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(a slightly modified example of my work,
originally posted at the Chelsea Green website)
A Cafecito Story
My Cafecito Story
unsolicited testimonial by Sienna M Potts
When I worked with the coffee I drink (& still now if I choose to ask my roaster about it - which is easy since my partner is one of them), I had a teacher too. I could almost always find out which farm my coffee came from, as well as some of the details of its complicated journey to my cup. I did so because I was interested & because I spoke with curious customers daily, helping them to make their coffee decisions. Some were purely interested in flavor -- & y'know what? I think that's fair enough in this unfair world. Many were interested in the whole process their coffee had gone through & I loved to talk about it with them.
At first, the café owners & bird-loving coffee drinkers with whom I spoke wanted an easy answer to the question of drinking responsibly -- we all do. I spent a lot of time talking & cupping with our Green Bean Buyer & the other roasters trying to find them one, but I learned -- &, once they stopped looking for that pure white cape to hide in, many of our customers willingly learned -- that it is not an easy question. My teacher would talk to me for hours about all the blood & sweat that goes into a cup of coffee (I still chase my beans across the counter when they fall out of my grinder thinking of how when somebody spills a pound of coffee on the floor the best work of one coffee tree's entire year is wasted), but she would never give me that Certified Good Guy card.
Recently, when the woman who repeatedly refused to give a simple answer to all those questions (only saying as much as she knew, which she believed was the only truly fair thing to do for any coffee, farm or customer) celebrated/mourned her last day working there (she's going to Vermont, you lucky dogs) the other roasters paid tribute in the form of a bean bulletin, or coffee description. One of them said:
"[She] is . . . not certified fair trade (it's not a fair trade) . . ."
The question of sustainably grown coffee contains so many different elements to consider that it is almost impossible to come up with a single, accurate, objective definition of a term -- like fair, for example. Some of the organizations listed in the back of the book are making an effort to come up with definitions & terms to be used as standards -- much as there is a standard vocabulary at the cupping table.
My teacher (I am not using her name because I haven't given her a chance to edit my comments) is one of those who has worked with the SCAA & other organizations to strive for standards in the vocabulary of sustainability. It is a starting point. Once we can agree upon what sustainability means in the coffee trade, we can better work to improve our situation. We must learn to recognize our own responsibility & do whatever we can to help the farmers, the land & the birds. That doesn't mean we should drink bad coffee just to feel good about ourselves (the coffee that you pay extra for because of its politics is not always as fresh as you deserve).
Flavor being her ultimate requirement for each coffee, our buyer believed it was worth paying well for. That was a decision made back when we Westerners were still pressuring our coffee farmers to cut down their shade trees & give us more coffee faster (not to mention the conveniently powerful reliance on our expensive chemicals required to do it). Now we blame them for the loss of bird habitat. What right have we to dictate the priorities of farmers in other countries -- especially when we keep changing our minds?
This is not to say that we did not work together toward a more sustainable coffee trade, beginning with education. My teacher looked for & found many wonderful organic, shade-grown & fairly priced coffees, many of them certified. She also educated herself & us about the waste treatment practices of some of the farms, taking that -- as well as the life of the workers -- into consideration in the never-ending search for a sustainability that felt & tasted delicious.
I usually know if my coffee was grown in shade -- this is more difficult outside of the Americas because growing methods/locations are more difficult to track in Indonesia & Africa, although I hope that is changing -- but I do not care if it is certified so.
Some fincas which grow coffee in full sun, or even with the use of shade trees (which can be made up of only one or two species & are severely pruned when the coffee needs more sun), have set aside corridors of forest to flourish without human intervention. I'm not sure if I would call that coffee shade-grown -- although the corridor is a good business decision when space allows because it can help the coffee through its effect on the weather -- but I would certainly drink it with pleasure at the thought of all the birds & other creatures in the untouched trees.
There is a similar gray area in the search for organic coffees (which a shade-grown coffee may or may not be). Much of the coffee from Indonesia is grown in small backyard plots by families who can afford neither chemicals nor certification (a very common situation all over the coffee-growing world). There is coffee in Ethiopia that still grows wild, but most of it is not certified organic.
Although I admire the work of many certifiers & others who attempt to educate coffee drinkers, I do not know that adding another middle man to the long passage from hand to hand to cup is the best solution. Fair Trade is certainly a good step, but it's a long fight. An extra 5 or even 25 cents a pound is not going to fix everything.
When I first received the documentation to create these pages I struggled for several days to write an email about my own cafecito story as part of my reply to the publisher. After some grumbling ("Why can't life be more simple? It always is in the Disney movies."), he invited me to share my story here.
Although it makes me incredibly happy to offer the web version of this Cafecito Story (café y literatura hispanoamericana being two of my favorite things), I think it is important to remember that we cannot offer a simple answer to, or even a complete exploration of the question of sustainably grown coffees. The organizations featured here are certainly part of the solution, but their definition of fair has its limits.
At this point, rather than having the simple answer, I enjoy balancing out the questions. I do my best to be light on the land, without feeling overly guilty or superior for the choices (some of them compromises) I make. I don't mean to discourage you in your search for a just cup & I hope these pages will help to re-courage you (on this issue anyway). It is much like Joan Dye Gussow's somewhat daunting conviction in This Organic Life that eating regionally grown foods may be just as important as eating organic foods. Sometimes the questions are almost impossible to answer honestly, but that's no reason not to try to walk your talk.
Thank you for reading these cafecito stories. I wish you many just & delicious cups. Feel free to email me if you'd like to know where I get my coffee or if you have other questions/comments. As I said, I am no expert, but I did go to a good school.
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