By David Perreira
Every coffee consumer’s experience is different. Some coffee lovers enjoy their first cup of the day at home during the slowest and quietest time of the morning, and some quickly grab their coffee thermos as they fly out the door. Some experience coffee by having someone else making it for them, doctoring it up just the way they like. Often, coffee flows freely in office lounges or in the respective workplace. The average coffee experience is rarely one that provokes much contemplation and despite the many different rituals of consuming coffee, the thought rarely crosses anyone’s mind, “where did my coffee beans actually come from? And how did they get here?”
Coffee thrives in mountainous regions between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. With the majority of consumers living outside of this tropical belt, there is a clear disconnect between producer and end user. Coffee roasters and shop owners can do a better job of bridging that gap. For coffee industry professionals, visiting farms can be a rewarding and eye-opening experience. By helping to spread the word and humanize coffee production at its deepest roots, we may be able to lessen the disconnect between customers and their coffee’s origin. The results of increased transparency may be less aversion to paying sustainable coffee prices.
There is unmatched beauty in the land where coffee grows. Beauty abounds beyond the visual and can be found in community and the orchestrated effort to prepare coffee for export. Coffee producing communities worldwide have a special vibrancy to them during times of harvest and processing. Coffee is picked in several stages (up to 4 picks) throughout harvest season, with the highest yield of quality crop coming between the second and third picks. Trucks, mopeds, and mule are filled to the brim with fresh coffee cherry and line up to weigh and deliver their bounty. Most coffee is then washed and wet milled, or in the case of dry (natural) process, coffee may be sent to dry on raised beds. The smell of coffee beginning its fermentation and making its way through the milling process is captivating to the senses. A series of processes occur before it is dried to its appropriate moisture content (10% -12%), stripped of its parchment, bagged, shipped to port, and then exported. Often, the more care that is put into these processes, the better the resulting cup. Consumers are interested and willing to learn about this process. The fact that they have rarely been shown the process may be the fault of roasters and coffee shops at the end of the supply chain.
Coffee bag labels help us identify their origins. Often, a label that pinpoints an origin more specifically, comes from a roaster who can help tell that origin story. Labels which simply name the country of origin can be ambiguous and do little to progress coffees movement to a more sustainable future. For example, a label that states “Colombia”, negatively reinforces the idea that coffee from Colombia all has the same quality. In fact, there are as many as 560,000 unique coffee farms in Colombia, each of which can be celebrated for its individual contributions to the coffee industry. Roasters who proclaim that they sell single origin coffee can work to give credit to the hard work of the producers of that coffee. The more specific we are with labelling the roots of our product, the closer we are to telling its story. While farm location and terroir play significant roles in coffee’s overall quality, great coffee is the result of more than its variety, the farm location, or the local climate. It is the result of diligent manual labor and dedication to creating an excellent product. Off season farm maintenance, staff training and management, time of harvest and details in processing are also important for a sustainable farm and a thriving business. Relaying stories of these efforts will help promote the product. The intent is not to exploit those who are doing the bulk of the manual labor, but instead to provoke thought into what such efforts have provided.
Though drinking coffee may be part of our daily routine, it is undeniably easy to enjoy a cup without considering its origin or its journey. Sharing our experiences with coffee producers helps us learn, connect, give feedback, and harvest relationships. By contemplating coffee’s journey, perhaps we will slow down and appreciate what is in our cup, not just for the flavor, but for the connection.