The C Market: Understanding Coffee Prices and Coffee Markets

The C Market: Understanding Coffee Prices and Coffee Markets

When you head into your favourite coffee shop(s), you’re probably paying more or less the same price for your coffee day after day. Sure, prices might increase over time in line with inflation, but we can generalise and say that the cost of your morning cup of coffee remains stable.

But did you know that the price of coffee – that is, green beans, or coffee that hasn’t been roasted yet – fluctuates widely? In this article, we untangle some factors that play into the prices paid for green coffee:

  1. The C-Market: The dynamics of coffee supply and demand
  2. Certifications and labels (Fairtrade, organic, etc.)
  3. Coffee quality
  4. The coffee’s origin

We will take a look at these 4 factors to understand how coffee is traded and what influences the price paid by roasters – and relatedly, the price received by farmers (which are typically not the same; more on this in another article!).

In particular, we refer to some of the differences between specialty coffee and commodity-grade (‘regular’) coffee. In this way, we get into the economics of specialty grade coffee to understand how farmers stand to benefit from producing the high-quality coffee we appreciate so much.

Factor 1. The C-Market: The dynamics of coffee supply and demand

It might be surprising to know that coffee is actually traded on stock markets. The coffee futures market – commonly known as the ‘C market’ – reflects the dynamics of global coffee supply and demand, similarly to other commodities and stocks. The C market coffee price, or “C price”, is a benchmark for the global market price of ‘regular’ green Arabica coffee (which has been processed but not roasted).

Since coffee is an agricultural product, it is also influenced by climate-related factors, such as drought or heavy rainfall, changing temperatures, etc., which can affect harvests and growing conditions and subsequently affect its market price. Socio-economic and political factors can also influence coffee production via labour costs and availability, exports and tariffs, shipping routes, and other such factors that also affect its supply and price. So, suffice it to say, it’s a bit complicated.

The C-market represents coffee on a global scale, so circumstances in just one country can cause effects that ripple out to affect coffee prices worldwide.

Alas, the complexities of how the C price is determined is not the point of this article. What we are interested in is how the C market coffee price influences the prices roasters pay – and how much producers get paid for their coffee.

So what does the C market coffee price actually mean?

You can think of the C price as a global reference for the price of regular-quality Arabica coffee. It represents the approximate price being paid on the markets for commodity-grade coffee, like the ‘average’ coffee that big brands use to make their signature blends that always taste the same. In summary, the C market is a benchmark for the global market price of Arabica coffee.

The following graph shows the evolution of the C price since 1980:

C Market coffee price graph, 1980-2024

Data source: 

Over the last 40 years, the coffee C market price has fluctuated between lows of about $0.50 and highs around $3.00, expressed per pound (lb; equal to 0.45 kg) of green beans (in USD). The average over this period was $1.28 USD/lb. So, it fluctuates widely enough to significantly affect farmers and buyers. However, yet another trend is revealed when we consider inflation. The graph below shows the same period (with yearly averages only), with all prices adjusted to 2024 dollars:

Inflation-adjusted C market coffee price, 1980-2024

Now we see a different picture! The red line is the graph’s trend line, which indicates that on average, coffee prices have been decreasing, and significantly so. This might sound good, but let’s keep in mind that coffee farming is hard work, requiring manual labour, year-round. Recent statistics suggest that 80% of coffee is produced by 25 million farmers with relatively small plots of land (smallholders).[1] These people (and their families) rely, in whole or in part, on revenues from their coffee sales for their livelihoods.

The C market price does not necessarily (at least not directly) reflect the costs of producing coffee, which anyway varies quite a lot between coffee-growing regions (see factor 4 below). This means that the price farmers can get for their coffee does not always even cover their production costs – in other words, coffee farmers are sometimes forced to sell at a loss. This seems like a tragedy, and in all honesty it is. And that’s one of the things specialty coffee, as an industry and a concept, set out to rectify.

How does specialty coffee relate to the C market price?

The C market pertains to commodity grade Arabica coffee – that standard, mid-grade Arabica that you might find mixed into a generic supermarket blend or the old-school restaurant around the corner.

Within specialty coffee, the idea is that the production of high-quality coffee is rewarded through a pricing mechanism directly compensating quality. In other words, the better the quality of the coffee farmers manage to produce, the higher the price coffee buyers (roasters) might be willing to pay for it.

So then where does the C price come in? In a nutshell, rather than the C price determining the price paid for coffee, it acts as a reference, against which specialty roasters, importers, and producers can understand the premiums being paid for quality.

The Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide is an awesome initiative launched by Emory University, working with over 100 coffee companies to collect data on prices paid for specialty coffee. Their results have allowed us to make this approximate comparison between commodity coffee prices (C Market coffee prices) and specialty coffee prices:

Graph of C market coffee price vs specialty coffee prices, 2020-2023

We can see that, from 2020 to 2023, coffees considered specialty-grade (according to a cupping score of 80+ points according to SCA protocols) were sold at prices well above the C market price. Of particular interest is the fact that prices increased with increasing quality, with coffees that scored above 88 points securing prices about 3–5 times higher than the C price!

So, in summary, the C market coffee price acts as a global benchmark for commodity-grade Arabica coffee on commodity markets, but in the case of specialty coffee, we set prices differently but can refer to the C price to understand the premiums being paid for supreme quality.

