In 1777 Frederick the Great issued a Coffee and Beer Manifesto, proclaiming “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence…this must be prevented.” Ultimately, when the government found they couldn’t prohibit coffee drinking, they monopolized coffee roasting to the point that commoners could no longer afford it, resorting to things like barley, chicory, corn and dried figs in its stead. And so goes the history of coffee: the people love it, the powerful want to control it or get a piece of the action.
Written by Nina Luttinger and Gregory Dicum, she a sustainable business consultant, he a writer, The Coffee Book traces the common thread of “Kaveh,” as it was called during the days of the Ottoman Empire, from thousands of years ago to today as a politically charged drink and profitably exploitable trade. Readers will find little on the cover to indicate so, but The Coffee Book has a decided point of view. In describing the growing popularity of coffee in 20th century America, Luttinger and Dicum say…
“Indoors, away from the rhythm of the seasons, the new America increasingly moved to the rhythm of machines. Here, coffee was the ideal drink: it gave that kick you needed to spend sixteen hours tightening screws on a mind-numbing, dangerous factory floor or pounding away at a keyboard. Coffee has always been the perfect compliment to dehumanizing industrialization.”
In fact, there’s little sign of that impassioned reverence for the beverage often found in books for coffee lovers. That’s because The Coffee book is not so much about coffee the drink, but coffee the bean, the powerful drug, profitable commodity and social elixir.
Yet there is passion here. In a world where we consumers are indeed away from “the rhythm of the seasons” and more specifically away from the origins of the products we buy, The Coffee Book is a whole-hearted attempt to connect us with an understanding of just how far those little beans travel before they make it into our mugs, often cultivated through the back-breaking toil of an underpaid worker equally disconnected from the end user of his labor’s produce, who may pay as much for one latte as he or she makes in a day.
Part of the problem is that coffee “cherries,” as they are called in their early stages, are grown in far away and often poorer countries. To get to our tummies in the form of a cup of joe they potentially travel through a network of growers, mills, intermediaries, government run marketing boards, exporters, importers or brokers, traders, roasters, distributors and then a cafe or other outlet. Most every player along the way takes a cut and each has some degree of pricing power that ultimately disfavors the farmer because the growing process takes a long time and is difficult to synchronize with market prices.
To complicate this scenario, there are various ways to cultivate coffee beans and in an attempt to meet marketing demand - to the tune of 15 billion pounds of green coffee per year - many growers have resorted to industrial scale plantations and “technification” methods, which produce higher yielding varieties that can be grown in the sun, but also result in a greater environmental impact. Traditional coffee farming is done on a small scale in a complex agrosystem dominated by shade trees and often with generational methods of controlling pests rather than environmentally harsh chemicals, which, because of the farm’s biodiversity, are not necessary.
The large industrial companies that control much of the world’s imports of coffee benefit from higher yielding methods and until recently a majority of consumers didn’t mind the trade-off in quality to keep the price of their daily drink low. Zoom forward to today’s affluent “artisanal” and activist buying culture and in steps the traditional farmer’s savior - maybe.
Fair Trade certified coffee reaches you through fewer hands than before, often skipping such intermediaries as traders and distributors. Certification also guarantees that growers are paid a floor price for their produce as well as other stipulations such as worker-owned cooperatives and investment in social development. These expenses should be seen as investment in human capital at the least and if you’re inclined to think so, as a moral imperative for the difficult labor that goes into something we generally take for granted.
Fair Trade Coffee as something official has been in existence less than a decade, but thanks to a vociferous body of activist consumers, that and other sustainable methods are coming into the mainstream. Starbucks is now the largest roaster of Fair Trade coffee in the U.S., yet, as the book points out and I’ve noticed myself, it would seem there are more brochures about Fair Trade in their stores than the actual coffee. The mixed message here is a sign that this movement toward awareness and sustainable culture (I chose that phrase carefully) is only getting underway.
The hopeful byproduct of expecting and getting quality foodstuff must come with an awareness of where it comes from and at least partial responsibility for its continued existence. Admittedly, this attitude is new to me; The Coffee Book came at a particular point in my own awareness of these issues and has made a general tickle of thought into a more informed and actionable opinion.
I didn’t begin reading The Coffee Book on page one because that was the “history of” section populated, I figured, with quaint tales of trade routes and kings usually required in books of this ilk. I began on a later chapter and only when I saw The Coffee Book’s comprehensiveness and overarching goal did I read through the center, go back to the beginning and then finally read through the final chapters that brought all the history, political and industry talk into focus on today’s American market.
As is obvious by now, I am sympathetic to the views of the authors’. The book, as I said, has an opinion and not all readers will be comfortable with that. My education is in economics so you might say I’m a trained skeptic, so at times I wondered if I might benefit from a different perspective, although I’m not sure where exactly that would come from. And despite its point of view, the book is thorough enough that readers will feel as though the argument before them is thoughtful and has a higher aim than merely pointing fingers at the bad guys.
My only complaint about The Coffee Book is the lack of action asked of the reader. With a clear aim at elucidating the market powers that have driven mediocrity and exploitation in the coffee business, Luttinger and Dicum leave us with a hopeful picture of an industry moving toward bringing Fair Trade, Organic and Shade Grown coffees into the mainstream, yet don’t supply us with our way of being a part of the movement besides a few resources hidden away in the notes and bibliography.
So, I’ll offer a few places for you to start supporting Fair Trade:
TransFair USA has a “shop” section to find local and online stores as well as a wealth of information on the subject.
Gorilla Coffee is a Brooklyn micro-roaster who sells excellent Fair Trade coffee.
The Fair Trade Resource Network
In addition to supporting small local companies that sell Free Trade coffee, you might also consider asking your Starbucks barista to brew you Fair Trade coffee too. As much as I like to support indies, the green mermaid seems unavoidable - and is in fact the only source of Free Trade coffee in some countries - and to the extent you do shop there, continued pressure on the company to bring Fair Trade into the mainstream may have a greater impact than anything else.
I would be remiss in not mentioning in this line-up the excellent The New Press who published this book. They are a not-for profit publisher putting out books in the public interest. I can’t imagine too many non-academic publishers putting out a book like this and I think it’s important to do so.