The Complex (and Currently High) Cost of Iced Coffee

This past May and June both broke heat records, but you didn’t need us to tell you that it’s hot outside. You’re thirsty and could use a pick-me-up so you saunter down to grab an iced coffee. You go to pay and wait, what? If your iced coffee habit is costing a lot more this summer, you’re not alone, and your local coffeeshop is not just cashing in on the steamy misery. As detailed in a recent Gothamist article, there’s a whole host of reasons for jacked up prices.

Why? Pop quiz. What goes into making your icy cold cup of joe?

a)   oil
b)   coffee beans
c)   electricity
d)   ice
e)   milk
f)   toil
g)   water
h)   all of the above

Ok, smarty, someone gave you that answer. Yes, it’s h) all of the above (and no, it’s for real).

Before you write me off as taking one too many caffeinated sips, yes your high-priced, hot-weather coffee does contain all those inputs. That beverage glistening with condensation is chock full of natural resources and global commodities, the prices of which rise and fall with drought, disease and other problems. Just like your favorite pizza slice, iced coffee is a tasty embodiment of complex interactions between food, water and energy systems – you know, the nexus.

What am I talking about? Let’s start with the coffee beans. The coffee gods have conspired against growers, who now face shortages due to the Brazilian drought as well as a spread of a fungus throughout South and Central America plantations. Commodity prices are up 47 percent compared to this time last year.

Then there’s the effect of the epic drought in California, the biggest US dairy producer, which has led to historically high milk prices. And who doesn’t like a little, or a lot, of milk in their iced coffee?

Of course, iced coffee aficionados would be nowhere without ice. Although tap water is cheap (and good), it’s not free. Let’s appreciate all the electricity required keep those freezers and ice makers humming in the summertime heat just to turn liquid water to solid ice. Don’t get me started on how your electricity may be generated (thanks for global warming fossil fuels!).

If you’re a regular coffee nut like me, you may pack a reusable cup on your travels. If not, your iced coffee probably comes in a plastic cup. Why plastic? Because paper cups can’t handle the sweat. As Gothamist notes, plastic cups are more expensive than paper because they are petroleum-based and subject to the volatile oil market. Put that in your cup and drink it.

And please don’t forget the efforts of your local barista. Iced coffee takes longer to brew whether they chill the hot stuff or do it using the connoisseur-approved cold-brewed method. Either way, it takes many hours longer than a hot cuppa.

Of course, we could go ever-deeper into the tremendous costs of international shipping, packaging materials, coffee bean roasting, lack of sleep, etc.  Let me part with a couple thoughts: 1 ) It’s good to acknowledge and value – not dismiss – the complicated web of natural and human resources that factor in to the things we buy and use every day. 2 ) My next iced coffee will be purchased – for less – in New Jersey before I board the NYC train. (At least you’re not drinking almond milk. Slurp.)