I recently wrote this letter to the editor of the Washingtonian in response to this article by Todd Kliman taking our local specialty coffee shops to task for trying to elevate coffee to a connoisseur beverage when it is nothing more than a caffeine delivery system. Obviously, I disagree. The letter outlines my argument for why consumers are better served by knowing where their coffee is grown and choosing a high value product.
“Delving into the world of coffee is an object lesson in geography. Each country not only presents a unique combination of topography, plants, climate and soil composition, but brings to the table different cultivation, harvesting and processing practices. Coffee is complex enough, the average bean comprising thousands of compounds with more than 400 flavor producing, that every step along the path from planting to brewing can impact what you taste in your cup.
In his article “One Man’s Search For a Good Cup of Coffee,” Todd Kliman argues that coffee is little more than a caffeine delivery system. He also suggests that attempts to raise coffee to new levels of appreciation is misguided. I would argue that the complexity of coffee, both in terms of how it tastes and how it gets into your cup, is worthy of your attention.
Whether drinking a rare single-origin coffee or just a solid morning blend, what should not go unappreciated is the importance of where coffee comes from and the enormous amount of work and expertise that goes into growing it. Without a good natural product to start off with, there is nothing a roaster or, further down the line, a barista can do to produce a top-quality cup of joe. In many and more cases, this has lead to a tightening bond between grower and roaster, facilitated by evolving sophistication in both agricultural processes and communication channels. More and more small roasters, such as myself, have been able to work directly with small farms to bring a better documented, better managed and better tasting coffee than has historically been available. Meanwhile, our demand for quality, and our willingness to pay a higher price for it, has helped drive quality improvement at origin. Perhaps just as important, a burgeoning interconnectedness between consumer and farm has fueled a greater sense of ownership and pride in the coffee these growers produce.
Yet the good stuff only makes up a fraction of the marketplace. The bulk of coffee produced in the world comes to your cup with little effort to track it’s precise origin and often combined in large regional lots with no financial or other reason for the farmer to grow a better bean. This coffee of middling-to-low quality is only salvaged by cooking off it’s natural flavor and replacing it with those tastes imparted by the roasting process itself. Yet it is often sold to the consumer at a very high mark up. Specialty coffee may cost a little more, but arguably offers much higher value, given that we pay anywhere from two, three or four times the average market price for our beans. Low quality coffee is also a bad deal for the farmers, the vast majority of whom are disconnected from the international market and must take whatever price is offered at their local processing mill. Only when coffee prices are high is this enough to sustain them and it’s never enough to improve their lots.
Does this mean origin should matter for you? Knowing where your coffee comes from may not caffeinate you any better, but it will mean you are drinking a higher value, more satisfying cup of coffee, one that also allows the people who grew that coffee to pursue a better life. For me, that seems like incentive enough.”