Considering my undergraduate thesis was a rather large undertaking, and that it has not (yet) been formally published, I was thinking what a shame it would be if no one other than myself and my ever-supportive thesis advisors read it. After all, the piece did help me get into graduate school.
So, I'll be posting a portion week by week until the all one hundred thirty-four pages have bled out onto my blog.
The Coffee Supply Chain Seed to Cup
Kelsey E. Kudak
“A coffee remembers where it came from, and how it was raised.
The soil, the weather, the processing and the roasting are all recorded in the bean.
And I think that’s magical.”
The Perfect Cup
Cast Of Characters
(In Order of Appearance)
- Kelsey Kudak Author, Narrator
- Ramón Delgado Sánchez Manager, Cooperativa Río Azul
- Manuel Coffee Farmer, Guide, Cooperative Member
- Doña Elva Coffee Farmer, Cooperative Member
- Steve Bauer Coffee Trader, Paragon Coffee
- Bob Briante Veteran Coffee Trader, Paragon Coffee
- Michael Vlahos Coffee Grader, 39 Broadway
- Derek de la Paz Coffee Roaster, Peace Coffee
- Bob Vaseleski Master Roaster, Dunn Bros Coffee
The previous day’s sunburn was causing my nose to peel as I climbed the hill behind the William Botnan Learning Center in Santa Avelina, Quiche. I’d traveled to Guatemala on countless occasions, but my skin, white and snowy from the Minnesota winter, has always burned in highlands of the country. It was January, and as I reached the hill’s plateau, I met an Ixil woman raking coffee beans in the sun.
Santa Avelina is located near Nebaj in the Ixil triangle of Guatemala. It was in this mountainous area that some of the gravest atrocities occurred during the Conflicto Armado, a 36-year civil war that ended officially just a decade ago. The area of the hill on which I stood was roughly the size of a soccer field, and half the space was filled with cerulean tarps containing piles of beige beans. Children from the school giggled and scattered as I crossed the field’s dry, brown grass. The woman set down her rake in surprise as I greeted and approached her. She had combined her own beans with those of her neighbors, and, she told me, they received seven Quetzales per pound of green coffee. Converting the price to dollars, I realized she was earning roughly 90 cents for every pound of her labor. Her clothing was rumpled and she wore a faded lavender blouse, whose color matched the purple in her plainly woven skirt. She was barefoot.
She smiled as she handed me a fistful of green-gray beans, peeling away their tissue paper skin. “Smell them,” she said through crooked teeth. Unroasted, the aroma was faint but marvelous.
While thrilling and unusual to me, the scene is mundane for others. For those who work within the coffee industry or live in one of the world’s coffee producing countries, coffee drives both the economy and daily life. These individuals understand that after oil, coffee stands as the second most traded commodity in the world. For businessmen who travel regularly to origin—the common term for coffee growing regions—the journey is an ordinary business trip. But these people also see that matters of sustainability are entwined with the production of a quality bean and aromatic cup of coffee. They know fair trade certification to be one option to remedy poverty among coffee farmers, but not necessarily the perfect or only option. In the most basic sense, they must understand these ideas in order to complete each business transaction, no matter how small or simple.
The average consumer, however, rarely understands these details at all.
Though Guatemala City has now become my literal home, the Mayan woman, her rake and her beans remain a vivid reminder of the colorful, amicable people of Guatemala’s countryside who are easily overlooked within the confines of my surrounding cityscape. As a high school teacher at a school for those counted among the socially elite, it is rare I have a student who doesn’t know that coffee grows on trees. Most of them, indeed, have their own farm, or are connected to one by friends or family.
This phenomenon illustrates exactly how small the circle of control is here in Guatemala; the rich represent 10% of the population, and the rich consume 40% of the country’s resources annually. With the remaining 90% of Guatemala’s people left with 60% of all goods, it un-complicates things if the elite forget about the highlands. Or, in the least, they can turn a blind eye and reinforce the existing class system and unbalanced distribution of wealth. Though the city is still dingy and dangerous and you’re likely to get robbed in even the nicest parts of town, those areas are also filled with shops, relatively affordable fine dining, fountains and gelato. Certainly there are obvious differences in the architecture—which is created mostly from cement—and gardens and yards of residential areas are usually closed tightly behind iron gates and garages. But that aside, it is shockingly easy to forget that I live in a country in which 50% of children under five years old are chronically malnourished.
