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Why is some coffee so expensive?

Asked by C. Paulin

Topics: bean handling, coffee facts
You've probably noticed an increase in local coffee roasters and shops in your neighborhood. It's no surprise, specialty coffee is the fast growing segment of the coffee market. The promise of specialty coffee is better farm-to-cup quality which means coffee grown by smaller farms and roasted in smaller batches. The result is greater attention to detail throughout the process and a better cup of coffee vs. a mass-produced commodity where the goal is highest output at the lowest price. By definition, small lots or micro lots produce less coffee at harvest. If the small lot has a great reputation, their coffee will sell at a major premium and go to the highest bidder which is great for the farm and its workers. As the price of small-batch coffee roasting equipment has decreased, there are more local coffee roasters in the marketplace looking to buy coffee from small lot farms. This adds fuel to the fire driving up the price of small-lot coffees. Furthermore, small batch roasters by definition have a limited output of coffee per day. With their output fixed, a popular local roaster can charge more for their roasted coffee. So in short: low yield harvests from high quality small lots, an explosion of local roasters, a limited output of small batch roasted coffee from local roasters, and rising demand for better farm-to-cup coffee is driving up the price of your not so average cup of joe.  
In the context of large supermarkets, the cost of coffee is almost always directly correlated with the degree of marketing foo on the label. You pay extra for certifications and the terms that come with them: fair trade, shade grown, organic, etc. As we've said time and again, these terms are not generally correlated with quality.

In a cafe setting, the cost of prepared coffee is all about labor. When measured in terms of their cost per pound, Espresso drinks top out at over $50 per pound. Here, customers pay for the convenience of preparation, the cost of other ingredients like milk, the ubiquity of access, and the time-metered use of a costly espresso machine (and the training required to operate it).

In smaller cafes, and among small-batch roasters, higher prices are all about the bean and its quality, and that cost is a function of paying smaller farmers for micro lots of green coffee (i.e. pre roasted). Competition for higher quality beans is becoming ever stiffer, and the scarcity of great crops will only grow over time based on worldwide agricultural struggles with weather, climate, predation, and disease.

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