Working in a café for 5+ years has left me with many invaluable life skills and experiences (mostly related to the fact that I now know that I do not want to work in a café for the rest of my life.) I’ve learned all about the art of pulling a perfect shot of espresso and have tentatively mastered latté art. Yet despite my relatively intimate and longstanding relationship with making and serving coffee I am still hopelessly disconnected from its production.
Unlike some foods that we unnecessarily purchase from far off lands simply for the sake of convenience, cost, etc., coffee is one that cannot simply be grown in the inhospitable climate that is New England. In fact, coffee that is suitable for today’s coffee-literate society really can’t be produced anywhere in the U.S. That is why we see names of entire countries becoming representative of certain roasts: Ethiopian coffee is known for its mild, medium flavor; Guatemalan for its fruity undertones; and French roast has become nearly synonymous with “large black coffee.” But what does this really mean? Who are the people and what are the processes involved in getting my coffee from there to my cup?
The coffee industry has taken an interesting and rather progressive foray into food activism in this sense. Perhaps this is due to a critical mass of socially conscious (…hiptster….) consumers, maybe the caffeine just makes people want to do things!! or perhaps the industry has genuinely identified a need to create more transparent and responsible supply chains. For example, Counter Culture has taken on a policy of Direct Trade, rather than Fair Trade, in the hopes of sustaining more personal, cooperative, and equitable relationships with their suppliers. There are even activists guides being produced in order to engender a more progressive base of consumers.
While studying abroad in Uganda I got to see coffee in its natural habitat for the first time, but that’s about as close as I’ve come to having any connection at all with the plant or people (not that any significant amount of coffee I have consumed in my life has even come from Uganda…) who supply me and millions of others with such a tantalizing addiction.
Our guide in Uganda shows us coffee berries right off the tree
I wish I could buy coffee from Farmer Joe down the road, but Farmer Joe doesn’t have the capacity to grow the coffee I crave. So I need to find a more meaningful way to interact with people halfway around the world who do have this capacity. After all, the coffee industry is a huge economic force in countries like Uganda, where other exports are slim–especially ones that can be produced by average citizens, as coffee can. Right now I feel the best I can do is make a conscious effort to research where my coffee comes from; not just the country, but the modes of production that actually get it to me. Is the farm family owned or corporate? Are the farmers given adequate share in the profits? How do fair trade/free trade regulations factor in? Similar to the growing number of people who demand to know where their meat is coming from out of concern for the ethical treatment of animals, I want to know where my coffee is coming from out of concern for the ethical treatment of farmers.
So this is a dilemma I still face. I strive to have a deeper connection with what I consume, but how can I do that when there really is no way to connect me to the root of the coffee plant, save traipsing around the world gathering beans and speaking with farmers myself? I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere, maybe I just need one more cup of coffee to help me figure it out…