Friday, September 23, 2005

coffee, Coffee, COFFEE!

Image from Ephemera Now

How do I love thee? So much that's it's a cruel joke that as I write this post, I'm drinking green tea, having run out of my fave beans (any beans) yesterday. Last year, I joined a coffee group which is supported by SCAA, the Specialty Coffee Association of America. I went to the first meeting, because I lova the java, but I learned so much about how it's grown and how to taste it and the amount of precision that the savvy apply to roasting and grinding and brewing. Are there gadgets and gauges and Felix Ungerlike levels of persnicketiness, you ask? Heck, yeah. As tweaky as you like it.

But as I began learning more about the vast international trade, I thought it would also be the perfect setting for a suspense novel. There have been recent historical novels like The Coffee Trader by David Liss and a mystery about a coffee shop owner called Uncommon Grounds by Sandra Balzo. (The world of coffee is much like the world of hair salons in which the puns get heavily recycled for ecological reasons.) However, there's nothing quite like what I'm plotting, so if you guess don't steal it, you lilylivered codswallow.

The volunteer consumer liaison (or some title like that) for the SCAA coffee group has her own coffeecentric blog named bread coffee chocolate yoga after her many enthusiasms. It was that blog that pointed to this great Guardian article that gives an overview of the trip from bush to cup. The article also shows why it's nicer to drink coffee when you know where it came from. Not only will it not be part of an ever-morphing blend that shifts varying levels of less pleasant beans into the mix as prices dictate, it will undoubtedly taste better and will help promote reasonable pricing to the farmers and pickers.

This isn't just a warm fuzzy thing, although I encourage you to feel good about yourself for drinking fine coffee. It's more like finding a wine or a cheese you like- anything where the region and consistency of ingredients make a difference to the outcome. Coffee's still a world where you can sell the silo-sized generic cans at the grocery without disclosing what's in them specifically. When each growing area's uniqueness of flavor isn't prized (or even acknowledged), prices fall, and the blenders swap in whatever's cheapest from wherever. This pits coffee farmers in a race to the bottom for prices. But what about the quality then, the taste?

Certified cuppers can verify where beans came from based on their complex taste and aroma signatures. I'm no expert, but I've now tasted enough different "single-origin" coffees to know they differ widely and that I enjoy some more than others. I know I could tell an Ethiopian Yrgacheffe (spelled right) from a Sumatran. A Stilton cheese has to be to be labeled that way, so does a Bordeaux, but for the biggest selling coffee blends, you don't get to know what's going to be inside.

Now, I purchase single- origin coffees and careful blends from a nice local roaster , but not just because I want to help profits get back to the source by creating a stronger market for coffee by origin. No, No- benevolence isn't usually enough of a reason large numbers of people to pay a little more, and it isn't necessary here. The free market can help people simply through a larger exposure to the divinely wonderful indulgence of drinking MAGNIFICENT COFFEE!

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