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Could Coffee Be California’s Next Cash Crop?

At $16 a cup, it sure looks like it.

SLIDESHOW

Good Land Organics, a 42-acre farm in Santa Barbara County, now sells California-grown coffee.

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Jay Ruskey started growing coffee on his family farm in the Goleta foothills 16 years ago.

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Washing a batch of Good Land Organics’ coffee cherries.

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The Good Land barn, where Frinj is headquartered.

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Read more from the August 2018 Food Issue here.


During a scant
three-week stretch last December, and for the jaw-dropping price of $16 a cup, coffee connoisseurs could go to their nearest Blue Bottle to purchase pour-over coffee that had been brewed from beans grown in the rarest of terroirs: California.

For the longest time, this was considered an agricultural impossibility. Conventional wisdom dictated that you could grow coffee only in the tropics—specifically, between the latitudes of 25 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the equator, where the weather was mild and frost-free, in areas where the elevation was high and the rainy season was clearly defined. That’s why Ethiopia and Indonesia are responsible for some of the world’s most celebrated coffees. The continental United States, by comparison, was either too wet or not wet enough, too hot or not hot enough. And California was no exception—that is, until last year, when Blue Bottle Coffee announced a partnership with a company called Frinj Coffee, which had somehow cracked the code and was growing coffee successfully in the Santa Barbara area. This marked the first time that California-grown coffee would be sold as a retail product in appreciable quantities. And not just any coffee but fancy third-wave coffee—coffee that had won blind cupping competitions and had scored as high as 91 on the Specialty Coffee Association’s 100-point scale.

The partnership looked like big, game-changing news in the coffee industry—not just for Blue Bottle and Frinj, but also for California farmers in search of their next profitable crop and for the entire landscape of world coffee production. A New York Times report speculated that, given the effects that global climate change could have on traditional coffee-growing regions, California coffee could represent “a lucrative opportunity in the $20 billion export market.” Culinary publications such as Saveur ran stories that asked, in blaring headlines, “Could California Be the Next Coffee Capital of the World?” Still, it was hard not to see all this hype as at least a little bit hubristic. Was it realistic to think that a $16 cup of coffee from beans that had been grown in tiny batches could ever be anything more than a novelty or, at best, a luxury product for the superrich? Did California, with all its agricultural bounty, really need to elbow its way into the global coffee market as well? For the time being, these questions have been sidelined in the all-out sprint to produce a sustainable and profitable coffee crop. California’s handful of coffee farmers are now busy harvesting their beans for the season. And then, starting sometime in the late fall, customers will once again have a chance to decide whether the only truly local coffee in town is $16 well spent.


The story of California’s
coffee experiment begins with Jay Ruskey, the cofounder of Frinj Coffee and the overseer of Good Land Organics, the 42-acre family farm in the Goleta foothills, near Santa Barbara, that he’s been operating for the past 28 years. It’s gorgeous country—rolling hills dotted with lush fruit trees giving way to panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. But these aren’t prototypical coffee-growing conditions by any stretch: It’s too sunny, there’s very little rainfall, and the property is located some 600 feet above sea level—a couple of thousand feet lower than where you’d normally find a coffee farm in, say, Colombia.

In the many online videos you can find of Ruskey, who is 45 years old, he’s charismatic and good-looking, with floppy hair, a toothy grin, and a distant resemblance to the actor John Krasinski. He isn’t the first person to try to grow coffee in California, but he is the first to preach the gospel convincingly and to make a serious attempt on a commercial scale. It’s an effort that stretches back more than 15 years, to when Mark Gaskell, a small-farm adviser with the UC Cooperative Extension program, handed Ruskey nearly 40 Central American coffee plants and helped him figure out how to get them to grow.

