'Diva' Beans, Pests And Plagues Make For Pricey Joe

Flickr user Jennifer Yin notes that at Spro in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore, they sell $14 coffee. i i

Flickr user Jennifer Yin notes that at Spro in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore, they sell $14 coffee. Jennifer Yin/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Yin/Flickr
Flickr user Jennifer Yin notes that at Spro in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore, they sell $14 coffee.

Flickr user Jennifer Yin notes that at Spro in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore, they sell $14 coffee.

Jennifer Yin/Flickr

As recently as August, 2010, NPR has reported on the rising price of coffee, attributing it to a combination of economic factors, including reduced supply, because of rain in Colombia, and steady demand from the caffeine-thirsty world. At that point, Smucker's, which owns Folgers and Millstone, announced prices would go up as a result, but Starbucks opted to absorb it.

Now, it seems coffee prices are due for another jump, and there's bad news for those of you who like the fancier brews, from Starbucks to Blue Bottle and Spro, in addition to those of you who prefer Maxwell House.

According to Zak Stone At Good, the supply of fancy and regular beans is being seriously threatened. Arabica coffee beans are fickle, he writes, quoting coffee writer Taylor Clark, who called them "The Barbra Streisand of plants: a diva." They require tropical climates with warm days, lots of sun, and cool evenings; specific elevations and a precise combination of rainy times and dry spells. And they're not getting it in the few places that used to measure up.

Average temperatures have risen nearly 2 degrees in some areas over the past 30 years ... Hotter, rainier weather nourishes pests and disease, particularly coffee rust, a fungal plague that's ascended Colombia's mountain peaks, which were formerly too chilly for the organism. Heavy rains damage Arabica's delicate blossoms — the same blossoms that eventually turn into coffee cherries, whose seeds are coffee beans.

As heat and pests rise, so does the lower limit for growing coffee. And "as growers move higher into the mountains, they run into another problem: mountains have tops."

So what does this mean for your morning cup — or, let's be honest, cups — of coffee? It depends. If you're already shelling out significant coin on Clover-brewed or pour-over coffee, Intelligentsia vice president Geoff Watts predicts you might welcome higher prices.

"As somebody that loves coffee, I'm happy to see the markup," says Watts. "Prices are finally at a place where it is very possible that a farmer can make money and be profitable."

But if you prefer your black more basic, brace yourself for a lower-quality cupful.

Low-end brands that run a volume game — think of instant coffee, cheap diner coffee, or supermarket coffee — are likely to descend the quality ranks even further. Rather than raise prices, they're choosing to cut their beans with older coffee, lower-quality Arabica (say, Brazilian instead of Costa Rican beans), or Arabica's ugly stepsister Robusta — cheaper, hardier stuff grown on an industrial scale in Vietnam that packs even more of the caffeinated jolt with none of the sensual complexity.

So while growers work on ways to grow hardier coffee plants — which may take decades — it might be time to decide what kind of coffee drinker you are... Or look elsewhere for your caffeine fix.

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