5627 La Jolla Boulevard, La Jolla
As promised in March, premium San Diego-grown coffee beans were served for the first time by Bird Rock Coffee Roasters last weekend. The surprise is whose farm grew them: two-time Grammy-winning local musician Jason Mraz.
Mraz and his wife have accumulated 18 acres of farmland in Oceanside where, since 2015, rows of coffee shrubs have been growing between rows of avocado trees. It takes about five years for coffee plants to mature enough to yield beans, so though Mraz Family Farms initially planted about 2300 year-old coffee shrubs four years ago, they’ve only now started producing. And while the organic farm grows eleven different coffee varietals, the first to produce coffee cherries happened to be those of the world’s rarest: the geisha, in such global demand that one prized lot sold this summer at auction for more than a thousand dollars a pound, unroasted.
Roasted, the Mraz geisha sold at $199 per four ounces of beans, or about $800 a pound. For customers only interested in a taste, the pour-over price of $35 per cup generated plenty of headlines. But Mraz estimates the true cost a little higher.
“I call it the million dollar cup of coffee,” he jokes. “That includes the cost of the land, building wells, adding nutrition, adding staff, putting in the infrastructure that we need to be a high quality grow facility.”
In short, what the $35-per-cup price really does is illustrate the actual value of a quality cup of coffee when translated into domestic economy, rather than developing nations more commonly known for coffee production, such as Brazil, Panama, and Ethiopia. Coffee shrubs still take five years to begin fruiting wherever a farm is located, and still requires labor-intensive harvesting and processing to yield a desirable product. While super premium coffee varietals such as geisha may demand higher prices, more common coffees produced in California would cost more to grow than they could ever sell for.
“There’s a rule of thumb that says coffee has to pass through 22 sets of hands before it gets to the consumer,” says Bird Rock co-owner Jeff Taylor. Any basic, back-of-the-napkin math will tell you American-grown coffee could not pass through 22 hands and sell for less than three bucks a cup — the kind of price some coffee drinkers still grouse about. While Bird Rock has built its reputation seeking out premium coffees and paying direct trade prices for them, the business has to conform to customer expectations, walking that fine line between paying an equitable price for beans, and setting a competitive price for coffee. “We’re still selling our blends for $2.50 a cup,” Taylor points out, “and I want to raise the price, but it’s hard because consumers want that.”
Despite the higher price tag, this year’s Mraz geisha lot sold out within two days, and more will come as other varietals begin to bear fruit. Bird Rock expects to serve different Mraz farm varietals in the spring, and the farm has acquired 400 new plants to be planted this year. Meanwhile, 22 other San Diego farms, mostly avocado growers, have been patiently growing their own coffee shrubs, and will soon see harvests of their own.
While Mraz knows his reputation will help the story of California coffee reach more people, he’s quick to point out that his financial success in the music industry has afforded him the chance to invest in a product unlikely to even pay for itself for several more years. And he suggests the career farmers who’ve taken a greater risk to do so should receive as much attention as their coffee plants begin to yield results. For the moment, all their harvests will ship to Santa Barbara for processing. That’s the home base of Frinj Coffee, the company spearheading the California coffee movement.
But as San Diego-grown coffee increases, he hopes the whole process will become localized. “I think eventually there has to be a mill down here,” Mraz says. “Then more and more people can get involved and grow their own, and local coffee will be the norm.”