In 1975, like today, Brazil was the world’s largest grower of coffee. Back then, most of their coffee production was in the State of Parana. Coffee likes warm sunny days and cool nights. It does not like cold and it definitely does not like frost. Parana is subject to an occasional night of frost in the winter (our summer). So when there were 5 consecutive nights of very cold weather in August of 1975, it not only killed the coffee cherries (where our coffee beans come from) but it also killed the leaves and even the coffee trees themselves. This caused not only an immediate shortfall of coffee but a shortage for years to come as it takes new coffee trees 3 to 5 years to be productive. This became known in the world of coffee as the Black Frost of ’75.
There was very little specialty coffee then. Even whole bean coffee of any kind was rare to find. Peet’s and Starbucks on the west coast (of course there were more but just an example), Schapira’s and Gillies 1840 in NYC (Zabar’s had whole bean ‘specialty’ coffee of a sort). When the effects of the Black Frost started to be felt, the price of coffee that traded on the Commodities Exchange in NYC rose 600% over 2 years from 47 cents in April of 1975 to $3.23 in April of 1977. Today, with our faster communication, the price would have shot up in days, not months.
In any event, this price increase caused huge problems for the coffee industry. Most companies looked for ways to save money. Some used cheaper coffee to bring down the cost of their blends. Robusta coffee (much cheaper and harsher tasting than the mild arabica) was introduced into many companies’ blends (or the proportion of Robusta increased if already part of the blend). This change for the worse flavor wise in many major coffee companies’ products caused them to lose lifelong customers. Where did many of these spurned coffee drinkers go? They went to whole bean specialty stores for their coffee.
Supermarket and national brands of coffee lost customers in droves. This was a key event in what became known as the Second Wave of Coffee with new coffee roasters and coffee bean sellers opening to serve these customers. The Third Wave of coffee was strict attention to quality, to the origin and the people. Oren’s proudly opened In February of 1986, and we were among the first new stores that featured high quality beans, sourced responsibly, and freshly roasted for our customers.
In the end, the Black Frost of ’75 in Brazil, for the reasons above, helped accelerate the trend of people looking for better coffee and dedicated bean sellers for it. There were fewer than 400 coffee roasting companies in the U.S. then, and more than 2,150 today (our membership number in the Specialty Coffee Association is 21).
This is a great example of the “Butterfly Effect” of climate change impacting the future of coffee. How do you think current trends of climate change will impact your cup in the future? What can we do about it? Let us know in the comments.