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Coffee / Coffee articles


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 experts say.


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 from Vietnam.


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.


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