Coffee: The Bean of Perfection
Oh, coffee, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
Today coffee has emerged from its critical yet humble beginnings and has now become a social media star, an accessory, a status symbol, a subliminal indication of how busy you must be and a barometer of the seasons, with iced coffee fading and pumpkin spice takes center stage.
How did we get here? Coffee used to be simple. It was our morning crutch to help us get going and was needed only once a day, mind you. If you had time, maybe you would enjoy a cup while catching up with a friend in the late afternoon. The 47 choices of creamers, syrups and sugars were never part of the equation. Yet now, enjoying a simple black coffee will nearly get you Baker-acted.
A recent “research” article claimed that people who order black coffee are more likely to be psychopaths and then there’s the meme that says “there’s a guy in the coffee shop not on his phone, not on his laptop, no music, just sitting there drinking his coffee like a psychopath.” I’m personally more concerned about people acting like psychopaths because they haven’t had their coffee and are thus ill-equipped to manage themselves, but what do I know.
Maybe it’s because the range of coffee available today vary so widely, from really amazing, aromatic Arabica to dark, bitter and nearly caustic poor quality Robusta. I don’t recommend ordering the latter, black. Actually I don’t recommend the latter being ordered at all. This is why all those additives were created, so you could stomach the bad ones that were selected because they were cheap.
So the legend goes, coffee was discovered in the 11th Century in Ethiopia by a goat herder who witnessed his goats get unusually frisky after eating the berries. By the 14th Century it had made its way to Yemen where it was discovered that the climate was perfect for cultivation. Then on to Turkey and over to Venice in 1615, becoming integral to the culture where ever it emerged. By the Late 1600’s coffee had made its way throughout Europe and America. In 1676 the first coffee house in the “New World” opened in Boston. Then in 1696, the first coffee house in New York opened, “The King’s Arms.” By the mid-1700’s, cultivation had begun across the entire coffee belt, including Jamaica.
Coffee became the unofficial drink of America in 1773, after the Boston Tea Party. Since then we have indulged because we were good Americans and desperately need the caffeine. Some people, I’ve heard, even love the taste. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 54% of American adults drink coffee daily and they average 3.1, 9-oz cups and 34% of these cups are of specialty coffee. Breakfast supports 65% of the daily coffee consumption, while 30% drink between meals and 5% drink with lunch or dinner.
According to research, this coffee habit of ours may not be a bad thing, with the most notable discoveries being that coffee drinkers are known to have lower risks of Type-2 diabetes, cancer, cirrhosis, gallstones, stroke, cognitive decline and Parkinson’s. The only downsides come when people adulterate it with creamers, sweeteners and artificial syrups. Thus the additives are the issue, not the coffee.
Coffee is cultivated in over 70 countries by tens of millions of small producers, primarily in developing countries, while 90% of consumption happens in industrialized countries. Historically the top producing countries have been Brazil, Ethiopia, the geographic home of Arabica coffee, Columbia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico and Guatemala. Today the fastest growing coffee producers are China, Angola and Myanmar, while the fastest growing exporters are Burkina Faso, Niger, Egypt and Bulgaria.
Coffee is made from the coffee bean. The bean is not actually a bean, but a seed, the seed of a coffee cherry. This beautiful large red berry contains two seeds (the so-called beans) in the center with flat sides facing. The coffee plant is a lovely shiny, dark evergreen shrub that can grow three feet wide and 6 feet tall. The glossy beautiful leaves were once boiled as a tea with “magical” properties. The blooms are small spindly white flowers that are very aromatic and very similar to jasmine. It takes four years for a coffee tree to grow full size, in its 5th year it begins producing proper beans.
There are two main types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the finest, with oils that provide the wide breadth of aroma and tasting points, from floral to toasty, not dissimilar to wines. Robusta is more harsh, often bitter, yet has more caffeine and is less expensive.
Ethiopia is the largest producer of coffee in Africa , while Brazil is the largest producer in the world. Over 15 million people in Ethiopia depend on coffee for their survival and it provides the majority of Ethiopia’s export revenue, followed by gold.
The supply of coffee on the world market used to be regulated by the International Coffee Agreement, until its collapse in 1989. From the documentary Black Gold “The success of the International Coffee Agreements was owed in part to the United States, who helped to enforce the quota system in an effort to prevent communism from destabilizing poor Latin American countries. But when the U.S. pulled out from the agreement in 1989, serious repercussions ensued.
In 1989, the ICO extended the 1983 agreement to allow for more time to negotiate. It also suspended the quota system, plunging coffee prices to about half their previous levels and to record lows by the early 1990s. The ICO was unable to reach a consensus regarding price regulation and coffee prices plummeted.” Since then, the price paid to farmers in Ethiopia has fallen to a 30 year low having dropped an additional 31% from 2011 to 2012. As of 2014 it has risen .3%.
Four multinationals dominate the world coffee market: Kraft, Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee and the growth of specialty coffee shops are exploding. In 1993, 2,850 coffee shops where open and by 2013 29,300 were operating. The retail value of the U.S. coffee market is estimated to be $48 billion dollars with specialty comprising approximately 55% value share. Nestlé has 22% share of the coffee market where Green Mountain has 4.4% (yet has 95% of the pod market) and Starbucks has 1.4% overall.
Coffee contracts that were traded last year were worth about 140 billion dollars. The international price of coffee is established in New York and London. It is the second most heavily traded commodity, oil is the first. It is traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange under ticker symbol KC. Not coincidentally, both the New York and London Stock Exchange started as coffee houses. The Tontine coffee house, in New York City, was built by stockbrokers as a place to meet for trade and correspondence, transforming over time to accommodate traders, ultimately emerging as the New York Stock Exchange.
