Coffee, a drink prepared from the roasted seeds of the coffee plant and served hot or cold, is one of the world’s most popular beverages. Its discovery immersed in legends and tales, coffee began its ascent into popularity thousands of years ago, possibly first discovered by a goat herder in Kaffa, Ethiopia. With such humble beginnings, coffee has found a very important place in the world’s economy as a staple crop of many impoverished and struggling nations who rely heavily on the coffee plant to provide jobs and income. As can be educed from the rise in popularity of coffee chains such as Starbucks and Seattle’s Best, coffee is here to stay. But, as designer coffee bean prices soar, market prices paid to small coffee farmers in these poor countries continue to drop meaning less income for already strained families. Newly developed ideals such as Fair Trade aim to help these struggling farmers by providing a decent living wage for their goods; will Fair Trade alter the course of the coffee industry, or will the growing and processing of this little bean plod along as it has always done?
The discovery of coffee can actually be traced back to the 9th century where it was discovered on the Horn of Africa in modern-day Ethiopia. Two stories exist regarding the discovery of the coffee bean, one involving a goat herder named Kaldi, who the legend says noticed his goats acting with extreme vigor after eating the cherries of a certain tree. Upon eating the berries himself, he felt the same renewed energy, and thus, the effects of coffee were known. The other quite similar tale involves a Yemenite mystic traveler who, like Kaldi, saw goats acting with unusual energy and consumed the same fruits learning the effects of the coffee bean. Traders began offering these coffee beans, which made their way into Arabia, then eventually out into India, Holland, then into Europe through Venice, Italy, where coffee reached popularity in the 17th century. Historically, the first coffeehouses were gathering places for political movement and debate.
While many people drink and enjoy coffee, very little is commonly known about where the coffee bean actually comes from, and how it is processed. Though there are over sixty species of coffee tree, only two are grown and cultivated for consumption: the Arabica (higher quality bean, more difficult to grow), and the Robusta (hardy plant, produces lesser quality bean). The coffee plant is a small tree or shrub, and is a flowering plant of the family Rubiaceae. They are native to subtropical Africa and southern Asia, and today are grown in the ‘bean belt,’ a region near the equator bordered by the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The flowering trees produce purple or red fruits (coffee berries) which contain two seeds: these seeds are coffee beans. It takes three to five years for a coffee plant to reach maturity and grow fruits, and each tree yields approximately one pound of roasted beans per year.
Harvest and processing of coffee beans is quite time-consuming and labor intensive for coffee farmers. Because the coffee fruits ripen at different times, the fruit must be hand-picked to ensure the highest quality of beans; some coffee is picked using a vacuum pack, but beans collected this way are used in instant coffee and not suitable for drip machines. Laborers who pick the coffee are paid by the basketful; an experienced picker can usually obtain 6-7 baskets per day. Pay (from growers) per basket can range anywhere from $2.00-$10.00, with most pickers making closer to $2.00 per basket. Once harvested, the beans are de-pulped, dried either by the sun or machine, and then sorted into different grades depending on quality. These ‘milled beans’ are then shipped to their country of destination where they are roasted, which darkens the color of the bean and enhances flavor and aroma. Lightly roasted beans (cinnamon roast, New England roast) retain much of their original flavor while dark roasting (Viennese, French, and Continental) creates a more powerful ‘roasted’ flavor. The whole roasted beans are ground in a coffee grinder, and placed in a filter into a coffee maker. The coffee maker routs hot water through the coffee grounds, extracting flavor and caffeine, and a fresh hot cup of brewed coffee is created!
Each year, nearly seven million tons of coffee is produced by over fifty-six different countries, with Brazil and Colombia leading the pack, followed by Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico, and Ethiopia. Twenty million families are employed by coffee production and exportation, and are paid, on average, six percent of the retail price of coffee beans. For every pound of gourmet coffee beans sold in the US, a coffee farmer receives about twelve cents. Because many coffee producers have small-scale operations, the current prices they receive for their goods are not enough to support their families. Some coffee farmers in South America, Africa, and Indonesia have since turned to growing illegal crops like coca (used to make cocaine) to earn a living. To combat the current low market prices for coffee, a Dutch company began the concept of Fair Trade, which guarantees farmers a set pre-harvest price, providing a decent living wage.
