Frinj collective takes advantage of high-price, high-quality coffee trend

By Tim Nelson
February 28, 2018

Southern California’s warm, dry climate grows plenty of things that we consume in massive quantities, like avocados and almonds. As with the rest of North America, though, the coffee crop is conspicuously absent. But at a time when we tend to associate fancy blends with far-flung corners of the globe like Indonesia or Ethiopia, one company believes it can cultivate a love for specialty coffee grown in the continental United States.

Santa Barbaran Jay Ruskey founded Frinj as a spinoff from his Good Land Organics farm back in 2002 in an attempt to prove that America’s favorite caffeinated bean could be grown within its borders. It took years for Ruskey and a team of agricultural scientists to tweak the arabica genome enough to get a viable coffee crop that could bear fruit in southern California, a place which mostly lacks the necessary high altitudes and heavy rains.

But since 2012, he and Frinj’s collective of 25 farmers have produced, processed and roasted 15 different varieties of arabica beans. In addition to crop wisdom, Frinj supplies those partner farms with plant materials, processing assistance, and sales management. Together, they’re fueling California’s coffee boom, making up a vast majority of the state’s 30 farms and 30,000 coffee trees.  

And the rest of the coffee world is catching on. At the conclusion of 2017’s harvest, Frinj sold the entirety of its crop to Blue Bottle, the Oakland-based coffee shop chain with a demonstrated love for expensive and rare varietals. The end result was the limited-edition California Geisha Blend, which Blue Bottle called a “single origin [that] will have you convinced right along with us that California is the future of coffee.”

Between US labor and land costs, Frinj’s wholesale price for the beans that made up Geisha blend came out to $60 per pound, roughly twelve times what you might pay for a pound of Ethiopian arabica. But Frinj argues that its varietals grown outside the traditional region between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn “results in a sweeter and more memorable experience in the cup.” The fact that California Geisha sold out in two weeks sounds like a testament to its quality.

Given the scale of the operation, it’s far too early to expect Americans to drink more locally when it comes to coffee. But at a time when climate change threatens the global arabica crop, there’s certainly some value in a bean that can survive in drier, warmer climates like southern California’s. Hopefully it tastes just as special over ice.