In the beginning, Ruskey says, he had no particular affinity for coffee. He had drunk it enough, especially when he was younger and surfed regularly. But he didn’t start growing coffee because he loved it. Rather, Ruskey had made a name for himself by specializing in rare tropical fruits. When Ruskey bought the land in 1990, he mainly grew avocados, like many of the farms in the Santa Barbara area. But starting in the ’90s, thanks to a combination of rising production costs and a lower market price, avocados became a less-lucrative crop than in earlier decades. So Ruskey started experimenting with fruits not usually grown in California, in an effort to find a mix of crops that could sustain the farm throughout the year. He learned about cherimoya, a heart-shaped fruit that he could grow during the winter. He planted finger limes and passion fruit. And eventually he saw the light: “We grow 380 other crops in California,” he thought. “Why can’t we grow coffee?”

In other words, coffee, for Ruskey, is just one more tropical fruit—like longan or lychee. He planted his first batch of coffee trees in 2002, between rows of avocado trees, and for the first several years he mostly just left them alone. The trees grew and even yielded some fruit—but nowhere near enough to make a profit selling it. Slowly, though, he began to fine-tune his cultivation methods, tinkering with the pH level of the soil and adapting some of the irrigation systems he used for growing avocados. About five years ago, Ruskey was satisfied enough with the results that he “came out of the closet” as a coffee farmer. He won the first blind cuppings he submitted his coffee beans to. He started selling small batches of them to international brokers, mostly in Japan, and at local farmers’ markets. And since then, he has been, by far, California coffee’s biggest evangelist and cheerleader.

Ruskey’s timing was good. Just as he was nailing down the mechanics of how you might make coffee thrive in a California climate and California soil, specialty coffee—now a $26 billion industry in the United States alone—was exploding in unforeseen ways. With the proliferation of serious third-wave coffee shops, a market appeared for what would previously have been unthinkable: a cup of pour-over coffee for which a certain kind of customer might pay $10 or $15. In this respect, Ruskey’s coffee isn’t unique. The most heralded lots of the highly exclusive Geisha coffee varietal, one of the types that Ruskey grows, have sold at auction for as much as $601 a pound, or more than 400 times the price of fair-trade coffee. Blue Bottle—an Oakland-based chain with more than 50 locations spread across the United States and Japan—itself made headlines in 2016 when it sold a Yemeni coffee for $16 to $20 a cup, complete with a glossy brochure that told the story of how the founder of its partner company Port of Mokha had risked death to sneak the coffee beans out of Yemen. (Incidentally, Port of Mokha’s founder was recently hit with a racketeering lawsuit.)

When Ruskey finally had enough coffee to sell to a large-scale buyer, along came Blue Bottle’s Charlie Habegger, who buys green—that is, unroasted—coffee beans for the third-wave behemoth, which was valued at more than $700 million when Nestlé acquired a majority stake in it last fall. Blue Bottle decided to buy Ruskey’s entire harvest, sold under the newly incorporated Frinj Coffee brand, which encompasses an entire network of California farms. (For now, only two of them—Good Land Organics and a farm in nearby Carpinteria—are harvesting enough coffee to sell.) For the right to be, for all intents and purposes, the world’s sole distributor of California coffee, Blue Bottle paid a whopping $65 a pound.

Habegger says that he was impressed with the coffee’s unique qualities, which he speculates might be due to the fact that, unlike the world’s traditional coffee-growing regions, California doesn’t get enough rain during the time when coffee typically does most of its growing. Instead, Frinj’s coffee cherries—the seeds of which are what we know as coffee beans—grow slowly throughout the year, “like braising something in the oven for a really long time,” Habegger says, so that you wind up with a “satisfying silkiness.”

But even Habegger will admit that the taste of the coffee is only part of why Blue Bottle decided to collaborate with Frinj. The rest has to do with the story he felt this coffee could tell: the rarity of the crop and the fact that it was grown exclusively in California. It would be the first truly local coffee that most customers had ever tasted. And there was Ruskey’s story, too—his determination and ingenuity, his willingness to buck trends. All of it added up to a compelling narrative, one that Blue Bottle believed would resonate with its customers. “We can sell coffee for that reason as much as we can sell coffee for its deliciousness,” Habegger says.   


