Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Words can mean a lot. When it comes to coffee, that can mean words like “food” or “transparency”. We’ve noticed both of these words coming up a lot in recent public discussions about coffee quality, and yet neither word really belongs in the conversation.
Today’s Daily Coffee News from Roast Magazine registered examples of each in an article on the recent Good Food Awards held annually here in San Francisco. In case you’re not familiar with “the GFAs,” they were born out of the Slow Food Nation event held here in 2008 with many of the same key players at the helm (at least on the coffee side of things). The goal of the awards is to recognize “outstanding American food producers and the farmers who provide their ingredients.”
All worthy goals. But here’s one of our long-time pet peeves, albeit a small one: coffee is labeled as “food”. Perhaps it seems innocent enough. But while the coffee industry has spent years belaboring the point of trying to be taken as seriously as wine, there’s is simply no way wine would ever be classified as “food” at an awards event.
It has none of the nutritional values of food; you do not eat it. What are we, civets? Sure, you could say that both food and coffee are consumed, but you could say the same for unleaded gasoline.
Restaurant coffee will surely suck as long as coffee is treated as food’s red-headed stepchild — and not something worth recognition outside of food’s long shadow the way wine enjoys. And because the “food media” provide only superficial and patronizing cover of beverages is why Karen Foley, formerly of Fresh Cup, started Imbibe magazine. There are reasons they are called “barista” — the Italian word for bartender — and not “waiter” or “waitress”.
However, let’s turn to a topic that’s a bit more controversial: transparency.
You can roughly define coffee transparency as visibility into its entire supply chain: from seed to cup. It’s about assigning the proper credit (or blame) wherever deserved and exposing just’s in the bag and behind its pricing.
It’s critical stuff. So much so that international coffee guru, roaster, and former barista champion, Tim Wendelboe, had this to say about transparency some three years ago:
A lot of high quality driven roasters, including ourselves, preach that transparency is the most important part of our trade.
There are a number of good reasons for this. One is sustainability of coffee growing and business practices — i.e., ensuring that not only can you find your favorite coffee sources, but that you can reward and encourage all of those behind its proper growing, harvesting, processing, storage, and shipping practices. Another virtue is the reproducibility of results, so that growing season after growing season you can ensure that you get a similar if not better product each time.
But what transparency is not is a measure of quality, and this is where we see a lot of coffee consumers — and even some purveyors — confusing the two. Just as Fair Trade is an economic program but not a quality certification, transparency has everything to do with the means of achieving your results but it is not a measure of quality in those results. The means are being confused with their ends.
Which is why we appreciated that Jen Apodaca, 2014 GFA Coffee Committee chair, didn’t take the bait when Daily Coffee News asked in their article, “Are there specific benchmarks for criteria like traceability, transparency…” [etc.]. Because the fact is that transparency doesn’t have a flavor — I can’t taste it directly in my cup. The GFAs are trying to recognize sensory qualities more than intellectualized ones.
Even more to the point, the fact that one coffee is more traceable than another does not mean it is of any better quality: your coffee could be highly traceable but still taste like ass.
One of the most common ways coffee consumers experience transparency and traceability is through labels such as single origin (Serious Eats?: yet another coffee-is-food reference!) or micro-lot coffees. There’s a misplaced sense that having greater precision in where your coffee comes from somehow naturally means it’s of higher quality. It does not.
The merits of this precision are more psychological than sensory. We’ve seen a lot of coffee professionals donning their best Mr. Yuk faces when someone dares to dilute the pedigree of a single row of coffee shrubs by blending coffees to achieve a specific flavor profile.
We can overlook that this kind of “master race” obsession with purified gene pools has gotten our species into deep trouble in the past. But when that geographic precision becomes the primary goal of a coffee in itself, you’re no longer seeking the best taste outcome in the cup but rather some intellectual notion of a purist expression of its terroir. You’re not thinking about optimizing for flavors as much as you’re thinking about pinning your pristine collection of butterfly species inside a museum case.
Look, there’s great terroir and there’s lousy terroir. A wine showing terroir doesn’t mean it’s good.”
I guess we all can put that in our ever-popular wine analogy and smoke it.
Taking a short respite from our series on espresso in Napoli and the Amalfi Coast, we have a couple of local coffee shop reviews to catch up on. One is the obscure and eponymous CoffeeShop_.
