Before the end of this year, local java fans could be paying a premium to drink coffee grown right here in San Diego.
At a series of ticketed cuppings last weekend, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters introduced its first take on California-grown beans, an organic coffee of the Cuicateco varietal, harvested by the Good Land Organics coffee farm in Santa Barbara. Bird Rock’s roast earned a 92-point expert rating from CoffeeReview.com, which will count it among the world’s best coffees in 2019.
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Good Land owner Jay Ruskey started efforts to farm coffee there fifteen years ago, and the project has grown into a new, more ambitious company, Frinj Coffee, which now partners with 35 farms throughout Southern California, and has planted 35,000 trees and counting.
Twenty of those farms, and roughly 20,000 of those trees, are in and around San Diego County, ranging from Rancho Santa Fe up to Temecula. Most of the farms were, and continue to be, avocado or citrus farms.
Coffee trees “have exactly the same temperature requirements as avocados,” says Ruskey, which creates an interesting opportunity for small avocado farmers who’ve struggled as imports from Mexico, Chile, and Peru have relegated the once booming local agriculture to commodity pricing. According to Raskey, Frinj has taken on most of its farming partners as investors, and aims to “provide another opportunity for lemon and avocado farmers to diversify.”
An aversion to commodity pricing has long been a distinction of specialty coffee, as so-called third wave coffee Roasters like Bird Rock. Coffee on the commodities market currently trades at 95 cents a pound, barely covering more than half the average cost of farming it. Specialty roasters pay premium prices via direct trade agreements with coffee farmers, forming years-long relationships intended to keep coffee farming economically viable, while improving the quality of beans available to gourmet coffee consumers, which Reuters recently reported now compose 61 percent of the coffee market.
However, most of the world’s coffee is farmed in relatively depressed economies: Guatemala, Ethiopia, Keyna, El Salvador, and Brazil. Labor costs on U.S. soil are considerably higher, and with California’s minimum wage, Ruskey says production costs range from 22 to 25 dollars a pound; more than a third of that cost is harvesting.
Consequently, the wholesale price for California-grown coffee is steep. “I’ve never sold a coffee for under 60 dollars a pound, green,” reports Ruskey. The Cuicateco beans roasted by Bird Rock wholesaled at $100 per pound.
This places Frinj Coffee squarely in the emerging super specialty coffee market, a niche initially carved by rare varietals of Geisha coffee beans, which have been known to auction at over $150 per pound.
“Two percent of the specialty market is super specialty,” says Ruskey, “and it’s growing about 17 percent per year, domestically.” However, the price for super specialty is often driven by high demand for expensive beans in China, Korea, and Japan. Adds Ruskey, “A lot of the world’s best coffees have been sucked into the vacuum of the south Asian marketplace that wants a rare, unique complex coffee with a great story.”
Locally, Bird Rock has embraced this high-end market, often distinguishing itself by serving hard-to-get coffees. “That’s one of the niches Bird Rock focuses on,” says owner Jeff Taylor, “exclusive coffees that other roasters can’t find or get a hold of.”
Able to secure just 20 pounds of Cuicateco, Bird Rock announced its availability exclusively through an email newsletter to its subscribers. It sold the entire allotment within hours, despite a price tag of $100 for 200 grams (slightly less than half a pound).
Coffee trees take four years to mature, and most of the trees planted by Frinj thus far have yet to bear fruit. But that’s changing. “We did about 500 pounds this year,” says Ruskey, “Next year, we should do two to three times that.” By 2020, he expects 5,000 pounds to be available.
Meanwhile, Frinj is planting more trees. In San Diego County alone, he expects to add 17,000 new trees this spring, and hopes to add more throughout the year. “This summer will be exciting,” he adds, “I think we’re going to get our first harvest of some San Diego crop.”
Bird Rock hopes to offer San Diego-grown beans by late summer, and Taylor expects great things. “I’ve had a chance to cup some coffees from San Diego already,” he says, “and the quality is there.”