The Persistence of Artisanal Coffee: Why the Hype Needs to Die
I am one of those who makes it a daily habit to have a cuppa Joe to start my day. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve grown reliant on it, but I do miss it when I forego it. It’s become one of those long-running jokes that have morphed into a global truth; most people’s mornings cannot begin properly without coffee. But do most people also know how this magical brown bean become a sought-after elixir of energy?
To be frank, there is no right story, but what I heard through the grapevine is that there once was a goat herder named Kaldi, who first discovered their potential. He noticed that after consuming berries from a particular tree, his goats became so energetic that they couldn’t sleep at night. Kaldi reported his findings to the abbot of his local monastery, who then proceeded to make a drink with the berries and found that it kept him alert through the long hours of evening prayer. The abbot shared his discovery with the other monks at the monastery, and knowledge of these potent energy boosters began to spread. As word moved East and coffee reached the Arabian Peninsula, it began a journey which would bring these beans to your coffee cup.
And if you’re wondering how Kopi Luwak got its start (you know, that prized poop coffee that everyone seems to be raving about?), you’ll be less-than-relieved to know that it started with the ban of the Dutch plantation owners against their indigenous labourers from sampling their own fruits of labour.
How the Hype Got Out of Hand
With the historical bit out of the way, we’ve arrived at the crux of the matter, and that is to justify why the enjoyment of coffee today is often associated with hipsters, artisans and stuffy baristas who (sometimes) hold their Godly knowledge of this thick, dark potion above everyone else like it’s the answer to immortal life. I agree, the masses do not behave in this manner, and most people are pretty chill in their attitude towards coffee, but with the rampant and ceaseless pop-ups of specialty coffee houses and bars solely dedicated to just serving coffee, it’s honestly getting OTT, don’t you think?
In fact, in my research for this piece, I discovered that such a thing as First, Second and Third Waves of coffee exist, which made me think, “Oh God, it’s become an event significant enough to appear in History textbooks.”
The First Wave started in the in the 1960s, where coffee consumption grew exponentially. The Second Wave followed when coffee shop businesses committed themselves to meeting the demands of those who caught on to this emerging trend, and soon enough coffee saw itself labelled with grades to distinguish the luxurious from the common man’s cup. We apparently are now in the Third Wave, which sees those invested in the industry paying a critical eye to every step of the process that links farmers to customers. Herein lies the apparent disparity between the cost (and quality) of your local kopi and a shot that will set you back by tens of dollars or more.
Last year, The Independent aired their grievances about the “launch of the Third Wave Water serves as nothing more than hipster buffoonery.” What they were referring to is a company that has created soluble capsules designed to make coffee-optimised water (whatever that means).
Apparently, the water used to brew coffee has a significant impact on the taste of the resulting cup of coffee. What is in this capsule, you ask? It’s an “ideal” balance of minerals like sodium, calcium, and magnesium, making tap water almost a grotesque option for us casual drinkers.
Now, now, there’s no need to send an angry mob of villagers to hunt me down, because truthfully, I do recognise the great talent of coffee connoisseurs who painstakingly educate themselves in the nitty-gritty of creating that perfect cup. Things like bean varietal, soil type, temperature, harvesting and all that jazz are just as vital factors, akin to those cultivating wine in vineyards. I believe it’s the whole attitude of those who have serious FOMO who have given the coffee industry a bad rep.
Beyond the Packaging
The right marketing can do wonders for a product, service, or hell, even a person (but that’s really called PR work, but I digress), but what most people don’t know, and what industry insiders don’t share, is the honest work that goes into growing the coffee beans. This is where the label ‘free-trade’ holds a lot of the decision-making power for many consumers who are all about rights and fairness in the labour movement.
So, what is fair-trade exactly? It is, according to Wikipedia, when applied to the coffee industry specifically, “coffee that is certified as having been produced to fair trade standards”. Fairtrade organisations create trading partnerships that are based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. These partnerships contribute to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to coffee bean farmers. Fair trade organisations are engaged actively in supporting producers and sustainable environmental farming practices. Fair-trade practices prohibit child or forced labour.”
The bottom line is this: free-trade agreements work to reduce poverty and exploitation.
Sounds like a sincere and just system, doesn’t it? Cracked.com detailed a very insightful four-reason list of why the fair-trade label is basically a global scam that’s thriving right under our noses. Most of the reasons cited a huge gap between what the beans actually cost, what farmers are paid for their harvest and what consumers ultimately fork out. In reality, most coffee farmers would do much better for themselves if they sold outside their Fair-Trade contracts, consumers pay up to 700 percent more than what the beans actually cost (due to a markup that’s passed on to retailers) and the Fair Trade has taken advantage of its ‘non-profit’ name to essentially, well, take advantage of Third World coffee growers.
Did you know that for every pound of coffee a retailer sells, the FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International) gets 10 cents? That may not sound like much, but it does make you sit up and smell the coffee when you learn that in 2009, the FLO had a budget of USD$10 million, of which 70% was funded entirely by those fees!
Not to be the Grinch of coffee consumption, but fair-trade coffee isn’t doing all that well either – which really does not serve the main objective of helping the farmers. You see, for every crop grown, there is bound to have some bad bounties. If the market price for low-quality beans falls below USD$1.40 (the average price per pound) and the market value for high-quality beans is above USD$1.40, the system technically forces the hands of farmers to throw their bad crops into the fair-trade lot. As a result, because consumers are pretty informed these days, and stay away from the fair-trade label, very little trickles down to the farmers. Hence, this has limited the market for fair-trade coffee.
So, What’s Your Point?
Well, now that you’ve read my endless (hypocritical) rant about why coffee shouldn’t be put on a pedestal, you need to understand where these gripes stem from. I guess you could say that I’m really confused as to how coffee houses not only exist but thrive. Most places I’ve visited have below average service (read: I think coffee being served out of a machine would be delighted to serve me), the coffee is meh (and overpriced), and they just doll up the place because why else would you go there if not for the ‘gram? This, of course, doesn’t mean my once-a-day relationship with coffee will come to an end, because God knows how I just love that single dose in the morning. But I hope this piece serves as an announcement of sorts that coffee is just coffee. You need to stop hailing it as a near-miracle and realise that most of what you’re drinking is all thanks to the tireless, hard work of impoverished farmers.
Talk about being as bitter as espresso.