Saturday, January 17, 2009

From Soil to Cup, What's In Your Coffee?

The Coffee Can Confessions in my last post makes me think of one of the best books I read last year, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. If you care at all about where your food comes from, you need to read this book. If you don't care where your food comes from, you should definitely read this book.

Pollan begins the book with: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He decries the evolution of “food science” and makes the argument a that we need to get back to appreciating whole foods, not food products. For me, the biggest message in this book is: learn and appreciate the true source of all your food. In other words, don’t by the processed pork product. Buy the pork fresh from a butcher who deals directly with farmers – or better yet from the farmers directly. And then get to know that farmer and their methods for raising their hogs. How do they feed them? Where do they get the food for their hogs. Where and how is that food grown?

But following your food isn't always an easy task. Even in NYC where the locally-grown food movement has taken hold through numerous farmers markets, finding and getting to know the source of all your food, especially meats isn't always simple or possible. You have to do your research and you have to ask questions. And with coffee, it's much tricker. After all, in the US (except for Hawaii) and most of the western world, there is no such thing as locally grown coffee. Unlike wine, where you can visit a vineyard to see how the grapes are grown and the wine is made, at best in the US you can visit a craft roaster to see how the beans are roasted and shipped. Most consumers, even those who take the time to know their coffee's origins have never seen a green bean, much less the plant it came from or the farm on which it was grown. (Conversely, many coffee farmers have never tasted a cup of coffee made from the beans on their own farm.)

In the nineteenth century, green coffee was a home staple in the pantry of most coffee drinkers. Coffee was roasted at home on the stove or in small roasters over fires. In urban areas, small town roasters supplied the coffee.

But this fact can be a bit deceiving. Just because green coffee was more prevalent in the home doesn't mean everyone was drinking superior coffee. The handling of green beans, from their original processing on the farm through shipment, was often questionable. Green bean consumers probably knew nothing of their origins or quality of handling. And given the crude equipment used in the home to roast the beans, the quality of the final roast may not have been anything to get excited about. Like searing a steak in a skillet over a state-of-the art gas-top range vs. searing a steak on a wooden stick over an open flame in your back yard -- if you really know what you are doing you might get the same results, but chances are the gas-top stove will produce the better steak. I'd guess that home coffee roasters in the nineteenth century were probably drinking some pretty bad stuff.

Then, in 1865, along comes Arbuckle's Coffee. Not only do they promise high quality beans and a fine roast, but they promise fresh taste through their patented process of coating the roasted beans with sugar and eggs to "seal" the "flavor and aroma." Easy for us to scoff at today, but in 1865, this process probably resulted in a very impressive taste much preferred to mess that might have been called coffee in many homes.

So the modern concept of mass-produced, processed coffee was born, bringing consumers not only convenience but better quality to their cup. And while the technology for preserving the coffee improved beyond patented seals of sugar and egg, so did the technology for roasting coffee in large batches, eventually bringing the pre-ground, canned coffee to the world's grocery shelves -- the stuff I grew up on and still the stuff most people call coffee today.

It wasn't until the 1960's and 70's when small roasters like Alfred H. Peet and Starbucks began to bring back the concept of fresh roasted beans to consumers. And it wasn't until the 90s's when Starbucks became global that most consumers were introduced to the concept. (Incidentally, Alfred Peete was the inspiration for the original Starbuck's chain before it Linkwas sold to Howard Schultz who make Starbucks into the current industry giant it is today. The original Starbucks founders Jerry Balwin, Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker kept the Peet's Coffee & Tea chain when they sold the Starbuck's franchise to Schultz. See Starbucks entry in Wikipedia for full details.)

But the mass production of large chain coffee roasters still makes it difficult for consumers to know the exact source of the beans in their cup. True, it's possible to know the country of origin and possibly see that there is an organic or fair trade label, but what about the farm, the farmers? Companies like Starbucks do hold a high level of quality standards in sourcing their beans but it doesn't get to the level of Pollan's vision of knowing the source of your food.

It's the post-Starbucks wave of small coffee roasters that most excites me and allows consumers to get as close to possible to the source of their beans. And the internet empowers consumers with a wealth of information and resources at the click of a button. If I had been a home roaster just ten years ago, I couldn't even dream of logging into Sweet Maria's and ordering a pound of Cup of Excellence award winning coffee to butcher in my kitchen. With the internet and modern coffee technology, this could arguably be the best time in the history of coffee to be a consumer. The beans and all the information you could ever want are right at your fingertips. You just need to login and find them.

So what's my point? Look again at the drawing that started this post. Here, you don't even have to scroll. I'll show it again:

The next time you sit down with a cup of coffee, think of everything that went into making that cup -- from the soil all the way through the finished coffee. There are probably few foods you consume on a daily basis that rely on so many people from such disparate portions the globe to get it in your hands.

Start with that appreciation. Then, if your can of coffee doesn't tell you anything about its origins other than that it's 100% Arabica, search out a product with more information available. Go online. Find a local roaster who prides themselves on sourcing fair trade (or better yet direct trade coffee). None in your area? Order online.

There has never been a better time to discover exactly what goes into your cup of coffee. The more you know about it, the more you will appreciate it, and the better the world will be for all the people involved in creating it (and drinking it). Spread the word.


  1. Thanks a lot Andre! I read your post and had to break my rule of not drinking coffee after 3pm, now I’m going to be in bed moving around, thinking about what who knows what. I felt the need to brew a cup of my mother's home roasted vanilla infused beans. She lives in the Dominican Republic (hates the cold of the US). Anyway, she spoils me with a can or two every once in a while. I'm enjoying a nice strong cup of Dominican Coffee, reminiscing about the days when I had to pick the beans myself. Ahhhh the good old days...

  2. Thanks for the comments (and the compliments on the ink). I'm always happy to be a caffeine enabler. Incidentally, my mother lived in the Dominican Republic back in the 50's when my grandfather worked as an expatriate electrical engineer on a sugar plantation in order to earn enough money to move the family to the US (they are from Holland.) My mom just emailed me today saying she has some pics somewhere of the coffee plantations in the Dominican Republic in the 50s. Hopefully, I'll be posting them soon!

  3. thanks, Andre -- good stuff.
    I take a bit of issue with Pollan - eat local works fine when you live in a fertile area well served by transport, with a good range of climates around you - like Northern California, the Hudson Valley, etc.

    As my friend in Auburn, Alabama notes, however, if she ate local, she'd be feeding her kids mainly cotton bolls and silage corn. That kind of industrial monoculture is what Pollan and his ilk are out to change, of course, but his way is not very practical for many parts of this country. trade in foodstuffs built a lot of our culture, and is not be disparaged willy-nilly. Of course, I'm all over his insistence on consciousness of that trade, and what it means. Awareness is the key, to me, more than "eat local."

    in any case, a big THANK YOU for the cafe grumpy link! I fell in love with a beautiful Kenyan there yesterday - 12 oz of heaven. I'll be back! it's right by my office! productivity just shot up, I think.

  4. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  5. Thanks for the kind words! Glad you enjoy the blog.

  6. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

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