People are drawn to California for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s the incredible coastline, mountain peaks, vibrant cities or world-class food, there is no shortage of appeal to The Golden State.
But would you believe me if I told you that one of the greatest appealing aspects of California (well at least to me) is its coffee culture!
You might not even realize that California is the second US-state (besides Hawaii) to grow coffee commercially…and it has been doing so for several years. And this is due in part because of Jay Ruskey—founder and farmer at FRINJ Coffee.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Jay over the phone recently and I am excited to have the chance to share his story and the story of FRINJ Coffee with you as they are our Coffee Roaster of the Month for September. And while yes, FRINJ does roast coffee, there is so much more to their story than just that!
[CC] Hey FRINJ Coffee, so great to get the chance to connect with you! So, tell us a little more about yourself.
[JR] FRINJ was a culmination of several aspects of my life. First, I am not a great speller, so that works for me! Secondly, our local, weekly paper, “The Santa Barbara Independent,” featured us as a cover story, entitled: “Growing on the FRINGE,” which resonated because that is exactly what we are doing.
We are growing coffee outside of its traditional growing region and implementing new technologies to produce coffee. We push ourselves to the cutting edge of the industry. I recently heard a fringe definition as: hanging out on the edge, but still attached.” That is where I have always been with agriculture, and it’s certainly where FRINJ is today in the coffee industry.
[CC] How did this all begin? How does a geographic location “technically” situated too far north of the “coffee belt” become the second US state (asides from Hawaii) to grow coffee?
[JR] The birth of California-grown coffee dates back to 2002 when I began experimenting with coffee at our Good Land Organics farm in Santa Barbara. I worked with Dr. Mark Gaskell who had moved to California from the coffee-growing regions of Central America and was interested in identifying which coffee plants would thrive in California’s climate. I began trials for large-scale coffee production and interspersed coffee plants with older avocado trees. We started with Caturra, Tipicas, and then Geishas. Shortly thereafter, coffees came in from germplasm, live collection, and from Pro Café El Salvador which had new cultivars like Laurina, Caturra Amarillo, and Catuai.
I then began working with Dr. Juan Medrano from the UC Davis Coffee Center who wanted to sequence the Arabica genome. Two years later Medrano and his team finished their work, accelerating the growth of the California coffee industry. With a third-wave coffee market in full swing, farmers were ready for a new specialty crop. FRINJ Coffee’s Good Land Organics Caturra received 91 points out of 100 and was ranked 27th in the world by Coffee Review in 2014, garnering national media coverage and planting a seed in farmers’ minds throughout Southern California about the potential for success with this new coffee experience.
Pleasant temperatures, cool ocean breezes, complex soil, and an evening layer of fog contribute to the successful growth of California coffee. While there are multiple harvests possible in the equatorial zone, California is known for its specialty coffee production with a single annual harvest making the region’s microclimate a main determinant in deciding where in the state to plant.
[CC] In my phone call with Jay I asked him,”what were some of the initial challenges you faced early-on as you sought to establish California as a viable coffee growing location?”
He shared that some of the greatest hurdles in the early days of FRINJ was some of the science involved and also the post-production aspects.
[JR] In order to ensure great coffee you need great plants and that was one of the things I knew from the get-go we wouldn’t compromise on. I knew with my farming experience that I had to be intentional with what coffee varietals we selected that would thrive in this climate.
Another hurdle for us was what it took to scale this as we began to see significant growth. I knew that this was “bigger than just me” and I was committed to ensuring that the farms & farmers we partnered with would receive the support they needed. As we began to scale, I saw that the need for post-harvest equipment was something that came with a learning curve and also just the logistical challenge of souring the equipment. But in every case we met these challenges head-on and have come through the other end better still.
Even the topography of Southern California is a challenge when it comes to planting and harvesting coffee. This isn’t Kansas where the farms run flat for acres. So helping our farmers navigate the uniqueness of the land, along with ensuring sufficient water access all came with learning how to grow and scale FRINJ.
What helped us immensely through this all was that FRINJ was founded to with the ethos that we’re a team. And so this spirit of teamwork has been at the core of all that we do, and continues to help us grow into all that we will become.
[CC] You say that this all came together with “a dash of crazy, hope and instinct”, so what has it taken to see FRINJ become more than just a hope/dream? Tell our audience more about the team and how they all work to fulfill your mission.
