Daily grind: A lot goes into the price of a cup of coffee in Portland

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PORTLAND — For most Americans, the cost of cooling off with an iced coffee has gone up this summer.

Green coffee beans are commanding higher prices, forcing major manufacturers like J.M Smuckers, which owns national brands like Folgers and Dunkin’ Donuts, to hike the price of their coffee.

But while consumers buying beans might have noticed the increase, many Portland coffee shops have not adjusted their prices.

“If you really want to follow the market, you have to change your price every week,” said Isabelle Julien, owner of Mornings in Paris in Portland’s Old Port. “I adjust prices once a year.”

Still, the cost of a cup of coffee is anything but consistent across Portland’s many cafes. On Munjoy Hill, customers at Hilltop Coffee pay $1.46 for a 12-ounce cup. At Starbucks in the Old Port, patrons can expect to shell out $1.61 for the same size, and the Udder Place near Woodford’s Corner charges $1.75.

What accounts for the difference in price? A lot. Between the straws, the cups, the employees, the milk and sugar, the rent and more, there’s a lot more than coffee in the price of a cup of Joe.

Still, the coffee itself is an important factor. Many cafes brew coffee that carries a certification: organic, Fair Trade, shade-grown, Cup of Excellence or Special Prep. According to Jeremy Pelkey, who owns Bard Coffee, coffee growers must pay for the certification process, but generally receive a higher price for their product.

Each certification works differently, but many have a similar goal: allowing consumers to access a superior product while ensuring a sustainable livelihood for growers and their environment. Many certified coffees sell for between $8 and $15 a pound, but some can run upwards of $20. One coffee estate in particular, La Esmeralda in Panama, has commanded prices of up to $130 per pound.

According to Pelkey, that’s a $30 cup of coffee.

Portland coffee drinkers would be hard pressed to find a coffee shop brewing La Esmeralda, but many cafes do brew certified coffee daily. And while each kind of bulk coffee sells for a different price on the auction block, when deciding how much to charge for a cup, cafe owners find an average that makes sense for whatever type of coffee they brew.

Coffee drinkers should also take note of how their coffee is brewed. Several cafes in Portland, including Bard and Coffee By Design, offer two brewing methods: coffee machine or drip-station. According to Tiffany Wolfgram, who works at the Coffee By Design on Washington Avenue, most customers select one of three types of hot coffee that is brewed every three hours and kept warm in an air pot.

But patrons on a more leisurely schedule, or who are seeking the freshest cup of coffee, choose the drip-station method, which costs 50 cents more per cup than a machine-brewed. The process takes four or five minutes and requires the server to grind the beans and then pour hot water through the grounds.

Wolfgram estimated that less than 10 percent of customers choose drip-station, but those who do are “fanatical” about their coffee.

In addition to coffee characteristics, accessories like milk, sugar, and cups affect the price of a cup of coffee. Coffee By Design owner Allen Spear said he has noticed that customers use a “phenomenal” amount of milk and cream, products that “cost substantially more than coffee.”

Some coffee shops use biodegradable cups, which cost more than paper or regular plastic cups. Others double-cup or provide sleeves for hot beverages, techniques that can increase the amount of paper goods needed for the same volume of customers. Many cafes provide a variety of pricey sweeteners, like local honey and maple syrup and raw sugar.

While Portland is home to a number of independent coffee shops, chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are also a factor. Each Starbucks store is corporate-owned, meaning prices are determined by the company’s headquarters in Seattle. Starbucks declined to comment on factors that affect the price of its coffee, but an informal survey of Starbucks stores in the region revealed that prices here are some of the lowest.

At $1.61 for a 12-ounce cup, consumers of Starbucks in Portland are paying three cents less than their coffee comrades in Burlington, Vt., and six cents less than in Portsmouth, N.H., but a cent more than in Boston.

Unlike Starbucks, each Dunkin Donuts is individually owned and managed. The company provides suggested retail prices for its products, but franchise owners have the final say.

The suggested prices for 10- and 14-ounce cups are $1.39 and $1.69 respectively, but most Dunkins in Portland charge much more. Dunkin patrons at One City Center can expect to shell out $1.59 for a small and $1.92 for a medium; on outer Congress Street the same sizes cost $1.49 and $1.81.

According to Doug Cortina of Cafua Management, the Massachusetts-based company that owns many of the Dunkin Donuts in Portland, customers rarely notice if the Dunkin down the street sells coffee for less.

“If we had more customers complaining,” he said, “we’d change the prices.”

Despite selling literally tons of coffee, owning a cafe isn’t easy. Coffee By Design owner Allen Spear estimated his company only makes about 2 cents of profit off each cup of coffee.

“You can make a living doing it, but it’s tight,” Spear said.

Co-owner Mary Allen Lindemann added, “If you want the quality and you want all the certifications, it costs money to do that. And so if we raise our prices, understand that it’s because of factors here, locally, and factors internationally.”

Sidebar Elements

At Bard Coffee on Middle Street in Portland, the selection of brewed-by-the-cup coffees changes daily.