Making Expensive Coffee Worth the Risk

Posted by Lauren Lathrop on

When it comes to buying green coffee, the options are seemingly endless. New roasters can often feel overwhelmed scrolling through importer’s catalogs and reading flavor descriptions on various countries of origin. 

At some point in your career as a roaster, you’ll encounter a coffee that intrigues you. It won’t be because of a specific farm name, a variety, or even a country. It will be because of the price. There are an increasing number of incredibly expensive coffees out there, and the highest-priced ones tend to get the most attention. 

We hear questions about these coffees frequently in our roasting classes. Folks want to know: are these coffees worth it? What makes them so expensive? Why would someone pay so much for a green coffee? 

To be clear, we’re talking about anything over about $8/lb. Realistically, that’s the lowest end of the ‘expensive’ range for coffee. That range goes all the way to hundreds of dollars per pound, and in some cases, even more. 

Well-known and low-yielding varieties like the heirloom Gesha or the popular Pink Bourbon, are usually fairly pricey. Coffees that are produced in time-intensive and laborious methods, like carbonic maceration and fruit fermentation, will also be costly. Of course, if there’s low supply and high demand, like coffees from small regions like Jamaica and Kona, you’ll have to pay more. Finally, any coffee that finds its way to a competitive auction or earns an esteemed designation like Cup of Excellence will come with a higher price tag. 

Occasionally, we bring in a coffee like this as part of our greens program. Something really special that we want to share with roasters. Since our retail bags are only 10 lbs, it gives us the chance to let customers try something special without having to invest in a 60kg purchase. Recent examples include the Bolivia Gesha from Juan Carlos Huanca and the Yemen Haraaz Red.

Aside from the basic rules of economics, what makes these coffees so expensive? Simply put: quality. Coffees in this category earn high cupping scores because they taste fantastic. They are beautiful examples of what a certain kind of coffee can be when the myriad factors that influence flavor, aroma, and tactile experience are all perfect. 

So, who buys these coffees and what do they do with them? It’s not realistic to create an entire menu using only boutique, lavish coffees. The majority of coffee drinkers have an expectation of what a 12 oz bag of beans will cost and it’s not likely that they’ll be willing to routinely triple or quadruple that price to enjoy something, even if you’re able to communicate the quality difference. But fancy coffees can be a part of a well-rounded menu and offer the everyday coffee drinker the opportunity to “splurge” and try something really special. 

Featuring one or two premium coffees every quarter is a good way to introduce your customers to the higher end of the coffee market while still controlling your greens costs with your everyday offerings. You’ll likely sell more of the Brazil-heavy blend or a washed regional Peru, but a hyper-seasonal limited offering will pique your customers’ interest, especially if you can provide a little education in your marketing to explain what makes it special.

Keep in mind that not every customer will enjoy the flavors of these fancier coffees. The way that specialty coffee is scored means that coffee with distinct and high-quality sweetness, acidity, and distinguishable flavors are most highly rewarded. This means that coffees at the highest end of the price range are fruitier, funkier, and more adventurous cups. Even the most diehard coffee lover will tend to fall back on a chocolatey, balanced profile after a few cups of something wild. Because of this, and because of the sticker shock of really expensive coffee, roasters who carry luxury coffees will usually offer them in smaller 6oz-10oz bags, tins, or boxes. 

If you decide that you want to venture into the world of high-end green coffees, we have a few recommendations. First, work carefully with your importer to make your selection. Very rare and very expensive coffees aren’t always available in samples, so your salesperson will help guide you on flavor profiles. Next, make sure you have an effective profile development protocol. It hurts to waste special coffee trying to find the right way to roast it. Relying on a small sample roaster or using an existing profile for a similar-enough coffee is a good idea. 

When one of these coffees makes its way to your menu, consider offering it as a pre-sale only. Scheduling a few roast dates and selling bags in advance means that you only roast what’s been paid for, and you don’t have to stress about such a high-priced item aging out on the retail shelf. It’s a particularly good idea to time these pre-sales around holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or Mother’s and Father’s Day when people are looking for gifts for the coffee people in their lives. 

If you have a way to activate high-end coffees, you can turn it into an experience. Host a tasting, a brew demonstration, a pairing, or offer a flight of brew methods with your most expensive bean. This shows value to each customer rather than just telling them about it. 

As people who are passionate about coffee, we commonly bring in exorbitantly priced coffees to roast in-house, feature on our toll roasting menu, or resell to roasters in smaller greens quantities. We see the value of experiencing coffees like this and sharing them with others. While they may not become your regular morning brew, the opportunity to taste something at the top end of the quality scale is a worthwhile endeavor. 

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  • Great ideas here Lauren!

    Megan Vu on

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