The book is now arriving in the hands of fearless Kickstarter backers and is available to order online via McNally Jackson, so here’s a little explanatory tidbit that didn’t make it into the book itself.
If you’ve gotten your hands on the book, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s up with the cover of “When Coffee Speaks?”
If you don’t work in coffee, you may be wondering, “What’s that in the photo on the cover of the book? Are those grapes? Olives? Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans?” They are in fact coffee cherries, the small fruit that the coffee seed (bean to be) grows inside of.
If you do work in coffee you may be wondering, “What’s up with those coffee cherries? A bunch are under ripe, some are completely dried out, and a bunch more are bitten by broca…”
It’s true. The coffee pictured on the cover of my book comes from the granea, the end of harvest “stripdown” where all beans are removed from the tree branches to eliminate habitats for the broca (coffee berry borer), which evidently is a grave problem on the farm where I took the photo. This batch of coffee would not make the quality cut for any of the direct trade roasters I know, and the actual fate of that very batch of coffee was to be sold to a middleman where it was mixed with coffee from hundreds of other producers and then the collective coffee was sorted by quality and the good stuff stayed for local, domestic consumption and the better stuff was sold to large scale roasters making grocery store coffee.
So why put mediocre coffee on the cover of my book?
First, because even though the quality might not be too impressive, the coffee is still meaningful to me. The coffee pictured is from the Herrera family farm in Punta Brava de Ciudad Bolivar, Antioquia, Colombia. The Herreras are family of a good friend and wholeheartedly adopted me into their family for the month I spent there. I woke up every morning surrounded by the trees that grew this coffee, I ate three meals a day with the one off season worker who picked all that coffee, and the people who planted, maintained, and processed that coffee are some of the most gracious and awesome people in all of Colombia, so the coffee that doesn’t make certain quality cuts certainly has sentimental value.
But putting less-than-perfect coffee on the cover of the book was not merely a sentimental choice, it is also a symbolic one. In my research before starting my trip I looked at lots of pictures of coffee. There is no shortage of pictures of coffee cherries on company websites, in café décor, and even in scientific publications. But one of my first reactions when I actually started spending more and more time on coffee farms was, “Oh, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures.”
Photography of coffee always depicts the best of the best: overflowing baskets of bloodred cherries, branches dripping with ripe fruit, perfectly dried beans spread evenly on a patio surrounded by manicured grass and flowers. This is not how most coffee really looks. Growing coffee is an agricultural endeavor, and, like all agriculture, it comes with lots of bugs, sticks, leaves, dirt, and plenty of imperfections.
The people taking all those nice pictures of uniformly red cherries are hunting down the best of the best and setting up “picture perfect” shots because they do need perfect pictures; they have a product to sell. Of course a roaster won’t show a tank filed with overfermented beans on the company website. Obviously a coffee shop won’t display a spindly tree with diseased leaves and sparse cherries in a giant frame above the register. Most people who take pictures of coffee are taking those pictures because they want to sell something, and we know that for something to sell it has to be sexy: no dirt, no goo, no bugs.
But the cool part about my project is that I’m not selling anything. I’m not a coffee importer or a roaster or a café owner. I don’t have to hunt out the best of the best so that I can show something nice and shiny to my customers. I can hang out with the bugs and the dirt and not have to worry, “But what will the buyer think?”
The image of a mixed bunch of coffee cherries on the cover is representative of the mixed bunch of stories inside. Not everyone I interviewed is doing things the “best of the best” ways. Some interviewees harvest under ripe cherries and have coffee that might overferment and have farms with spindly trees and lots of broca. This might mean that the coffee from some people I interviewed wouldn’t meet certain standards of quality, but it’s not because the growers are lazy or irreverent or ignorant or uninformed, it’s because they are involved in the messy business of agriculture where things just don’t look like they do in glossy storybooks, where things are wrapped up in complex realities that often make it impossible for “best of the best” practices to even be an option.
But because I’m not trying to sell anyone any of the coffee I write about or photograph, I didn’t have to run from the imperfect. Savoring this luxury I made it my goal to take pictures of ugly coffee. A lot of coffee photography starts to look the same (there are only so many angles from which you can photograph a branch with cherries on it or a basket with cherries in it). I started taking pictures of ugly coffee simply because I wanted to take pictures that were somewhat different from all the ones I’d seen. And I kept taking pictures of ugly coffee because there is something raw and real and candid and beautiful about it.
This is the way coffee looks at the end of the harvest when you have to strip the trees to control for broca. There are cherries with bugs in them, leaves that come off with the cherries, green underipe fruit, and always a lot of dirt stuck to the sticky goo that oozes from the cherries when you pick them.
When Coffee Speaks is not a marketing campaign telling consumers something that will inspire them to drink a certain coffee; it is a candid snapshot of what it is actually like to grow coffee, whether that reality is perfect, imperfect, or otherwise.