Here is what the process looks like from farm to cup. The farmers grow the coffee and take it to auction. Once the coffee is bought at auction, the coffee buyers/exporters unload the coffee at the warehouse where they process it and sell to their buyers abroad. The buyer distributes the coffee to the roasters. The roasters buy the coffee, and the roasters roast the coffee and sell to the retailers and cafes. Coffee reaches the consumer after 6 chains. Co-operatives and unions are allowing farmers to sell directly to the roasters, removing about 60% of the chain.
Coffee beans are manually sorted and selected, one by one, by women laborers receiving less than fifty cents a day for a full days work.
Once thought to be a form of sustainable growth for disadvantaged countries attempting to create their independence, the bottom falling out of the commodity and conglomerates driving the price down to nothing has devastated farmers world wide.
Currently, for example coffee farmers in Ethiopia make .10 per kilo (2.2 lbs), they need to make $1.10 per kilo to maintain the most basic necessities for their families. One Ethiopian farmer stated in the documentary Black Gold, that getting .57 per kilo would change our lives beyond recognition.
The most dramatic effect, of the bottom falling out of coffee prices, has been that the families can no longer afford have their children going to school, so the societies ability to better itself has come to a screeching halt. This, combined with the foreign aid, keeps locals from being able to succeed in any self-sustaining capacity. No one will buy clothes from the local clothes maker, since relief agencies are giving second hand clothes for free, same with shoemakers. Tom’s shoes has an amazing concept, however when put into practice, those who were supporting their families and their community by making shoes, are now all out of business as there is no reason to buy when they are handed out for free.
In a desperate attempt to survive, one of the solutions that Ethiopian coffee farmers have discovered is growing Chat, a narcotic, to sell on the side. They can make roughly $4 for a few branches.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) sets the rules for global trade. With countries like Ethiopia having no agricultural subsidies competing against heavily subsidized countries, there is little hope for them to affect change. Africa is the only country to get poorer over the last 20 years and its share of world trade has fallen to 1%. During the 2003 WTO meeting African countries try to negotiate fair trade deals to support Africa growing through its own production. The aid they are receiving is undermining their ability to do so. The E.U. pushed developing countries to the point of collapsing the talks. If Africa’s trade were increased just 1% it would generate an additional $70 billion a year, five times the amount Africa now receives in aid.
What does all this mean to us as consumer?
From where I sit, it means we have blindly allowed larger corporations to unethically drive down prices to crippling levels, while increasing their own prices thus wildly increasing their profits. However we are becoming more and more aware of these dynamics and with this awareness comes the ability to do better should we so choose.
Blindly insisting that coffee should be cheap creates an opportunity for producers to come up with creative ways for you to be right about that. So according to Larry Olmsted of the NYTimes Bestseller Real Food, Fake Food, (https://www.amazon.com/Real-Food-Fake-You’re-Eating/dp/1616204214/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1474041432&sr=1-1&keywords=real+food+fake+food) companies who sell ground coffee in bags or pods have been found to be adding roasted corn, barley or beans (like soy beans) to roasted coffee beans before grinding, as filler. This way they make the same profit off the coffee and the consumer who insists on not paying more is then satisfied.
Real food is faked because the real edition is really good and usually costs more. But we can not just jump to the “you get what you pay for” line either, as coffee shops easily get away with using very poor quality coffee for the drinks that are loaded creamers and sugars because you’ll never taste the coffee and you are paying a fortune for the opportunity to adulterate it.
So now that we know better, how can we do better?
The two most significant things you can do are 1) buy fair trade coffee. Fair trade certification began in 1980 with coffee being included starting in 1988. Fair trade is a trading partnership based on transparency and respect through dialogue to promote sustainable development. Buying products from producers in developing countries at a fair price is a more cost effective way of promoting sustainable development than traditional charity and aid.
The production and consumption of fair trade coffee has grown and since 2000, after a year-long human rights campaign, Starbucks decided to carry fair trade coffee in stores. In 2009, Starbucks in the UK and Ireland began offering only fair trade Espresso. Fair trade coffees are now available for purchase in most all grocery and specialty stores.
The second most significant thing you can do to ensure you get quality, ethical coffee is to buy whole bean. Many stores offer grinders on site so you can grind before you leave, or get a grinder to do it fresh daily. The smell will make it all worth it!
So order a regular black coffee or that fabulous fair trade skinny soy caramel macchiato salted and receive something amazing, albeit pricey, however if you order an expresso, I suspect you may be handed a pocket dictionary instead.
Have ideas you’d like to add to the list? Need more suggestions? Let me know!
Julie Koester is CEO of Life with Moxie, a Lifestyle Revolution Company www.lifewithmoxie.com and Host of Life with Moxie Radio, Saturday’s at 1pm on 98.9 WGUF in Southwest Florida. You can reach her at Julie@lifewithmoxie.com
Passionate Living by Design, That’s Life with Moxie
Black Gold Movie, a documentary about coffee: http://blackgoldmovie.com
Coffee in the U.S.: http://www.euromonitor.com/coffee-in-the-us/report
Coffee’s Mysterious Origins: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/08/coffees-mysterious-origins/61054/
FAO of the United Nations; Coffee 2015: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4985e.pdf
Harvard, Chan School of Public Health: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/multimedia-article/facts/
National Coffee Association: http://scaa.org/PDF/SCAA_Consumption_Infographic.pdf
Producers to Blame for Fraudulent Fillers in Ground Coffees, Researchers Say: http://dailycoffeenews.com/2014/08/12/producers-to-blame-for-fraudulent-fillers-in-ground-coffees-researchers-say/
Specialty Coffee Association http://www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=facts-and-figures
USDA Foreign Agricultural Services, Global Agricultural Information Network:
World Atlas: http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-coffee-producing-countries.html