OCEANSIDE — Grammy Award-winning musician Jason Mraz’s passion for coffee first bloomed during his early days playing music in San Diego coffee shops.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 43-year-old Oceanside artist in recent years has added a new outlet for his creative talents — coffee agriculture — with hopes of putting California on the coffee-growing map.
“I started my career working in coffee shops playing music in the corner of venues,” Mraz told The Coast News in a phone interview. “When I was 18 or 19 I would go hang out at a diner all night with my journal and write poetry and drink the crappiest coffee ever.”
Mraz joins a host of other celebrities with an interest in coffee agriculture, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Hugh Jackman, and Ralph Lauren.
The singer will return to the virtual stage on May 20 and 21 for a concert that was previously recorded at Solana Beach’s Belly Up Tavern. The performance will feature old classics and new tracks from his 2020 album, “Look for the Good.”
His newest release, however, is the highly sought-after Geisha coffee, a variety of coffee arabica beans that’s helped put the 17-acre Mraz Family Farms in Oceanside on the map.
“Traditionally you can only get (coffee) by importing it from other countries, so there was an opportunity in California to try to break ground on a new industry of a very old product,” Mraz said.
Mraz Family Farms’ Geisha coffee boasts a wholly different blend than your usual cup of joe, advertising “qualities of peach pie, dried apricot, and jasmine,” according to Frinj Coffee, its Santa Barbara-based distributor.
Attached to such a sophisticated flavor profile is an equally eye-raising price. At $80 per 5-ounce bag, Mraz’s whole-bean Geisha stands high above the usual $10 spent on a 24-ounce bag from Starbucks.
Yet, when the Mraz Family Farms’ debut of Geisha immediately sold out, Mraz knew he had something special growing right here in North County. After a year preparing for the Geisha coffee, he partnered with Frinj Coffee to help launch his passion project.
In 2017, veteran farmer Jay Ruskey launched Frinj Coffee, an agricultural cooperative for continental America’s first coffee farms. Since then, Ruskey has partnered with about 50 California farmers, including Mraz. Ruskey, CEO of Frinj Coffee, first met Mraz six years ago at the avocado farm the artist had recently acquired.
Ruskey told Mraz that avocado and coffee are companion crops that require nearly the same care above and below ground. Yet avocados don’t cover the cost of organic farming so Mraz added coffee crops, excited by the Geisha’s scarcity in the region and the sentimental value of coffee in his early career.
Geisha is “such a unique tree, such a unique taste. It also has a story, it’s one of the most sought-after coffees in the world. So already there’s a bit of romance around this character,” Mraz said. “The fact that Geisha can be grown here and still reach the same sort of grading and scoring quality that it does in other countries and in other (coffee) contests … it was a pleasant surprise.”
Ruskey said that Geisha coffee’s distinct floral and tea-like taste is shared by no other bean in the world. It’s comparable to a fine wine to be enjoyed among friends and family, say Mraz and Ruskey.
When asked about its steep price point, both Mraz and Ruskey cited the difficulties in growing a crop that requires high altitude and precise timing and often produces just half the yield of some of its peers. Best grown in tropical regions like Ethiopia and Colombia, the bean is hand-picked from the ripest coffee cherries.
The price tag is also influenced by the organic certification and maintenance process and the fair and livable wages that Mraz is committed to providing his team.
Mraz takes a different approach than the average celebrity with their name attached to a product. For the singer, farming has become a counterweight to his day job, a calming juxtaposition to the frenzied life as a touring musician — both passions lend to each other.
“I would come home from tour and I would put my hands in the earth and watch something grow. It kind of introduced me to the patience of a long project … you have to surrender to earth pace,” Mraz said. “It helped me do that in my creative art as well. … I’ve got a lot of musical ideas, album ideas, show ideas, but they don’t need to be done today. I can just nurture those ideas and when the right season comes then that song or that album will be the right fit for that time.”
Both Mraz and Ruskey hope their model for agriculture inspires existing farmers and newcomers to the field. The company now partners with a number of Southern California farmers looking to diversify their crops.
The two farmers’ partnership is helping to solidify an industry still in its bloom. While sustainable coffee agriculture in the region was previously thought impossible, Mraz and Ruskey are inviting the world to indulge in their dream of California coffee.
“We do want other farmers to take the chance because the more people that get on board, the more mills there will be eventually and the more coffee there will be for Californians to enjoy,” Mraz said. “The price will eventually go down because it won’t be as rare. There will be more of it for all of us to enjoy and hopefully, young people will want to move into agriculture.”