Whether you’re a casual kopi drinker or a third-wave coffee connoisseur, don’t sink money into overpriced coffee trends in Singapore. Few drinks have as many myths and stories around it as coffee. You’ve probably heard and accepted one or two of them. Since coffee also makes up a part of our budget (admit it, you probably drink at least a dozen cups a month), here’s how to avoid getting ripped off buying coffee in Singapore.
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1. Fair trade coffee means paying more for an ethical choice
Many cafes and even supermarket coffees now have a “fair trade” label. The idea is that fair trade coffee, while more expensive, is also more ethical: it ensures that more of your money goes to the growers, who aren’t stuck working in almost slave labour conditions. Fair trade sets a “ground price” of USD $1.40 (approx. S$2) per pound of coffee for growers. However, this amount seems either irrelevant, or way too little; in fact, it’s been pointed out that some growers could make three or four times more by not selling via fair trade contracts. Also, a recent study in The Journal of Business Ethics concluded that just 12% of the money made from fair trade coffeeactually gets to the farmers. Of course, none of this stops retailers from charging you top dollar fair trade coffee. Consider that an entire pound (0.45 kilogram) of fair trade coffee costs just S$2. Then consider that S$5 to S$8 you typically pay for a premium cup of coffee, and you can see you’re being charged a massive mark-up. We don’t want to take away the warm glow of “doing the right thing”, but we don’t want you to be ripped off either. If you want to help, you’d be better off buying other coffee and donating money to charity instead.
2. Organic coffee is grown without any of those nasty chemicals
We don’t want to get into the whole argument about whether organic food is better than genetically modified food. Let’s assume, however, that you prefer organic and are willing to pay top dollar for it. Here’s the catch: there are many different labelling standards when it comes to the word organic. And some organic coffees may not be quite what you think. For example, in some cases, “organic” coffee just means there is no chemical treatment of the beans – something that’s true in so many coffee brands, it’s practically a useless merit (like claiming your toothpaste is sugar-free). It’s entirely possible that the coffee was grown in soil laden with insecticides, or that the water source is right next to a chemical plant. However, the “organic” label is stuck on anyway because of the “clean” roasting method. So before you shell out that cash, ask the store manager what exactly the organic label means. Does it refer to the entire farming process – from how the beans are grown to how they’re packed – or does it just refer to one specific step being organic?
3. Kopi Luwak is not as exotic or rare as you imagine
One of the most expensive coffees in the world is the famous kopi luwak from Indonesia, which can sometimes reach upward of S$180 per kilo. The romantic version is that kopi luwak seeds are “naturally” processed, having passed through the intestines of the civet cat (yes, the seeds are drawn from the faecal matter of civet cats). The high cost is because of the great difficulty in gathering the seeds. Someone has to follow civet cats all day, and rush for their poop (if exposed for 24 hours or more, fungi can damage the coffee beans). So that’s what you’re paying for, right? In reality, you’re paying top dollar for a combination of animal cruelty, and mass produced coffee. Farmers simply catch and lock up civet cats, force feed them the coffee cherries, and gather their coffee poop. When the civet cats invariably die from malnutrition and lack of space, they throw them out and get some more. The farms are a bit of a horror movie. Incidentally, there are also kopi luwak farms in the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. All this mass produced coffee is then sold to you as a rare product and marked up by several thousand per cent.
4. The cold brew scam
If you’re a huge coffee fan, you probably know that cold brew is all the craze for cold coffee right now. If you’re not, perhaps we should explain that cold brew is not just coffee that’s been stuffed in a fridge. Cold brew is made by steeping ground coffee in room temperature water, for at least 12 hours. The grounds are then filtered out to make the coffee. In effect, the coffee is extracted slowly and over time, so there is no need to use heat. Cold brew coffee can be served chilled, with little or no loss of quality. This is different from just making coffee and then dropping ice in it (this dilutes the coffee and ruins its taste). Now, do you see the opportunity for a scam here?
Precisely: most people are not such big coffee lovers that they could tell the difference. You could just as easily put some coffee in a fridge for a few hours, and insist it was made using cold brew methods. And while you’re at it, you mark up the price by 100 per cent due to the time consuming “effort” required. This scam is likely to keep continuing because it’s easy to fool plenty of Singaporeans. When you want cold brew, go by word of mouth from coffee lovers you trust. Buy an unknown cup at risk of a rip-off.
This article was first published at Singsaver, 23 March 2017.