Saturday, December 6, 2008

From Origin to the Disconcerted Consumer

As Published in the Specialty Coffee Chronicle, October 2008

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 (Key-ché). I’d lived in Guatemala before, 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 (e-sheel) woman raking coffee beans in the sun.

Though only the size of Tennessee, Guatemala’s diversity is remarkable. Twenty-eight languages are spoken among its ancient Mayan peoples; women wear hand-woven blouses and skirts according to the region in which they reside. The topography ranges from western mountain ranges to southern beaches and eastern jungle where ancient pyramids in Tikal
still stand from the fourth century BCE.

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 a 36-year civil war that officially ended just a decade ago. The area on the hill in which I stood was roughly the size of a soccer field, and half of the space was filled with tarps of beige beans. Children from the school giggled and scattered as I crossed the field’s drying, brown grass.

Surprised as I greeted and approached her, the woman put down her rake. She told me the beans were compiled between her and her neighbors and that she received seven quetzales per pound of green coffee. I converted the price to dollars and realized she was earning roughly 90 cents for her work.

Her clothing was rumpled and she wore a faded blouse. Its lavender 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.

I return often and the country is always familiar, but this woman and her beans remain a vivid memory among the colorful, amicable people of Guatemala’s countryside. But this scene is mundane for those who travel regularly to origin—an ordinary business trip in the specialty coffee industry. You who work at the top of this industry understand coffee’s standing as the world’s second most traded commodity. You see that matters of sustainability are entwined with the production of a quality bean and product. You know fair trade to be one option, but not necessarily the perfect or only option to remedy poverty among coffee farmers. Understanding these ideas is essential to the successes of your businesses. Yet the stronger issue is that the consumer rarely understands anything at all.

Last weekend, a friend of my father’s—a Peet’s coffee devotee—was astonished to learn her beans begin as fruit on a tree. A round, fervent woman with stylish glasses and an asymmetrical haircut, Geri organizes charity benefits and travels annually on medical missions.

“You’re kidding,” she said, and urged me to tell her more.

As I continued, she interrupted, saying, “You mean you can actually eat the cherry?”

An eavesdropper then entered the conversation.

“You know, I love a good cup of coffee, but it’s those flavored coffees that just aren’t quality.” It was of no use to explain that a bean’s flavor actually varies according to its tree, growing conditions and origin.

I’ve had such a conversation before, and most who regularly drink coffee know nothing about it. Often, a habitual coffee consumer is genuinely confused and, when prompted, cannot explain how coffee certifications like Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade function to provide a more sustainable product.

This is the problem I see: While those involved in the business of specialty coffee understand the intricate network of coffee supply, consumers rarely have enough information to make purchases based upon their own beliefs about farming and sustainability. Because of this, they often look at the price of a pound of coffee and take whatever seems less expensive without understanding that their purchase has a direct effect on the farmer. Either that, or they cannot decide between
the coffee that claims to help an endangered hamster in Tanzania or the other that is marked with a photo of diminishing rainforest. They think, “Is one better than the other, or is it an advertising game?” Stores sell bags of coffee labeled according to regions in distant places a customer cannot often locate on a map. Origins are far away from storefronts and colorful displays, and such places are an incomprehensible part of the world to the majority of coffee consumers.

I consider myself lucky to have happened upon the Guatemalan woman I met in January. Because of her, I have sought conversations about quality, cupping and certifications with individuals directly involved in the specialty coffee industry; I see more than precise packaging and keen advertising when I ask for a pound of coffee. I see the woman’s bare feet and remember how dusty my feet had become in my own sandals that afternoon. She wasn’t just another indigenous woman fighting to stay afloat. She was my connection to origin, and somehow, not such an unfamiliar stranger.

In a city like Minneapolis—where neighborhood communities have distinct presences—frequenting local mom and pop coffee shops is easy to do. Whether known as an artsy hiatus or for its local produce, each neighborhood has its correlating cafés, and while common chains also spatter the sidewalks, I am able to make my own choices about the coffee I drink. But I am able to make these choices because I understand that purchasing coffee is more complex than laying two dollars down on the

In frequenting new places, knowing the right questions to ask is essential: Where are these beans from? Do you know the farm? The farmer? What is their quality, and how much was paid for them? Even if they are not certified Fair Trade, what can you tell me about the condition in which they were grown? Unless the owner of the shop is present, though, the area is usually gray.

I’ve also found that firing any number of these questions at a barista can be particularly overwhelming—especially for the one who got the gig as a summer job and is just learning to pull a shot of espresso. Because of this—that many of these baristas do not know about the beans they are preparing—I find myself clinging only to fair trade or others that are advertised with a certification in cafés. There are other, unmarked options for sustainable coffee, but if a barista lacks knowledge about the shop’s practices, I have no other option than to choose the brew that is certified and labeled.

It seems, then, one solution for the confused consumer relies in part on the barista who prepares his or her coffee. If baristas are well versed in the espresso they pull and can engage a customer in a conversation about it, we have found a way to both incite a consumer’s personal interest in his or her coffee and bring light to the system itself.

Kelsey Kudak is a senior at the University of Minnesota pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English and dance with minors in photography and journalism. She grew up in St. Cloud Minn., and moved to Minneapolis in 2005 to begin her successful undergraduate career. After moving to the Guatemalan highlands to volunteer as a medical translator in 2007, she realized her interest in the coffee industry was intimately tied to her time there. She is currently focusing on the education of the coffee consumer while writing her undergraduate thesis, “Exposing Cherries: An Examination of the Coffee Supply Chain in Light of the Fair Trade Industry.”