In the ’60s, Folgers aired an unapologetic series of what are now considered appallingly sexist ads — husbands bemoaning how their wives could be so pretty but make such terrible coffee. Enter Folgers to save the day with a classic roast. (YouTube it for a chuckle.) Fast-forward to the ’80s with Maxwell House specifically hocking their blend to blue-collar buddies who wanted to save a dime without sacrificing “flavor.” Then there came the saga of commercials featuring the Taster’s Choice couple, whose will-they-or-won’t-they romance blossomed painfully slowly over a shared affinity for instant crap.
For generations, the American coffee trade was fueled by enormous companies, enormous ad campaigns, and our love for them. When Starbucks took over the world in the ’90s, the collective consciousness of this nation veered wildly towards something marketed as infinitely more superior — and thus perceived as worth the huge jump in price. Coffee drinkers began to fork over for the price of a cup of coffee what a whole can of the supermarket stuff would cost. This also marked when we began thinking of coffee not as a thing that percolated on the stove every morning, but as a craft beverage made by a new army of exotics called baristas. It became less about the drink and more about the experience.
Coffee is always evolving, and now Charleston’s coffeehouses are trying to stand out from the herd by serving exclusive beans. Bad Wolf Coffee sources beans from Four Barrel out of San Francisco, the Daily rocks Stumptown, and Black Tap roasts their own beans in-house. As consumers, we’re growing more educated when it comes to coffee and know how to seek out well-made java that ascribes to our personal tastes. We’re also willing to devote a handsome sum to a cup of brown liquid that has little nutritive value.
Walk into any area IHOP right now and you’ll be treated to a Never Empty Coffee Pot for about $2.50. A grande cold brew at Starbucks will run you $3.83 after tax. At Black Tap, one of the most popular drinks, the lavender latte, is $4.70. A round fiver will buy you an iced latte from the Daily. Each a relatively small sum, surely, but one that compounds itself day after day as we sustain our caffeine cravings.
Meg Clark stands in line on a sunny morning at the Daily, eager to pay for her pastry, coffee, and cold-pressed juice — at over $15 for a meal she’ll enjoy at her desk, it’s a hearty sum. Clark is a server, which pays the bills, and a marketing intern, which doesn’t. “It’s not like I have a lot of money or anything to throw away on stuff like this,” she says. “It’s just so much better than most of what we have in Charleston. I try to limit myself to only coming a couple times a week.” Based on our small exchange, I mentally calculate how long exactly Clark has to work at her combined paying/non-paying gigs to afford these splurges, and I figure it must take her at least 60 to 75 minutes to earn one high-end breakfast.
Crafting a Demand
So, at often more than twice the price, why does the fancier stuff cost so much, and why are we willing to pay for it? It’s fair to say that some of the value is entirely imaginary, as the tagline of “fair trade” lionizes some of the most atrocious price tags on bourgeois items like coffee, chocolate, and spices. Fair trade organizations create partnerships that attempt to be more mutually beneficial to both parties, rather than allowing the exploitation of impoverished growers and producers in developing countries — which is a nice thing. But it’s not always a question of goodwill; it’s a financial tightrope, too.
Coffee has a long-standing history as one of the most volatile commodities that trade on the futures markets. Each year, the weather and conditions in critical growing regions around the world determine the price of coffee beans. There are two mains types of coffee beans — Robusta, which grow in areas like Vietnam, and Arabica that grow in Brazil and other regions. Robusta beans are used for espresso types of coffee, while Arabica has a broader application and is more frequently consumed in the United States. Robusta and Arabica markets duke it out when a shortage or surplus develops in one market and impacts supply and demand for the other.
And demand is one of the largest factors pushing coffee prices today. There’s also climate change, weather conditions, pest outbreaks, speculation, an unstable labor market, and an unprecedented thirst for good coffee among a growing global middle class. The problem, in the simplest terms, is that supply has gone down and demand has gone up. At the exact moment that rare beans are booming, all beans are becoming rarer.
This year, Starbucks will begin opening new outlets across China to reach a total of 5,000 stores by 2021. That increase in coffee consumption from a traditionally tea-drinking part of the world will only increase a demand that, even now, is difficult to satisfy.
Plus, the pricier stuff tastes a lot better. Beans from places like Ethiopia are so mellow and fragrant, they require a much lighter roast to develop flavors ranging from blueberry pancakes to strawberry fields. Gone is the bitterness that comes from over-roasting, a practice done by most large coffee producers (including Keurig darling Green Mountain) to trick more flavor into the grounds.
Out on James Island, Luke Correale decided to do something about the K-cup, which he says most coffee aficionados abhor for its acrid taste and blithe band of followers. His company, Coffee Kind, has shifted its focus to producing a line of whole bean coffee and single serve coffee pods. He’s using a Loring S15 Falcon — a notably eco-friendly roaster that has the ability to produce excellent coffee consistently — to package up #5 recyclable K-cups that are roasted to order.