This dive of a coffee shop has been operation since 2012, but the overwhelming majority of locals in the neighborhood wouldn’t know it. It kind of defines the term “understated”, so you pretty much have to stumble upon it.
It’s a tight space with no seating, inside nor out, though thankfully they do offer their espresso in “for here” cups anyway (Pagnossin cups with no saucer). Though even with the tight space and nothing to sit on, you’ll often find people hanging out inside.
In addition to espresso drinks they sell Hario drip coffee (they also sell the drippers) and baked goods from Batch. Their coffee is proudly sourced from Emeryville’s Ubuntu Coffee Cooperative, which also explains some of the other “hippie crap” on the drink menu such as yerba mate and matcha.
Using a two-group Promac, they pull shots with a very creamy texture. It has an even-textured medium brown crema with a flavor of pepper and mild spice with some modestly sharp brightness (to let you know the coffee is freshly roasted). But without potent fruitiness or candy-like sweetness.
Three generous sips, and we’re still not entirely sure why the espresso shots get the nickname “Dirty” here. (As in: “I’ll have a Dirty, please.”)
Read the review of CoffeeShop_ in Bernal Heights.
Yesterday morning, KQED radio aired an hour-long Forum segment featuring a small round-table of SF coffee “luminaries”: SF’s Coffee Innovators: Forum | KQED Public Media for Northern CA. The panel included James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, Eileen Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and an unusually quiet Jeremy Tooker, of Four Barrel Coffee.
Much like the title of its associated Web page, the radio program played out like your typical coffee innovator/”third wave“/bleeding-edge routine that we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. While a bit heavy on the Coffee 101 — particularly when callers asked common FAQ-type questions that have been answered on the Internet 20,000 times over already — KQED produced a good program overall.
Some of the more interesting comments included Eileen Hassi stating that “San Francisco has better coffee than any other city in the world” — with the only potential exception being Oslo, Norway. We’d like to think so, and there’s a bit of evidence to back that up.
James Freeman noted Italy’s “industrialized system of near-universal adequacy,” which is a different but accurate way of summing up our long-held beliefs that outstanding coffee in Italy is almost as hard to find as unacceptable coffee. Other covered topics included coffeehouses eliminating WiFi, Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum inventing the latte, the Gibraltar, and even James Freeman designating home roasting as coffee’s “geeky lunatic fringe.”
While it’s worth noting that Mr. Freeman started as a home roaster, recent media coverage of home roasting has been a bit bizarre. To read it in the press these days, you’d think home roasting were at its apex rather than continuing its gradual decline towards its nadir. This despite numerous media stories covering it over five years ago as some hot new trend.
At the 2006 WRBC, we were perplexed by the complete lack of home roaster representation among the event’s attendees. (Namely, any home roaster worth his weight in greens would have been giddy over the reappearance of the Maui Moka bean. Nobody there even noticed.) And yet by 2009 we noted a real decline in online home roasting community activity, and we wrote about some of the underlying reasons for it.
Curiously enough, the first caller to the radio program (at 12’12″ in) mentions a recent trip to South India and his interest in South Indian coffee. I’m posting this from South India — Bengaluru (née Bangalore), to be precise. And I have to say, I’ve become quite fond of both South Indian coffee and the South Indian coffee culture.
Sure, they prefer it sweetened and with hot milk (that often has a skin still on it). The coffee is often cut with cheaper chicory and is brewed with a two-chambered cylindrical metal drip brewer — not unlike a Vietnamese brewer or an upside-down version of a Neapolitan flip coffee pot. But damn, if this stuff isn’t good. Even better, there’s a culture of regular coffee breaks that would be familiar to many Mediterraneans.
We’ve reported from India before, but only from the North — which isn’t known for a strong coffee culture beyond young people frequenting chains that emulate the West. Bengaluru is home to the Coffee Board of India, and this weekend I hope to head out across its state of Karnataka to visit origin at the Kodagu district. Also known as Coorg, this district grows a good amount of India’s good coffee. (Yes, they even grow really good robusta there. Just ask Tom Owens of Sweet Maria.) Details certainly to follow…
First, a Happy New Year to everyone. I may be in the camp that believes celebrating January 1 is about as arbitrary as celebrating March 6 as “New Year’s Day,” but I can still appreciate much of the sentiment behind it. Namely: leaving the past behind and trying to set a better course for the future.
