Living a city that never sleeps in a highly developed nation in a fully globalized world, sometimes it’s hard to remember that there are things we don’t have, things we can’t get with a trip to 7th Ave or the corner deli, things we can’t access with a Pay Pal account and the click of a button.
We’re so used to having an almost infinite array of choice available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, that we forget that this doesn’t mean that we have everything.
There are still some things we don’t see, or have, even living in Manhattan, at one of the world’s hubs of trade. There is still a place in the world for the rogue traveller and the humble messenger with a backpack full of stuff from elsewhere.
I was reminded of this when I myself became one of those humble messengers. Last week I brought a backpack of coffee from Costa Rica and shared it with New Yorkers. I held a tasting, and among the coffees to try was one from a small community called Cedral. I bought 6 bags of their coffee after spending a week there in December. The community is in its first years of processing their own coffee in a micromill they built. They sell green coffee to clients in England, but they always take some to the local roaster’s to be roast and ground so that they can drink their own coffee daily at home. This coffee is packaged simply and economically in in clear plastic bags. They sell it to their neighbors and at a handful of local grocery stores, but beyond that, pure Cedral coffee is not available anywhere else in the world. You can’t order it online, Sweet Maria’s doesn’t carry it, and it’s not being served in the coffee shops of San Jose.
Cedral coffee is a new thing, and the roast and ground bags that I bought were essentially part of a test batch. The people who grow the coffee and run the mill are in the midst of expanding their operations to include a roaster and developing a tourism project in which they’d bring visitors up the mountain and walk them through the process of making coffee, from seed to cup. So it is likely that Cedral coffee will be available online, at local retailers, and in the café adjacent to the mill within a few years.
But right now it’s not. And the 6 or 7 ounces of Cedral café that I served were the first 6 or 7 ounces New Yorkers were able to taste. One attendee told me, “I’ll taste the coffees, but I’m not a coffee drinker, so I don’t really think I’ll like any of them.” He tasted a few, but when he tasted the Cedral he looked at me and said, “wow. Now that, I like. I really do. I’ve never tasted coffee like that before!” The Cedral coffee was by no means everyone’s favorite, other people had just as elated reactions about other coffees, but for this guy, Cedral was it.
This reminded me the value of actually going places. To be able to share this particular harvest of Cedral coffee roasted in this particular way, someone has to go to Cedral and get it.
This also reminded me of how fleeting all coffee is. The fact that Pike Place tastes the same in all Starbucks all over the country and that Folgers tastes the same every time you open the can is not because the coffee is actually the same, it’s because there is a devoted team of chemists making sure the final product tastes the same.
Every single harvest of coffee, even from the exact same farm, tastes different. There are so many variables in play to grow coffee (think precipitation, soil composition, agrochemicals…) that every harvest produces coffee with a slightly different taste. If every single farm in the world produces coffee that tastes slightly different from each other, and every harvest on every farm is just a little bit different every year, you begin to see that simply because you use 30% Brazilian Santos and 70% Costa Rican SHB in your blend, it doesn’t mean you’ll get the same tasting coffee.
Because coffee is so sensitive to all the variables that affect it and because there is so much work being done in developing new hybrids and reviving old varietals, there is never a lack of brand new coffees to try. It’s exciting to think that coffee will never be stagnant, that something which in so many respects seems so simple and straightforward will never stop being complicated.
There are things that don’t reach Manhattan, there are coffees that Americans have never tasted, and there are growers toiling away on mountainsides all over the world, ready with new flavors if someone with a backpack happens to stumble upon them.