Counterfeit Coffee Is Creeping In

I am not a coffee snob. While I enjoy a hearty artisanal roast that's been cultivated over a series of intricately planned harvesting rituals and presented with carefully constructed instructions for how exactly to sip, I've also dropped plenty of cash on gas station coffee in styrofoam cups. Such is the nonexistence of standards when one is a true addict in pursuit of a fix.

And so, throughout my coffee-drinking stretch, I've had plenty of cups of "coffee" that were truly terrible. Those that stick to the back of your throat with a bitterness the lingers for weeks. Those that leave behind a muck at the bottom of the cup that looks not unlike the bile of Satan himself. Those where the brewer seems to have misplaced the actual coffee beans and instead just ground up a pile of sticks instead.

Turns out, that last scenario may not be so outlandish.

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In nearly any market, there are counterfeiters trying to make a quick buck. For years, the coffee market has been immune to this due to the simple fact that there have been more than enough beans around for everyone to use. Counterfeiting just didn't make sense when prices are so low. But now, as drought and disease wreck havoc on the coffee farms in Brazil and other areas of Central America -- projections suggest Brazil will produce nearly 20% fewer bags of coffee in 2014 than they did in 2013 -- that reality has changed.

When supply goes down, prices go way up. And when prices go up, that's when seedy folks start getting involved. (Look no further than Mexico's drug cartels getting involved in the country's lime and avocado market.) So now: People are selling counterfeit coffee.

How can it be counterfeit, you ask? Next time open up a package of coffee grounds, take a good look inside. It's just a mound of brown or black-ish dirt. Due to the process of grinding and roasting, you can theoretically stick just about anything in there with a small amount of coffee grounds and get the same look. And people are taking advantage of this by adding "fillers" to the coffee.

The range of what's thrown in there is pretty wide:

Wood, twigs, sticks, parchment, husks, whole coffee berries or even clumps of earth that are almost the same color as coffee have been found.

Luckily, all the "filler" ingredients that have been found in coffee grounds are "organic," as far as that goes. Meaning there isn't a known risk of getting sick by drinking counterfeit coffee. (That kind of market-crushing scenario would kind of defeat the purpose of trying to sell counterfeit coffee in the first place.) But it's still a problem in that consumers are paying money for one thing, and getting something else entirely.

Which is where a team of researchers from Brazil steps in. They've developed a new test that uses "liquid chromatography" -- a process that breaks the coffee down into different components and allows the analyzation of each specific one -- in order to tell with a 95% accuracy whether or not the coffee's been messed with. No word yet on whether or not this test will be made available to the consumer public, or if it will be used at the border to screen imported goods.

In the meantime though, maybe it's smart to just buy whole beans and grind them yourself.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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