Which brings us to our Trip Reports — the last of which I wrote in October. Over the past year, I’ve become embarrassingly self-aware of the kind of social monster I’ve contributed to (and even helped create). Namely: the problem of mobile device zombies. We’re written before about the cultural blight of laptop zombies, but the mobile device zombie has also reached rather epidemic proportions.
It’s become that much harder to enjoy the vibe of public spaces without an acute awareness of zombie armies staring into their mobile devices, each dutifully penning their Foursquare check-ins, Yelp reviews, and Facebook status updates — if not also photographing everything put on the table. Things sort of reached critical mass for me when I found it impossible to enjoy pupusas at my favorite neighborhood El Salvadoran dive without encountering at least one table of gringo hipsters glued to their mobile phones, penning some kind of check-in or review.
Yet my guilty streak runs long. Nine years ago I was tapping in review notes into my old Palm Vx at various cafés for this Web site. Back then, I was just a freakish novelty that my coworkers would parody. But today it seems nearly everyone is guilty of some form of mobile device zombiedom, and witnessing it is a bit like a horrific visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. Engrossing ourselves with our mobile devices has become something of a public ritual or rite by which we consume anything in the public spaces of society.
The big joke being that all this is classically a First World Problem of the highest order. Even so, there’s something to be said about making a conscious effort to be present and experience life in the first person — and not through some application on your mobile phone. Being the type that dismisses New Year’s resolutions, I really can’t say what this means for any Trip Reports here in the future. But I can say I am keenly aware of contributing to the problem.
One place that still seems relatively untouched by the mobile device zombie invasion is West Marin County. Thanks to a low population density and a rugged coastline, mobile phone networks like AT&T continue to offer one of their best services: an excuse for why you cannot be reached by the outside world while you’re out here. There are still major dead zones for voice calls, and 3G Internet access seems about as far off as astronauts landing on Mars.
It’s still Marin County, so you can’t escape the crystal healers and obsession with Westernized yoga. Stare a few locals in the eye, and you’ll undoubtedly find a few who choose to believe that Stevie Nicks is still spinning in gauzy robes as a member of Fleetwood Mac.
Not surprisingly, the coffee options in West Marin are generally heavy on the organic and Fair Trade sourcing but light on quality. One of the better exceptions is in the tiny town of Point Reyes Station.
Toby’s is something of an institution in the area. It’s a general store with a rear feed lot — complete with haystacks, bags of feed, strings of prayer flags, and — you guessed it — a neighboring yoga studio. It’s at the entrance to the feed lot, sort of sharing a wall with the town post office, that you’ll find a kiosk window branded as Toby’s Coffee Bar. There are a few picnic tables and other outdoor tables in front. You can also buy organic baked goods, newspapers, and teas.
Using a newer, two-group Nuova Simonelli machine inside their small service cubby-hole, they pull shots of Taylor Maid Farms in saucerless cups (which seems customary for West Marin). It comes with a dark brown crema, small bubbles, and a lighter heat spot. As espresso shots go, it’s deep and dark: no fruit bombs here. It has a nuttier flavor mixed with cloves and other herbal pungency and is served as a default double shot.
Read the review of Toby’s Coffee Bar in Point Reyes Station, CA.
Media profiles of Illycaffè‘s Andrea Illy are commonplace. But this one from today’s The Guardian (UK) is better than most: Andrea Illy: family businessman who’s raising the bar for premium coffee | Business | The Guardian.
For one, Mr. Illy talks about the importance of pricing and brand positioning. Regardless of what you think of Illy coffee, offering discount promotions and specials is incongruous with establishing it as a luxury item. You don’t lure customers with a come-on for a cheap fix; you lure them because they want to treat themselves. Discounts cheapen that image and position you for the coffee misery market.
He also notes how Illycaffè ensures that resellers of its coffee have the right equipment and are making it properly, retraining staff if necessary. While this is critical for the perceived quality of any roaster whose coffee beans are served in third-party establishments, our data suggests that Illycaffè has fallen far short of living up to these ideals — at least in the U.S.
