Tuesday, 18 March 2008

COFFEE - THE COMPLEXITIES OF A GOOD CUP

The breeze coming in the window next to my computer is so cool I decided to make a cup of coffee. I drink only one cup of espresso per day so it is important to choose the right moment to get maximum time to savour the levels of enjoyment obtainable from these aromatic beans. One sip of the perfect coffee can bring a quiet "Holy Valotta, that's good" from me! Taking that first sip is not a moment I care to share with anyone and often, if people are here and I am making several cups, I will stand alone, out of view, in the kitchen and take that first sip, before delivering the rest to the visitors. Am I alone in this, I wonder? It is a similar feeling to the first bite of a strawberry off the best plant in your garden, gathered warm from the sun and bitten into with anticipation and delight. It is a private thing!

A variety of coffee plant (Coffea canephora or Coffea arabica) has become available to gardeners here lately, I have noticed. I did drop a few hints at Christmas time but it looks like I will have to buy my own or be more blunt when we get closer to my birthday! Evidently arabica will grow in our climate but probably won't produce anything worth roasting because it needs cold nights and only warm days and lots of water to produce a good flavour. The robusta (Coffea canephora) is hardier to heat but requires cross-pollination, and is probably the one for sale locally. Generally this is used to make instant coffee, and has more caffeine and a lower quality flavour than the arabica. Growing coffee in the shade can help produce a better flavour because it slows down the growth of the coffee and increases the production of more sugars and chemicals responsible for the flavour.

I am always trying new coffee beans and have tried a lot of organic and free-trade arabica beans and blends. There are a lot of issues involved in choosing where you stand on coffee purchase and like anything in life, it is not a simple choice, according to the research I have done thus far. There is Fair -Trade which, basically, by-passes the middleman and so the producer (sometimes as a community group) deals directly with the buyer so that costs are reduced and, theoretically, profits both ends of the deal are increased. Read more about this from the link.
Organic coffee may or may not differ from sustainably farmed coffee. Organic certification simply means, in this context, that the coffee is grown without the use of chemicals. Whereas the latter includes care of the land, the people and the environment. An example may be that a sustainable farm will reuse coffee husks as heating fuel rather than cutting down the local trees. Most sustainable farms leave a cover of native trees throughout the plantation for the benefit of the birds and other wild-life. An organic plantation may or may not do this.

Then there is the issue of the costs of certification. Small-scale farmers of coffee are often not aware of the premium they could charge for coffee certified to be organic, bird-friendly or sustainable and therefore do not apply for certification because of the expense.The weakening US dollar means that farmers are receiving less for their crops which, for westerners' benefit, are traded in that currency. So, while demand goes up production costs also rise often resulting in less coffee being planted rather than more.

The main problem for me is that, of all the dozens of varieties, roasts and blends of coffee that I have espressed through my little, Italian, stove-top pot, my favourites are neither organic nor fair-trade. Neither are they bird-friendly or grown sustainably, as far as I can tell.
So, do I buy the best of the organic / sustainable / etc etc coffee - which I think is from East Timor and happens to be our most local but which I would not rank in my favourites or do I drink one cup of my favourite coffee everyday and not worry about its politics??

6 comments:

Patrick said...

I've written a couple of posts about coffee before, and in fact was thinking about mentioning it on a post I'm working on now.

The bottom line is coffee was originally shade loving plant that used to be grown in rainforests, without damaging the environment and without the need for pesticide or fertilizer inputs. It was also a profitable crop that supported many indigenous communities.

In the 1980s or so, F1 hybrid varieties were developed that thrived in direct sunlight, required chemical inputs and offered significantly higher yields.

This meant farmers had to cut down their rainforests, buy the seeds and chemical inputs at their own expense and the markets collapsed with the increased production putting most of the smaller farmers out of business.

In my opinion, Fairtrade is not very meaningful.

If however, you can find coffee that is grown in rainforests (bird-friendly), organic, direct from the farmer, etc -- any of these distinctions probably mean it is grown in the older way, by a smaller farmer and therefore organic and environmentally friendly.

Otherwise, like you said, there's not much difference in what you buy.

Be aware if you buy your own coffee plants they will also probably fall into one of these two categories.

I buy my coffee from a guy a few miles away who has his own relationships with a number of smaller coffee farmers in different and often exotic parts of the world, and buys direct from them. None of the coffee is certified anything, but I know by it's nature it's probably organic and environmentally friendly. I buy green beans and roast them myself, making some of the most delicious coffee I can get anywhere.

http://www.patnsteph.net/weblog/?p=33

Kate said...

Oh Patrick, that would be a wonderful thing - to roast your own, carefully sourced coffee beans.I heard a man talking last weekend on a radio show we have here called Australia All Over. He was in New Guinea buying coffee beans himself,direct from the villagers, to bring back to Australia for sale so it must be possible for us to get some like you. Thanks for your input.I will be coming around to your place sometime soon!

Patrick said...

Here's the list of coffees the guy I order from has right now:

http://www.ongebrand.nl/Bestellijst_eng.htm

Washed means the coffee is water processed (cheaper but flavor is lost), and unwashed is a very labor intensive alternative to washing.

Strictly Hard Bean or SHB coffee is high altitude coffee.

One of the coffees I like is the Ethopian Bonga Wild Forest. I'm not certain the particular coffee I get is wild, but in the region a lot of coffee still grows wild and is gathered instead of harvested. With this coffee every bean is a little different. Different shapes, sizes and colors.

Even Australian coffee is on the list. Do you ever get any of that? I've never tried it.

Kate said...

Yes I have tried Aust coffee but it looks pretty much like a knock-down-the-forest and kill everything type of operation to me. So much is in the roasting too and the one I had wasn't to my liking. I like it strong and rich but not bitter. (sounds like my kind of man too!).Thanks for the address - looks interesting.I will look into this more.

Pattie said...

Kate; Don't forget your coffee cup cuff! :)

Deborah said...

I was given a coffee plant as a present about 15 years ago. It lasted about 2 months before it died. Im sure there are certain things ,especially those that are blended & roasted in different ways that your better off not growing -mainly coffee, chocolate & some wines.