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Here's Why Some Coffees Are Very Expensive
Written by: Garrett Oden
Ever tried an $8 cup of coffee at your local coffee shop? If you did, was it worth it?
I know what it’s like to scoff at expensive coffees. As a fairly frugal person, I rarely go any higher than $3 per cup when I visit cafes, but I’m beginning to see more and more offerings for $5, $8, and even more.
What’s with these expensive coffees? Are they just trying to extort us for more money, or are there legitimate reasons for the high price?
These are the types of questions we'll answer in this blog post.
Before we go any further, I’ll just let you in on a very general answer. Yes, there are a variety of good reasons that coffee shops and roasters price some coffees that high. A $7 mug of coffee or $40 bag doesn’t deserve instant outrage - and I’d love to share why.
Let’s dig into why some coffees are very expensive.
Coffee On The Global Scale
Before we even try to determine a “normal” and “high” price for coffee, we have to remember that our cost expectations aren’t objective and universal.
For most of us in the developed world, coffee is an affordable luxury. We love it, it’s a special part of our day, and it doesn’t typically cost much to make.
From the coffee farmer perspective, coffee is more than just an enjoyable moment and energizer. It’s the means to a roof, food, and clothes.
When we reduce coffee to a manufactured good or commodity, we easily forget that there hundreds of millions of people that depend on it for their livelihood. And when we forget that - or choose to ignore it - we risk abusing our place in the chain by extorting farmers for lower prices.
This is how the coffee industry worked for centuries. It got so bad that most coffee farmers in the 18th and early 19th centuries were slaves or practically slaves. Thankfully, the world is out of this dark era, and with this change, comes higher coffee prices.
I know I’ve heard my elders complain about the rising cost of coffee over the decades - and it is rising - but on a basic economic level, that’s a very very good thing.
This rise in coffee costs is helping liberate farmers from economic and systematic oppression.
We’re paying more to slowly raise the quality of life for millions by paying fair, sustainable wages. We’re paying more so that the environment will remain suitable for coffee growth. We’re paying more to level the economic playing field for historically disadvantaged coffee farmers.
We’re paying more because it makes the world a better place.
We have to be careful not to elevate ourselves to the level of saviors to far way people. That’s a poor way to think about poverty and alleviation. Instead, we consider ourselves partners in making the world a better, healthier, more prosperous place.
“Expensive” coffee looks different from person to person, but the experts in coffee and poverty research agree: if we want a better world for coffee producers, we need to be open to paying a little more.
Check out some of the most expensive coffees in the world. These are definitely expensive, but there are reasons for the price. Let me show you.
Rare Coffee Varieties
Have you heard of geisha (or gesha) coffee?
These coffees are the product of a rare and prized coffee plant variety: geisha. Coffee varieties work just like wine varietals: the plant’s genetic makeup and place in the family tree can have a big impact on flavor.
Geisha plants aren’t very hardy and don’t produce very large yields, but they earn very high scores in terms of flavor. These coffees often have a tea-like body, an unrivaled crisp acidity, and unique floral flavors.
Though originally from Ethiopia, the world’s most celebrated geisha coffees come from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama.
You’ll never guess how much they go for.
$601 per pound.
That’s right. On July 19, 2017, this farm’s Esmeralda Geisha Cañas Verdes Natural broke the world record for the most expensive green coffee beans ever sold.
(2019 Update: the new record for green coffee prices is over $2,000 per pound!)
Most geishas won’t run you that much, maybe $40-80 per bag, but they still beat out most coffees in terms of price. They’re rare, they’re exquisite, they’re fascinating, and they’re worth trying.
There are other rare and unique varieties that produce stellar coffee, but geishas are the most popular of them.
Exotic Coffee Origins
Ever had coffee that was eaten by elephants or cats and extracted from their… natural waste?
Yeah - it’s a thing.
There are several places that produce exotic coffees that have been processed in strange ways. These coffees are usually in very short supply but meet a lot of demand. If you know anything about economics, you know that small supply and large demand equals high prices.
Black Ivory Coffee
Black Ivory Coffee from Thailand is coffee that’s been consumed by elephants, defecated, harvested from the waste, cleaned, processed, and roasted. Sound gross? It kind of is.
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand is the exclusive seller of this exotic coffee. Profits go to providing healthcare to the elephants they rescue, which happen to be the ones that enjoy eating coffee cherries.
Flavor-wise, this coffee features a bold earthy flavor, a heavy body, and a mellow, unique acidity. If you want to try it and support elephant health, it’ll cost you $1,000+ per pound once roasted.
Kopi Luwak Coffee
Kopi Luwak coffee also hails from Southeast Asia and is the product of being consumed by local civet cats. Much like with the elephants, something about the civet cat digestive system alters the acidity of the coffee to be odd and unique.
Sadly, much Kopi Luwak coffee is created by force-feeding cats in captivity. It’s very inhumane and an abuse of demand for the product. If you want to try this coffee, do your research to find a seller that supports free-roaming civet cats and natural feeding patterns.
When it comes to flavor, this coffee has a mellow sweetness, medium body, and wildly unique acidity. You can buy a bag from free-roam cats for $300+ per pound.
These are just two examples of exotic coffee origins that demand high prices for their rarity and exotic appeal. You’re not likely to run into these on a regular basis, but coffees from exotic places (Cuba, Myanmar) are still likely to cost more.
Let’s switch gears and talk about high prices in coffee shops.
The Coffee Shop Dilemma
Coffee shops are generally low-margin, high-effort operations. When they get a high dollar coffee, they usually aren’t selling it at a huge markup. Chances are, they’re selling that $8 geisha at a lower margin than the regular $3 coffees.
Consider ordering a manually brewed cup of coffee for $5. You’re not just paying for the coffee, but for the lights, gear, taxes, and the time of the barista’s labor.
Let’s say it takes roughly 4 minutes for a barista to make a cup of pour-over coffee. Assuming the barista is paid $10 per hour (and the business pays 50% in taxes), that 4 minutes costs the business $1 on labor alone.
You also have to consider the opportunity cost of a 4-minute cup of coffee. That same barista could probably sell 2-3 cups of drip coffee in that 4-minutes and earn more money.
I used to scoff at expensive coffee prices at coffee shops. Then I managed one. Now I know why these costs are essential to keeping the business alive and healthy.
To make the price less daunting, keep in mind that you’re not just paying for the coffee. You’re paying for the experience. The chairs, the smiles, the chill music. It’s all part of the product.
They’re not trying to nickel and dime you. They’re trying to create an atmosphere that includes great coffee for you to enjoy.
Don’t hear me pressure you to pay $50 for a bag of coffee. Only do that if you’re really curious about the specific offering and can afford it.
I just want you to know that pricier offerings aren’t tricks or gimmicks. They’re an effort to create something unique, innovative, and impactful in our world.
Next time you see one of these expensive coffees, just let it remind you how rich and diverse the incredible world of coffee can be. There’s a lot to discover out there - and coffee quality just gets better and better as time goes on.
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