Coffee Prices and Quality Climb

Article excerpt

CALL THE COFFEE situation a case of bad news/good news.

The bad news: The freeze this summer in Brazil wiped out almost half of the country's crop and made coffee more expensive.

The good news: We'll be drinking a better cup of coffee.

For those who buy their coffee ground in a can, the improvement comes by default. That's because the coffee they buy usually comes from the "robusta" bean, which was damaged by the freeze.

Of the two kinds of coffee beans in the world, the robusta is the lower grade. It's the coffee commonly used in cafeterias and company urns, and sold in cans at the supermarket.

Faced with a shortage of robusta, big coffee companies such as Maxwell House and Folgers have already begun to purchase "arabica," the better grade of coffee bean, to supplement their robusta stock.

"The robusta comes from a hearty tree, grown at low elevations, which produces a lot of coffee and is mass produced, with a machine," says Troy Rynd, a spokesman for Allegro Coffee in Boulder, Colo.

"The arabica will not grow below 2,500 feet of elevation," he says. " `Mountain grown' has become a cliche but that's where the arabica grows. Arabica trees produce less coffee, and it's all hand-picked - you can't get a tractor up the side of a mountain. And only ripe `cherries' (the pods in which coffee beans grow) are being picked.

"It's just an entirely better quality, better flavor of bean," he says.

Buying specialty coffees is a trend that's been on the rise since the coffeehouse movement started on the West Coast in the late '80s.

Specialty whole bean sales rose 24 percent in 1993, according to a survey of coffee stores by Gourmet Retailer magazine.

Specialty coffee consumers have already accepted the notion of higher prices. They are buying coffee for taste, not economy.

But moving from robusta to arabica involves more than paying a few more pennies per cup of coffee.

"Coffee is one of those things you can keep learning about," says David Dallis, president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, of Santa Monica, Calif.

Here's what to look for when buying coffee beans:

- Do the beans have smooth skin? Shriveled skin can indicate the beans haven't been roasted long enough.

- Are the beans evenly colored, or are they burned on one side?

- Are the beans cracked? Every bin has some cracked beans, and in fact some beans - those from Ethiopia, for example - are known for being cracked. But too many cracked beans in other coffees can indicate they have not been carefully handled.

- Do the beans have some oil on their surface? A dry-looking bean is often a stale bean.

Here's a checklist of what to ask the coffee store vendor:

- How many years have you been in business? (The longer the better.)

- Do you have a policy on rotating beans? (Any number below 14 days is a good answer. …