Monday, November 21, 2011

End of Days Predicted as Coffee Becomes Rare and Expensive

{ Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake! The Zombies Are Nigh! }  
At Forbes online magazine, tech writer Alex Knapp (Repent! the End of Cheap Coffee Is Nigh!) is in a dead panic. And by dead panic, I mean that he's having nightmares of a slow-zombie apocalypse slouching toward his cubicle to be born. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Alex; for it tolls for thee, the rest of the coffee-drinking world, and thus, civilization as we know it.

(Strangely enough, IMDb has no record of any movie entitled, Dead Panic. With all those zombie apocalypsi (fast or slow), sparkly vampires, and other delightfully sexy undead creature features, why has no one written a direct-to-DVD thriller with that name? I blame the exquisitely marbled Michael Moore, who would make a great entree in Dead Panic.)

What was I talking about? Oh, yes, a zombie apocalypse brought on by "peak coffee." Alex's nightmares began when he read an article by Zak Stone, editor of The Daily Good. Stone starts by discussing the high-end coffee market, where at Intelligentsia Coffee, in Venice, California, their baristas and "coffee groupies" sound just like tea drinkers displaying their obsessive-compulsive side. They have a "Slow Bar," where they do coffee in much the same way as my tea-drinking friends and I.

The idea of the Slow Bar is to “give the customer an experience that expands their idea of what coffee is,” says Charles Babinski, who trains the staff in different brewing techniques and hosts educational events for customers. It’s a place where customers can sit down and ask questions about coffee, but it’s “not meant to be beating people over the heads with education as much as just creating different coffee experiences.”

See? Doesn't that sound just like us? And here, we've been thinking that coffee swillers just slam their way through their vente cinnamon chokeaccinos without noticing the subtle nuances or using language such as the following: “Lychee, persimmon and botanical notes bring a weightlessness to the muscular and expansive Tegu. Marmalade and sweet herbs float in the background while the finish hangs onto a hint of spice.” Doesn't that sound like something Wojciech Bońkowski might have written on his blog, Polish Wine Guide, which-- name aside-- discusses tea with his rare and discerning palate?

Stone notes that for those willing to spend $5 or $6 for a cup of coffee, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. But for those unfortunate enough not to be willing to spend that kind of dough, they're likely to find that the cost of coffee is going to skyrocket to the point that they'll have to either cut back how much they drink or live with lower-quality stuff than they're used to. Increasing demand plus decreasing production volume equals extinction-level event. We're all gonna die.

Consider: What would Western civilization be without coffee? Would Bach have written those finger-tangling toccatas and fugues without a caffeine buzz to keep him going? Would Picasso have spent his life creating art objects like, Still Life from One Angle at a Time, Thank You Very Much? Would the sainted Steven Jobs have discovered the secret to making sleek, shiny objects that can hypnotize mass audiences into giving him all their savings?

I doubt it.

{ Peak Coffee: Batten Down the Hatches }  
Stone points to anthropogenic climate change (predictably) and not enough high-mountain acreage as the culprits for the decreasing supply of high-quality arabica beans. What he doesn't take into account are the possibilities that the decrease in volume may be a temporary aberration, or that human ingenuity may allow us to develop new cultivars in much the same way that the chocolate or tea geniuses have done. Or that people may just switch to drinking other beverages entirely, so there may be hope, after all. Nevertheless, short-term supply problems may trigger the zombie apocalypse predicted by jittery fanboys.

At the exact moment that rare beans are becoming all the rage, all beans are becoming rarer. The price of a cup of coffee—whether it be a $6 pour-over, a $2.50 dark roast at Starbucks, or a $1.50 mug of diner swill—is being driven up by a complex combination of weather events, pest and fungus outbreaks, speculation on commodities exchanges, an unstable labor market in the developing world, and an unprecedented thirst for good coffee among a growing global middle class. The problem, in simple economic terms, is that supply has gone down and demand has gone up.

Now, tea drinkers deal with some similarly troubling reports. A couple seasons ago, the Taiwanese dealt with horrible landslides that killed many, because the high-mountain Li Shan tea farms had increased in number and acreage to the point that the topsoil could not withstand a terrible storm. A burgeoning Chinese middle class is starting to demand coffee and tea (as well as other luxury items), which puts pressure on international markets. Unsustainable farming practices endanger some Indian tea-growing plantations' ability to produce high-quality leaves over the long term. And don't even get me started on the fake aged puerh phenomenon. And so on.

The upshot is that the very, very high-end Chinese teas are kept in-country for the consumption of Chinese millionaires and Party members; wonderful-enough-to-satisfy-everyone-else teas are still widely accessible, especially through the wonder of the Internet, for those willing to spend a premium; and cheap teas will probably follow in the path of coffee and have some kind of temporary spike in price (along with other comestibles), until markets react and come to a new equilibrium.

But until that point, when I'm around coffee drinkers, I'll still watch my back.