The VPR Table: Peak Coffee
03/18/11 5:55PM  Download MP3
"For decades, Colombia cranked out 12 or 13 million bags per year of very tasty coffee; now it's struggling to produce 8 or 9 million bags." Rowan Jacobsen hypothesizes the future of Colombian coffee.
Tune in Friday evening and Saturday morning for Rowan Jacobsen's final "VPR Table" commentary in this series. Keep your ears out for Marialisa Calta next week as we conclude this season's "VPR Table" series.
"You may have seen reports last week that changing weather patterns in Colombia have stunted its coffee crop for the third year in a row. For decades, Colombia cranked out 12 or 13 million bags per year of very tasty coffee; now it's struggling to produce 8 or 9 million bags. Experts believe that climate change is the culprit, and that things are only going to get worse. The price of Arabica coffee, the gourmet variety grown in Colombia, has doubled in the past year. You've heard of Peak Oil? Well, get ready for Peak Coffee.
No, the world is not going to run out of coffee. There will be plenty of muddy-tasting bulk coffee around, because that type grows robustly in all sorts of environments. But it tastes awful, and you can expect mass-market blends to begin tasting even worse as more of this filler coffee is mixed into the blend to keep prices down. But the good stuff, the coffee with all of those amazing floral, spicy scents, is going to get quite dear, because it only tastes good when grown at high elevations. Low-elevation beans tend to have tarry flavors. But coffee trees also can't get too cold, and the only high-elevation regions that don't get cold are in the tropics. In addition, rain must be plentiful during part of the year, but must hold off during the bloom, when the trees need to set fruit.
There isn't a whole lot of real estate in the world that meets these conditions. Latin America has some of the best, and traditionally most good coffee comes from small mountain farms there. Even in good years, those farmers struggle to make a living. Lately there has been too much rain and too much heat, and many farmers are close to going under.
Is this a three-year blip, or the new normal? I don't know. But I do know that coffee is the best legal drug on the market. A cup of joe tastes awesome, costs half the price of a glass of wine, and it makes me do smart things instead of stupid ones. For that, I'm happy to send a few more of my consumer dollars to the farmers in Colombia who are all that stand between me and a lifetime of Nescafe"