About that $18 cup of coffee in Brooklyn that went viral. What’s up with it? Why does it cost $18 and why did everyone have something to say about it?
Let’s break this down.
0. This coffee is not actually available yet. When it is, it will cost $18/cup.
- Two weeks ago, Alpha Dominche, a manufacturer of high tech coffee and tea brewing equipment, opened a showroom at Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where they are also headquartered.
- Because the showroom for a beverage equipment manufacturer by nature generates coffee and tea beverages, Alpha Dominche decided to build a space that would be open to the public, not just to prospective hospitality venues flush enough to invest in one of their machines.
- Because Alpha Dominche’s equipment only brews beverages and does not make espresso—and because there are already several bakeries in the Industry City complex serving full cafe menus—Alpha Dominche decided to make their showroom-cafe the equivalent of a wine bar, calling it Extraction Lab, and serving coffee from the world’s most acclaimed coffee roasters and tea purveyors.
3a. Because Alpha Dominche’s equipment is hand crafted and high end, they reasoned their coffee and tea should be too.
3b. The same way that a wine bar allows you to drink different glasses from around the world in the same sitting, and Because there is already quite a bit of coffee from acclaimed roasters and tea blenders available in NYC, they wanted to offer harder to get coffees from other states and countries.
- Alpha Dominche’s brewers are programmable to brew by the cup. This eliminates waste, meaning they only make exactly as much coffee as they serve. The wider the variety and the less waste means they only need to buy a small amount of coffee from each vendor.
- Buying very small volumes from international brands is expensive. Brewing with expensive equipment in a desirable Brooklyn location is also expensive. The coffee and tea themselves are also expensive.
Why? Isn’t this just a bunch of hype over a regular cup of coffee with all these bells and whistles that somebody (who wants my money) claims make it taste better?
- Companies who sell expensive coffee do two things: A: They brand the heck out of themselves to position their coffee as a lifestyle brand and something that will make you cool and sexy (see Joe Camel or the iPhone). B: They buy really expensive coffee.
But couldn’t they just be buying regular coffee and making it look fancy?
- No. This is something kind of cool and sexy about coffee—expensive coffee always tastes better than bad coffee.
- Making coffee and tea taste better is more expensive than letting them taste whatever. Coffee and tea production involve perennial land maintenance, sorting, drying, storing, more sorting, packing, shipping, and unloading all using manual labor and machines.
- Making any food taste good involves starting with good tools and ingredients (seeds, land)—which take time and money to acquire—and then preventing all the things that could happen to make it taste bad. It sounds complicated because it is. More complicated and tedious equals more expensive.
- Coffee roasters and tea blenders selling fancy products are making them look fancy, but it’s because they’re paying steeply for the cost of the raw ingredient.
- However, like wine, if you don’t know much about coffee and your pallet isn’t in tune to the differences, you might not be able to taste what’s there. Just like $3 Buck Chuck and a Reserve Bordeaux might taste comparable if you’ve never taken a wine class, regular coffee and expensive coffee might taste kind of the same. On the other hand, if you’ve ever had that glass of wine that makes you “ohh, I’m never going back to Yellow Tail,” expensive coffee might make you say “I can’t believe what I’ve been missing with all my years of Folger’s loyalty!”
Fair enough, but really, $18 for this cup of coffee that might change a life or might just taste like coffee?
$5 or $6, ok. But why $18? Seems like a scam.
- That much re-memed $18 cup of coffee is from a company called Ninety Plus, whose name refers to the highest tenth of the 100-point scale used by professionals to score coffee’s sensory attributes (taste, smell, how it feels in your mouth).
14a. Ninety Plus owns a farm in Panama, where they have planted seeds gathered (Stolen? Begged? Gifted? It’s all a long story) from trees deep in the Ethiopian forests where coffee is believed (by most) to have originated. All of this was expensive.
14b. In Panama, the trees are tended with the utmost attention (all the manual labor mentioned in #9). This is expensive.
14c. The resulting coffee is then air freighted to the US, where it is roasted. This is more expensive than the standard container ship ocean freight used for coffee. Ninety Plus is an importer, not a roaster, so having coffee directly from their farms roasted in a tiny roaster in the back of the Extraction Lab also goes outside of any established supply web. Anything that is not part of an established work flow of production is expensive.
So…let’s review. Why does this coffee cost $18?
- (This is an important one!) All coffee production is underpaid. If we wanted to end rural poverty around the equator we would pay a minimum of $4 per cup for all coffee grown by smallholders (vs grown on large, efficient, mechanized estates, which raises the question of how you know who grew which coffee, and how you know coffees grown in different places weren’t blended, which is a topic for a different conversation about transparency and traceability in coffee sourcing). Paying the full cost for the raw ingredient in a cup of coffee is much, much more costly than we ever pay for. In a cafe, the price we pay for scones and for the milk in our lattes subsidizes the full cost of the coffee.
- The plants that grew the trees for this $18 cup are one of a kind (of a certain strain of heirloom Geisha, if that means something to you) in the country where they are currently being cultivated. Only a few pounds of this coffee will be roasted at Extraction Lab exclusively to be served there. Rareness adds to price. A lot of rareness adds a lot to price. Demand for rareness adds the most to price.
- The flavor metrics (taste/smell/mouthfeel/body) of this coffee score exceedingly high on the impartial rubric for measuring coffee quality. Verifiable quality adds to price.
- The swankiness off the brewing equipment and the location add to the cost, but negligibly. At $18/cup, the cost is still coming from the cost of producing the coffee itself. Even if it weren’t rare and didn’t make experts drool it would still be an expensive cup.
- The $18 cup became a yapping point for the media (NY Times, Post, Gothamist, Eater NY, SNL) to rail on over-priced hipster products.
- The $18 cup should force us to ask a dangerous question–what if coffee really does cost $18/cup? It should force us to think about all the stuff we import from elsewhere for cheap (cheap because it’s financed by un/derpaid labor) and to ask ourselves if we have any real way of assessing the full value of the food, drinks, and things we take for granted and expect to just be there at prices very close to free.