Fair Trade is an ideal related to the sustainable development movement which seeks to protect the rights of, and offer better trading conditions to, producers and workers to establish better equity in the global trading industry. Goals of fair trade include protecting the environment, creating opportunity for economically disadvantaged growers, establishing independence of growers by providing long-term trade relationships, and offering fair prices to growers with equal pay for both men and women. Currently, Fair Trade labeling is overseen by FLO International, a non-profit organization that sets standards for fair trade, and audits fair trade growers to ensure standards are being met. Consumers searching for fair trade items can look for the certification mark as a guide. In 2005, fair trade sales increased by 37%.
Though market prices of coffee are dropping and small-time coffee farmers suffering, the consumption of coffee worldwide has reached astounding numbers. Over 50% of Americans are daily coffee drinkers, and another 30% enjoy a coffee beverage on occasion. Coffee consumption accounts for nearly one-third of tap water usage in North America and Europe! As the world moves at a faster and faster pace, many people drink coffee to enjoy benefits from caffeine, a stimulant that provides a boost of energy and enhanced mood and concentration. While simple brewed coffee is the traditional drink enjoyed by the masses, the introduction of the espresso drink (finely ground coffee brewed under pressure), which came from Italy to North America in the 1980s, has led to different coffee drinks such as the latte, cappuccino, Americano, and many others. Because espresso is more highly concentrated with caffeine and coffee flavor, it has become a very popular mixer in coffee beverages.
A certain coffee culture has taken hold with coffee chains such as Starbucks offering different types of coffee drinks and products to suit almost anyone’s taste buds. Flavored coffees and espresso drinks have seen a huge rise in popularity with consumers young and old. Espresso drinks, such as the white chocolate mocha and gingerbread latte, offer coffee in a dessert-like blend of flavored syrups, espresso, and whipped cream. During the summer months, iced coffee drinks such as the java chip and cafe vanilla frappuccinos provide cool refreshment. In addition to the many drinks offered on their existing menus, many chains will make a coffee drink to the specification of any one customer. Ordering coffee at Starbucks can become a very complicated process with choices in types of milks, types of syrups, concentration of espresso, desired temperature, etc.
Though one of these decadent espresso beverages may be loaded with calories (you could always order skim milk!) and therefore harmful to the waistline, recent studies have shown that drinking coffee poses no health risks to the majority of consumers. In fact, recent research has shown a decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease development in coffee drinkers compared to non-drinkers, and reduced risk for colon cancer as well. Even in pregnant women, experts believe that low to moderate coffee consumption has no negative side effects, but many expectant mothers prefer to avoid coffee and caffeine altogether just in case. Long term, high levels of caffeine consumption from coffee (300+ mg per day) has been shown to cause anxiety, insomnia, and muscle twitching.
With such a recent boom in the coffee industry, and more coffee shops popping up throughout the nation, it only makes sense that consumers will begin to become more aware of coffee’s origin, growth, and trading industry. Already, a niche market for organic coffee beans is seeing a large increase in interest and revenue because consumers are willing to pay a little extra for coffee grown with environmental preservation in mind. Independent studies done in 2002, 2003, and 2005 all showed that fair trade was strengthening producer organizations and providing better quality of life for coffee growing families, and one analysis done in 2006 showed a decrease in child mortality rates among Kenyan farmers in fair trade certified groups. Though critics of fair trade sight potential price increases as a drawback to fair trade, a 1lb bag of fair trade coffee can be bought from a company called Higher Grounds for $9.95 per pound; the same type of beans can be bought from Starbucks for $10.45 per pound, except the Starbucks beans are NOT fair trade certified.
What will always remain, no matter what the growing conditions and regulations stipulate, is the world’s love of coffee a little bean that helps so many people face each day with vigor. Hopefully, increasing awareness about the importance of coffee in poor nations will improve standard of living and growing conditions for coffee farmers throughout the world. After all, for people who are willing to pay over three dollars for a latte or espresso, a few cents extra per drink to ensure sustainability of the coffee industry should be no big deal!