In the grand scheme of things, coffee’s not that expensive—it’s certainly not as much as car insurance, or a mortgage, or college tuition, or national debt. For a daily, sometimes multiple-times-daily habit, however, the costs can absolutely rack up over a relatively short period of time. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of reminiscing about when all coffee was $1 or less, and that seemed good enough for everybody. Certainly, this idea of paying wine-bottle prices for a bag of whole beans is new and alarming.

What’s the deal? Are coffee companies gouging customers, taking advantage of (I’ll just go ahead and say it) our addiction? Well, yes and no. The truth of coffee’s seemingly high (and rising) price is more complicated than that. Here’s a little sense behind the cents that add up to your morning splurge.

It’s risky business. Coffee is a volatile industry in more ways than one: The plants themselves can be delicate and vulnerable; innovation and experiment come with the potential for loss as well as for reward; the commercial market fluctuates due to unseen forces; and shifts in consuming trends create ripples that can be felt like a tidal wave across producing countries. In a lot of cases, the motivation for paying higher process—and, therefore, charging higher prices—for coffee is a way of compensating for those risks, and creating incentive for coffee farmers, roasters, and even baristas to take those risks, in hopes that the end result will be something worth paying for.

Less is always more. There are lots of actual threats to the world’s good-coffee supply (I just mentioned a few of them), and they all come with a hefty price tag. Climate change is shrinking the average farm size, harvest season, and available arable land around the world, and it creates ecological nuisances like disease and infestation as well as natural disasters and frost—all of which lower yields and drive up prices. Then we add in labor shortages due to immigration, industrialization, or low wages; and political or cultural unrest that stalls production or exports. The more obstacles there are that face coffee production, the lower supplies are—the lower the supply, the higher the price.

Many hands make craft. There’s an estimate out there that says each coffee bean is handled by more than 30 pairs of hands before it gets to you, and some of them are more obvious than others. We kind of know about the planters and the pickers, and we all know about the roaster and the barista, but in between those entities there are actually also a bunch of hands that drive up costs. This doesn’t mean we need to “cut out the middleman” in coffee production—most of the actors in the grand opera of coffee are essential to its creation. They sort out defective beans for quality; they push rakes across piles of coffee as it dries in the sun; they fill jute bags and stack them in enormous piles in the warehouse; they carry them slung over a shoulder to or from a shipping container; they blend, bag, and seal roasted coffee; they deal with a mountain of paperwork and postage and tax information and forms. Those are just some of the people behind those scenes.

It’s a luxury item. Yeah, I know—I’m not human before I’ve had coffee either, and that itchy, irritable feeling can make the stuff seem absolutely necessary. The truth is, however, that coffee is nonessential for survival—you can’t eat it, you’d have a hard time staying hydrated if it were all you drank. (You’d probably also start to smell weird and get twitchy.) Like all luxury items, really fine coffees can get pretty pricey, especially since it sometimes is a matter of money to convince a farmer to continue growing coffee, rather than switching to a crop that can actually feed a family.

You like sitting in beautiful, expensive cafés. Look, those beautiful reclaimed-wood tables and the sleek espresso machines and the perfect Edison lighting and the bathrooms with the adorable wallpaper and the roll-open garage doors—you know, all the stuff that draws you in to a coffee shop and makes you want to buy a $4 coffee there—don’t come free, and something’s got to earn the money to keep the lights on. Coffee isn’t a high-margin product in most cafés, and it’s a tough gig to make bank on repeated small-ticket sales (you have to ring up a lot of $5 purchases to make what a restaurant or bar recoups in a single check), so the overhead needs to be built into the cost of goods sold, across the board and across the counter.

Specialty coffee isn’t expensive; commercial coffee is just cheap. You know what kinds of things are really cheap? Mass-produced stuff, full of sugar and fat and salt and orange-colored cheese powder. They’re cheap in part because of the sheer scale of the production—it’s actually easier and more efficient to make a lot of something that is mediocre than it is to make even a little of something that’s fantastic—and also because of the quality. Commercial coffee, the bottomless-cup kind, what you’d buy for less than a buck at a deli, the flavor crystals, are all typically blends of good and bad coffee, roasted in a way that is designed to create a uniform but not necessarily delicious “generic coffee flavor.” Sure, you can have this coffee anytime, pretty much anywhere, and it will cost next to nothing.

You, my friend, you want the really good stuff—you want to taste the coffee’s origin and process, you want to be able to tell right away that it was grown, picked, processed, sourced, roasted, and brewed with the utmost care. And, well, you’re gonna have to pay just a little bit more for it.

It’s worth it. I mean, honestly—is there anything that feels as heavenly as that perfect cup of coffee, right when you need it? Is there anything more satisfying than the exquisite espresso, the refreshing cold brew, the decadent mocha? Considering how great it makes you feel, considering how much work goes into it, considering how much the stuff exists purely for pleasure and can provide it in spades, even $5 seems like a comparable bargain. That’s what? The cost of a slice of pizza and a soda? Two subway rides? A pint of kind-of-crappy domestic beer at a bar? A small box of popcorn at the movies? Come on—you’re worth coffee that costs more than that.

— Head photo: Pixabay.

Erin Meister (you can just call her "Meister") is both a longtime journalist and a coffee professional with nearly two decades' experience. She has written about food, coffee, film, travel, music, culture, and celebrity for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Rachael Ray Every Day, Saveur.com, Time Out NY, Chickpea Magazine, Food & Wine's FWx.com, BUST magazine, Barista Magazine, and more. She is the author of the brand-new book "New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History (The History Press, 2017)".
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