This weekend at our Sydney pop-up café, we started serving out a flight of Panama Geisha coffees for $20 and it got me thinking – what role do these crazy expensive coffees play in our specialty coffee scene? Are they a positive element, or do they just create barriers for coffee drinkers? Ultimately, are they worth all the fuss?

Granted, the flight we’re dishing up is unusual – we’ve ramped up the service with a beautiful timber tray, tasting notes, table side explanations and the coffee itself is the rockstar Geisha variety from the vaunted Lamastus family in Boquete, Panama. It’s a pretty special collection of drinks.

Reflecting on serving these coffees out over the past few days, I feel like the presence of significantly more expensive coffees is ultimately a positive thing for the specialty coffee movement. But there are caveats.

There are two main influences on the cost per cup of coffee: staff labour and the raw materials cost – the coffee beans.

Given that the labour costs are generally the same no matter what coffee you’re preparing (outside of laborious manual brew methods), the big influencer here is the coffee itself.

Many coffees vary by only a dollar up or down and this is normally absorbed by the roaster and occasionally the café owner. However, when the coffee price spikes significantly, like during an auction, this cost can jump to well over 10 times the normal price. In one of the most dramatic examples, this year the Elida Geisha Green Tip sold in the Best of Panama auction for a staggering $606 per kg! That’s before freight, packaging, profit or the 18% weight loss seen during roasting.

Most coffees, even those auctioned, don’t reach these heady heights and generally a menu will have options ranging from $4 to $10 per cup. These prices can act as a catalyst to start conversations around why they are more expensive; they’re rare, they’re of exceptional quality, they come from a famous farm, they’re from a low yielding, delicious tasting varietal etc. In some ways, this presentation of the coffee menu plays just as important a role in progressive discussion as the coffee itself.

Beyond this educational element, one of the other positives behind expensive coffees is that often their price is being dictated by the producers at origin rather than the roaster or café owner. While often these more expensive coffees cost significantly more to produce – with detailed processing, and lower yielding, finicky tree varieties etc – the quality and demand for them allow producers to mark the prices up for better than usual profit. These additional funds generally flow back to the farmer, enabling them to invest in infrastructure, their communities and even just to receive some great cash that makes coffee farming a slightly more attractive long term vocation.

These exceptional, top end coffees also act as an eye-grabbing headliner that can draw positive attention to the larger volume, less expensive yet still incredibly delicious coffees being produced by these farms, building a more sustainable economic model.

So yes, I believe there are some real benefits to the presence of more expensive coffees on our café menus. However, there are some caveats.

The biggest of these is that the coffee needs to deliver in the cup. If you purchase an $8 coffee, you expect it to be special, to be unusual, to be delicious! There’s a proliferation of Geisha coffees out there and heavy promotion of brand name regions but neither of these guarantee an excellent result – each coffee needs to be judged independently. The way some auctions are structured, they deliver coffees that are clean and tasty but lack distinctive characteristics for coffee drinkers to identify and associate a higher value to.

There’s danger in offering these coffees up as it can make coffee drinkers wary of purchasing higher priced coffees in the future, having been burnt by this lacklustre experience.

Luckily, as coffee knowledge at all junctions of the supply chain, including the final coffee consumer, increases, there are more and more elegant, refined and distinctive coffees being made available. And as shown by the 60+ Panama tasting flights I served at our Sydney Pop Up on Saturday alone, more customers are appreciating them and willing to pay the price. Jacob, our Director of Coffee has sourced some incredible coffees which will be launching into our line up shortly – keep your eyes open for a delicious selection of Kenyan, Rwandan and Panamanian coffees that everyone will be happy to pay a great price for.

PS: For some great further reading, check out this article on Perfect Daily Grind about the influence Geisha has had on the Lamastus family of Panama – Producer Perspective: The Geisha Gold Rush Benefits Everyone.

© Photos 1 & 3 provided with permission by Tim Pascoe. All rights reserved by photographer.

© Photo 2 provided with permission by Lindsay at Frugal Frolicker. All rights reserved by photographer.

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