While we have an appreciation for the simplicity of many espresso blends, getting into single origins can be a sumptuous adventure. For his recent Holiday Blend, Velton imported a delicious Arabica from the El Salvador plantation Finca Alaska. This 2007 Cup of Excellence winner is a clean, smooth cup with bright lemon, fig, chocolate and even blackberry notes.
He only has a small quantity left, so if you have a love for single origins and want to try this excellent varietal, we highly recommend picking it up. In fact, during our recent trip to Hario USA, this is the coffee we used to demo the gear and Edwin Martinez noted that it is one of the best coffees he’s tasted in a long while — even bringing it down to the plantation in Guatemala and impressing his counterparts there!
Not sure if Velton’s Coffee is worth the hype? Well, your local church folks sure thinks it is:
With a lot of recent scientific data pointing to the adverse impact our reliance on fossil fuels is having on the environment, inventors, universities and entrepreneurs the world over have been tackling the issue of alternative energy in different manners. As we wrote about in 2008, the University of Reno had successfully developed a method for converting used coffee grounds into a form of biodiesel. At the time, the results weren’t mind-blowing — yes, it was feasible, but was it scalable?
Over a year later, the BBC1 show Bang Goes the Theory took the idea of turning coffee into a more explicit form of fuel by converting a 1988 Volkswagen Scirocco to use coffee as it test drives 210 miles from Manchester to London. Dubbed the ‘car-puccino,’ the project was taken on to accentuate the importance of experimenting with alternative energy. The catch, however, is the fact that the cost of the trip is between 25 – 50 times that what it would cost if petrol was used instead of coffee. Depending on coffee quality, the cost of the trip could be anywhere between about $1400 and $2800, compared to about $55 for a journey fueled by gas.
So, obviously, this may be a fun idea, but really not a great solution. Add to that the recent assessment by the International Coffee Organization that climate change has begun to severely impact the coffee growing regions around the world — which is contributing to the noticeable increase in the cost of coffee — and the idea of using java to power our favorite transport, digs and gadgets is even more ludicrous. But, we won’t slight them for trying — even if it was ultimately just a publicity stunt.
Addiction can be a lonely place. Whether we hide our vices or not — stealing a secret cigarette while the wife isn’t looking, sipping a sly cocktail at the end of the bar by ourselves or knocking back a few shots of espresso despite our doctor’s orders — it can sometimes feel isolating. But we should take some comfort in the fact that we are, in fact, not alone. At least, not in nature.
Joining the ranks of our friendly Russian drunk chimpanzee Rostov (who was recently sent to rehab to break his boozing and smoking ways) are our favorite little pollinators: Bees! A study conducted by the University of Haifa found that bees had a preference for nectar that included trace amounts of caffeine and/or nicotine in it. When we first ran across this story, we thought, ‘of course, coffee cherry flowers would have caffeine in them’ but we were surprised to learn that nicotine and caffeine chemicals are found in the flowers of many fruits — even grapefruit (which has some of the highest concentration around)!
Scientists created synthetic nectar (which is comprised of sugars) that was neutral, had caffeine or had nicotine and then let the bees loose. They were able to then track the bees’ preference for the nectar with the caffeine or nicotine over the neutral, sugar-only nectar. The assumption is that this evolutionary development on behalf of the flowers in question was to create an addictive relationship, thus spurring the bees to visit often and spread the pollen far and wide.
So there you have it — the next time you’re ruing your addiction to caffeine, know that you are in great company.
(And, while it’s not often we wish we were a talented illustrator, this story should have been accompanied by an illustration of a greasy looking bee with a five o’clock shadow, a cup of coffee and a cigarette hanging out of its mouth. If you are a talented illustrator, there’s a free bag of Velton’s Bonsai Blend in it for you if you can draft something and send it our way.)
Edwin Martinez is not only the US representative of the Hario products, he’s also a third-generation coffee farmer from Guatemala. While we visited him last month, he talked to us about a coffee processing experiment that he undertook with some of his roasting customers who were looking to change the base flavor of the coffee before they got their hands on it. This video covers the experiment and talks about coffee processing in general, as well as how what is done to the coffee at the plantation effects the end flavor of what will end up in your cup.
One of our favorite discussions with Edwin Martinez of Hario USA was in regard to coffee and agriculture. He is a third generation coffee farmer in Guatemala, and also participates on an international level in several aspects of the coffee industry and community — from tasting competitions to product development. Because of this, he has a fairly unique perspective and he often sees the coffee chain from end to end.
In this video, he talked with us about roast trends in the US by region, how farmers react to different industry factors and gave us some insight into how coffee grown at different elevations have different flavors and acidity.