“The freshness,” he says, “is what sets it apart from anything else you’d get from a Keurig. The aroma is earthy, almost grassy. It also doesn’t just zap your mouth with acidity. You taste more.” Coffee Kind’s mostly wholesale pod line is currently available to homebrewers on the shelves of Mercantile and Mash.
There are other bean-heads that’ve made a name for themselves in Charleston, too. Kurt Weinberger began King Bean Coffee Roasters in his parents’ garage in South Carolina in 1994, when he was 23 years old and fresh from a stint in the Navy. He’d been stationed near Seattle and witnessed the booming coffee scene in the Pacific Northwest, but South Carolina hadn’t caught the coffee bug yet. Weinberger purchased a small roaster, and his fine-dining restaurateur parents became his first clients — and that roster grew enormously. Instead of Correale’s American-made Loring, Weinberger uses an Italian-made Petroncini roaster, lauded for its exceptional temperature stability throughout the roasting drum. King Bean’s business model is built around servicing the hospitality industry. They run a full in-house shop that employs techs whose sole jobs are keeping restaurant-grade coffee equipment up and running, with a 24-hour customer service line, water filtration program, and delivery services.
The way it works with local roasters is, green coffee beans are purchased from brokers, who source the beans from around the world. One of the biggest brokers in the United States is Balzac Brothers and Company, a King Street-based, 100-year-old bean importer that works with everyone from Folgers to Dunkin’ Donuts to Black Tap. Balzac is also one of few brokers active in the U.S. There’s so much red tape, risk, cost, and ethical dilemma, that most roasters prefer to let the beans come to them. Balzac CEO Raymond Keane tries to sum up in a few sentences what has taken his company a century to build.
“It’s everything you can think of,” he says of the brokerage process. “We’re thinking about the farmer we buy from — for instance, in El Salvador, where the work is grueling and no one is making much money harvesting coffee beans, no one wants to do it. It’s dying. Is it worth it to drive up wages and prices, or do we focus elsewhere? And then, where does that leave them?”
Keane points out that the majority of the coffee trade is located near the equator, where global warming has already been causing considerable problems with harvests. “If things continue like this for another 15, 20 years,” he says, “I don’t think we’ll be able to grow coffee in the same places anymore. And that’s a shame. You could build another country that looks exactly like France. Same geography, same everything. And then try to make French wine there without the indigenous knowledge of people who’ve been making wine for centuries. It’s not going to be the same.”
In Keane’s place, it makes more sense to cope with wine by the bottle than coffee by the cup. Brazil, the largest grower of coffee in the world, has a year-on, year-off production schedule. Next year it’s projected to have the largest harvest ever. But then, there’s the drought that’s also being forecasted and could destroy everything. There’s the proper way to hedge buy. There’s anti-immigration, poverty, fire, fungus. Coffee brokers must spend long nights staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. But like everyone else in this equation, they are people, not heroes.
In the struggle to balance fair-trade buying in other countries, there’s some residual white privilege selling going on here, too. Consider that the amount a struggling single-person South Carolina household qualifies for in monthly food stamps — roughly $190, less per person depending on family size and other details. Divide that over a month-long period of time, and that allots just over $6 a day — equalling about one trip to an independent coffee shop. No, you can’t cash benefits in at your local Starbucks, but if you have that kind of excess to spend, you probably aren’t in the SNAP demographic.
Small-batch roasters and coffeehouses have to find ways to trim costs, too. Consider the austere environments of places like Black Tap and Revelator, another bleak-ish, monochromatic coffeehouse. Both shops say they eschew fancier trappings for environments that are purposefully devoid of things that might detract from the tasting experience. The austere chairs at places like the Daily and Mt. Pleasant’s Collective Coffee Co. discourage the sofa-crashing campers that favor Starbucks’ cushy digs to implicate a higher turnover rate. Ross Jett, an owner at Black Tap, says that their austerity began out of necessity when they opened in 2012. “It was partially dictated by budget then,” he says. “People come here for the coffee experience more than anything else — it’s coffee in its purest form. It’s something that keeps working for us and for our customers, so we’ve kept it.”
Can small batch roasts and the coffeehouses that sell them really make it through the shiny new phase and stay on Charleston’s coffee scene? Starbucks had a big old bed-shitting at the beginning of September with a poorly-teased Pumpkin Spice Latte rollout. So the ceiling’s been lowered. “You can grow up on one brand, and for your whole life, that’s what coffee tastes like to you, and it’s perfectly fine,” Keane says. “But once you’ve tasted something else, something better, you can’t go back.”