GOFF: More than your average Joe

Take a moment before you take your first sip of coffee this morning. Slow down and really enjoy it. Because today is National Coffee Day.

Americans drink a lot of coffee, but don’t always think about where it comes from. Other countries produce a lot of coffee. This summer, I lived with a couple of those producers, a family of coffee farmers in northeastern Peru.

I remember that one day a farmer asked me, “What do Americans do with all the coffee they import?” At first the question puzzled me. Then it clicked. He had watched thousands of enormous sacks of coffee beans move through the storehouse each harvest for decades. He could not conceive that anyone could drink that much coffee.

“We drink it all,” I admitted. “Americans are addicted to coffee.” From there, I explained to the farmer that coffee just couldn’t be used as medicine, as he had guessed. If coffee were medicine, I thought, I’d gulp it down like swallowing a pill. I wouldn’t taste it or appreciate it; I would just hope that the substance would make me feel better.

I must admit I’ve done that before — I’ve drunk coffee quickly, without stopping to taste it, impatient for the rush of caffeine. But drinking coffee can be so much more. Smell it, sip it, slurp it and slosh it around your mouth. The undertones can be chocolatey, citrusy, and nutty if you’re lucky (or burnt and rubber-like if you’re not). The complexity of a single whiff or sip of coffee is increased because coffee picks up the aroma of its surroundings. If you store your coffee next to your dirty laundry, it will soak up the mildew scent and express it in what might have been a perfect cup.

Coffee is delicate, so production is a high-pressure operation. Farmers must first pick the red coffee cherries and peel off their flesh with a hand-crank machine. The slimy cherry seed that emerges is the coffee bean. Next, they ferment, wash and dry the bean. Once the beans are dry, they are sent to a mill where a thin parchment that envelops the beans is removed. From here, the beans are shipped to roasters in the United States. These roasters burn the beans and sell the final coffee product to grocery stores and cafes. Each step in the production process involves labor, people and infinite possibilities to ruin the bean.

Because coffee is not manufactured, the conditions of its production vary. A different farmer explained it to me. “Say you were to watch my neighbors during the harvest. You’d see how the coffee is pulped and how the mill is run. You’d see that they pick the coffee just fine — there is no problem there. But where do they bring it?” he asked. “They leave it on the floor, on tarps contaminated with mud, air, animals and everything.” He looked disgusted. “On the other hand,” he said, “consider our coffee. It is perfectly cleaned and then dried on a platform with a rain cover.”

“Say you see all this as a consumer…which would you pick?” he asked.

I cringed, thinking about the mud in the town, contaminated with feces. “The rain cover, please,” I replied.

So though the complexities of coffee are most evident to consumers through flavor profiles, what consumers don’t usually think about is how these complexities result from routines of farming and processing. There are so many factors that impact the producers’ lifestyles and practices: commodity price fluctuations, wages, certifications, middlemen, climate, education, health care and more. All these factors place coffee in a deeper social narrative. Each touch of flavor in a cup of coffee represents the conditions that the coffee has been through, and the manner in which the coffee has shaped lives.

Therefore, properly celebrating the complexity of coffee requires appreciating both the flavors and the origins of the coffee. Before you take that first sip, select the coffee that matches you, your tastes and your beliefs. If you aren’t sure which that is, ask questions, try different coffee types, and watch The Coffee Addiction documentary tonight on CNBC.

National Coffee Day encourages full appreciation of coffee, not just the chase for a free cup o’ Joe. Let’s call today National Roasted Cherry Seed Juice Day, so the name itself celebrates the complexity of a single bean. Let it challenge us to learn about the complexities of the coffee industry so that we are better-informed and more thoughtful consumers.

Jenny Goff is a senior in Berkeley College.

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