One of the long running jokes among the (these days: masochistic) fans who follow Italian soccer is that — at least according to the Italian sports media — teams tend to go from “crisis” to “crisis” several times in a given season. If a top-caliber team doesn’t win for two straight matches, sono in crisi (or “they are in crisis”). It’s as if the Italian media have a mission to create melodrama.

We think about that sometimes when we hear about the new coffee crisis: global warming, or climate change if you prefer. If you weren’t keeping score, the last coffee crisis was rooted in the collapse of coffee prices. With the 1989 dismantling of what was essentially a cartel among coffee producing nations, mass market coffee greens went from a high of about $1.50/lb to an all-time low of $.46/lb in 2003 — a pricing collapse catalyzed by the influx of mass-produced, low-grade Vietnamese robusta. It was this crisis that gave root to Fair Trade and other economic initiatives — to stave off the inequities of the coffee trade from spreading poverty and putting coffee growers out of business.

Our world's bleak future without coffeeHowever, today coffee has a new crisis. From papers [pdf, 622k] presented at the 2007 SCAA conference to some of the key talks at the conference last weekend (not to mention posts here going back to 2006), there’s been a lot of chatter lately about how the forces of climate change are reducing crop yields, eradicating available land use for coffee production, and extending the breeding grounds of harmful coffee plant pests. This month’s CoffeeTalk cover story comes with the apocalyptic headline, “Can this really be the end?” and the quote:

Nearly all of the specialty coffees in Latin America are sold and shipped. There simply are no quality Latin coffees left except Brazilian and those are going fast.

The fifth horseman: Robusta?

Something is seriously going on. But is it a bit premature to declare the end of coffee? There’s real danger in being false alarmist.

Whether it is quality coffee or anchovies off the coast of Chile, one of the biggest safeguards for a product’s survival is a group of consumers willing to pay a decent price for the good stuff. So when we read lamentations that coffee is going to disappear, and that coffee consumers are going to flee for cheaper energy drinks, we get the sense that these are primarily concerns for the lower grade coffees we generally avoid anyway.

L to R: Andy Newbom, Maria and Luis Jose De Rodriguez, Gloria Rodriguez, and Juan Diego De La Cerda at Epicenter CafeYesterday we attended a Meet the Producers event hosted by the Epicenter Cafe and Barefoot Coffee Roasters and got to test this theory. There we talked with Barefoot’s “Chief Espresso Officer,” Andy Newbom, to ask his opinion on the subject — in addition to the opinions of visiting coffee growers from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sure enough, they all confirmed our suspicions. As long as there are consumers willing to pay for good coffee, there will be a market for good coffee. It does leave concerns about supplies at the mid-range and low end. But the best way to ensure there will always be supplies of good coffee is to keep demanding it and paying a premium for it.

UPDATE: Oct. 7, 2010
A couple days ago, David Pohl, green coffee buyer for Equator Estate Coffees, posted an opinion that largely echoes ours here: David Pohl: “The End of Coffee As We Know It”.

UPDATE: Feb. 21, 2011
Maybe it isn’t the end of coffee. But it’s looking like an end to the artificially and unsustainably cheap prices: Why We’re Paying More for Coffee | Serious Eats.

UPDATE: Oct. 16, 2011
As if you expected anything less… a year and a half later, a guy with a desk job at Starbucks regurgitates old news, and suddenly it’s new news in the mainstream presses: Starbucks concerned world coffee supply is threatened by climate change | Environment |