Absolution In Your Coffee Cup
More tales from the land of good intentions
A colleague sent me this video this morning. It’s short and funny and informative. (I also like the way the dude’s face looks when he thinks, “I’d like to eat some grapes.”)
I don’t seek out of organic food, it’s always more expensive, sometimes uglier, and as the video explains, it’s not really accomplishing what it claims to. I do however buy free-range eggs, the extra dollar worth it to feed my fantasy of happy chickens clucking in the sunshine…
The video also brought me back to 2005, the year my coffee-roaster husband opened his first cafe in Portland, Oregon. The guy worked so hard, did everything himself and by hand, including roasting the best beans he could find from small farmers in Oaxaca and Sumatra and Ethiopia and Guatemala. As he became more successful, he would visit these farmers (I got to go a few times, to Panama and Brazil), he knew their kids, he’d pay in advance (not uncommon) in order for them to grow lots just for him. The world of coffee is amazing - the second largest traded commodity, after crude oil - and if you ever get a chance to do a cupping, do it. This involves smelling and tasting coffee beans, both before and after brewing. I was never great with flavor notes but boy could I smell things: beef jerky, fresh laundry, dark chocolate, stone fruit. People think you’re being fey or fake but it’s all true. Stick your nose in a bag of lovingly roasted Ethiopian Harrar and you will think you are smelling a blueberry Pop-Tart. All these flavors are inside bean. Roast it right (please don’t talk to me about French or Italian roast, which is essentially burnt coffee) and they come to the fore.
Around 2006, Fair Trade became the big hoo-ha in the coffee world. Well, that was okay. My husband sometimes bought it. Also, bird-friendly or organic or some other new official designation. For him it was the quality of the beans that mattered, not the little sticker on the bag. Then he found out some rather distressing news from farmers he worked with: the fair trade people had some; they’d made demands; the farmers needed to leave their land fallow for two or three years in order to qualify, say, as organic, and then could not have a direct relationship with buyers, they’d have to co-op their beans. Some did, some didn’t.
Around this I noticed a lot of people coming into the cafe, asking, sometimes in a rather haughty way, if the beans were fair trade. Some were, some weren’t; would they like to try some great coffee? I especially recall a college-age girl who looked down her nose at me when I told her, there was no fair-trade coffee at the moment and also, the issue was complicated. Did she want to read a Reason magazine article about it? Copies of which I kept in a drawer by the register. She did not. But you can! And I just now noticed, “Absolution in Your Cup” (Reason, March 2006) was written by my friend, the great Kerry Howley.