Double the Process

Cooling home roasted coffee, prepared on a one-of-a-kind micro roaster

Coffee and cacao are the only two commodities that need intensive long term care just to be produced, but then also need intensive processing post harvesting before the raw products are ready for consumption.

When coffee speaks it’s out of breath; it’s been burning the candle at both ends. Some agricultural products demand time and money through care and attention in order to be produced, others demand time and money in processing the product for consumption. Coffee demands both.

Along with cacao, it is the only product to do so. Plants that demand an investment of time and attention to produce generally don’t yield products that require much processing. This applies to the majority of fruit. Consider citrus, mangoes, avocados, even berry bushes and grape vines. For fruit trees to produce apples or oranges they need to grow for years, be pruned and tended, and many even need to be grafted initially. Weak trees might need to be guarded against wind or frost, and many require fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides to compete with local flora and fauna. Coffee cherries are fruit and the bean we roast is the seed, so coffee falls into this category. But when coffee cherries are harvested they are not ready for consumption, as are lemons and limes. Fruit maybe needs to be sprayed or treated, but other than that it are pretty much ready for consumption as soon as the harvest is over. Fruit doesn’t need to undergo any transformation to become the product we consume.

The majority of work involved in growing fruit goes into the first part of the process, the cultivation pre-production. The inverse family of products includes those that don’t need the same long-term cultivation to produce but need intense processing after the harvest. This includes all grains and sugar. Grains are annual crops; you plant them and in harvesting them chop down the entire plant to sow new seeds the next year. A stalk of corn doesn’t have to be grafted and pruned; wheat doesn’t need to be tended and screened against armies of tropical ants. Grains grow much more quickly than fruit trees and even though grains get the same fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides as many fruit trees, bushes or vines, the decisions made around cultivation don’t have a long-term impact. If you over-spray your oats with herbicides one year you just correct it by spraying less the following. If you over spray your blackberry vines (or coffee bushes) you could negatively affect productivity over the entire lifespan of the plant, therefore impacting 2-20 years of future production.

The headaches of producing grain commodities come from the processing post harvest. Products have to be de-husked, dried, ground, and all undergo all other manner of processes to turn from the harvested form into the form for final consumption. Looking at amber waves of grain and then at a bag of King Arthur flour; it’s entirely impossible to tell that they’re one and the same unless you have some knowledge of the process in between that turns one into the other.

Coffee, and cacao (which I’ll leave for whomever’s writing “When Chocolate Speaks”), require both the cultivation and the processing to yield the products we consume. Coffee trees need initial transplanting, annual pruning and thinning, and regular applications of fertilizer and pest control, be they organic or chemical. After the fruit of the coffee cherry is harvested it has to be crushed to extract the seed, which then has to be washed, dried and peeled. The roasting is just the icing on the cake.

On top of this double process, coffee has to travel thousands of miles to get from the point of processing to points of consumption. The closest coffee growing location to New York is probably southern Mexico. Maybe Jamaica when they produced significant export quantities. Coffee has a long trip, wherever it’s coming from. It often takes the longest trips possible; Sumatra, Indonesia is pretty much exactly on the other side of the world.

Parallels are often made between wine and coffee in terms of discussing complexities of flavors, bodies, and aromas. That parallel holds true here. Grapes are fruit and vines need  intensive, attentive cultivation to produce, and then of course the grapes undergo a significant and lengthy transformation to become wine. But the price of wine reflects the costs of both ends of the process.

Whole bean coffee prices for a bag of “high-quality” (aka Columbian Supreme, Kenyan organic) pretty much hover around $10/lb. That $10 has to cover the time, land, and manpower to do all the cultivation, the machinery, space, time, and manpower to do all the processing, the fuel, vessel, time, and manpower to ship it, and then the roasting, packaging, marketing and distribution. If I’m counting on a trickle down of that $10 to fund the entire process, I can pretty quickly see how not much will make it back to the first part of the process. It’s actually amazing that any at all does. And what does is a little, a very little.

But exciting things are happening in the world of coffee production. Because producers are now more aware of how much their coffee fetches in consuming markets they’re starting to ask why so little makes it back to them, when they argue that the work they do it the most difficult. Growing and processing coffee will never be easy or simple or industrially mechanized, but I think we can make it a lot fairer.

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