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It may be hard to believe these days, but once upon a time roasting your own coffee was an economic way to indulge. Only the well-off could afford to buy roasted, ground coffee in tin cans. Those who couldn’t afford all the modern, luxury conveniences bought green coffee beans by the scoop or the sack at the general store or the corner grocery. Once or twice a week, the housewife of the 1920s or 1930s heated up the cast iron frying pan, scooped up a cupful of green beans from the sack and roasted the beans over the fire. After the beans cooled, she’d store them in a covered canister and grind them as needed in a hand-cranked coffee grinder.
Over the decades, it became less expensive to put things in vacuum sealed cans, and the big coffee conglomerates pushed the price of coffee down with the prices they were willing to pay for green beans. By the 1950s, canned coffee was the norm and few people ground their coffee at home. You could still buy whole coffee beans in the chain supermarkets, and have it ground at the register to take it home in resealable foil-lined bags, but by the end of the 1960s, many housewives had never even seen a whole roasted coffee bean, let alone a green coffee bean. Percolated coffee was considered excellent and drip coffee even better. Maxwell House and Folgers and Chase & Sanborn duked it out for the title of “best-tasting coffee” — and since the standard was being set by freeze-dried crystals and instant coffee powders, they really did taste pretty darn good.
The stage was set for a coffee renaissance, and predictably, it began in the counter-culture centers of the late 1960s and the 1970s on the Pacific Coast. From San Francisco to Seattle, indie coffee houses began to spring up.
They featured “gourmet coffee” with exotic sounding names like Yirgacheffe and Sidamo and Kona and Malabar. The air was heavenly — redolent with the aroma of freshly ground coffee so rich you could taste it when you breathed it in. Most coffee shop owners were passionate about their coffee. They weren’t just selling a beverage — they were espousing an entire culture. It spread eastward across the country, with independent coffee shops springing up in major cities, then smaller cities — and then exploded with the entry of Starbucks into the market.
Gourmet coffee had only one drawback — it was expensive. As long as the big coffee manufacturers could keep the prices on Robusta and the cheaper Arabica beans depressed, single origin coffees and blends of those coffee beans could cost double or even triple the price of a can of coffee at the grocery store. Most people had no idea that the cost paid for the coffee in that can was often less than it cost to actually produce it, or that people half a world away were picking and processing their morning coffee brew for a few dollars a day. There was a plentiful supply and a steady demand, and since supply and demand set the prices on the market — along with subsidies paid by many governments to keep coffee production high — the prices for regular commercial coffee stayed low.
The front line of the gourmet coffee industry, though — those who started the trend and those who followed in their footsteps — chose to do things differently. They chose to put a premium on the better coffee beans and support the agricultural methods that produced those better beans. Because those importers were buying in smaller batches and paying premium prices for the coffee beans they bought, the price for the finished product was considerably higher than the price paid for the low-quality tinned coffee from the supermarket.
Over the past five years or so, circumstances have undergone a major upheaval. The major trigger for the change has been the weather, but there have been other factors as well. Droughts, major storms, monsoons, rising temperatures all played into several seasons in a row of poor coffee production. Political and labor problems in Africa and South America have impacted the delivery and export of coffee to the rest of the world. The resultant shortage of green coffee beans hits just at a time when worldwide consumption and demand for coffee is at its peak.
The end result is that coffee prices have risen and are likely to stay high unless and until the supply of coffee is refreshed by a few good growing seasons. Supermarket coffee costs nearly double what it did a few years ago. Gourmet coffee prices have risen as well, but not as steeply, perhaps because there already was some slack in the prices paid for raw gourmet coffee beans.
Green coffee beans, on the other hand, are among the best coffee bargains you’ll find. Green coffee beans cost, as a general rule, $1 to $3 less per pound than the same varietal after roasting. Depending on the origin, you can buy green coffee beans for as little as $5.99 per pound — more if you buy in bulk. When you consider that national supermarket brands of ground coffee are running around $3.99 to $4.19 for an 11 oz. can, the equivalent of almost $7 a pound, you can see that not only are green coffee beans cheaper in comparison to roasted beans — they can be cheaper than run-of-the-mill supermarket brands.
A simple Internet search for “green coffee beans” will turn up page after page of roasters and importers that sell green coffee beans to the general public. If you narrow the search down by adding your state, city or region, you may find a local roaster you can patronize. If you’re lucky enough to have a local roastery that sells green coffee beans, you’ll save the cost of shipping. Otherwise, shop around online to find companies that sell green coffee beans and find your best deal.
Many roasters and importers will discount the shipping or even eliminate it altogether if you buy in large enough quantity — and, unlike roasted coffee, which loses quality rapidly once it’s roasted — you can buy green coffee beans in bulk and store the beans for months — even years — without a perceptible loss of quality. Just store them in a cool, dry place to avoid mold or mildew and roast them as you need them.
Perhaps the best part of buying your coffee beans raw and roasting them at home is the incredible difference in flavor. Most experts agree that coffee tastes best within 24 to 48 hours of roasting, but that bland statement doesn’t come near to describing the difference between canned coffee that’s sitting on the shelf and coffee you roasted up last night or this morning. Once you smell and taste the difference, you’ll never be satisfied with off-the-shelf coffee again.