Back in 2009 we made a comparison of our espresso scores among cafés with common machines, common roasters, or common chain brands, and we used the standard deviation of these scores as a measure of inconsistency. Illy coffee rated much more inconsistently than different Starbucks chain stores — which are notorious themselves for their very poor consistency.
Consistent with an interview four years ago, Mr. Illy finishes the article with a couple of good contrarian, somewhat incendiary quotes about Fair Trade. For one: “[Fairtrade] is about paying a higher price for the same goods. That is against the laws of supply and demand.” Another: “consumers pay more for Fairtrade because they want to feel good. It’s about solidarity not quality. Why not give to the Red Cross?”
All of which echoes many of our thoughts about the rather trendy role of “Corporate Social Responsibility” in business today, where consumers seem to prefer to outsource their charitable giving to third-party businesses rather than donate directly themselves. As we always ask: don’t tell us you’re going to donate 10% of the sales proceeds to charity. Give us that 10% off, and let us take responsibility and decide who and how much to donate with the extra savings. You’re my coffee roaster, not my Foundation.
Here in SF, we’re sometimes way too busy holding our noses because a coffee shop doesn’t use Blue Bottle or Fair Trade certified coffee. (In our personal case, sometimes it’s just too few places that use Barefoot.) To put things a little in perspective, here’s a story today from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Police bust Italian espresso gang – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
Police in Naples said they had smashed a lucrative mafia coffee distribution business in an operation code-named “Caffe Macchiato”, seizing assets worth 600 million euros ($797 million).
Prosecutors said the bugging tipped them off that the Mallardos were forcing cafes in the region to use a particular brand of coffee, whose sales were controlled by a relative of Feliciano Mallardo [suspected boss of a clan tied to the Napoli crime syndicate, the Camorra].
Coincidentally, we’re currently planning a trip for around this time next year to head back to Napoli and sample the local espresso among the city’s scugnizzi and the original pizzaioli. Repeat viewings of the 1963 Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni classic, Ieri, oggi, domani, will of course be required. Repeat viewings of Gamorrah being a bit harder to take.
Over the years we’ve read a lot of coffee articles. And ever since feedback forms became commonplace on the Internet, we’ve also read a lot of user comments on these posts. At least enough for us to identify 10 common archetypes among coffee article commenters on the Internet — analogous to the ever-popular coffee shop customer archetypes.
Commenters on coffee articles often fall into distinct cliques — many of them rather nonsensical. Just look at Erin Meister’s Serious Eats post last week on the cost of coffee. Not surprisingly, former U.S. barista champ, Kyle Glanville, described it simply as “great post, silly comments”
So here’s to creating a lexicon so we can all say next time, “Stop being such a #6.”
Like a mutant cross between Tourette Syndrome and a drinking game, these commenters cannot help themselves whenever someone posts something that includes “the S word.” No matter what context or circumstances for the article, we get their reflexive reply: “Starbucks tastes burnt!”
Doesn’t matter if it’s a Wall Street Journal article discussing their quarterly earnings or the latest police blotter reporting on yet another vehicle unable to resist the siren song of a Starbucks’ storefront window. This comment is also frequently offered with an air of implied revelation — akin to Charlton Heston’s infamous, “Soylent green is people!” (Sorry if we ruined that for you.)
It’s hard to believe that a someone’s self-worth could be called into question by something as trivial as another person’s choice of beverage, but these commenters face this very existential quandary. For them, coffee is still a raw, generic commodity — like kerosene. Hence 1950s truck stop coffee was good enough for grandpa and it’s good enough for us. Anyone who suggests or believes otherwise is part of a social conspiracy.
This conspiracy takes on two dimensions. The first involves separating fools from their money. Yet this is insufficient to explain why these commenters so viscerally exclaim that anybody who pays more than $1 for a cup of coffee is a moron. If it were merely this, any half-lucid person would keep their mouths shut in order to keep fleecing those fools all the way to early retirement.
Which leads us to the second dimension of the conspiracy: these commenters are also reacting to a perceived sense of class warfare. One man’s threat is another man’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.
Rather than admit that “fancy coffee” isn’t their thing and they don’t really get it — the way that some of us don’t get kombucha or Russell Brand — projecting this social unease on those “idiots” paying for expensive coffee is a means of self-affirmation. “Because I’m good enough.. I’m smart enough.. and, doggone it, people like me!”