Keep in mind though, that this is not just free money for the farmer. It takes significantly more effort on the farm (and in processing) to produce a lot of coffee that can be graded as specialty. There are investment costs related to labour and training, farming practices, and equipment, and lots of knowledge is required. But, if done well, the farmers will be compensated by securing much higher prices for their coffee.

Factor 2: Certifications and labels

Certifications are a whole topic in and of themselves, and we plan to discuss the major certification schemes applicable to coffee in a dedicated series of articles, as the situation becomes quite complex when we get into the details.

What we are interested in, for the purposes of this article, is the fact that certain formal certifications can potentially boost the value of the coffee being sold.

For example, a Fairtrade certified coffee will have a premium added on top of the C market price. If the coffee is also certified organic, there’s another supplement added. However, there are costs involved in obtaining the formal labels – producers must pay to obtain Fairtrade certification, or use special organic farming techniques to be organic certified, etc. Further, there’s a chance that the market becomes saturated and they aren’t able to find a buyer for the certified coffee, in which case they may be forced to sell it at regular commodity prices. That’s where it gets tricky, and it’s why we say that certifications can potentially help farmers secure higher prices.

In the specialty coffee world, it’s generally less common to see certified coffees. That’s because of what we just finished describing above: the willingness of specialty roasters to pay much higher prices for coffee that’s amazing. Generally speaking, in the process of searching for coffees of superior quality, roasters have the potential to help farmers improve their livelihoods by rewarding quality directly.

Certification schemes vs specialty coffee

So, the idea is to reward producers directly for their ability to produce high-quality coffee by paying higher prices, instead of rewarding adherence to complex formalised standards (such as Fairtrade). Further, while most certifications aim to (and in many cases do succeed in doing so, to some degree) secure economic benefits for farmers and/or improve environmental and labour conditions, they generally don’t inherently contain incentives to produce coffee of higher quality! So, instead of auditing the farm/farms/cooperative for compliance with a multitude of regulations not necessarily related to quality, tasters actually taste the coffee in a cupping, grading it with a score according to a scale that is more or less standardised (the SCAA cupping score). This grading then allows buyers to understand the quality of the coffee in terms of its taste characteristics, and it directly influences the price the coffee might achieve on the market.

Another interesting thing to note is that, due to the soil and farming conditions required to produce specialty-grade coffee, they are often actually organic, despite not being labelled as such. In many cases, it’s not worth the costs associated with securing organic certification, since farmers can be compensated to an even greater degree by producing coffee that naturally attracts high market prices amongst specialty coffee buyers.

Factor 3: Coffee quality

So, as we’ve just explained, quality is thus another important factor in determining the price of coffee, in particular for specialty coffee. By paying higher prices for superior coffee, producers are rewarded with a direct financial benefit for the extra work, knowledge, and investment required to produce high-quality lots of coffee.

As we saw in the graph above, managing to harvest and process a good single-origin lot that achieves a cupping score of 88 or above means that that producer (or collective) might be able to sell that coffee for 3 or 4 times the market price.

But, the sky is the limit… There have been some ridiculous prices paid for extremely high-quality coffees! In a 2023 auction, a coffee scored at a whopping 96.5 points received a bid of over 4,500 USD/lb3000 times higher than the C market price at the time.[2]

So, we see that in the specialty coffee world, the price goes beyond the coffee C market and certification schemes, with a strong focus on directly rewarding quality with high prices.

Above, we mentioned single-origin, which brings us to the last factor we’re going to discuss in terms of how it influences a coffee’s price – the coffee’s origin.

Factor 4: Where the coffee is grown (its origin)

As we know, Arabica coffee grows in specific climate conditions, and coffee production is dominated by specific regions of the world, which can be grouped as follows:

  • Central America (from Mexico down to Panama)
  • South America (Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador)
  • Africa (Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya)
  • Asia (India, Vietnam, Indonesia)

As we discuss in-depth in our (future) articles on terroir and the different coffee-growing regions, coffees from each region tend to have particular characteristics due to the influence of the climate, the soils, the other vegetation, the dominant varietals of coffee grown, and the processing methods available as per climate and local tradition. The map below (credit to Torch) gives a nice overview of this:

Coffee growing regions map

Because of these regional differences, coffees coming from different regions can also have wildly different price tags!

We don’t go into too much detail for the purposes of this article, but just so we can get an idea of what’s going on behind the scenes, origin influences the price of a coffee due to numerous factors:

  • Labour costs
  • Local agricultural knowledge, practices, and skills (also reflected in coffee quality)
  • Labour unions and the landscape of producer cooperatives
  • National/regional laws and regulations
  • Costs of living, goods, land, and agricultural inputs
  • Land availability and local climates (and yes, climate change is impacting coffee severely; more on this in another post)
  • National economies, including export tariffs, trade agreements, etc.

The key takeaway from this is that the coffee’s origin influences its price.

Some of the regions that tend to fetch some higher price tags on their specialty coffee include:

  • Kenya
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica

And some of the regions that are often able to offer the cheaper end of the spectrum of specialty grade coffee are:

  • Brazil
  • Mexico
  • Honduras

Final thoughts

That’s about it for now – thanks for reading. We hope that you move on with a fresh perspective on the complexities of coffee prices and markets, and a new appreciation for the fact that you can reliably pay 3 euros for your morning cappuccino without having to think about global markets and all of that!


1. Coffee farmers - Fairtrade Foundation 

2. Why are some coffee roasters willing to spend over US $10,000 per kg on Gesha?

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