Why Coffee at a Coffee Shop Is So Expensive, According to Coffee Experts

Photo: Stocksy/ Martí Sans
Coffee isn’t cheap. But that doesn’t always stop us from shelling out a few extra dollars to pick up a caramel soy milk latte at our local coffee shop. Why? Coffee shop coffee slaps. And although we may begrudge coffee shops for taking such a big chunk of our hard-earned money all the time—the truth is, there’s a high price to pay, that is, if you want to sip on a high-quality cup of joe.

Industry experts will tell you the same thing. According to them, the long journey coffee takes from farm to cup accrues (high) costs along the way. To learn more about why our favorite espresso or drip is often so pricy, we spoke with two coffee experts who say it's important to understand the state of the coffee industry and how it works to fully grasp the scope of why coffee shop coffee is so expensive. But, they argue, it’s worth the price you pay—at least, most of the time.

Experts In This Article

The main factors driving up coffee prices

According to Genevieve Kappler, a coffee expert, roasting technologist, and the director of coffee and brewing at Roasting Plant Coffee, there’s no denying that coffee is an expensive good right now. And unfortunately for our wallets, it’s likely going to stay that way for the foreseeable future due to five main reasons.

1. Rising demand for coffee worldwide

Kappler notes that most of coffee’s price hikes are purely due to economics and increased interest in higher-quality coffee globally. “Its supply and demand," she says. "The rising love for good coffee worldwide makes a healthy competition out there to get access to the best. Top-quality beans are rare and, as a result, pricey."

There's also an increased demand for fair-trade coffee, meaning the producers of the finished product aren't being exploited. This, Kappler notes is a major part of her role as a specialty coffee sourcer—to ensure that her coffee producers are well taken care of. “At the specialty level, it becomes increasingly important that, when we go into a country looking for top quality coffee, we solidify our relationships with producers, motivate them financially with fair pay, and keep their spirits high despite all the challenges,” she says. If consumers are used to buying beans that aren't produced with these types of safeguards in place, they may feel the effects of rising prices trickling down into their cups of coffee.

That said, Kappler encourages folks to consider that supporting producers—and paying a premium for their top-quality beans—is a key priority to keeping these local businesses afloat. “As coffee buyers, it is part of our duty to communicate with the producers we work with, discuss their challenges and face them together as much as we can—these challenges can be specific to a region or country and even sometimes specific to a farm," she says. "So we must ensure that whatever we’re paying producers covers all the costs associated with these challenges while rewarding their quality and enabling them to keep growing and selling with us."

To Kappler, this healthy relationship between buyers and growers helps maintain sustainable supply chains that can overcome global price spikes and inflation; but, more importantly, it keeps the coffee industry thriving along the way to ensure consumers can get their hands on the best quality coffee as much as possible.

2. Producing quality coffee isn’t physically easy, either

Maciej Kasperowicz, a Q grader (a premier, certified coffee expert) and the director of coffee at Trade Coffee, a subscription coffee company connecting small roasters across the United States to coffee lovers, also adds that making quality coffee isn’t an easy task. On the contrary, it’s a rather complicated and meticulous process. “The main reason coffee is expensive is the many, many hands that have to touch it for it to get from its tree to your cup,” she says.

Indeed, the lifecycle of coffee is long. “Coffee is the seed of a cherry-like fruit that grows on shrubs throughout the tropics," Kasperowicz explains. "Someone has to pick that coffee, often by hand, and, for high-quality coffee, only when it’s perfectly ripe. Those coffee seeds then have to be separated from the rest of the cherry, using specialized machinery and often fermentation, and dried. Then, after a final hulling, that coffee needs to be exported and shipped around the world, delivered to roasters, roasted, and brewed by a barista.”

But according to Kasperowicz, even those steps barely scratch the surface. Physically moving the coffee from place to place (often miles and miles apart) by way of different modes of transportation (fueled by high gas prices) must also be considered. The coffee has to move from farm and mill, mill and exporter, exporter and port, port and warehouse, warehouse and roaster, roaster and shop, and so on.

To put this into perspective, Kasperowicz says it’s like comparing apples to, err, coffee. “Not to understate the amount of effort required in all agricultural supply chains, but in theory, if you see an apple tree, you could just pick the apple and eat it. With coffee, even if you’re standing in front of a coffee tree, there’s a ton of very specific labor to be done before it gets in your cup,” he says.

3. Coffee's origin also impacts its cost 

Both coffee experts agree that where coffee is sourced affects its prices due to factors like geography or limited supplies. “Coffee production is also very different around the world," Kasperowicz says. "In Ethiopia, for example, coffee is largely grown on tiny farms on the sides of mountains, which deliver their coffee to a mill to be processed. In Brazil, there are many more gigantic farms on flatter lands—though it’s still over 2,500 feet above sea level. Both the terrain and economies of scale make Brazilian coffees way more cost-effective.”

Meanwhile, Kappler notes that Hawaii also has some of the most expensive beans as it is geographically located many miles away from many roasters and has a very limited supply to begin with. “The further a country is, the more expensive we would consider that area to source from,” she says.

In addition to geographic limitations, Kappler says demand also plays a major role in driving prices up. “Both Central and South America produce some of the highest quality and most sought-after beans in the world, so varieties from those origins typically skew more expensive,” she says, adding that East and Central Africa (mainly Ethiopia), which is known as the birthplace of coffee, can run expensive, too.

4. Climate change is also responsible for dwindling supplies

Indeed, it’s a simple law of economics: Decreases in supply will result in higher prices. And another factor contributing to smaller coffee supplies is climate change. “Climate change is a huge factor in the coffee industry," says Kappler. "Irregular weather patterns are impacting producers in drastic ways—like varying lengths of their harvest, requiring them to enact more careful labor practices to accommodate weather changes, and creating the need to defend crops against different diseases that can occur in coffee plants, resulting in lower yields."

Meanwhile, she notes that poor weather also impacts the coffee drying process, forcing producers to find costly solutions like mechanical dryers instead of relying on natural—mostly cost-free—outdoor drying methods.

Additionally, Kappler notes that natural disasters due to extreme weather occurrences—like hurricanes or floods—can wipe out harvests completely and damage coffee crops, infrastructures, farms, and roads, which can disrupt lengthy and complicated supply chains resulting in increased coffee prices.

The solution to high coffee prices?

Unfortunately, for the time being, high-quality coffee means high costs. That said, Kappler has tips for getting the most out of your pricy coffee. “Keep it simple," she says. "Pick a specialty coffee shop that prioritizes beans that are high enough quality to stand on their own as brewed coffee, Americano, or espresso." Kappler notes that simple drinks like iced coffee or Americanos typically cost less than flavored lattes or specialty drinks as they don’t require tons of extra ingredients like syrups, milk, or preparation methods for the barista. "Think the fewer ingredients, the lower the price," she says.

Meanwhile, if you prefer to pull your own shots or brew your own beans at home, Kasperowicz recommends buying coffee in bulk (he suggests two-pound bags), which is more cost-effective. “If you drink a good amount of coffee at home and you’re buying it fresh, you should be able to go through a two-pound bag while it still tastes great,” he says. “Just remember: Your enemies are air, heat, and sunlight. Most coffee bags can seal pretty tightly, but if you want some extra protection get an airtight container and, if it’s transparent, keep it out of direct sunlight and in a cool place,” he says.

Regardless of how you enjoy your cup, here are the coffee benefits you'll be reaping with every sip: 

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