We all love it, it gives us energy, the so familiar flavors are fantastic, and the social aspect is important as well. But why is coffee so expensive? And why does some coffee cost $5 per bag and some $20/bag?
In order to understand why the cost is so high and why there are big differences in prices, we have to understand the whole coffee production process. The whole journey from coffee plants to a fresh cup of black gold in your hand.
But, if you just want the quick answer, scroll down to the summary.
There are basically 6 different steps in the coffee production process that I will cover in this article, and each of them is super important and heavily affects the price.
Step 1 – The Coffee Plant
The coffee we drink comes from Coffea, which is a genus of the Rubiaceae plant family. There are more than 120 different species of Coffea. The two most popular, which you most likely heard about, are Arabica and Robusta. Coffea plants are big and often in the size of a bush or tree and they can grow up to be 10m high (!?).
Even though the coffee plant can live up to 100 years (but more often 15-20years), the coffee farmers have to look after their plants and make sure that they will produce the quantities and qualities of coffee that want and need. And every now and then they need to plant some new plants for future production.
Step 2 – Harvesting
The harvesting process is something that heavily affects the price. Some producers do this by hand and some use machines.
The advantage of harvesting by hand is that you can be selective with what coffee cherries you pick, therefore this method is called “Selective Harvesting”. Selective harvesting enables the farmer to only pick the ripe coffee cherries, which will produce the best tasting coffee. The disadvantage is that it is much more labor intensive, and therefore also more expensive.
The opposit to selective harvesting is “Strip Harvesting”. Strip harvesting is when all the cherries are stripped from the trees, no matter the maturation level. This can be done manually or using machines. But both methods are less labor intense, cheaper and results generally in a lower quality coffee than the selective harvesting method.
The coffee is often harvested annually, but there are countries with a climate that allows harvesting two times each year. This affects, of course, the price as well. If the farmers would have the possibility to farm more often, they would be able to produce more coffee from less land which would have resulted in lower costs and prices.
Step 3 – Processing & Drying
As soon as possible after harvesting, the coffee cherries need to be processed and dried. No matter what harvesting method that was used, high quality coffee producers make sure to remove any bad cherries from the rest. Often, the cherries that are removed during this process are often sold as lower quality coffee.
How are the bad cherries removed? The answer is that it depends on the process method. There are mainly two different ways of processing the coffee cherry. Dry processing and wet processing.
The dry processing is easy to understand. After the cherries have been harvested, they are placed in the sun to dry. Removing the bad cherries is done by hand and the coffee cherry is dried without much processing. The beans are turned and raked during the day in order to prevent the coffee from spoiling. If this isn’t done correctly, the coffee will catch a funky taste. This process can take weeks, it all depends on the weather and temperature.
Dry processing lets the coffee beans ferment in its own natural juices, and this results in a coffee with wild, fruity, complex and heavy flavors.
Often, the wet processing starts with separating the defected cherries from the rest. The cherries are placed in a tank with water and the ripe cherries will sink to the bottom, while the defected and not ripe cherries will float up.
After separating the good and bad cherries, the beans are separated from the cherry skin and pulp. This is done using a pulping machine and the beans are then transported to fermentation tanks. Depending or various parameters, the beans will be left in these tanks for 12-48hrs. After fermenting, the beans are almost ready for drying. But, before drying, the coffee is washed a couple of times in order to remove all the sticky mucilage that has started to loosen from the beans during the fermentation.
When the washing is done, the beans are put in the sun for drying. This whole process results in cleaner, brighter and less wild flavors than the dry processed coffee.
As you may understand by now, there is a lot of work involved in making your cup of coffee, and we haven’t even gotten to the roasting part yet.
Step 4 – Roasting
There is a lot of talk about roasting, but as you may understand now, there is a lot happening even before the roasting. However, roasting is a crucial part of the process and the beans taste almost nothing before this step.
The coffee is often roasted in another location than the processing is done. If you want the best possible taste, you want the coffee to be freshly roasted when you buy it. For that, I recommend a local roastery or e-commerce that roast all the coffee to order (hint. DripBeans does that). Or maybe even roasting your own coffee.
The roastery tries to roast the coffee to enhance the flavors that are already in the raw beans. So, for example, if the beans are lighter and floral tasting beans, a lighter roast will maintain that and enhance the acidity and brightness. If the beans carry a lot of toffee aromas and sweetness, a darker roast would enhance that and increase the caramelization.
After the roasting process, the coffee is immediately cooled down in order to stop the beans from roasting.
