Could California be the Next Coffee Capital of the World?

Move over avocados, there’s a new crop in town

By Alana Al-Hatlani

Published on February 26, 2018

In the land of avocados and almonds, a new crop is sprouting up in southern California: coffee. We're familiar with varieties from Ethiopia, Columbia, and Indonesia, but if Frinj Coffee has its way, California will be the next coffee capital of the world.

The Frinj Coffee program began on the Good Land Organics Farm, an exotic fruit farm founded in 1992 in Santa Barbara by Jay Ruskey. Between lime and avocado trees, Ruskey began to cultivate coffee trees, and today, he is the leader in California coffee growing. The farm then created its own coffee program, known as Frinj, named after the farm’s ability to grow coffee beans on the fringe of traditional growing regions. Now the program not only grows coffee, but supplies plant materials and post-harvest processing and manages sales for the 25 farms in the Frinj cooperative.

The program has produced five different varietals since 2012 and last year they sold their entire 250-pound crop to Blue Bottle Coffee, an Oakland-based chain of coffee shops. The chain released the California Geisha Blend in December to their 39 stores worldwide. A single cup sold for $18, and according to NPR, the entire stock sold out in just two weeks. The high retail price is a result of the $60 per pound that Blue Bottle paid for the beans—a premium compared to the $5 per pound price tag for beans imported from Ethiopia. The cost difference reflects the higher labor and land prices in California, but as the sales at Blue Bottle indicate, there is a market for coffee at those higher prices.

Outside of California, coffee typically grows somewhere between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, a part of the world bisected by the equator with a tropical climate that coffee prefers. There are two main types harvested, arabica and canephora, better known as robusta. Arabica, the type Frinj grows, is considered higher quality, but requires high altitudes, lots of rain, and a moderate climate to thrive. None of this describes SoCal.

Ruskey, who has a degree in agribusiness from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, worked with experts to develop an arabica genome adjusted for the Golden state. Arabica usually grows over a six month period, heavily dependent on a rainy season for fruit to ripen. The Frinj blend of cultivars are adapted to the drier climate of Southern California, where the coffee trees produce in a much slower but steady cycle. As a result of the slower process, his coffee has its own unique floral flavor. Ruskey's innovation is not only good news for California farmers, but could also be important for the future of coffee as climate change impacts traditional growing regions. His work ensuring that the world's caffeine thirst will continue to be quenched.

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