Speaking of conspiracies, this commenter archetype believes that the entire apparatus of the coffee industry was deliberately constructed by The Man as a means of enslaving and impoverishing coffee farmers. The actual concept that someone might actually consume and enjoy the end product is irrelevant.
Which explains Fair Trade, a sacred cow among these commenters. Like the TV trope, “think of the children!,” comments from this group focus almost exclusively on “think of the coffee farmer!” What they imply is that every person who touches coffee after it leaves the farm, including the various truck drivers and dockworkers working for pittance wages in coffee-growing nations, are blood-sucking parasites profiting off the backs of noble coffee farmers.
This commenter archetype views coffee exclusively as a performance-enhancing drug. When they encounter articles suggesting that there’s good or bad coffee, or that coffee might actually have a taste or flavor, you may as well ask your grandfather what’s his favorite crunkcore band; it’s just as alien.
When they’re drinking the coffee, these commenters could not care less if their coffee tastes like battery acid, and the idea of decaffeinated coffee seems utterly pointless. They are typically attracted to the malt liquor of the coffee world: coffees branded with wake-the-dead, crystal-meth-like psychoactive properties and the sinister names to match.
And if somebody else reports to drink coffee for its flavor, these commenters discount them as merely drug addicts in denial — kind of like the guy who says he buys Shaved Asian Beaver magazine only for the articles.
Privileged white people haven’t had it easy. In today’s society of competitive victimhood and I’ve-suffered-more-than-you one-upmanship, some are lucky enough to experience the trauma of not getting into Harvard. Others aren’t so fortunate and have to resort to makeshift, bogus afflictions like “caffeine addition.”
Which brings us to the archetype of the recovered caffeine addict. These born-again commenters proselytize a lifestyle free of caffeine: “I once was a caffeine addict, but my life is so much better since I gave up coffee for yerba maté!” Like all lifestyle preachers, it’s not enough that they live with their own life choices — they must convince you to choose them too.
The dirty secret of this archetype is that, rather than face their demons, they are only hiding from the real problem in their lives — namely, their lack of self-control and inability to moderate themselves. Which makes them kind of like the gay man who joins the Catholic priesthood to “cure” himself of his homosexuality. (And we all know how well that works out.)
Home roasting has been around for over a millennium. Its latest generation, with more modern prosumer equipment, probably peaked about a decade ago. But it is a brand new phenomenon for many. Often those who have discovered home roasting in the past year seem particularly afflicted with a brand of religious zealotry when posting comments on coffee articles.
Whether the article is about the cost of coffee, a Cup of Excellence competition, or even the pour-over brewing device of the month, the comment box is an irresistible platform (read: soapbox) to preach a sort of home roasting gospel. “It’s better than you can buy!” “It’s cheaper to do it yourself!” “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it!” One popular sermon is the Legend of the $5 Hot Air Popcorn Popper: “I have seen the promised land, and it is a West Bend Poppery II!”
You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t start selling off all our worldly possessions in anticipation of the home roasting Rapture. Yes, we like home roasting. It’s kind of a fun hobby from time to time. And yes, we understand that, by golly, you really like this new home roasting thing. We also like Benecio del Toro, but we don’t use the comment thread on a Cup of Excellence article to proselytize his merits as an actor and movie producer. The key to sales is relevancy — that goes whether you’re selling mortgage-backed securities or a home roasting lifestyle.
The MacGruber represents another kind of commenter with a DIY fetish — except that this archetype sees the DIY ethos as a form of social currency. Less idealistic and more self-interested than Rev. Home Roaster, the MacGruber comments on coffee articles to boast of their exploits building traveling espresso machines out of bike parts or attaching PID controllers to portafilter handles. In this regard, they’re a bit like those guys with gold chains and silk shirts who boast of their sexual conquests in laser-filled nightclubs. The difference being that most rational people would be socially embarrassed if confused for a MacGruber.
Given the choice between spending $35,000 on a new BMW or on a used Honda Civic and tricking it out with accessories over the next four years, the MacGruber will invariably choose the Civic. This might lead others to believe there’s something fatally flawed with the Civic. But this archetype also has an obsession with reinventing the wheel. We fondly recall one MacGruber who wrote up an elaborate post on how he converted his Vacu Vin wine-stopper into a coffee preservation system — blissfully ignorant that Vacu Vin has been making “coffee saver” systems for years that are available for $10 on Amazon.com.
