The effects of a severe drought in Brazil recently caught Casey Cummings by surprise.
While shopping for his regular blend of gourmet coffee, the securities broker found that the price had jumped 80 cents a pound in three days.
"It was $5.99 the last time I bought it," Cummings said at Merchants Coffee, Tea and Spice Co. in the National Place shopping complex.
Washington area shoppers are finding that the price of the aromatic brew has risen sharply in recent weeks, in some cases by as much as 38 percent or $2 per pound for ground roast coffee. At some stores, the cost for instant and freeze-dried products is up by as much as $2 per pound, to $8 for a 12-ounce jar.
The increases are the result of the seven-month Brazilian drought that is expected to kill up to half of the world's largest coffee bean harvest and drive up prices worldwide. Locally, merchants are starting to pass along wholesale costs that started soaring in the wake of the drought late last year.
In the last two weeks, the area's largest chains, Safeway and Giant Food, increased prices for the nation's most popular brand, Maxwell House, more than 16 percent, to $4.29 per pound. The ground roast coffee had been selling for $3.99 at Safeway and $3.69 at Giant. Giant's own brand is up 50 cents a pound to $3.49. In February 1985, the national average price for ground roast coffee was $2.59 a pound, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mark Polsky, vice president of the 16-store Magruder's grocery chain, said that two weeks ago the company ran out of coffee purchased months earlier at lower wholesale prices. The store raised its price for a 12-ounce jar of instant coffee to $7.29 recently because it is now buying coffee at higher wholesale prices, he said. The new charge is $2 more than the item cost a month ago.
By-the-cup coffee prices are climbing as well, as local restaurants, coffee shops and vending machine companies have started to charge more or anticipate higher prices.
Sholl's Cafeteria in Rosslyn tacked on an extra nickel for coffee last week, the first increase in three years. Sholl's co-owner George Fleishell -- who remembers when a spare dime in the 1950s could buy a poor stranger a cup of hot java -- said customers have not balked at the 35-cent charge. "They're still buying it," he said.
At the expensive hotels and restaurants, however, some patrons may gasp when they see the $1.50 charge for a cup of coffee.
Some merchants say customers are reacting in various ways to the new prices, either scoffing at them and leaving empty-handed, choosing alternative, cheaper brands, or remaining faithful to their regular brew.
Juanita Hill, a Northeast Washington resident, said the increases have not affected her three-cup-a-day habit.
"I don't care what it costs, I'm buying it," Hill said while shopping at the Safeway store at Hechinger Mall in Northeast Washington. "You know, some people have to have their coffee."
At The Daily Grind coffee store at 1613 Connecticut Ave. NW, manager Irv Warshaw said business has not been hurt by increases of about $1.50 a pound. "There's a little hesitation to buy , but some of our customers are addicted to the better coffees," he said. The cost for the 62 types of fresh exotic coffee beans the store carries averages $6.50 a pound, a dollar more than a month ago.
At one gourmet food shop in Tysons Corner mall, higher prices are chasing away some members of a "coffee club" who receive a free pound of coffee for every 10 pounds they purchase over a period of time.
The store's charge for one gourmet brand, for example, has jumped twice since the beginning of the year -- from $7.99 to $11.20 per pound. "One day its one price, the next day it's another price," said a store employe who asked not to be identified. "People walk out."
Some merchants say they are opting to absorb some of the higher costs while others may spread the increases around by charging more for other beverages, such as tea and cocoa, according to industry sources. Both tactics are meant to keep coffee drinkers in a habit threatened by high prices, the popularity of soft drinks and heightened concerns about health.
Some merchants say that even if wholesale prices begin to drop, consumers may not benefit. Explains Magruder's Polsky, "If it drops 20 cents we're not going to drop our prices because we're not making anything now."
Bob Reynolds of the Springfield-based Bob's Office Coffee Service, which provides the hardware and ingredients for making coffee, said the retail increases are making companies such as his more attractive than the office coffee pool. "The more they raise [coffee prices] in the grocery stores, the more they throw business my way," according to Reynolds, who said the complete service costs about 9 cents per cup.
But Bob's prices are up, too. Previous advertisements offered the service for a "Nickel Per Cup."
Locally, there are varied opinions about whether prices will continue to rise sharply. Three national coffee companies dropped their wholesale charges slightly at the end of January, but this month an agreement that regulates international coffee prices is expected to be suspended.
"I don't think it's over yet; I think [prices] may go higher," predicted Safeway spokesman Ernest G. Moore.
Cummings, who said he and his wife regularly buy fresh gourmet coffee beans that are ground in the store, said he does not know at what price they will decide to curtail their coffee drinking. "There's a limit to everything," he said.
Coffee is in plentiful supply, merchants say, but that may not continue if consumers start buying in large quantities to avoid future higher prices.
Juanita Hill put three large jars of her favorite instant coffee into a cart at Safeway last week. "Next month it might be higher than it is now," she said. "If it is, I'm gonna have mine at home."