied appropriately. Batches from different areas of the estate are kept separate for comparative tastings. Beans are only picked when ripe (higher labor costs). Beans are small batch dried and shipped, where they are small Batch Roasted (rather than mass roast) to highlight flavors and attributes. All these things cost money.

All that to say, pay what you should. A general rule of thumb is 12-14 US Dollars. In this price range, farmers get $3-5, roasters get $2-3, and retailers get $6-7, with the remainder split among shippers, processors, importers, brokers, etc. Now, obviously, you, the consumer, are not a charity worker – but by squeezing the farmers especially – you force them to cut corners. Maybe not clean up polluted runoff, or hire less skilled laborers, etc. And, of course, a retailer could just pocket the extra cash and keep squeezing the supply chain. This is why it is important to buy from reputable specialty coffee sellers and/or you local roaster. They can tell you how their supply chain works. Some of them even buy directly from the farm.

My point is that quality coffee costs money. You should be willing to pay a premium for a premium product, and put it in a different class from commodity coffee. In the long run, we will all end up with better, more consistent, quality coffee.

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See our guide to Good home coffee

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