Like The MacGruber, posts from this commenter archetype are about establishing social currency. Except here the currency is scoring a kilo of Colombian for the ridiculously low price of $1.99 a pound at Sam’s Club. As if to jab a hot fork in the eyes of Fair Trade advocates, this archetype boasts about their competitive place in the race to zero-cost, zero-conscience, quality-free coffee.
When this archetype isn’t posting about how much they’ve saved on coffee, they’re frequently long on ideas for using spent coffee grounds to Spackle® bathroom tiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid their frequent posts about how they bought their new car with the Dumpsters® full of cash they saved by making coffee at home instead of going to Starbucks.
Whether you’ve tried the coffee at three hundred different places or just three, most people have their favorite coffee. A large number of comments on coffee articles consist of personal endorsements of the coffee from a specific roaster, coffee shop, or home brewing contraption. As an anonymous poster put it on Boing Boing this week:
Every comment thread about coffee contains: (1) someone mentioning how great their home roasted coffee is; (2) a plug for a cafe not mentioned in the article.
Maybe we could just assume the existence of these kinds of comments from now on, with no need to actually post them?
But if we all assumed that, what would there be left to talk about? Hence this archetype of commenters who actively police various online media sources, ensuring their favorite coffee sources don’t suffer the egregious injustice of being omitted from a coffee article.
Some may take the additional step of attempting to elevate their pet coffee by dissing on the various coffee sources mentioned in the article. For example, this archetype frequently engages in slagging on quoted coffee shops for their pretentiousness, for the hipsters who work there, and over the fact that the owners cover their electrical outlets. Basically: all of the ridiculous stuff that’s the irreverent lifeblood of Yelp ratings.
This archetype believes they have seen it/done it long before you even heard of it/thought about it. And despite their whiny complaints of coffee articles that dredge up old topics hashed out thousands of times before over the years, they still cannot look away and feel compelled to respond — like gawkers at a gruesome car accident.
Yes, we’re making fun of ourselves this time. Because if it sounds like we’ve seen it all before, quite sadly we literally have seen it all before. Do you realize what kind of petty life you must lead to have read every coffee article ever written on the Internet? How about so pathetic, you come up with a list of 10 types of commenters on coffee articles.
Today’s The Korea Herald published a thought-provoking (if not debatable) piece about one-time Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong: Barista bringing coffee back to basics. Internal divisions within the national barista association prevented him from representing South Korea at the 2007 WBC in Tokyo, and he dismisses the notion that a training course can make one a qualified barista.
But one of the more curious topics he brought up concerned coffee standards — and how what the Italians may have started long ago has since been hijacked and adulterated by American franchise coffee shops. From the article:
“Coffee is being globalized by the American standard. Coffee is a culture that the Italians have cultivated over hundreds of years. It’s a pride they have, but the American franchise coffee shops have completely distorted the originality ― let’s say Korean kimchi is being spread to the world with the Japanese word ‘ki-mu-chi’ ― that is not what we can call cultural diversity, but a distortion of a tradition. That is what is happening to coffee these days ― becoming like ‘ki-mu-chi.’”
– Former Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong
Earlier this year, Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè, ignited a bit of a coffee culture smackdown — taking shots at the American brightness bombs and heavily-packed shots that pass for quality espresso here. You might say Mr. Yong seems to be in a similar camp, suggesting that American coffee shops have perverted a standard that is now being spread throughout the world with America’s economic and cultural weight. (We liked his kimchi analogy.)
As we like to jokingly say with a zombie-like mantra, “Third Wave is Best Wave“.
Yet right after making that point, Mr. Yong completely loses the plot — linking the same forces distorting espresso’s cultural standard to those exploiting coffee growers to the fullest extent possible. (A bizarre accusation for some of the biggest wavers of the Fair Trade flag.) Commenting after he watched the deeply flawed documentary Black Gold, we don’t expect him to fully comprehend the cost-of-living disparity between coffee producing and consuming nations, which the documentary miserably failed to do. But any wannabe champion barista should be aware of the many links in coffee’s supply chain — not just farmers and baristas.
