Coffee Prices Soon to Spike! Time to Panic and Hoard?

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor

Photo credit: StockFood / Girgiel, Edyta

NPR just delivered the alarming news that a combination of drought and disease in Brazil and Central America could result in a coffee shortage, and that “wholesale coffee prices are up more than 60 percent since January.”

The words could strike fear deep into a jittery heart, and your initial instinct might be to hoard all the coffee immediately. But there are a couple of crucial qualifying factors here, so you don’t need to do anything crazy, like switch to tea, just yet.

Byard Duncan, communications manager of San Francisco–based specialty coffee retailer Blue Bottle Coffee, says to remember that it takes a while for coffee to get from its plant to your cup. Most of the coffee Blue Bottle is selling right now was purchased last year, says Duncan, and “harvested in January or October, depending on the country.” A whole complicated process ensues, including the removal of the seeds (what we know as beans) from their cherries, the drying out of the seeds, the travel time via boat, and the storage time on American shores. So even if coffee bean merchants are feeling more of a pinch, Duncan surmises, “customers won’t feel the effect right now.”

He reminds us, too, that “when you raise prices you can’t walk back from that,” and that companies tend to very carefully weigh whether or not to increase the price by the cup. (Picture an annoyed, caffeinated mob.)

Also, Duncan stresses, even though the temptation is there, “hoarding is not a good idea.” Coffee beans go stale. Ideally, you’re buying coffee beans that have been roasted a few days before you grind and brew them. “We sell coffee no longer than 48 hours after it’s been roasted,” explains Duncan. It’s best to “brew coffee between four and 12 days after it’s been roasted. If you buy a ton of coffee now, it’s fine, but it’s going to get really stale, like bread.” 

It’s a good reminder for how to brew coffee in general: “We try not too be too preachy about it, but we recommend to grind right before brewing,” says Duncan. Grinding coffee days before brewing is “similar to a loaf of bread being cut into cubes,” which dries it out faster.

So don’t panic yet, keep buying beans a couple days after they were roasted (when possible!), grind to order, and remember that coffee prices will vary depending on its origin and the size of the vendor. A company that buys primarily from Central America and Brazil—and produces what Duncan calls a “commodity grade coffee,” as opposed to Blue Bottle’s more diversely sourced “specialty coffee”—could likely reflect a price jump sooner.

OK. Jitters quelled.