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Soaring Coffee Prices Linked to Climate Change

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, April 18, 2011

When it comes to gourmet coffee the conversation doesn't get much more serious then at  Temple Coffee in Sacramento.

JOE RUBIN: "So what are you making there?"

0418 Coffee 1UNNAMED BARISTA: "It's a Gibraltar,  a single origin Gibraltar. It's a little bit more than a macchiato and less than a cappuccino."

The faithful come for the Gibraltars and lattes, but Temple may be best known as a micro roaster of fresh coffee beans. And these days the prices are steep, approaching twenty dollars per pound. 

On a bright spring morning everyone, customers and employees gather and talk about the coffee with something approaching reverence.

KEVIN WOLDHAGEN: "When I'm trying to converse with customers about how a coffee tastes I'll say 'oh  I taste this out of it what do you taste out of it.' It's not so much an objective characteristic because taste is a not a science it's an art." 

Kevin Woldhagen  is a barista at Temple.   

0418 Coffee 3EVIN WOLDHAGEN:"I took a little test where you taste the different intensity of flavors between salty sour and bitter. I wasn't able to pick up salty nearly as much, so I don't really appreciate  pick up Indonesian coffees, like Sumatra Indonesia, those tend to have a saltier base to them, where as I really appreciate things like Central Americans, East Africans, t hose ones have high berry high sweetness characteristics that I like."  

In the coffee business trained tasters, called cuppers rate coffee on a scale of  1-100. Any coffee that scores over an 80 qualifies as specialty coffee. At temple the stock from countries like Rwanda, Papua New Guinea and Bolivia typically score in the mid 90's. 

This kind of gourmet coffee is never going to be cheap but recently prices have gone through the roof. The wholesale price of green coffee beans has nearly doubled in the last year.

0418 Coffee 2Small roasters like Temple have to hustle to stay ahead of the constantly rising prices. Ryan Ausbund works as a coffee  roaster at Temple, he took me took a back room where they store bulk green coffee in 125 pound sacks.

JOE RUBIN: "You have to role open this gate here. So wow, there is just tons and tons of coffee back here . Why so much?"

RYAN AUSBUND: "Coffee prices keep going up and up and up.  Basically the further ahead we can buy the better shape that we are going to be in."

There are many factors driving coffee prices higher. In developing countries like India, China, and Brazil, people aren't just drinking the cheap stuff anymore. Increasingly they are demanding specialty coffees. 

0418 Coffee 4But there is another factor, Yields are way down especially when it comes to  coveted Arabica coffee which is grown at high altitudes in tropical countries like Colombia. Colombia's yields are down 25% in the last few years. 

XIMENA RUEDA: "First  we had a very dry El Nino year, very dry very hot. When the weather is too dry the beans don't get enough water so they don't grow to their full size. But then in 2010 we had a very strong La Nina event which was way too much water."

That's Ximena Rueda, she is native of Colombia now a researcher at the Woods Institute at Stanford university . until recently she was in charge of a sustainability program for  the Colombian coffee industry.

Rueda says what worries people in Colombia and other  coffee producing countries worried  is a theory that the weather extremes they are experiencing -are the result of man made climate change.

XIMENA RUEDA: "It's one of the hypothesis the climatologists have is that weather variation will be more extreme and have these phenomena happening more frequently.  If that is the case then things that we saw in the past could become the norm.  It's that sense of…we're losing the capacity to predict what is going to happen from year to year."

If the theory is right, that climate change will continue to  play havoc with coffee yields,  don't expect coffee prices to go down at places like Temple Coffee anytime soon. But most people here say their desire for exquisite coffee outweighs the pinch from soaring prices. Like the man in line to buy a  twelve ounce bag of Bolivian Familia Miranda. Fifteen dollars and fifty cents

UNNAMED CUSTOMER: "I mean I'm definitely willing to go out and pay for quality coffee. I have like total respect for everything that goes on like in processing the coffee, roasting it, farming it and growing it."

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