Home Page

Posts Tagged ‘the Fall’

Coffee and Conscience – Part 2

In Christ and Culture on October 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea.” — Abraham Lincoln

*

C. S. Lewis explores the demonic view of pleasure in The Screwtape Letters.  An experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, a novice demon, on the use of pleasure to ensnare a human soul.  He tells him, “You must always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure, to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable” for when dealing with any pleasure in its “healthy and normal and satisfying form we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” For Screwtape, the demonic formula for the distortion of pleasure is “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.”

*

I first started drinking coffee in university.  My mother had sent me off to school with the essentials: fifteen pairs of underwear, with my name written on the band with a laundry pen, and a little, yellow, two-cup kettle to boil water.  At some point I picked up a little jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee.  My coffee consumption was strictly utilitarian: I drank it to stay sharp while writing papers and cramming for exams.  I didn’t particularly like the taste, so I drank it with lots of sugar and nondairy creamer. I might just as well have taken NoDoz.  Like a cup of coffee, one caplet contains 200 mg of caffeine, and, according to the company’s promotional material, it’s much better than coffee:  “Fewer pit stops, cheaper than a cup of coffee on the go, no awkward ordering, conveniently keep it in your pocket or purse and never gets cold.” For many drinkers,  the attraction to coffee is the caffeine.  The appeal of caffeine is three-fold.  It reduces drowsiness by blocking adenosine, a chemical created in the brain that slows down nerve cell activity.  With the increase of neural activity, the pituitary gland releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline so the subject is ready for fight, flight or even a very animated discussion on the merits or absurdity of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Caffeine also increases dopamine that activates pleasure centers in certain parts of the brain.  In short, it gives you a sparkle and jolt and an ahhhh. Father Capon is a lover of food and drink, and more foundationally he is a lover of things.  He says “things are precious, before they are contributory.”  I think he’s onto something; to reduce coffee to its function as a conveyance system for C8H10N4O2 is to commit some sort of crime against this precious thing.  True delight is a far more appropriate response.

*

If it’s the caffeine you want, the most efficient coffee product to deliver the goods is instant coffee.   It requires only a spoon, a cup and some hot water.  Because the process to make instant coffee creates such a poor tasting coffee anyway, cheap, poor quality beans can be used.  Instant coffee production extracts twice the stuff from the bean as does the brewing of a regular coffee.  From the position of taste alone, the additional extracts should have been left and tossed out with the grounds.  But by squeezing out more product per pound of beans, profit margins are increased.  Unfortunately, the over-extraction of the grounds results in a bitter and aromaless product.

*

I remember the commercials for Nestlé’s Sunrise instant coffee.  The advertising slogan encouraged consumers to buy this coffee because it was “mellowed with chicory.”  Chicory is an adulterant.  It is cheaper than coffee, so by adding it to the ground coffee the price can be dropped.  Chicory isn’t the only adulterant added to coffee over the years.  Mark Pendergrast offers an amazing list of adulterants.  I suppose parsnips and pea hulls aren’t so bad when one considers baked horse liver and brick dust.  But, by principle, chicory is no different than burnt rags and coal ashes or dirt and dog biscuits—the fundamental principle is the increase of profit margins.  Although this list comes from the Industrial Revolution, the motivation behind the addition of adulterants to coffee is alive and well in the big coffee producers to this day. Cheap coffee means more coffee sold and that means more profit.