[JR] FRINJ Coffee has a network of over 70 partner farmers totalling over 100,000 trees, and of those, a dozen farms are producing coffee this season with that number is doubling every year as the trees come into annual mature production in 5 years. Some FRINJ farmers have just 200 trees, while others have up to 20,000 trees on their properties. FRINJ Coffee is working with farms located in coastal pockets of the following counties: Santa Barbara, San Diego, Ventura, Orange, Riverside and San Luis Obispo.
FRINJ California coffee farmers are working with Arabica species including Geisha, Pacamara, Pacas, Yellow Caturra, Red Caturra, Red Cataui, Puerto Rico, Typica, Laurina and Bourbon. FRINJ’s unique Whole Systems Solution to California coffee production is helping growers to play in a new market with the tools they need, working with each farmer to assess their land and recommend appropriate plant materials and infrastructure while consulting on cultivation, sustainability, culture, research and post-harvest services to bring the product to market. Compared to the global average for coffee growers, FRINJ ensures that more than half of the end value goes back to the farmer.
[CC] How has the specialty coffee community reacted to you as a company? And what about the general public? What are people’s reactions when they first learn about California-grown coffee?
[JR] We have seen the continued trend of coffee prices surpassing the $100 per pound goal that was started in 2017 when FRINJ was incorporated. We have been supported by leading names in the business, including Blue Bottle, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, Saza Coffee, as well as other global roasteries. FRINJ looks forward to creating a FRINJ California-Grown Coffee Consumer Experience model with online subscription sales and 150-acre coffee estate that provides on-farm tasting experiences with educational components similar to that of the wine market. Rising awareness, fuelled in part by the media and Instagram, has made specialty coffee farms the destination for a generation of global travellers.
[CC] I am sure some of our readers are wondering… so does California-grown coffee taste any different than what they’d experience from something grown in Colombia, Ethiopia, even Mexico (which is closest to So-Cal).
[JR] While many people are likely aware of the other US state that grows coffee (Hawaii) and have at some point in their time experienced KONA coffee, and are somewhat familiar with how it tastes…there is no such thing as “California Coffee”.
The farms that we partner with grow anything from Catuai, to Bourbon, to Geisha. All of these varietals are capable of growing in Southern California and we are thrilled to offer them to our customers. Much of the “taste” or experience you get from our coffee is achieved in the post-production phase (fermentation, wet-milling, roasting) etc.
Coffee on our farms is on the tree from flower to harvest for roughly 10-12 months. What we find from our coffees are that they are uniquely sweet, and present themselves with a good level of acidity and body. All of our coffees are washed-process, and often will present with floral or citrus notes, which does offer that “essence of Southern California” since we are so fortunate to have such great farms in our region that specialize in these agricultural products.
We want to create very memorable coffee says Jay. And we are confident that these coffees that people see on our website will be just that!
[CC] So, speaking of coffee, what are you drinking/enjoying right now?
[JR] I enjoy all of our coffee. I have been spending more time recently working on blends with our coffees and have been enjoying those. I call them “Jay’s Mystery Blends” and while that is likely not the final product name, from an agricultural point I enjoy the unique opportunity that they bring, and how they can showcase again the diversity we have from our coffee farms. I enjoy seeking out new and innovative products.
[CC] I noticed one such coffee on the FRINJ site was the Mraz Family Farm Blend, which was a blend of two varietals: Geisha + Cuicateco. Cuicateco is a Sarchimor hybrid originating from Mexico and cultivated in El Salvador. I have always been a huge fan of blends and truly believe this is where the art & science of coffee come together in a beautiful collision.
[CC] Ok, while many of the farms/farmers you partner with might be obscure to our readers, you do work with a fairly famous family…the Mraz Family, who our readers might recognize from Jason Mraz (singer-songwriter). I see their family even produces a Geisha Variety. Can you share more about this?
[JR] Jason Mraz founded Mraz Family Farms in 2015 in Oceanside, California, a farm that is committed to peace in the world through organic regenerative agriculture, fair trade, and kind words.
He began growing avocados and exotic fruit, and then crossed paths with myself a few years back. An avid coffee drinker and San Diego local, Mraz tried his hand at growing coffee trees and debuted his first Mraz Family Farms Estate Blend to his legions of fans. The coffee sold out immediately.
“Our partnership with FRINJ Coffee helped us create a more resilient production model, by interplanting coffee among our avocados to create a layered Agri-forest. As with all the crops we produce, the Geisha coffee cherries are grown organically, and all our workers are paid living wages. This is unique for the global coffee industry. By considering this extremely rare pour, the coffee connoisseur enjoys an unparalleled complex cup of coffee and does their part to promote local, regenerative agriculture and a fair trade,” says Mraz.