Guatemala’s first Starbucks opened a few months ago, and though I imagined the novelty would eventually wear off, the sheer number of people filtering through the store is remarkable and the line at the new store continues to snake out the door at 3:00 on Sunday afternoons.
The building is beautiful and large, but unremarkable as far as a Starbucks is concerned. The condiment bar is identical to any other of the company’s chains—right down to the wooden swizzle sticks perched on its surface. Display shelves are stocked with travel mugs, Tazo tea and lemon bars. Antique light bulbs dangle on wires from the ceilings, and photographs of the coffee supply chain are wallpapered in black and white. Jazz music hums gently through the stereo system. Sitting within the store, the only apparent difference between this Starbucks and any other within the United States is that a “tall” beverage is made to order as an “alto.” That, and the armed security guard hanging out by the door.
In April of 2009 I heard Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds, say he was like a mascot for the coffee industry. He was speaking at the annual conference for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in Atlanta with several other coffee authors. He said he couldn’t possibly know as much about coffee as the people who surrounded him then, but they were happy to let him come along and ask questions. He chuckled as he spoke, noting that everyone in the industry was “very nice” to him. “This book happened all by accident,” he said, and proceeded to tell its history, mentioning that his writing, research, and contacts had transpired in a sort of serendipitous manner.
Sometimes I think I’m a mascot, too. The individuals I’ve met while working on this project have aptly offered their knowledge, connected me with their friends, and fielded my endless inquiries with graciousness and a spirit I’ve seen only in those who work in this special industry.
I am not a coffee expert versed in the coffee trade, nor do I grow coffee trees or am I intimately familiar with the craft of roasting coffee beans. I am a journalist and observer rather than an expert. Yet I believe my position as consumer rather than connoisseur is both ideal and unique. This sets me apart from these other, more technical writers, and I have learned new vocabulary and context with every interview and conversation. As an outsider, I am able to recognize what information the consumer lacks. I am able to clearly see the gaping holes between the average consumer’s idea of coffee and its reality as a valuable agricultural commodity. And I am able to see that the consumer’s ideas do not often reach past the roasted, and ground coffee they purchase from the grocery store.
But unlike many consumers, I have had the rare opportunity to converse with both coffee producers in rural Guatemala and some of the highest leaders of the Specialty Coffee Industry alike. I have seen and documented the way coffee—a delicate berry of fiery red—grows and is processed and passed through an intricate system of machinery and human hands.
Others have documented this supply chain, but I aim to complicate the way in which it has typically been represented: a sunny scene of serene farmers on a hillside. Other authors put a nicely packaged bow on their trips to origin—appreciating the work of the farmers, but not truly engaging the details of the labor—thus presenting a romanticized view of these “difficult but happy lives.” These authors subject the complexities of the coffee supply chain to a few concluding statements but make no real aim to educate consumers on what they are drinking or how it got into their cup, aside from a few moments in a hand-held grinder and French Press.
I also believe that the power to alter the supply chain toward a more balanced trade lies in the hands of consumers. But they cannot make educated demands about coffee without first knowing the way in which it is processed and what makes a particular cup of coffee special from its bargain counterparts. In line with this idea, Michael Pollan and others have contributed to a surge in what might be called “food narratives.” These authors have admirably traveled deeply into our nation’s food industry to uncover the real-life stakeholders. They have allowed the farmers and processors to tell their own stories as characters in their narratives. Coffee lends itself to this journalistic genre in countless ways. The delicate nature of the coffee plant requires it be hand picked; within each berry are two coffee beans within individual characteristics. By the time our coffee actually lands in its cup, hundreds, if not thousands of human hands have touched each coffee bean.
While I’m not in search of the “right” version of the supply chain, I am in search of a good one, one that honestly portrays the real work involved in the coffee harvest. From their work, stems the work of exporters, brokers and the constant ebb of market prices. Then, there is the art of roasting, and the consumer’s personal preference.
In the least, I seek to offer my own historia de café—to give those who will never see the sun come up over Guatemalan mountains or pick coffee for themselves a few of the sounds that surround these scenes and an understanding of the personal stories that touch each bean. For coffee is, and will remain at its best, a hand picked crop and a hand picked cup. Coffee is delicate and requires humanity to proliferate, and eventually percolate. And while a percolator isn’t the best device for brewing coffee, it provides a familiar metaphor for its social structures. Societal and global stories have been embedded into the beans required to produce our brew. In turn, these beans create the coffee that surrounds endless conversations and occasions. Certainly, the beans are an integral commodity, but they are not merely commodity. They are a fulcrum of human exchange.