“I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee” said cartoonist, writer and photographer, Flash Rosenberg and she is probably on to something. 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed around the world every day. Coffee drinkers have options like Flat White, Frappaccino, Cafffee Latte, Caffe Crema and Machiato.

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Its become so intense that people can be seen practising their coffee order in the bathroom mirror for fear of stumbling over the plosive Ps and extended F’s of their caffeinated beverage title and holding up the queue of caffeine deprived executives with blood shot eyes and iPads that double up as weapons.

Think that’s an exaggeration?

Ask author and columnist Dave Barry who once said:

“It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity. I bet this kind of thing does not happen to heroin addicts. I bet that when serious heroin addicts go to purchase their heroin, they do not tolerate waiting in line while some dilettante in front of them orders a hazelnut smack-a-cino with cinnamon sprinkles.”

The size and intensity of the coffee industry raises some natural questions about the source of our coffee. How does this delicious dark hot beverage get into our cup.

The original aim of this blog post was to give our readers a rough overview of the coffee industry, but as the research progressed it quickly became obvious that a rough overview could go on for a few hundred pages. It is after all a big industry.

So we decided instead to do what we can, and perhaps plant just a few little seeds of knowledge about the coffee industry to make foodjammers more informed coffee drinkers.

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What is this magical substance really?

Coffee beans are in fact the seeds of the coffee plant and can be found inside the berry of the coffee bush. Once removed from the bean they are processed and then sold. Before they can be ground up and drunk they need to be roasted, this is usually done locally.

 

Most of the coffee that we drink come from two kinds of coffee beans, Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta. Arabica is the more beautiful of the coffee sisters, she gets invited to all the parties because of her delicious flavours and delightful nuances; Robusta is popular too, but more so because she can be relied on to pull through in any circumstances. She can thrive through the most difficult conditions.

What about the people who make sure the magic grows?

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One great irony is that while coffee is at its most popular and expensive in coffee drinking societies, the people growing the coffee are making the fewer profits than ever before. There are a number of reasons for this and it is a complex issue. But one big game changer in the coffee industry was the end of the cold war. This meant that countries which previously did not trade with the West because they were considered a threat, like Vietnam, began selling coffee in the post cold war era. (Presumably the West was concerned that communist propaganda would filter from the beans into the lattes). This served to push up the supply of the coffee, which pushed down the price of the raw product.

Coffee Plantation 300x114 The Sweet Smell of CoffeeIn the 1970s and 1980s an average of 20% of total income from coffee was retained by the producer country. From 1989 to 1995 however that % dropped to 13% in producing countries while the countries where the coffee was consumed was making 78% of the profit.

What About Fair Trade?

Fair trade (or Fairtrade) is a movement to ensure that consumers are not unwittingly ripping off the very people who produce this drink we so desperately rely on. Fair trade coffee means that the coffee is produced and traded according to a set of standards deemed fair by the Fairtrade organisation. Now there is not only one fair trade standard, there are a couple. Some ensure that the coffee is organic, some check that it is shade grown and all of them set some kind of minimum price for which that coffee must be bought. Although one, Fairtrade, is probably the best known.

Fairtrade has become a brand – and been criticised for being a brand. There is an argument when it comes to Fairtrade that once something gets too big it becomes difficult to stick with the original values.

Rosetta Coffee discusses the Fairtrade Vs Fair Trade debate succinctly with great visual aids. One important criticism of Fairtrade is that it costs too much not only for the buyer of the coffee but also for the seller of the coffee. Fairtrade just doesn’t allow the little guys into the market.

Rosetta Coffee also points out that Fairtrade is no indicator of quality.

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Alternatives to Fair Trade

Operation Cherry Red and UTZ certified coffee are two alternatives to the Fairtrade brand we are all familiar with. UTZ works on a very similar principal to Fairtrade.

“UTZ Certified stands for sustainable farming and better opportunities for farmers, their families and our planet. The UTZ program enables farmers to learn better farming methods, improve working conditions and take better care of their children and the environment,” is how their website describes it.

“Through the UTZ-program farmers grow better crops, generate more income and create better opportunities while safeguarding the environment and securing the earth’s natural resources. Now and in the future.”

The other option is Operation Cherry Red, this is your indication of quality. Coffee cherries are supposed to be a festive red when picked as this means they are ripe. When large scale coffee farmers use large machinery many unripe berries end up in the mix and the result is not so good. OCR guarantees that every berry that goes into the brew is screaming Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas!

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The interesting thing about this is that OCR coffees require hand picking, and people employed to pick the best coffee beans are likely to be paid more by the farmer because the job takes more care than just using heavy machinery.

 

 

Where to get great coffee

Here are a few of our favourite spots:

Rosetta Roastery sells great coffee direct to the public, they also have a coffee bar in Woodstock, Cape Town.

Deluxe Coffee Works in Cape Town – they can be found on Church Street and on Buitenkant street. Their coffee is unbelievably good and their barristas unbelievably cool.

The Whippet in Linden Johannesburg that also boast an artisan baker

Father Coffee in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

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And to leave you with one final thought, the words of David Letterman:

“If it wasn’t for coffee, I’d have no discernible personality at all.”

– Natalie Simon