HOW much is too much for a cup of coffee? Price is an increasingly sensitive topic among coffee drinkers and cafe owners. With most inner-city cafes charging $3.50 to $3.80 - and top destinations breaking $4 - it's time to ask if there's a limit to how much people will or should pay for their morning fix.
Of course, a coffee in one place can be very different to coffee in another. One cafe might offer commercial-grade beans, supermarket milk, standard sugar and basic furnishings while its neighbour with the slick fitout serves specialty coffee sourced directly from a farm, organic farmer's milk and panela sugar from Central America.
''Cafes serving specialty coffee should charge more for their beverages,'' says Fleur Studd, co-owner of Market Lane Coffee, where a regular is $4. Studd uses specialty-grade coffee and organic, unhomogenised milk (twice the price of standard milk) and says, ''Coffee should be sold within a wider price bracket than it is currently.''
Commercial-grade coffee is controlled by commodity markets but specialty coffee, where the emphasis is on quality and paying farmers fairly, is less subject to fluctuations. But there's a lot more to a cup of coffee than caffeine and milk. Think about the labour - the barista - the equipment, electricity and rent.
Most cafes use commercial beans, but new places are increasingly opting for specialty coffee, where there is transparency about the blend and the beans' origins. It's also notable how many cafes are roasting their own beans, resulting in new flavours.
More roasters are travelling to countries and regions to source their own beans. Seven Seeds founder Mark Dundon, who recently returned from Panama, says it is becoming harder to source good coffee as more people chase quality beans.
Sourcing beans is also an issue for Marinus Jansen of Padre Coffee. He has to buy larger quantities to secure green coffee, which he says adds to his overheads. He says that 10 years ago his first cafe was charging $3.50 and that's still the price of a regular coffee at his Brunswick, South Melbourne and city cafes.
''It's justified for a cafe to charge more for a coffee where the product and experience speak quality,'' Jansen says.
Several cafe owners talk about a price ceiling in Melbourne. But Studd says: ''If we allow a price ceiling to dictate how much we charge long-term, it means that quality will be compromised.''
Salvatore Malatesta, who has been charging $4 for coffee at South Melbourne's St Ali for two years, points out his cost base is three times that of commercial-grade coffee roasters. Also, roasters who travel to coffee-growing areas spend at least $10,000 a trip, he says.
Then there's the thorny issue of double shots. One disgruntled reader contacted Epicure to say she changed cafes after being charged extra for a strong coffee. Mostly a strong coffee is a double shot (sometimes a double ristretto), using twice as much coffee, but some cafes are prepared to absorb the cost and others not. Also, confusingly, some, such as Market Lane, serve a double shot as their standard base.
If you're having three or four coffees a day with double shots, you're consuming a lot of caffeine, John Russell Storey, of Lavazza, says. About half of Lavazza cafes charge extra for a strong coffee and Storey hears complaints about longer queues because of double shots.
Seven Seeds cafes don't charge extra for double shots. But down the road at Campos Coffee, Brian Dessaix says: ''We do charge 40c extra as we do use double the coffee. Many places use a double ristretto for their standard espresso base and are therefore not using any extra coffee for a double shot.''
Campos charges $3.60 for a regular and $4 for coffees made from special single-origin beans. ''We are dealing with rare and exclusive coffees; this is not commodity coffee,'' Dessaix says.
Some cafes don't charge extra for double shots because of the value in returning customers and some areas are more price-sensitive than others, says Tom Beaumont, of Five Senses coffee roasters. ''It's scaring more people when they see a muffin deal with the $2.50 coffee - most consumers will know they're not getting a great coffee at that price.''
Outside Melbourne, prices are often at the high end, too. Whether there is an isolation factor at play is hard to say, but Wye River General Store, for example, charges $4 for a Genovese coffee. Cafe manager Toby Waite says: ''It's harder to get a decent cup of coffee outside the city - and I'm quite happy serving coffee for $4, because it's worth it.''
Terri Bitton, at Elkhorn Roadhouse in Wallington on the Bellarine Peninsula, says she tries to keep her prices in line with those in Melbourne. A Coffee Supreme Fairtrade organic coffee is $3.50, but last year she increased takeaway prices to $4 to reflect her rising coffee costs and the double shot in a takeaway. She has no extra delivery costs but some coffee companies have to post or courier coffee supplies to country cafes, which is an added overhead.
How do you know if you're getting value in your cup? Really, the best way to judge a coffee is whether it tastes good, you know what's in the house blend and where it comes from and, most importantly, you enjoy the whole experience.
As the emphasis on quality spreads, it's inevitable that more cafes will charge $4. Perhaps not so bad - if you get what you pay for.