WRITTEN BY Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…See full bio
Coffee shops across the state and across the nation are placing increased emphasis on a coffee’s origin. Whether focusing on a particular area or a single farm, these distinctions have defined the gourmet coffee world, with every region carrying its own unique flavor profile. This "Bean Belt" of coffee-growing countries—which lies between latitudes 25 degrees north and 30 degrees south—has become increasingly threatened over the last decade, with temperatures rising and world climates changing. A survey published in 2018, conducted by Mordor Intelligence, showed that while approximately 44 percent of the U.S. coffee demand comes from millennials, who are increasingly drinking gourmet coffee, the effects of climate change lead to drastic price fluctuations for coffee beans and, ultimately, a supply shortage. Although this presents challenges for the environment and for more traditional coffee-growing regions throughout the world—such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil, and Colombia—it also creates an opportunity for regions previously overlooked as suitable contenders, including California, to produce high-quality coffee beans.
Approximately 44 percent of the U.S. coffee demand comes from millennials, who are increasingly drinking gourmet coffee.
Much like creating the ideal conditions for wine production, California’s pleasant daytime temperatures, cool ocean breezes, complex soil, and evening layer of fog also contribute to the success of coffee plants, regardless of sitting 18 degrees north of the tropics. Since gourmet coffee is a highly artisanal product with a single annual harvest in California, rather than the multiple harvests possible in the equatorial zone, a region’s microclimate is the main determinant in deciding where in the state to plant.
California’s pleasant daytime temperatures, cool ocean breezes, complex soil, and evening layer of fog also contribute to the success of coffee plants.
California’s main coffee producer, Frinj, focuses on high-elevation coffee varietals and imitates the high altitudes of equatorial regions with latitude, making the Southern California coastal climate the perfect substitute for tropical conditions. The weather variations from day to night add complexity to the beans by triggering the natural chemicals within the coffee—changing the flavor profile as much as altering the roast from light to dark would. This acute attention to detail in recreating growing conditions has led to great success for Frinj, which sold its entire 2017 crop to the Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee. Though this rare California coffee could be purchased in stores and online in 2017, the unique bean may have proven cost prohibitive for many, as it was priced at a whopping $18 per ounce, in contrast to quality coffee from other regions costing $18 per pound.
Frinj’s success story dates back to 2002, when Mark Gaskell—after moving to California from the coffee-growing regions of Central America and identifying coffee plants growing in gardens—hired Jay Ruskey from Good Land Organics to begin trials of large-scale coffee production. These trials were fruitful and led to the founding of Frinj Coffee, which set out to provide California farmers with the opportunity to intersperse coffee plants with older avocado trees, whose production had slowed in an increasingly pressure-filled market. This tactic allowed farmers to diversify their offerings while reducing the nutrient depletion that soil experiences when continuously sowed with a single crop. Since its inception in Goleta, Frinj has aided in the production of at least 30,000 coffee plants across 30 farms throughout California. Since Frinj takes a holistic approach—providing the plants to farmers, washing and processing the coffee, offering training and a direct relationship between farmers and roasters, purchasing the harvest and subsidizing up to 70 percent of the final price of the beans—much of the risk typically inherent to farming a new crop is absorbed.
Frinj has aided in the production of at least 30,000 coffee plants across 30 farms throughout California.
With less risk, high demand, and environmental benefits, it is clear that California presents a viable landscape for the creation of gourmet, single-origin coffee beans. As more farmers enter the marketplace, it is likely that the cost will be driven down, allowing pounds of California coffee to sit on shelves beside artisanal coffees from the rest of the world. This will not only decrease the total carbon footprint of coffee production by reducing the shipping requirements, but it will also lessen the time spent between field and cup, resulting in a better, fresher coffee experience.
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