Where Were We?
This is it - the 4th (5th, actually) and final (hopefully) installment of the Everything (Just some things, really) Coffee Series. We've meandered our way through lots of cool info! We've overlapped, criss-crossed, reviewed, generalized, and jumped our way through the truth to get to here: Farm to Table Coffee.
So, what are we discussing today? Well, I'm not really sure. We had a pretty clear plan in our head a month ago on what we would be finally discussing this week, but do you think we took notes?
Farm to Table
I'm only joking. I'm avoiding our real topic because, well, it has the potential to be a bit dry. You see, coffee growing and farming have some pretty significant repercussions for society and the environment. This is largely in part because the general consumer is, through no fault of their own, largely unaware or uneducated about the coffee industry. We do what we can at Brew Ha Ha to allay some of the stressors in these areas by buying smart and educating as much as we can, so we thought we would discuss a little bit of that today.
I'd like to focus on harmful language in the coffee industry that, through many channels fast and slow can travel back to farmers and producers and affect the way they do business. First let's revisit coffee quality.
Is This Specialty Coffee?
We don't hear this much around Brew Ha Ha, because everyone already knows we are special. Wink, wink. But, it's a tricky question when it comes up. "Specialty Coffee" is a term that originated in coffee houses and cafes to differentiate their product from that which was sold in larger grocery stores. Now it is pretty generally coffee that can be found in a coffee or espresso bar, like Brew Ha Ha, coffee roasted and/or sold in small portions, flavored coffees, mixed coffee drinks, or any coffee that sellers or buyers perceive to be of higher quality or intrinsic value than other coffee.
So, you can see that over the years, the term has been so diluted that, for all intents and purposes, "specialty" could mean quite a lot, or next to nothing, in regards to the quality of your bean. Many of these beans and coffees labelled "specialty" might actually be relatively low quality. Note my stress.
"Specialty Coffee" is quickly becoming what marketing and advertising folks (and those caught up in the slippery and cynical world of semiotics and linguistic analysis) refer to as Nothing Words. What's that, you say?
Nothing Words: The American Narrative
I'm going to pick on America because I'm American, so I'm allowed to do that.
There exist words in the English language that, when put into the proper context, can mean anything under the rainbow. The sky is the limit. For example:
PREMIUM: Mmm, premium Dill pickles. These aren't just any old pickles that are prepared identically to pretty much any other pickle ever made. These are PREMIUM pickles. That means when you eat these pickles, you're consuming more than salted cucumber. You're consuming an experience. We guarantee that these Dill pickles were prepared by machines with the lowest standards legally available to us in order to generate the highest profit margin possible. A PREMIUM profit margin. Mmm, premium.
Let's try another:
NATURAL:Yes, finally! All-natural chicken soup! This chicken soup is better than even your mother's, because we can inject the chicken with salt broth and hormones, and it's still, denotatively-speaking, NATURAL. That's right - this chicken has more drugs pumped into it than a 1970's rockstar on New Year's Eve, but because it is literally a chicken, it is super NATURAL! When you buy our chicken soup, you get more bang for your buck. You get the lean protein your hankering for, plus carcinogens that are more than likely to mutate your cells into cancerous Luftwaffe!
Then, there's "specialty coffee." This term hasn't taken such a turn for the worse as the above examples, but you should know that just because a coffee is labelled this does not mean you'll be getting the best bean out there, or even a moderately good one.
Coffee Quality Zones
Right now, there are three general categories for coffee quality available to us. I'm calling them "zones" because the coffee industry needs more cool words.
Zone 1: Examplary. Coffees in this zone are of the highest real quality, the most expensive, and not necessarily easy to find.
Zone 2: Premium. There's that lovely, dangerous word. In this case, it refers to coffees that are of a high or fine quality, but are simply not the best cup around. This may result from slightly sub-par growing or preparation conditions, roasting, or packaging and shipping. This is where most "Specialty" coffees sit, but they can also include coffees found pre-ground and bagged in smaller stores.
Zone 3: Mainstream. This zone represents just around 90% of our worldwide coffee consumption. In this zone, you can expect to see mass-produced pounds of ground coffee as well as ground, single-serve coffees that might sit on a supermarket shelf for weeks on end. Even sealed, this makes for a barely tolerable cup of coffee. You can also expect that most of the time (although, not always) that you see the nothing words "Signature Blend," you are getting coffee from this quality zone.
Brew Ha Ha? Well, we are happily sitting in Zone 1, due in great measure to our dedicated roasters who make sure you are getting ridiculously fresh coffee. This isn't a nothing word, either. I literally mean that the freshness of our coffee frequently causes surprise and/or disbelief.
So, the dilution of words like "specialty" and "premium" affect the way we see and buy products like coffee. What about the choices we make that affect our environment?
Do You Guys Buy Organic?
I don't know about my cohorts, but I get this question a lot, and funnily enough, we tend to hear it collectively a lot more in the summer. I guess people are a lot more health conscious and environmentally aware when they're not angrily stomping through 5 collective feet of snow.
"Organic" is another difficult word in the coffee industry. The term is a pretty hefty prescription for farmers, but coffee bars and cafes may not be as careful with their language.
Growing organic coffee requires a couple things:
1. The grow area needs to use organic methods for 3 years before it can be considered to have produced organic coffee. This is to allow for the residue of fertilizers and agricultural pesticides and other chemicals left in the soil to dissipate.
2. Sustainable practices have to be in play. The absence of fertilizers and pesticides is not enough. Farmers have to be actively applying biological methods of mulching, pest control, and creating healthy shade for the coffee. Organic coffee growing without these practices in place is called "passive cultivation" or "organic by default" (ITC 2011).
Now, here is where it gets tricky. "Organic Coffee" can't just be grown organically.
Organic coffee must also be harvested, processed, stored, exported, imported, roasted, and packaged under organic-certified conditions to remain "organic." Basically, if the coffee comes into contact with any equipment that has come into contact with non-organic coffee, it becomes non-organic by definition.
The Truth Will Out
Alright. It's truth time. We love our Brew Ha Ha. We think it is the best. Hopefully, you think it is the best. But, we are not organic. But, let us explain!
First, it is quite difficult and expensive to get organic coffee form a lot of countries, and even regions. For some, it's impossible. We would not be able to give you the breadth and quality of coffee bean we do if we only served organic coffee. Coffee shops that are actually ALL organic can usually only offer 2-3 choices. We float through about 10 a month.
Second, we do in fact have some certified organic green coffee in the shop - as many single-origins as we can manage. Unfortunately, because we roast in house, and we roast non-organic coffee in our roaster, you guessed it: none of our coffee is technically certified organic.
We often play the "What If?" game here. What if we had two roasters? What if we had two espresso machines? Well, what if we had an extra $100,000 to throw around. You get the point. For our part, and we hope you agree, we do our very best to bring our customers the best cup of coffee they can get, and to make them aware of how their coffee affect the world.
In an ideal world, we would only drink organic. Coffee farms would be a stable, thriving industry. Farmers and processors would get paid a whole lot more. Oh, and Brew Ha Ha would have a back deck that floated through the morning sky on the wings of sparrows. Speaking of the real world...
We don't mess much with Robusta, and apparently it's a good thing!
And, some bad news for Arabica as well!
Well, that is all for the Everything Coffee Series! We hope you learned a lot and are encouraged to do some reading on your own and learn more!
Up next week, Latte Art - Brew Ha Ha Style!
Chief of Coffee Relations
Brew Ha Ha at the Colony