Reports of lower coffee prices are for real, according to a leading New York coffee dealer. During the visit here last week, Irwin White, president of the New York Coffee Roaster Association and whose family company markets White-House coffees, cited a nearly 50 per cent drop in the price of Colombian beans.

"Brazil wants to maintain high prices," he said, "but consumption in this country was down 30 per cent for the first six months of this year against last year. It was down 10 per cent in Europe. I think that forced the drop."

The wild rise in prices that followed a short crop in Brazil in 1976 wrecked havoc in the industry, but White is optimistic now. "We're going to make it," he said. "A price of $5.50 a pound for a good import is not excessive when you divide by 50 cups. That's only 11 cents a cup. If you pay $4 for ordinary coffee, it comes out to 8 cents a cup."

White's interest in the "gourmet" coffee market - exotic coffees sold in small shops - is no accident. That, he says, is where the action is. "Before this year," he said, "the trend was running strongly to quality bean coffee, especially among young people. With teas as well. They seem to feel it's worth the extra money. Coffee drinking was down even before the prices went up, but I'm shipping to 45 states, Canada and the Virgin Islands."

He is quick to sweep away the mist that surrounds the search for fine coffee beans. "Anybody can do it," he said. "It's just a matter of a commitment to quality; buying better and roasting carefully. The quantity of coffee has gotten poorer year by year. That's the real reason for the gourmet coffee boom.

"When prices went up, quality control standards went down. Buying below the top grade of bean makes a difference and using robust beans from West Africa adds bulk but not flavor. Restaurants use less coffee or more water. Either way it makes a weak cup. People are more knowledgeable today. You can't fool them. They're looking for something good and when they find it they're willing to pay for it."

Nonetheless, with prices still about triple what they were two years ago ($1.85 a pound wholesale for green Columbia beans versus 65 to 70 cents in July 1975), White acknowledges the industry has "an uphill fight" to regain its market. He points to the rapid sale of "automatic dripolaters" and the personalized appeal of shopping for whole bean coffee as opposed to buying a vacuum can in a supermarket as reasons for his optimism.

"It's back to the old-fashioned way of doing things," he said, then smiled indulgently as someone suggested making coffee with Perrier water for better flavor and another mentioned the proliferation of liqueur and coffee concoctions.

"As long as they drink coffee," he said. His own coffee is served in hotels and restaurants and sold whole or ground at the Perfect Cup in White Flint Mall.