Why is Coffee so Darn Expensive?

Throughout your coffee drinking years, you might have noticed the price of coffee going up. My grandfather loves to talk about how little he used to pay for a cup of coffee “back in the day”.

It also doesn’t take a genius to work out that you can buy a whole bag of coffee in the supermarket for the price you would pay for maybe two individual cups of coffee in a coffee shop. So what gives? Why is coffee so expensive these days and what makes coffee expensive? I have all the answers for you in this article!

The Evolution of Coffee

Firstly, let’s look at how coffee has changed over the years. The coffee that was brewed during the war is nothing like the java we enjoy today. Up until recently, coffee was mass produced and low quality. It was then roasted dark to mask the cheap flavor and marketed as being “strong”.

Starbucks is an example of mass-produced, Second Wave Coffee
Starbucks is an example of mass-produced, Second Wave Coffee

The Specialty Coffee Movement

Over the years, there have been several advances in coffee brewing.

First Wave Coffee

The original “first wave” of coffee didn’t even try to convince the consumer that the coffee they were producing was of high quality. It was black tar produced in a factory, and it gave you a kick in the morning.

Second Wave Coffee

Then, the second wave of coffee happened. For the first time, coffee drinkers became aware of the actual coffee brewing process. Coffee chains were founded at the start of the 20th century. These coffee giants started to market coffee as a higher quality product and to appeal to the senses of the consumer by describing a particular coffee’s taste and aroma.

Third Wave Coffee

However, when I am talking about specialty coffee, what I am referring to is the third wave of coffee. In the 1980s, coffee producers started really paying attention to the coffee brewing process. Micro coffee roasters came into being. Here the roasters began examining all of the different stages in the life of a coffee bean and adjusting all the roasting and brewing factors. They did this with the goal of brewing the best cup of coffee possible.

The specialty coffee movement has led to coffee being a much more delicious and palatable drink. Of course, making coffee in this way is a much more expensive process, therefore the price of coffee has gone up.

The Price of Coffee

Supermarket Coffee Vs. Coffee in a Coffee Shop

The next question is: why is a cup of coffee in a coffee shop nearly the price of a whole bag of coffee? Furthermore, why is a bag of specialty coffee more expensive than the stuff we buy at Walmart?

Well, first and foremost, we should ask ourselves why we buy a cup of coffee in a coffee shop when we know it is cheaper to make at home? The answer is likely convenience. When you buy a coffee out, it doesn’t require effort on your part. The effort is on the part of the barista. So you are not just paying for coffee, you are paying for the convenience of not having to make it yourself.

Apart from that there are so many hidden costs behind producing a cup of coffee in a cafe. Some examples of this are: the machinery used, the rent paid, the electricity etc. etc. etc. When you add it up, $5 for a cup of coffee is actually a bargain!

Specialty Coffee Vs. Supermarket Coffee

The last thing to talk about in this section is the price difference between a bag of specialty beans and the stuff you can buy at your local mall for next to no money.

As I mentioned, specialty roasters control the quality of their coffee to a high degree. Specialty coffee can normally be traced to a single farm or region, or origin. Tracing the origin of a coffee costs money. Choosing and nurturing specific coffee beans for optimum taste is a costly process. It is no wonder, therefore, that specialty coffee carries a slightly higher price tag.

An example of Third Wave, Specialty Coffee
An example of Third Wave, Specialty Coffee

Why are Some Specialty Coffees More Expensive Than Others?

Diving into coffee price even further: within speciality coffees, some beans are much more expensive than others, for no obvious reason.

In a recent video, James Hoffmann mentions that the price of coffee doesn’t have to do with the taste, per se, but rather its availability. As with any precious commodity, coffee that is hard to come by, or is in short supply, is going to cost more money.

Poop Coffee

The first time I came across poop coffee was when I watched the film “The Bucket List” with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s character is rich, and is disgusted to eventually find out that the expensive coffee he enjoys comes from the poo of a particular breed of cat called a Civet.

Poop coffee, such as the cat poo coffee Kopi Luwak, or Jacu Bird Coffee, is expensive because it is extremely difficult to come by, for obvious reasons.

The Most Expensive Coffee in the World

However, contrary to popular belief, Kopi Luwak is not the most expensive coffee in the world. In fact, the coffee that sold for the highest price ever at auction is a very rare coffee from Panama called Elida Geisha Natural.

So there you have it! Now you know what you are paying for. How much would you be willing to pay for a good cup of coffee?


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Josh Spink

Joshua is an Irish opera singer and writer. His specialist topics are coffee, food, wellness and culture. His love for coffee comes from growing up in his parent’s coffee shop and working as a barista for several years in the specialty coffee scene in Dublin. As an opera singer, Joshua is a frequent traveller and is passionate about discovering new coffee shops in every new place he visits. Joshua is fascinated by the health benefits of coffee drinking and is an advocate of moderate coffee consumption as part of a healthy lifestyle. Apart from drinking and writing about coffee, Joshua enjoys cooking, all forms of exercise, reading and languages.