Worse, he claims both that coffee is “completely overpriced” and that we are not paying enough to coffee farmers in the very same article — practically a form of cognitive dissonance. All of which unfortunately devalues his opinions in the end.
Particularly since the late 1980s, the plight of the coffee farmer has not been a pleasant one. Public awareness of this major problem gave rise to mitigation strategies such as Fair Trade and Direct Trade. A couple months ago, you may have seen the press releases for Traceable Coffee.org — a project of Pachamama, a global cooperative of coffee farmers, that enables consumers to trace their purchased coffee to the farmer, to hear their stories, and to offer them additional financial support in the form of a virtual tip jar.
In their own words, “TraceableCoffee.org brings consumers face-to-face with coffee farmers and lets them tip their farmer for a job well done.” While the cause is noble and the intentions are good, TraceableCoffee.org symbolizes another gross oversimplification of bean-to-cup philosophy and how the coffee industry actually works.
Much like the Tyranny of the Barista effect, which oversimplifies the coffee supply chain in consuming nations by identifying almost exclusively with the barista, there is a sort of corollary in coffee producing nations that identifies almost exclusively with the farmer. So instead of bean-to-cup, what we end up with is bean-and-cup — or an obsessive focus at both ends of the supply chain but a complete blindness to everything that goes on between the two.
On the one hand, this blindness might not seem any more harmful than creating a family tree with only yourself and Adam & Eve on it. But there are potentially harmful effects. A documentary like Black Gold laments that a farmer receives only $0.03 on a $3 cup of coffee, and the implication is that all the other contributors of coffee’s supply chain — from coffee pickers, sorters, washers, truck drivers, dockworkers, etc. — are merely parasites out to starve the noble farmer. “Let’s bypass the evil, greedy middlemen,” the Fair Trade cry implies.
Of course, a major percentage of the cost of a cup of coffee comes from the consuming country after the green beans arrive in shipping containers. But before we demonize all these shippers, dockworkers, truck drivers, buyers, roasters, and baristas, we must acknowledge the enormous cost-of-living gap between origin and consumer countries and how that affects labor costs. In fact, the very existence of this gap is a major reason why we even import coffee to begin with. Longshoremen in Guatemala and America may have vastly different costs of living and the salaries to match — even if their quality of living isn’t all that different.
With just a 1% share of the retail price on a cup of coffee, coffee farmers clearly don’t get a fair shake. But the story of the global coffee trade is much, much more than just farmers and baristas. Even if we don’t expect to see virtual tip jars for Colombian truck drivers anytime soon.
A friend of this Web site, Andrew Hetzel, called it the best article about Kona coffee ever written. That’s a pretty tall order. But this piece, which came out a couple days ago, makes a compelling argument: Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines – Adventures in Coffeeland. It’s at least good enough to make you forget that it was published in a in-flight airline magazine (Hawaiian Airlines).
What makes this article a lot better than the others of its kind is that it looks beyond the usual marketing spin for both the good and the bad, it draws out some essential observations about the market opportunities and challenges for Kona coffee growers, and it goes into sufficient depth on some of its subjects. The author even dogs on Island Lava Java — where we cut them a little slack for some improvements on our last visit.
Another friend of this Web site, Shawn Steiman, is cited in the article and offers one of its many good quotes: “One lesson I’ve learned is that what coffee geeks consider the best coffees aren’t all that cherished by non-coffee geeks.” For another great quote from the article:
For all its urban faddishness, coffee is still a Third World crop, picked mostly by subsistence laborers in Latin America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Hawai‘i, meanwhile, is the costliest state in one of the world’s costliest nations, a tough place for an agrarian enterprise these days, as the sugar and pineapple industries can attest. With wages for Big Island pickers many times greater than those of their counterparts in developing nations, Kona coffee will always be overpriced; or perhaps the rest of the world’s coffee will always be underpriced.
Of the coffee industry insiders we’ve long known, Kona coffees have earned a reputation for both quality and for being overpriced. But there are real-world reasons behind that. It’s a good lesson for the many conscientious types who gripe about coffee companies needing to pay living wages and offering health care to their employees — but who are often the first to rebel against the coffee prices necessary to pay for all of that.