Which isn’t to
say that deliciousness isn’t important. Ruskey mailed San Francisco a sample of Good Land Organics coffee from his reserve supply—not the blend sold by Blue Bottle, but a similar mix of the Geisha and Caturra beans grown on Ruskey’s Goleta farm. To avoid mucking up the experience by brewing it improperly, I turned to a couple of professionals: Nick Cho and Trish Rothgeb, cofounders of San Francisco’s Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, who brewed it using the standard pour-over method—as Ruskey had recommended—at their Folsom Street facility.

Of course, Wrecking Ball is a competitor of Blue Bottle’s, so you can take Cho and Rothgeb’s analysis with a grain of salt. But their observations more or less lined up with my amateur opinion: This was a damn good cup of coffee—a little “roastier” and less tealike than a lot of the light-roast third-wave coffees that are popular right now, with some appealing floral and caramel notes. “It’s definitely not boring,” Rothgeb said. Or, as Cho more bluntly put it, “it’s not bullshit.”

But it also wasn’t a coffee that jumped out as being so exceptional as to merit a price point that’s roughly four times higher than the going rate. And for the layperson, Cho says, the problem with coffee is that it’s so complicated, in its taste and its chemistry, that once you get past a certain baseline level of quality, it becomes difficult to articulate how “good” it is—and, by extension, how much intrinsic value it has. In other words, it’s not like the A-5-grade wagyu steak that costs $130 a pound, or the $10,000 bottle of rare vintage wine—luxury products that are so mind-blowing that their worth is self-evident. With coffee, it’s quite a bit more difficult to quantify the difference between a $16 cup and a $4 cup, which puts a natural limit on the market, not just for California-grown beans but for any of the super-high-end varietals that have cropped up in recent years. Once you go beyond the novelty seekers—and beyond the true connoisseurs, who have the palate to differentiate between, say, a coffee that would score a 90 on the Specialty Coffee Association’s 100-point scale and a more pedestrian 80-point coffee—who is left to buy this exorbitantly priced joe?


Whatever the long-term
sustainability of their project, Frinj Coffee’s collaboration with Blue Bottle is historic: It represents the first attempt to turn coffee grown in the continental United States into a viable commercial product.

Previous, isolated cases have involved hobbyists or home gardeners cultivating a handful of coffee plants on their property. Two years ago, a scientist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension was able to grow 40 varieties of coffee on a small farm in the Rio Grande Valley—but he was focused on plant disease and never tested the crops’ commercial viability. Closer to home, Thompson Owen, co-owner of Sweet Maria’s, a West Oakland supplier of green coffee beans and home-roasting equipment, posted a YouTube video in 2010 of the process of taking fruit from the two coffee plants growing on his property (which he refers to as Finca West Oakland), washing and roasting the beans at home, and then turning them into a cup of brewed coffee. (Unfortunately, one of the tasters in the video likens that coffee’s flavor to “aspirin and cardboard.”)

In short, previous efforts to harvest American coffee have been low-stakes experiments or gimmicks, which Ruskey’s efforts definitely aren’t. Ruskey has convinced nearly 30 farms in Southern California—with 27,000 coffee trees in all—to join his Frinj Coffee collective, which provides the actual coffee plants, advises its members on the technical aspects of growing coffee, and handles the sale of the coffee produced under one brand. All told, Ruskey’s spent the better part of the past five years preaching the gospel of California coffee: that it isn’t impossible, as everyone used to think; that it really can be on par with the best coffees in the world.

But is California really the future of coffee, as some pundits have speculated? Even given Ruskey’s success, it’s clear that this idea is, at best, aspirational. By his own account, coffee is viable only in a small strip of Southern California—the Avocado Belt, basically, which also happens to be home to some of the most expensive farmland in the world, selling, in some cases, for as much as $100,000 an acre. Only in this tiny stretch of coastal terrain, with its combination of a moderate, frost-free climate and modestly high altitudes, can the plants grow and produce coffee of a high enough quality to be worth trying to sell. And the labor costs alone are about 15 to 20 times higher in California than they would be in a place like El Salvador, Ruskey says.

