Why does coffee taste so bad?
By Kathy McLaughlin, WSJ
Coffee prices are at their lowest level in decades.
So why does so much of the coffee you buy taste so bad?
FALLING GLOBAL PRICES should be a godsend for consumers: better
beans at cheaper prices. But in fact, much of the coffee you buy
is worse than ever. This year, coffee makers are increasingly substituting
low-quality beans in their ground coffee for high-quality beans,
according to the International Coffee Organization, a global trade
group and sort of an OPEC for coffee. In addition, the purity of
the average cup of coffee - the ratio of debris like twigs and
rotten beans to actual fresh beans - has shifted markedly in the
unappetizing direction over the past two years.
In fact, quality has gotten so poor that in recent weeks, the
ICO issued new rules requiring coffee-exporting countries to improve
their product - or stop selling it. That is good news for consumers,
because the new standards are significantly higher than the U.S.
government's own rules: Currently, Food and Drug Administration
rules essentially permit unripe or moldy beans, gravel and other
junk to constitute as much as 30% of a cup of "pure" coffee, industry
The falling prices on the global coffee market are having a direct
impact on the coffee you drink. Kraft Foods, which makes Maxwell
House, says its second-largest supplier of coffee is now Vietnam,
which grows some of the cheapest - and lowest-quality - beans in
the world. (Kraft's largest supplier is Brazil, and second-largest
used to be Colombia.)
Kraft and other major coffee companies including Sara Lee, say
they have in-house purity standards for the coffee they buy which
are more stringent than the FDA's, but they declined to provide
specifics. In addition Kraft and other big users of Vietnamese
beans, including Sara Lee and Procter & Gamble, which make
brands including Hills Bros. and Folger's, respectively, declined
to disclose which of their brands include lower-quality beans
in their blends.
Analysts say many of the best-selling supermarket brands have
replaced the high-quality arabica beans they used to buy from regions
like Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica with low-quality beans
from other countries.
The quality problem affects the vast majority of coffee sold in
the U.S., because almost all coffee sold here is either preground
or instant, the two types most likely to contain debris or bad
beans. "Specialty" coffee - the kind sold in whole beans or, say,
skinny frappuccinos in cafes - has only about 15% of the market,
despite the increasing popularity of coffee bars. That is partly
because many of the drinks sold in specialty shops contain very
little actual coffee: They are mostly milk, sugar and flavorings.
Meantime, the big supermarket brands, neighborhood delis, coffee
vending machines - and, of course, the companies that stock American
companies' office percolators - compete with each other not so
much on taste as on price. In fact, for the past several years,
coffee companies have been increasingly mixing in cheaper beans
due to price competition. The current flood of bad coffee on the
global market has taken an already-poor product down another notch.
Despite the proliferation of coffee choices today, there are
only two basic bean types: Arabica is generally the best, while
Robusta is cheaper and less tasty.
Vietnam is fast becoming the robusta king. In the past five years,
that country has come out of almost nowhere to emerge as the world's
third-largest coffee producer, behind only Brazil and Colombia.
Ten years ago, it produced almost no beans. Then the government
decided to stimulate production, which rose 1,400% in a decade.
Vietnam now claims about 12% of the world market, although Vietnam
has no minimum export grades, produces low-quality beans and notoriously
exports some of the world's most impure coffee.
In coffee, "there are two kinds of off tastes," says Kenneth David,
a coffee taster and industry consultant. One is a "compost" taste,
and the other is "old shoes in the back of the closet," he says. "Vietnamese
robusta combines both."
That hasn't stopped some of the biggest brands from using tons
of it, chiefly because it is so cheap. Last year, for the first
time, more than half of all robusta imported into the U.S. were
In fact, it is so bargain-basement that it is forcing higher-quality
producers like Colombia and Guatemala right out of the market.
Last season in Central America - traditionally known as the world's "bean
belt" - output in some countries was down as much as 25%, while
Vietnam's production jumped 16%.
Consumers have noticed falling quality. John Gill, a technical
writer in Chula Vista, Calif., who used to buy coffee at the supermarket,
now grinds beans at home and says the quality difference is "huge."
Don't go looking to Juan Valdez for help. Colombia's coffee industry
is so deeply troubled that its advertising budget for the pancho-clad
icon of high-quality coffee has been slashed by 95% this year.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution
to "adopt a global strategy to respond to the coffee crisis." Among
their concerns: a need for quality standards, and the fact that
low prices are creating a humanitarian crisis among the world's
subsistence coffee farmers.
But despite the glut of beans on the world market right now, high-end
retailers say the best beans are becoming increasingly scarce. "Finding
good-quality coffees right now is the most difficult time in my
career," says Michael Roderiques, a specialty roaster in Danville,
Ky., who sells mostly to restaurants and institutions.
The reason good coffee is getting more expensive at the same time
that bad coffee is getting so cheap is because farmers' incomes
have plummeted. As a result, in the past year or so they have been
forced to make severe cutbacks on the careful cultivation that
top-grade beans require. (For instance, hiring extra farmhands
to pick the beans at just the right moment).
Some specialty buyers are already paying more for top-grade beans,
while others, such as Peet's Coffee on the West Coast, report "a
struggle" in sourcing good beans. That could quickly trickle down
to consumers. Ted Lingle of the Specialty Coffee Association says
he expects to see a jump in prices for specialty-grade whole-bean
coffee early next year.