There is a whole science to roasting coffee and roasteries try to perfect this process all the time. They carry a lot of expensive equipment and they have people employed for all different operations (sourcing coffee, roasting, tasting, filling bags, shipping, etc).
But the process is not over yet. The coffee needs to be delivered as well.
Step 5 – Bagging and Shipping
The bagging and shipping process may seem trivial, but it is an important part of the whole process.
The coffee bags need to be designed, manufactured and delivered to the roastery. Then, they are of course filled with coffee, enclosed and shipped. Every step is important in order to be able to deliver the best possible coffee.
If the coffee is roasted to order, there is a lot of planning needed. For example:
- The bags should, of course, look good, but also have needed features. For example, degassing valves.
- The bags should be ready to be filled as soon as possible after roasting.
- The coffee needs to be handled correctly during the whole process from roasting till that you open the bag. The beans must not be exposed to moisture, sunlight or air.
- The shipping needs to be planed so that the coffee can be picked up soon after roasting and delivered as soon as possible.
Less quality coffee has an easier and cheaper journey. The bags are often filled in huge bulks. There are no time limits and a lot of bags are shipped to stores and can stand on the shelves for weeks or even months before they are sold.
The more precise the process, the higher the quality, but also more expensive coffee.
Step 6 – Serving
The price depends a lot on how you buy your coffee. Do you buy your coffee in the grocery store, online or in a coffee shop? This actually makes the biggest difference when it comes to the end price. Also how the coffee is brewed affects the price, for example, cold brew or espresso will need different amounts of coffee, time and labor. If you want to know more about cold brew, here are 11 great benefits of cold brewing.
A cup of coffee in a coffee shop can vary a lot in price, but it can often cost $4 or even more. This is most often pretty high quality coffee, but most surely not the highest quality. The high price depends on that the coffee shops need to make their money as well, and in that price tag you pay for the coffee, but also for the service, equipment, premises, etc.
Grocery Store & Online
If you buy the coffee in the grocery store or online, you pay less but the coffee price can still vary a lot. Partly because of all the other steps we have covered so far, for example, harvesting method, cherry quality, and maybe most importantly, if the coffee is fresh or not.
Coffee that stands on the shelf for weeks means low risk and low shipment costs. If the bag doesn’t sell one day, it can sell tomorrow.
However, if you buy the coffee from directly from a local coffee roastery or online you will soon understand that they have higher prices. One part is that these often sell higher quality coffee, but it is also that they are taking higher risks and have bigger costs.
A local roastery that doesn’t sell their daily bash of roasted coffee can’t sell it tomorrow. They will have to throw it away (or drink it, but they can’t sell it). The online coffee retailer may not need to throw away any coffee, because they can roast exactly the amount they need. But they will have to ship every individual bag of coffee to their customers, and that is quite expensive. Shipping often costs 50% of the margin for single shipped bags.
Summary – Why Is Coffee So Expensive?
The price of coffee depends on all the hard labor that is put into making this fantastic product. Hand-picking, drying, roasting, etc. It all takes time and effort, and therefore it costs money.
So, is coffee “expensive”?
After writing this all down, I need to say that coffee is not expensive. It is cheap. No matter if you buy low- or high-quality coffee, these amazing beans are cheap.
Sure, the price tag might be more than we wish we had to pay. But if I think of the whole process – From plant, harvesting, processing, drying, roasting, bagging and delivering, I must say that I’m surprised that you can buy bags of low quality coffee for $5 in the store, and I’m even more surprised that high quality coffee doesn’t cost over $50/bag.
Nothing is expensive if its value is higher than its price tag. This is true for coffee, tea, chocolate and everything else.
That said. What’s expensive for someone, might not be expensive for someone else. But’ I’m pretty sure that anyone who looks at the whole process of making coffee won’t say “That is so expensive. They only work a tiny bit and charge a lot”.
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FAQ – Why coffee is expensive
Why is coffee so expensive?
Coffee production takes a lot of time, you need a lot of expensive equipment and it is very labor-intensive. Therefore, the prices are quite high.
Why does some coffee cost $20 and some $5?
The difference in coffee prices is because of the differences in quality. Some coffee is for example handpicked, roasted to order and produced by experts. Some coffee is harvested by machines, roasted in bulk and sits on the shelves for months.
Is coffee production expensive?
Yes, it is. At least if you look at all the steps. Coffee production involves a lot of steps and a lot of labor, therefore, the production is quite expensive.