Who Should We Thank for our Coffee?
There was a recent article in the Guardian where a young fellow by the name of A.J. Jacobs who was on a quest to express his gratitude for all the people who helped to deliver his cup of coffee.
The piece was focused on the benefits of gratitude, but also illuminated to the uninitiated, the great amount of people required to make something as innocuous as a morning cup of “Joe”. He discussed the many steps it takes to make a cup of coffee happen. He thanked his barista, the roaster, and the farmers, (in person) in Colombia.
It makes for pithy reading and his style is easy-going, but beyond the excuse to go to Colombia, there definitely were many steps (and people) left out of the equation. Let’s face it, he probably had space restrictions, and some of the workers in the coffee trade deserving his gratitude probably ended up on the cutting room floor; so we are here to right the unintended slight.
On the road to getting a good (nay, great!) cup of coffee the first step is the nursery. Often, the tiny coffee seedlings are grown on the plantation apart from the trees until they can be re-planted in the productive part of the farm. There are many stand-alone nurseries that provide farmers with this service.
Once the farmers have tended, pruned, and ultimately harvested their crop, typically using seasonal workers (someone else to thank), the coffee cherries go to yet another group of folks who run the processing mills. Often organized as co-ops, these facilities provide the valuable service of transforming the red coffee cherries into the green coffee beans. This is no mean feat; a combination of mechanization as well as good old fashioned elbow grease is required to fully process the fruit into beans and this takes time and resources to achieve. Thank you, coffee processors!
No less vital, but often maligned in the journey to getting a steaming cup of “liquid joy” on the kitchen table are the exporters. They aggregate coffee sales in the countries of origin and negotiate with importers in North America and Europe. They are sometimes referred to pejoratively as “coyotes” but if they added no value to the chain of custody, exporters would simply disappear and co-ops would deal directly with exporters. This sometimes does happen, but it is more common to have in-country agents who facilitate the movement of coffee.
Once the coffee has been harvested, processed and the transactions have all been completed; we’re good…well, not quite. The coffee is still in its country of origin. We have to get it to market, typically the port of New York for the folks on the East Coast of North America. Enter the truckers, the stevedores, the shipping agents, the insurance agents, the customs agents, the inspectors, the mariners… and we still haven’t left the dock! Big thanks to all these people; they are essential to getting us closer to our fix.
Once the coffee arrives, the same type of people that are involved in moving it out of port of export are also the ones involved in moving into port of import, but in reverse. Thanks to the folks at the Port of New York!
It is also at this time that the green brokers take possession of the coffee. The people who did the importing are now marketing it to the roasters. They play a huge role in dealing with the exporters and the roasters, providing stability as well as bridging the logistical gap. Thank you, brokers!
Now, Mr. Jacobs did mention the roasters, so we could leave them out of this as they did already get honourable mention. But the beans’ transformative importance in the journey from seed to cup makes it such that they deserve an encore (in my humble opinion.)
For much of the coffee industry, especially in foodservice, coffee does not go directly from roaster to restaurant. There is a vital stage between the two; either the foodservice distributor, vending operator or the OCS provider.
Often delivering, furnishing and servicing equipment on site, these folks deserver at least three “thank yous!” These coffee people are the ones that send the technicians to fix brewing equipment, the ones that, for some reason, only breaks down Friday afternoons at 4:30 pm.
Baristas are the important final step in getting a beautiful, hot, delicious cup of coffee into the hands of the consumer. Within the North American context, the vast amount of coffee consumed is not espresso but rather drip brewed in ½ gallon batches. Foodservice workers complete this final step, be they waiters, QSR staff, or other food professionals: To these fine people a huge, “thank you!”
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