Jay Ruskey, cofounder and CEO of California’s Frinj Coffee, wants us to think about coffee as we do wine. For 20 years, he’s been perfecting the art of coffee growing in an unlikely place—California—and now you can taste that place in the cup. Today, his farm, Good Land Organics in Goleta, is a coffee lab bustling with scientists, geologists, farmers and connoisseurs sampling Frinj’s lauded Geisha beans straight from the source.
California-grown coffee has a small but devoted following. Currently, 74 farmers have teamed up with Frinj to grow Ruskey’s high-end Geisha and caturra coffee cultivars. Frinj’s scientists mentor farmers on soil health, organic growing and pruning techniques, then Frinj splits the substantial sales price with farmers—this year, just five ounces of Geisha beans sold for between $50–$80.
That might be a jaw-dropping price for even the most discerning coffee drinkers, but Justin Jonte, farm manager of Mraz Family Farms, one of Frinj’s partner growers owned by musician Jason Mraz, explained how much work it takes to bring the market’s rarest bean to your cup. Coffee is the most labor-intensive beverage on Earth. Workers handpick cherries over a six-to-eight-month period, taking advantage of Southern California’s long, dry summer days. Then they extract the bean, cure, dry, shell and hand-sort it multiple times.
In addition, coffee is a thirsty plant. Growing coffee trees in a drought ridden coastal desert and paying workers a living wage inflate the price of Golden State java to what farmers say presents the true cost of this global commodity.
Coffee is the most labor-intensive beverage on Earth.
But as the climate changes more drastically and supply chain issues make it so the tropics can’t keep up with demand, California growers are reminding us to think more locally, even with the dramatic price tag. “Wine people get it—beverages allow us to taste the land we walk on,” says Rachel Jonte, assistant manager of Mraz Family Farms. “You don’t drink Cristal every day.”
It’s a long way off before Californians’ daily cup comes from just 100 miles from their homes, but as demand increases, so will options. San Diego’s Bird Rock Coffee has already hosted tastings of California Geisha, brewed by Jason Mraz himself. Good Land Organics offers a farm tour and tasting. The University of California, Davis Innovation Center is studying how we might grow even better coffee—and maybe make it more accessible. For now, scoop up some beans when you can and explore the perks of homegrown coffee.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!