Thursday, January 28, 2010

Respect Coffee!

I'm going to break away from my usual inclination toward absurd blatherings and instead go on a little rant about coffee. Anyone who knows me at all also knows that I am a bit obsessed with it. More than once, while scrutinizing an employees' coffee-making technique, they have turned to face me, offered up a crisp salute with a shouted, "yes, mein Fuhrer!", and goose-stepped off into an empty corner to cry. I'm sorry about that.

The thing is, I respect coffee a little too much to stand by silently as it is massacred by poor technique, wasteful practices or plain lazyness. But a detailed exposition on bad coffee preparation is not what I'm setting before you today. Instead, I'd like to encourage everyone to have a little more reverence for coffee or, at least, to give it a little more consideration.

Like many important foods in culinary history, coffee has a well-storied and contentious past: the legend of Kaldi and his dancing goats, how coffee got from it’s birthplace in Ethiopia over to Yemen, it’s adoption into Muslim society and culture, various theories over the origin of the word “coffee” itself, rejection and subsequent acceptance by Christendom, the development of coffee culture in the Mid and Near East and Europe, etc etc.

But what gets lost amongst the romantic stories of it’s past, the cliches surrounding the modern coffeehouse, and the corporate rush to homogenize it into a cheap staple of modern existence is the reality of the brutal day-to-day struggle that is: coffee production.

Coffea Arabica is a fickle plant. It only grows in a specific band of latitudes on either side of the Equator, and favors high altitudes (1800-3600 feet). Each cultivar offers it’s own set of characteristics in the final cup that vary with alterations in climate, altitude and terroir (the specific characteristics of the soil). (Not going to get into Arabica’s slightly nasty, kinda slutty sibling, Robusta, in this post)

Cultivar? Yup. There are many, many different varietals in coffee. In addition to the hundreds of unclassified heirloom coffee trees in Ethiopia, you’ve got Pacamara, Gesha, Caturra, Jember, Bourbon, Maragogype, Tekisik, and SL28, to name a few. All of them thrive under different conditions, or have been specifically bred for certain qualities.

Ooooh-kay. Now, it’s got to grow somewhere. You’ve got giant megafarms in Brazil and Vietnam (who is the world’s second largest producer of coffee, although it is very cheap, nasty Robusta that mainly ends up in crummy commercial blends) where things go down much like they do in, say a vast industrial tomato farm: lots of big machinery, pesticides, poor land stewardship, low quality/high yeild, etc. Then you’ve got the world’s third largest producer, Columbia, where the terrain necessitates hand-picking of all its coffee. (And I’m not trying to get down on Brazil or Vietnam. Brazil boasts some beautiful farms that produce top quality coffee. Vietnam is a very beautiful country full of amazing wonderful people.)

And then there’s the rest of the world, where most everything is done by hand. Beans are picked by hand, and carried to a weighing station. Bags are carried from a weighing station to a processing facility. Beans are stripped from the cherry and fermented in tanks (okay, unless you are in Yemen, where the coffee is dry processed. Then, the dried fruit is broken off the coffee bean, and is brewed into a tea, called Quishr. Pretty cool, right?), then washed to remove any gunk that clings to the beans. The beans are then sorted and dried and graded and bagged and cupped by importers and bought by roasters and sold to coffeehouses/bodegas/airports/etc and drunk enthusiastically by lots and lots of people.

“What’s your point, buddy?”
Good question. My point is this. Just watch this video, produced by Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, OR. I know what you’re thinking, but I want you to put aside all of your prejudice against crunchy, tree-hugging liberal jerks like me and just watch this video. Watch it and think about your morning cup of coffee. Think about how much you paid for it. Think about how far away Ethiopia is (or Papua New Guinea, or Brazil, or Costa Rica). Think about all the wasted coffee grounds sitting on the counter around the espresso machine where you got your latte. Think about whether or not you care if it tastes good. Think about how much you rely on it to get through the morning or board meeting or whatever. Look at how beautiful the place where the coffee comes from is. Look at the men, women and children harvesting and processing the coffee. Think about these people carrying 75 pounds of coffee on their backs for a mile to the processing station. Consider the care and artistry it takes to process the beans in a way that preserves and optimizes their flavor potential. CONSIDER THAT THE PEOPLE IN THIS VIDEO ARE LIVING IN GRASS HUTS. Yes, I just yelled that.

“Okay, ah, so what’s your point, buddy?”
Oh, gosh…I dunno. Appreciate coffee. Don’t take it for granted. Enjoy coffee. Maybe, once in a while, go somewhere really fancy and get a really fancy, boutique cup of coffee and drink it black. Let it cool down a bit and dig into the intruiging layers of flavors in the cup. Go nuts. I mean, you occasionally treat yourself to a nice glass of wine, or cocktail, or a fancy beer, right? Go ahead and keep drinking whatever black stuff keeps you alive, but open up to the experience of better coffee, too. Come into Capo at Penn and enjoy a traditional cappuccino at the bar, relax, and chat with the barista. The Italians got coffee culture right a long time ago.

I digress. Simply remember that lots of people really worked their asses off to get that cup of coffee into your hand, and lots of other really wonderful things that we rely on to live the incredibly privileged lives we live.

Rant over.


  1. First and most important, that was lovely. Second and not so important, but..."slightly nasty, kinda slutty sibling, Robusta"...HAHAHAHAHA! Brilliant, you are.

  2. Wow! Thank you so much for such an informative and interesting article and film about the coffee process. This makes me want to drink really good coffee all day but alas! If I have more than 2 cups, I go nuts!

  3. Great story, CW! Does La Colombre use Ethiopian coffee beans?

  4. hats off to you, ya big old nerd

  5. I think I love you CW!