Coffee 

Bitter grounds

Craven’s Coffee Company co-founder Simon Craven Thompson likes to drop an expression when discussing Brazil’s impact on the global coffee market. “If Brazil sneezes, the rest of the coffee world gets a cold,” Thompson says, “and that’s because of the sheer enormity of their supply.”

That sneeze was heard around the world this year after a series of poor coffee bean harvests in Brazil gave coffee markets a panic attack, driving up prices for local roasters, like Thompson, who purchase beans from the region. Shortly after news of the disappointing yields broke alongside viral photos of wilted plants, Thompson says prices nearly doubled.

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“It almost became sort of a social media event,” he says.

Brazilian prices have just recently stabilized, but the incident demonstrates just how volatile the coffee market can be. Black Coffee Roasting Co. co-founder Jim Chapman says the company took a wait-and-see approach to the market crisis before making any price adjustments.

“The coffee market has been like that the past few years,” Chapman wrote in an email when prices first spiked in March. “Periods of great volatility during some weather crisis, speculators drive up the costs tremendously, but as soon as the event plays out, crops turn out not to be as poor as speculated, and prices stabilize at a more reasonable level.”

While restraint has paid off for Black Coffee Roasting regarding Brazil, crops across Central America have struggled to rebound from leaf rust, an airborne fungus that chokes the plant. In the last few years leaf rust has devastated crops in Panama, Guatemala and Colombia, countries famed for their yields of organic coffee. El Salvador’s leaf rust has been especially brutal, and Chapman says now that it resulted in its exclusion from his company’s Single Origin series.

“We weren’t able to find any organics from El Salvador this year that were a reasonable price,” Chapman says.

Florence Coffee Company, on the other hand, has managed to keep its supply line drama-free by importing beans from Costa Rica, which uses more sophisticated farming methods to avoid the drought and blight plaguing other countries’ crops.

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