California-Grown Coffee at California Prices

Beans cultivated in the Golden State produce $18 cups of joe — as pricey as a glass of fine Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

Lindsey Mesta, Frinj’s co-founder and chief marketing officer, examines coffee beans on the firms' bushes.
Lindsey Mesta, Frinj’s co-founder and chief marketing officer, examines coffee beans on the grower’s Southern California farm.

With coffee shops seemingly on every block, there’s little question that California is one of the world’s biggest consumers of java. But a collective of 26 coffee growers outside Santa Barbara is hoping to make the state a major coffee producer as well.

Frinj Coffee — the name is a nod to the idea of growing beans at the far edge of the world’s traditional coffee-growing regions — is the outgrowth of an experiment in large-scale coffee cultivation that began in 2002. After years of development, proponents began propagating and distributing arabica coffee plants to interested growers in 2014, and Frinj is now bringing its first crops to market — and to many of those ubiquitous coffee shops.

The new brew is pricey — how does $18 a cup sound? — but growers hope it’s the beginning of a new agricultural success story for the state.

“Frinj is the best example we have of New World coffee produced in an economy and in a culture that has previously only identified as a consumer,” says Charlie Habegger, coffee buyer for Blue Bottle, the popular Bay Area-based coffee chain.

The idea of Frinj will sound familiar to any coffee drinker who prefers to buy single-origin beans sourced from individual farmers and collectives. It’s just that this collective is in southern California rather than in Costa Rica.

Frinj provides growers with trees, guarantees it will buy the harvest, and then pays farmers when the final product — the beans — goes to market, subsidizing 60 percent to 70 percent of the final sale price. The group provides training in coffee cultivation and a direct line from grower to roaster. “It is a very artisanal product,” says Lindsey Mesta, Frinj’s co-founder and chief marketing officer.

Considering California’s location well outside the tropics, coffee may seem an unusual crop. But it can be grown profitably in the state, according to Mesta, “if you are selective about the microclimate you plant in.”

The secret is to focus on high-elevation varietals, which are grown at high altitudes in tropical climates. Frinj’s growers mimic altitude with latitude. With its long growing season, summer heat and temperate maritime fog, coastal southern California is a good substitute for coffee-growing conditions that might be found at higher elevations in more equatorial regions.

In the tropics, a tree can produce multiple crops a year, but California growers must content themselves with a single harvest, spanning May to September. “The cooler nights slow down the development of the cherry,” Mesta says, speaking of the fruit that encases the bean. That results in a smaller harvest but a superior bean. The average coffee tree produces 12 to 16 pounds of cherry and about one and a half pounds of beans in a season.

A coffee tree takes three or four years to produce its first harvest. The majority of Frinj’s harvest comes from nearly 2,000 trees planted in 2014. But the company began last year with 30,000 trees in the ground, with an additional 25,000 planted this past year. That sounds impressive, except that at a density of around 1,000 trees an acre, California’s entire coffee crop could fit in less than 60 acres — a pittance compared to the state’s other sprawling cash crops.

It’s never been that coffee can’t grow in California; it’s just never been economical. Land, water and labor all are more expensive in the state. That means California-grown coffee has some very predictably California prices.

Coffee beans ripening on Frinj's bushes.
Coffee beans ripening on Frinj’s bushes.

Frinj coffee retails at around $62 a pound for raw green beans, 10 times or more the price of coffee from more traditional sources. Processed, it can retail for as much as $250 a pound. In 2017, Blue Bottle bought Frinj’s entire crop — 240 pounds of beans — roasted it, brewed it and sold it at $18 per 10-ounce cup.

Yes, $18 a cup. It sold out in two weeks.

That’s fantastic news for the farmers of California’s nascent coffee belt. But that sort of price seems likely to send consumers used to spending a buck a cup of coffee spiraling into sticker shock.

“I think people are used to throwing money at wine, but people are inherently reluctant to spend more than the minimum on coffee,” Blue Bottle’s Habegger says.

Given the attention to cultivation, production, and marketing, comparisons to the state’s boutique wine business are inevitable. And just as there are consumers who will spend the extra dollars for Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Veuve Clicquot, Frinj is betting there will be discerning customers willing to pay more for hyper-artisanal, homegrown coffee.

“It’s an origin that just a few years ago basically didn’t exist,” Habegger says. “And for the right people, I think that’s a really compelling cultural and culinary experience.”

Like wine, coffee reflects terroir. Where and how it’s produced, the climate, the soil and myriad other factors express in the cup. And as with wine, the greater the adversity, the more complex the flavor. California’s slower maturation rate compared to its tropical peers, “makes for a lot of complexity and a lot of additional texture in the cup,” Habegger says.

But is it good? Habegger argues that Blue Bottle would not have bought the entire 2017 harvest if it wasn’t.

“We’re essentially trying to show our customers every version of excellent coffee that exists in the world,” he says. “We’re very pluralistic in what we think is a great example of quality coffee.”

Frinj is one of several firms trying to grow coffee in Southern California.
Frinj is one of several firms trying to grow coffee in Southern California.

Distributors, roasters, and customers all tend to operate at a remove from growers. “This movement of planting coffee [in California] is not just extra income, but is also a way to remedy the problems of anonymous food distribution,” Habegger says. “For farmers anywhere in the world, that’s really a powerful motivator.”

Another powerful motivator is climate change. As ideal growing conditions for current crops creep north or move out of state altogether, it becomes possible to grow crops that previously favored more southern climes. A paper released by the University of California warns of near-cataclysmic consequences for California’s fruit and nut industry in the coming decades. Meanwhile, a study by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global partnership of organizations engaged in food security, predicts both a 50 percent reduction in the amount of world land suitable for coffee production and a reduction in coffee plant productivity within the crop’s traditional range.

By the end of the century, California may not only be one of the more likely coffee-producing regions globally, it also may very well be among the only ones. At which point, $18 a cup might be a bargain.

Cirrus Wood is a writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Dispatches