*

 “The best part of wakin’ up, is Folgers in your cup.” I hate waking up.  The thing that gets me out of bed is the promise of a cup of coffee.  Because I delay getting up as long as possible, my first cup is usually at work.  There we drink whatever is on sale at Costco.  We’ve had Folgers “Classic Roast” in the bright-red plastic container.  Proctor and Gamble’s promotional material says that the classic roast is a “blend of Arabica and Robusta beans for a smooth, full-bodied flavor.”  That little word “for” suggests causality, does it not? Approaches to coffee cultivation lie on a continuum between the traditional shade grown coffee and the more modern unshaded monoculture.  The first is carried out at higher elevations under a canopy of trees where there is a constant replenishment of organic material as the leaf litter decomposes.   The trees are a home to an array of beneficial insects and birds that act to control potential pests.  The unshaded monoculture, on the other hand, demands the removal of all organisms but the coffee plants.  These are set out by the thousands in rows upon rows that stretch for miles.  This method allows for efficiencies like mechanized harvesting, but it also results in environmental degradation—water pollution, soil erosion, declines in local fish populations due to sedimentation and bird populations because of loss of trees, increased soil and air temperatures, and lower amounts of moisture and microorganisms in the soil.  The problems that directly affect the coffee production are solved by the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Essentially, two varieties of coffee beans are grown.  The Arabica variety grows at high altitudes.  Its beans develop slowly and are few.  The Robusta grows at lower elevations. Its beans develop quickly and are more numerous.  When it comes to flavour, Arabica beans are superior in every way.  From a commercial perspective, Robusta beans are superior in every way: The mechanized Robusta plantation will out produce traditional Arabica shade farm by as much as four times per acre.  The result is a vastly inferior tasting cup of coffee. You can buy a three pound can of Folgers Classic Roast at Costco for $12.99 CDN.

*

In an online discussion, the question was asked, “Which coffee do you liked best?”  Here’s one of the replies: “Well I love Starbucks . . . as much as the next person. The reality is, I will not pay the price for it on a daily basis, buying it in bulk for home is just as expensive. I can buy a huge container of Folgers/Maxwell House for $7 at Wal-Mart whereas the little Starbucks’ bag costs the same.” For many, price is a significant factor in what coffee one drinks.  But the questions must be asked, “If I am not paying for the coffee I drink, who is?”

*

Several years ago, I watched an animation called “The Story of Stuff” narrated by Anne Leonard.  She asked a question that has haunted me since.  When stuff is so cheap, who’s paying the cost? A long chain of costs connects the coffee plant to our coffee cup here in North America: plants must be tended, fruit must be picked and transported to the processor, the pulp removed from the beans, the beans dried, and sorted and bagged, the bags transported to a warehouse to rest, the rested bags must be transported to the roaster, the roasted coffee graded and packaged, and the packaged coffee transported to retail outlets. Roasted coffee costs less than 5% of the total you pay for a Latte in a fancy coffee house.  If you brew canned coffee at home, the coffee is costing you less than 10 cents per cup. If we are paying so little for the coffee, who, then, is paying for all that goes before?  The companies that transport, roast, and package the coffee aren’t paying for it.  They are enjoying healthy profits.

*

Although they have risen in the last year or two, world coffee prices are volatile and, for the last decades, have been very low.  Low coffee prices had a lot to do with a large surplus of Robusta and poor quality Arabica being produced by huge coffee plantations in Vietnam and Brazil.  When prices are as low as they have been, farmers get less for their coffee than the cost of its production.  Consequently, throughout the coffee-growing world, desperate farmers abandon their trees to look for work elsewhere while their families live under plastic tarps by the roadside.  Some daughters resort to prostitution to support their families.  Other farmers have burned their coffee plants and replaced them with drug crops like coca or qat.

*

Historically, American consumers have insisted on a low price for coffee.  Cheap coffee has been so important that when the price of coffee rose sharply, Congressional hearings were held to investigate the reason behind the increases.  Some were blaming the producers of taking advantage of the defenseless coffee drinker. The documentary Black Coffee records a speech made by Congressional witness, Andrés Uribe*, when prices spiked in 1950.  He explained the sudden price rise was because of a shortage of coffee.  He pointed out that most of the money Americans paid for their coffee did not go to Latin American producers, but to U.S. roasters, retailers, and restaurants.   Uribe said, Gentlemen, when you are dealing with coffee, you not dealing only with a commodity, a convenience. You are dealing with the lives of millions of people.  We in Latin America have a task before us which is staggering to the imagination—illiteracy to be eliminated, disease to be wiped out, good health to be re- stored, a sound program of nutrition to be worked out for millions of people. The key to all of this . . . is an equitable price for coffee. Other-wise, you cast these millions of persons loose to drift in a perilous sea of poverty and privation, subject to every chilling wind, every subversive blast. His words had no effect.

*

The real enemy of coffee growers, the environment and the consumer is the big coffee companies.  They provide a market for Robusta beans, the production of which is not environmentally sustainable, and thus, driving down the global price of coffee.  This threatens the viability of producing the quality Arabica coffees.



* the New York representative of Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers and chairman of the Pan American Coffee Bureau