The Mraz Family Farms’ latest Geisha features impressive cup qualities of peach pie, dried apricot, and jasmine. The beautiful orchard is planted in a regenerative agricultural style, making not only a fantastic cup, but a healthy restorative farm ecosystem. Each sip is an embodied sense of optimism for what’s to come from coffee grown in California.
Jay also went on to say: “The Geisha has long been known as the most famous, coveted bean in the world, and will usually grow in Ethiopia or Columbia. The Mraz Geisha is even more rare as it is grown in San Diego, California. Its price reflects the investment in time, a labor force paid with fair wages, infrastructure, research, plants, food and water, all of which culminate in the cultivation of a rare, exotic crop that is not native to this part of the world.”
[CC] It was this partnership with Mraz and another local San Diego coffee roaster BirdRock Coffee two years ago that began my interest in California-grown coffee. This offering from Mraz fetched a price point of $199/4oz and you can see an archived site from BirdRock with the info HERE. I was actually in California when this coffee was released but sadly wasn’t able to get my hands on it. It sold out almost immediately.
[CC] Speaking of coffee farmers & coffee farms, you mentioned that one of the ways you seek to educate those who are looking to know more about coffee is through offering tours of your coffee farm. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
[JR] This summer FRINJ announced coffee tours on our Good Land Organics Farm which are experiences that take individuals on a sensory and educational journey, introducing them to the one-and-only California-grown coffee, and giving them a glimpse of the future of Southern California agriculture.
FRINJ has been growing California-grown specialty, craft coffee for decades from their exquisite farm in Santa Barbara, which sits 10 degrees north of the tropics just a short distance from the Santa Ynez Valley and its prestigious vineyards.
[CC] Jay went on in our phone call to say “These farm tours have been a huge hit and we are so glad to have the chance to share our story with others. This tour provides that in a first-hand experience into the whole seed to sip.”
As of publication FRINJ has one final summer tour left on Friday: September 17, 2021 if any of your readers are in the Santa Barbara area. Ticket price for the tour is $150 and full details can be found by visiting the website.
[CC] You have done much to help shape the specialty coffee culture. What would love to see change as it pertains to specialty coffee?
[JR] I feel that one of the things I see as critical as we at FRINJ seek to influence the coffee culture is the educational aspect. We want to help educate the average coffee drinker that specialty coffee is special, and is worth paying a premium for. Why we believe this is because at the heart of what we do is ensuring our farms and farmers are paid more, and paid fairly.
In fact, we believe in this so much that a minimum of HALF of all costs goes back to the farmer! (eg: If we sell a $50 bag of beans, at least $25 goes right back to the farmer.)
We have always been FARMER-FIRST and we see this as paramount in the specialty coffee industry. We want to be leading the way in this, and so this means that our customers do pay more for a cup of our coffee, or for a bag of our beans, but they know that those involved in each and every step of the supply chain are taken care of.
My job is to always get the highest amount back to the farmer.
Beyond this, we want to also educate coffee drinkers that coffee is far more than just that 6am caffeine hit. It’s something (like a fine wine) ought to be shared, savoured, enjoyed, and respected. We know this will take time, but we are passionate about our product, and know that once people experience our coffee they will share in that same passion.
[CC] Lastly, there’s no way I guess we an end this feature without actually talking about the fact that FRINJ isn’t just focused growing coffee, but the entire operation culminating in roasting the beans! Share with our readers a little more about that.
[JR] At FRINJ, we stand by delivering only fresh crop and freshly roasted coffee to all of our customers. We roast our coffee on our beloved San Franciscan Roaster Company 6lb Roaster. It has provided us with the opportunity to roast batches as small as a half-pound up to its full capacity.
A huge shoutout goes to our all female roasting team who operate this machine and provide our customers with the joy of tasting California grown coffee. FRINJ truly does handle each and every aspect of the coffee bean’s journey from seed to harvest to roast to sip.
Find their beans: If you’re looking to get your hands on some beans then definitely check out their web-store for what they’re currently roasting!
I just want to say a huge thank you to Jay & the entire team for sharing about FRINJ Coffee and for being such a huge contributor to the coffee culture in Southern California. It was an absolute honour to get the chance to not only speak with Jay over the phone, but to get the chance to share the FRINJ story with you!
This is hands-down one of my most favourite roaster features I have ever done…mainly because what FRINJ does is far more than just roast coffee!