Why is good coffee so expensive?

Quantity, quality, harvesting, certification, roasting, packaging, and… expertise. Coffee, like any fine commodity, can be found in a range of price brackets (some staggering, we know!) and with very little information explaining the cost variation. Today, we hope to shed some light on why your favorite beans and brews can cost a pretty penny.

The first determinant of a coffee’s market price starts, unsurprisingly, at the beginning. Certain coffee plants are rarer, more costly to care for, and / or more costly to harvest than others. Among these more costly plants, annual yield varies with some prized plants producing barely enough beans to produce one pound of roasted coffee per annum. As with all goods, the greater the demand for a limited number of beans, the higher the price per pound. For coffee, this means that high-grown, shade-grown, ‘pure’ arabica plants, which are less prevalent than robustas and which produce, in their prime, between 1 and 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee per year, demand a higher price than low-grown, sun-grown, and / or hybrid plants (hybrids are generally bred to be more pest-resistant), which are widely available and produce between 2 and 3 pounds of roasted coffee per year. A bean’s ‘beginning’ (species, variety, terroir, and production yield) determines its baseline price. The next price determinants are harvesting and processing.

Coffee harvesting can be done in one of two ways, with a machine or by hand. Machine harvesting is cheaper, faster, and destructive to the coffee plant. With machine harvesting, a machine strip picks or clears an entire branch without regard for individual cherry ripeness. Many robusta farms, which are established on low-lying, mostly flat land, machine harvest for efficiency and to keep costs down. Arabica plants, which primarily grow 4,000 feet above sea level on jagged mountainsides under layers of native vegetation, are most often hand-harvested. During hand-harvesting, harvesters handpick each cherry, selecting only the ripest. This is a long, arduous process that can extend over many days. Not only does the harvester handpick each cherry; they must also carry their harvest to the processing or weighting station, often in sacks on their backs. While this could be a short journey, each trip to the processing center generally involves descending a portion of the mountain and then re-climbing the mountain to begin harvesting the next batch. It is brutally hard work and good farms pay their harvesters a fair price for their efforts and expertise, which, in turn, increases the price of the bean. Processing can also increase a bean’s price, especially if the beans, as is often the case with small farms and plots, need to be sent to a non-farm owned processing facility. For more remote farms, the cost of transport from the mountain to the facility must also be recouped in the sale price.

Additional factors that increase a coffee’s price include certification, decaffeination, roasting, packaging, and transport. There are many coffee certification options available and all cost the farmer a significant amount of money each year. Roasting and packaging costs also vary greatly from one roaster to the next. One of the world’s little known coffee secrets is that not all roasters have their own roaster and among those that do, not all roast all of their own beans. Some smaller roasters send some or even most of their beans to a larger roaster to be roasted, or use a private label service. These additional services, storage, and transport costs get tacked on to the final price of the coffee. Packaging also adds to the retail coffee cost. Smaller bags, bags made in the US, and bags with a lining and valve seal all cost more than foreign-bought, larger tin-tie bags. Finally, naturally decaffeinated coffee is more expensive than regular coffee as the beans must be sent to a specialized decaffeination plant before they are returned to the roaster. The roaster must recoup not only the cost of the decaffeination but also of transport. Throughout each of these steps / processes in the bean-to-brew process, expertise also comes into play. Q Graders, skilled processors, and expert roasters are paid a premium for their knowledge and that adds a few extra cents, per cup, to your coffee. If you purchase prepared coffee, the barista’s training and time-spent-per-drink also factor into the final cost. So, that price you pay for your favorite coffee, is it worth it? Only you can be the true judge of that but if you are drinking a high-grown, shade-grown, hand-harvested, meticulously processed, artisan-roasted, well-packaged, and / or expertly prepared cup, the answer is likely yes. As my grandmother used to say, ‘you are what you eat’. When it comes to high-quality coffee, that price you pay is truly the labor for a cup of love — love of the land, of the process, and of the bean.

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