Beyond that, there are technical challenges to growing coffee outside the tropics. Andy Mullins, a former tech executive who moved to an avocado farm in Temecula six years ago, is in his fourth year of growing coffee with the Frinj collective. He expects his family farm to have its first viable harvest next year. The main hurdle, Mullins explains, is managing the effects of the weather: installing irrigation lines and a special drip mechanism, neither of which are necessary in the world’s main coffee-growing regions, to ensure that the plants have enough water and the soil doesn’t get too hot or too cold. The upshot, Mullins says, is that it doesn’t make much sense to try to grow coffee unless you can sell it for at least $40 a pound. Not when it costs about $30 a pound for the farmer to even bring the coffee to market. Compare that, again, with the $1.40 a pound that’s generally cited as the fair-trade price for coffee and with the roughly $1.15 that coffee sells for on the commodities market.

All this means that Frinj and Good Land Organics are never going to compete with countries like Brazil on sheer output, Ruskey says. His customers are always going to be the Blue Bottles of the world—­companies with customers willing to pay a premium for coffee that’s uniquely delicious, or at least has a unique mission that they want to support. And even within that rarefied realm, California coffee seems unlikely to ever account for more than a minuscule percentage of the total supply. To put it in perspective, Habegger explains that for a typical release, Blue Bottle usually buys 50 standard-size (130-pound) bags of coffee, which is enough to supply all its coffee shops with about six weeks’ worth of inventory. Last year, Blue Bottle essentially bought out Frinj’s entire harvest—a total of 265 pounds, which is only about two bags of coffee, or about 4 percent of a typical release. No wonder, then, that the coffee sold out in three weeks, even with that $16 price tag. (Wanting to snag a taste of his own product on Christmas Eve, Ruskey drove to four Blue Bottle locations before he found one that still had it in stock.)

Of course, Ruskey’s goal is to ramp up production, to 700 to 1,000 pounds this year—again, all of it set aside for Blue Bottle. And he hopes that the volume of coffee will reach tens of thousands of pounds in the next four years as more of the farms in the collective begin to have viable harvests. By contrast, a country like Ethiopia produces over 400,000 tons of coffee in a single year. “California will never be Ethiopia,” Habegger says. “Even a really small-producing country like El Salvador. Even a really small-producing country like the Philippines or Myanmar.”

And then there’s the question of whether a thriving, ever-expanding California coffee industry would even be a good thing for the world at large. Owen, the proprietor of Sweet Maria’s, says he feels conflicted on that score. On the one hand, he says, he’s fascinated by the strides that Good Land Organics has made; he loves the ingenuity and good old-fashioned problem-solving. On the other hand, Owen spends a lot of his time traveling to coffee-growing regions around the world, buying green beans in countries such as Burundi, where coffee is the only cash crop of note—and where the fortunes of small-scale farmers are entirely dependent on coffee buyers like him. Blue Bottle, he worries, is merely “selling a cup of curiosity. The more it succeeds, the more it impacts people who have no other option.”

Mullins, for his part, believes that coffee doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, and that technological advances spurred by California coffee farmers—which include, recently, a complete genome sequencing of the Arabica bean—could help lift up struggling coffee farmers in Burundi and beyond. And he thinks that the state of California-grown coffee might be akin to that of California wine during the Napa Valley vineyards’ earliest days—that it might take 25 or 30 years of adaptation and innovation before California comes close to reaching its potential as a coffee-growing region and achieves any kind of global recognition. For the farmers on the ground, however, these far-off considerations aren’t yet part of the equation. Ruskey and Mullins aren’t thinking about whether California’s coffee can compete with Ecuador’s or Costa Rica’s, or even whether it would be moral to try to achieve that. They’re just trying to keep the family farm afloat and maximize the return from the limited amount of land they have to work with.

For now, for California farmers, growing coffee is just one more way to stay in business.

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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