Food & Drink

Why a cup of coffee costs $20, and 14 other java revelations

coffee cup
Dan Gentile

Like jazz music and the film Inception, coffee doesn't require a deep understanding to be enjoyed. But visiting a farm and seeing how the magic happens unlocks a world of revelations that the average consumer would never even imagine.

I was graciously invited by the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association to tour several of the farms featured in the 100th annual Cup of Excellence coffee competition, and after seeing the operations firsthand, I walked away with a wealth of knowledge about how coffee changes from a plant in the mountains to a pod in your office.

Read on to learn about the unlikeliness of a coffee robot uprising, how farmers take their joe, and how a single cup of coffee can end up costing $20.

coffee beans
Dan Gentile

Most farmers get one bag of beans for every eight that are picked

Picked coffee fruit is between 50 and 70% water, and through processing you lose even more weight. So the one pound of coffee that's growing on each plant turns into substantially less usable product.

Farmers take pride in their coffee, but might not actually drink it

Drinking a fresh cup with a farmer while overlooking their fields is the stuff that barista dreams are made of, but the reality is that most coffee farmers don't have such a romantic view of their product and will actually offer you instant coffee.

coffee beans
Dan Gentile

Beans ripen at different times

You can't just harvest a whole field in one swipe, it takes several rounds of picking by a trained eye to maximize a crop.

A coffee plant can live up to 200 years...

... but they usually don't. It takes roughly three years for a plant to start producing coffee, and it won't hit peak production levels until the age of 10. If a farmer is lucky, this plant will continue producing for the next 20 years... but just like humans, coffee trees become much less likely to bear fruit after the age of 30.

eating coffee fruit
Dan Gentile

Sucking on a ripe coffee cherry will get you high, make you poop, and is delicious

Before it's been processed, the coffee fruit is more like a berry than a stone. Between the rosy skin and interior bean there's a gush of flesh and sweet juice that has the same stimulant and laxative properties as roasted coffee.

coffee beans
Dan Gentile

The bean hides under four outer layers

The seed is enveloped by a tough exterior skin (red or yellow, depending on varietal), pulpy mucilage (this is the stuff you want to suck on), and a thin layer of fibrous parchment. Once these are cleaned away, you're left with a bean coated in a final layer of silver skin that isn't removed until roasting.

Some cherries have no beans

Sadly not every bean is a winner, especially during a drought. These empty cherries are easily separated from their seed-bearing brethren during wet processing because their barren pits cause them to float.

chicken coop
Dan Gentile

Coffee farmers make other stuff too

Banana or palm trees provide shade to coffee plants and function as auxiliary crops. Some forward-thinking farmers will also use the byproducts of their coffee harvest to fuel other ventures, like the above coffee husks being used as bedding for chicken coops.

coffee farmer
Dan Gentile

Improving the quality of beans is often a collaborative effort between farmer and roaster

A farmer is looking to receive the best price for his beans, but that doesn't always mean he's trying to create the highest-quality product. Like any form of agriculture, some farms produce commodity-grade coffees and others grow exceptional beans.

In a direct trade relationship, a roaster seeks out a farmer who is capable of reaching that higher echelon of quality. The roaster will agree to buy a certain amount of coffee per year if it hits a specific quality standard. But the real needle-moving happens when a roaster realizes a farm's untapped potential and crafts a contract that helps the farmer improve infrastructure to the point where they're elevating quality. So theoretically, everyone wins.

Salaries of coffee laborers vary wildly by country

Brazilian coffee pickers are on the very high end of the payment spectrum, often earning up to $1,000 per month (3x the minimum wage), whereas their Guatemalan counterparts are sometimes lucky to take home $5 per day.

coffee farmer
Dan Gentile

The price of beans can vary dramatically based on quality, especially if you win the Cup of Excellence

The commodity market price of coffee beans usually hovers somewhere under $2 per pound, but in the world of specialty coffee, the sky is the limit. Winning a big-time competition like the Cup of Excellence is the equivalent of hitting the lottery. The first-place beans from the Burundi COE sold at auction for $59.10 per pound, and will likely be roasted for eager Japanese consumers who will pay $20 per retail cup.

Coffee welfare is a controversial subject

Some members of farming co-ops receive subsidies from the government to help protect against poor harvests. While this welfare is an important part of the Brazilian coffee economy, it isn't a great thing if you run a co-op. A farmer on the brink of making his quota might not want a paper trail leading to his beans, because he'll lose his subsidy. This hurts traceability, and thus the co-op's ability to market their beans as specialty-grade.

coffee beans in beds
Dan Gentile

The method of drying is one of the main distinctions between beans

Once the coffee cherries are picked off a plant, the beans have to be separated from the rest of the fruit and dried before being sent off to a roaster. The two main methods of processing are called dry (natural) and wet (washed).

In dry processing, the beans are laid out fully intact on concrete lots or elevated drying stations and the sun scorches the moisture out of the beans. This can take up to 15 days, at which point the seed is removed from the dehydrated exterior. Mechanical dryers can also be used to speed things up.

The second method is wet processing, in which the seed is separated mechanically and then fermented to remove the sticky mucilage layer. Once the mechanical process is completed, the beans are either dried in the sun or mechanically.

The middle ground between the methods is known as pulped natural or honeyed, in which the outer skin is removed and the beans are left to dry with the mucilage intact.

coffee plants in mountains
Dan Gentile

Mountainous regions mean no mechanisms

The magical terroir of a shady hillside can lead to incredible coffee beans, but pitched elevations mean that mechanization is infinitely more complicated, so you won't see an army of bean-picking robots marching through the mountains of Brazil anytime soon. In flatter conditions there are machines that can help do the job, but rougher terrain requires human dexterity.

coffee rotating equipment
Dan Gentile

Regardless of potential robot uprisings, technology totally does replace jobs

For coffee to dry evenly, it needs to be rotated regularly. A worker with a motorbike is able to do this task with the efficiency of 10 non-stuntin' workers, so even a relatively low piece of tech can be a game changer.

Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food and Drink team. He'd like to thank the country of Brazil for their wonderful coffees and also for putting up with his terrible Portuguese. Follow him to more broken grammar at @Dannosphere.