In the post below, I was wrestling with how to keep issues of social and economic justice in mind on our quest to source incredible coffees.
Let’s not forget that environmental justice is intricately tangled up in here as well.
This story came to my attention today, which predicts that wild arabica could be extinct by 2080 due to unsuitable growing conditions caused by climate change. This is all coming from an academic paper called “The Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Arabica Coffee (Coffea arabica): Predicting Future Trends and Identifying Priorities” which you can read here.
There is that word priorities again. While this study specifically concerns wild growing arabica, it must prompt us to ask what effects climate change will have on cultivated arabica over the next few decades as well. And there are still thousands of varieties of wild coffea arabica that have yet to be documented. What improved harvests, yields, and cup qualities are waiting out there to be discovered and cultivated?
Also, we can’t forget that all our worrying and debate about direct trade models, brew methods, pressure profiling, and hospitality will mean less and less if it gets harder and harder to source any high quality Arabica coffee.
A while back, barista/owner Nick Cho posted a thoughtful piece about the intersection of coffee quality and class and the relationship between coffee production in the global south and coffee consumption in the global north:
"The most celebrated coffee “farmers” and farms in specialty coffee are also among the most successful, with many if not most of those people being the sons (and in a very few cases daughters) of prosperous families…If our affinity for those producers and those coffees defines our scope to only the tip-top best-of-the-best of what coffee has to offer, we are building a temple for worshipping the rich in a self-perpetuating cycle of aggrandizement and affluence."
Ultimately, Cho aks us the important question: “Do you care more about coffee quality, or about people?”
In the most recent issue of The Specialty Coffee Chronicle, Costa Rican producer Oscar Chacon, who runs the farm La Mirella with his wife Francisca, was asked in an interview “What would like to see change in the industry?” His response was:
"The big challenge is to get to the point that the coffee market will benefit both the poor and the rich people. The low prices of coffee make it such that some of the poorest and least powerful people of the world need to negotiate in a free market with some of the richest and most powerful markets. The result, not surprisingly, is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer."
So, what is our priority? Purchasing only the very excellent of the best coffee out there? Or are we willing to dig our heels in the for the long haul, and be invested in making coffee a front for economic and social justice? I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how we talk about coffee and I have come to three conclusions:
First, we talk about coffee because we are trying to communicate that it has value. Second, we attempt communicate this value by describing the taste of coffee. Third, we describe the taste of coffee by promising that it will taste like something else. Therefore, if we want to become better at communicating the value of coffee then we need to get better at describing the taste of coffee.
So let’s examine that:
"It tastes like blueberries!"
"It has this fantastic black currant flavor!"
"Bergamot, flowers, and peach!"
I do this myself. Fundamentally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this practice, but I don’t believe it is the best way to go about describing this thing we love so much.
I think it can sell the coffee short. It makes it seem derivative when it is not. This is especially true as I hear folks use metaphor in describing coffee. “This coffee tastes like blueberries” sometimes becomes “this coffee is blueberries.” While comparing and contrasting coffee to familiar food flavors can make it approachable and inviting, it can also limit the complexities to be found in coffee.
And when we do attempt to capture that complexity with our typical arsenal of descriptors, we usually end up with frustratingly long tasting notes: bright notes of stone fruit, lemon, clementine, and tropical punch give way to a velvety full body and a dulce de leche and cocoa finish. This can be a little overwhelming. I can imagine a customer left thinking: “Wow. That sounds impressive. But what does this coffee actually taste like?” Instead of selling this coffee short, we can actually oversell it; drown its appeal in a superfluous portrayal.
There is also the danger of using words that simply mean nothing to the person we are talking to. Saying a coffee tastes “like tamarind” doesn’t mean anything to someone who is not familiar with the taste of tamarind. This is not to say we should refrain from using descriptors if they are accurate, but we must be prepared for them to fall short in many situations.
So, what is the solution?
Well, I am not really sure.
I think what I would like to see are more simple and objective descriptions. When cupping, I am looking for just a few things: flavor, body, acidity, finish. Because cupping often needs to be quick and efficient, I find myself forgoing the use of nouns altogether on my cupping form. For example, I think of acidity on a scale of 1 to 10. Thiriku from Kenya might get an 8, while Illimani from Bolivia might get a 4. I might use numbers for body as well, or I might just write “full,” “medium,” or “light.” If I am tasting a lot going on I may just write “complex” or “well-balanced” in the Flavor column. The point is, when I am tasting coffee in this environment, I am trying to narrow down the most important factors of the coffee and think of them in simple terms so I can decide whether I want to purchase it or not. Perhaps, we should do the same thing when our goal is describing coffee to each other and to customers?
I would be interested in seeing a coffee roaster or coffee bar choose 3 or 4 categories to describe their coffee and rate each on a scale from 1-6. These ratings could be printed on retail bags or menus instead of lengthy tasting notes. I am not saying this would necessarily be easier or more effective, but I am saying I think people should try something different. We should find out if we can communicate the valuable taste of a coffee by being simple and direct.
Let’s continue to ask ourselves how we want to talk about coffee, because when we talk about it, we need to keep that initial goal in mind: communicating value. Improving how we describe the taste of coffee will help reach that goal if describing the taste of coffee is the best way to communicate value.
Now whether or not describing taste is the best way to do that is another important question to ask ourselves.