The value of coffee / by Bryan Hibbard

The more we value something, the more of our resources we are willing to devote to it. The value of coffee is a complicated subject and one that anyone trying to sell it is deeply interested in.

What is coffee worth? In black and white terms, there is a commodity price on green (unroasted) coffee that changes daily based on the market. This is much like the commodity price on a barrel of oil. But, while coffee is a commodity, its perceived value is much more variable than other commodities. One of the myths that has allowed giant coffee corporations to thrive, and that we in the small roaster community must fight against is that all coffee beans are created equal and that the skill of the roaster is more important. In terms of caffeine content this is true for all Arabica coffees (Robusta coffee actually has twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica). But in terms of flavor, this is surely not true. And while roasting skill is important, you can't coax beautiful flavors out of bad beans.

This is where value gets complicated. How much is a flavor worth? How much is the assurance that coffee has been organically grown and fairly traded worth? How much is the skill of the roaster, the care of the grower, or the knowledge of the importer worth? And finally, how much is a good story worth?

All of these factors go into how much I pay for my green coffee, and how much I decide to sell it for. My goal since the beginning has been to bring in spectacular coffees that are grown by people who receive a living wage. And then to sell them at a price point that is approachable for the average middle-class family to enjoy on a regular basis and that allows me to make a living.

Historically, our culture has valued other foods far more than coffee. Just walk into any supermarket chain store in Houston and compare the coffee aisle to the wine aisle. Some things you will notice. 1. The price range is much larger in wine. There are bottles from $4 to $150 and everything in-between. These are all the same product (fermented grapes), but the perceived value varies greatly. Compare the cheapest can of coffee you can find with the most expensive and it will be no more than 2 to 3 times more expensive (I'm talking about you, Illy). 2. The sheer number of brands (both large and small) is much greater in the wine section. Hundreds compared to 10-20 coffee brands. 3. Wine is organized into country, region, and grape varietal. Most of the coffee will either be a nondescript country-wide origin (like a Colombia Supremo) or will be a blend without origin information (Breakfast Blend, French Roast). You would be hard pressed to find a variety-specific, or even region-specific coffee. 4. There is often a wine expert on staff to help shoppers pick out a particular wine or to offer tastings. I have yet to run into a coffee expert on staff at a supermarket.

I say all this, not because I am ashamed at the current set-up of coffee (though it does make me a bit sad) but to show how far the value model of coffee can go, just in your neighborhood grocery store. If the coffee aisle were like the wine aisle you could walk in looking for a sweet, fruity Colombian coffee and have 20 different choices with a coffee expert there to help you pick the one you would enjoy most.

This probably sounds a bit crazy, but you only have to look at what has happened in the beer industry to see a recent model. In 1982 there were about 50 breweries in America (most of which were pretty massive operations). In 2013 there were about 2,800 breweries in the US, of which 99% were microbreweries. This popularity for craft beer (which now has more than 14% of the revenue in the industry) has been reflected in the grocery store. There are now many choices for both standout national craft breweries as well as local breweries. This is how I picture the coffee aisle in 10-20 years. It will still have cans of Folgers and bags of Starbucks, but it will also have coffee from the best national craft roasters such as Stumptown, Intellegencia, and Counter Culture Coffee. It will also feature many local roasters, and we hope FBCR will be one of them! But, the way to make this a reality is to buy good coffee now and gradually raise that market share enough that the average grocery store chain has to take notice.

Is coffee a commodity that efficiently delivers caffeine, or is it a mix of skill, labor, and terroir that brings a different experience with every variety? I think this is one of the reasons I have come to hate those snarky coffee sayings (like "hand over the coffee and no one gets hurt" or "my blood type is coffee"). While funny, these sayings treat coffee like a drug and not like a food. Assuredly, the caffeine will always be a big part of coffee, but if that is all it is, then there is really no point in making such a fuss about it like us coffee roasters do.

Share your thoughts on this. Why do you value coffee and what do you think it will take to make coffee worth more to the average consumer?