Hurrah! California Can Grow Coffee. Is It Worth the Effort?

Categories: Doggy Bag
Calimoya_Coffee.jpg
Michael Hutchings
California coffee, at a premium.
The LA Times food shocked me awake this morning with an article about Jay Ruskey, a farmer near Santa Barbara who was growing, and selling, organic coffee at local farmers' markets. Up until now, the only U.S. state to produce small amounts of coffee is Hawaii. As the article describes, Ruskey lives in a pocket of the state where coffee trees can grow:
Native to Ethiopia, coffee is mostly grown in equatorial and tropical countries such as Colombia and Kenya. The best often comes from high elevations, where moderate temperatures allow the beans ― the seeds of small red or yellow berries called coffee cherries ― to develop full, balanced flavor. Very hot or freezing temperatures, as well as low humidity, make coffee cultivation difficult or impossible in most of California. But the coastal district near Santa Barbara, shielded by mountains from frosty winter winds and cooled by ocean breezes in summer, offers a potentially suitable environment.
Local coffee! The prospect boggles the mind. What gave me pause wasn't the fact that Ruskey's first batches of Calimoya Coffee appear to taste bleh, but the price: $6 for three ounces. The coffee I buy from Four Barrel costs $14 for 12 ounces ― or $18.60 a pound compared to $32 for Ruskey's coffee. And it wouldn't surprise me if that exorbitant price still doesn't cover the farmer's production costs. It just shows how little we addicts expect Central American, African, and Asian coffee farmers to be paid.

The coffee story reminded me of the day I spent a few years ago with a couple of guys near Seattle who were trying ― and not very successfully ― to introduce tea as a commercial crop in Washington. The problem wasn't just cultivating high-quality tea plants that would grow in the rainy, low-altitude Northwest,  it was finding an affordable way to pick and process the leaves. Their test batches cost as much as Imperial Tea Court's highest-grade oolongs, and didn't taste very great.

Is it worth creating a luxury locavore product just to ease our collective guilt over developing-world incomes and our mammoth carbon footprint? Or are Third Wave roasters like Four Barrel and Blue Bottle taking a smarter tack by developing direct-trade agreements with farmers, paying more for their beans, and helping them more efficiently process and ship green coffee beans to the States?

There's room enough in the market for California coffee as a novelty product, and one I'll search out next time I pass through Santa Barbara. But I'm not replacing my morning cup of Salvadoran with California beans anytime soon, and I'm not sure that I should feel bad about that.

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