In the coffee world, there is a lot of conversation around sustainability — environmental, cultural, social and economic. Some specific brands of commerce and marketing (such as the Fair Trade certification or the development of direct trade relationships between larger coffee roasters and coffee plantations) have begun to flourish and really mean something to us, the consumers, at the other end of the coffee mug.
We may try to buy coffee that we know has a socially conscious providence or we may elect to do business with companies that are trying to create more equality throughout the entire coffee production cycle, from tree to cup. Another way we can contribute is to engage in microloans — giving money to an international entrepreneur through an organization such as Kiva, because $25 really can go a lot further in some parts of the world. These loans are mostly paid back to the lending organization and then you can choose to take your money back or to roll it into another microloan to help someone else.
For an example of how such a program can positively affect the coffee agriculture business, check out this great blog article on Kiva that shares the impact of its program on coffee farmers in Costa Rica.
Last November, we wrote about how the excessive rains in India were adjusting the forecast coffee exports from that country, and they have now reported a 21% decrease in exportable coffee during the 2008 – 2009 growing season. But it’s mostly about when the rains hit — they reported in June of this year that heavy summer rains will likely result in a 17% increase in coffee exports for the 2009 – 2010 growing season that begins on October 1st.
Because we’re working with an agricultural product, the flavor nuances and fluctuations created by the weather really do inform the more artistic elements of coffee overall. The ‘third wave’ of the espresso industry (which Eric from Seattle Espresso Machine Co. and Sam of Equal Exchange talk about in this video) was largely brought about by the ability to source very specific beans from estates around the world. Instead of buying huge blended batches of beans from an exporter, roasters started to go to the plantations themselves and trying different coffee beans, charting how they changed over time — sometimes the plantations produced an amazing coffee, other times they would maybe be just good or not-so-great.
Obviously, the specific plants and the altitude/growing style, as well as how the coffee is processed, will inform the flavor, but a big unknown every year is how the weather impacts the growing cycle. Similarly to how wine vintages are known for having a particularly good weather year, imbuing the grapes with the perfect balance of sugar and acids to make a great bottle of wine, the coffee cherries themselves produce different flavors every year depending on how the weather was in a particular region. This is why a blend you loved a few years ago may have changed in flavor over time — and why there is often a little bit more art than science involved with making really great espresso.
The Fair Trade/Direct Trade movements over the past few decades have helped bring about the opportunity to appreciate coffee on this very micro level, but while they have done a lot to contribute to the sustainable and cultural development of farming communities around the world, this excellent article by The Guardian outlines how contending with global climate change will require a more comprehensive, orchestrated approach. Last year, the rains hit India at the wrong time — a long drought resulted in intense flooding once the rains finally came — and this year they arrived at just the right time. That’s not always going to be the case; in fact, the global climate change projections indicate that this bust-then-boom weather is likely to increase.
Given that coffee is the top tropical commodity in the world, and given that most of the farmers who grow it already spend a few months of year in poverty — despite Fair Trade/Direct Trade/sustainable movements — this is not a pretty picture on the horizon.
A recent report released by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) indicates that climate change may cause an increase in the pest known as the coffee berry borer. ICIPE studied plantations in Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, discovering that the projected increase in global temperature would make sub-tropical regions more susceptible to one of the most devastating pests to coffee crops.
The solution? Revert to cultivating the plants as an understory crop beneath taller forest trees. This was the traditional method for growing the plants, and is how coffee plants are often found in the wild– the forest canopy not only protects them from direct temperature changes, but it also supports a host of wildlife which are predators of the coffee berry borer pest, among others.
In fact, this isn’t the first biological threat to coffee that has come as a result of moving coffee out from under the forest: Over a hundred years ago, the fungus known as coffee rust eradicated many of the coffee plantations throughout Asia, resulting in that region’s heavy adoption of alternative crops such as tea and rubber (the move in India and Sri Lanka to cultivate tea is largely responsible for its ongoing popularity in the UK). Historians have theorized that the voracious spread of this fungus was largely due to the deforestation practices that coffee plantation owners underwent in order to increase their available crop space. The fungus’ spores are easily transported on wind currents, and not having any protection to block the winds from affecting them resulted in a widespread blight.
ICIPE is recommending that coffee farmers transition to the traditional shade-grown method to limit the impact this pest has on their crops as the global climate changes. Growing coffee in this manner, however, decreases the available crop yield and so can result in more expensive products down the line. Whether or not larger plantations begin to adopt these practices before nature forces their hand remains to be seen.
Social Entrepreneurship is the new Dot Com and you can find a great selection of new start-ups that are focused on balancing capital growth with giving back to whichever cause they happen to believe in. Enter Kate Schneider, founder of Buena Beans, a Massachusetts-based coffee importer and roaster with a business plan devised very specifically to help a cause close to her heart. Schneider spent a year teaching in the small town of La Violeta, Costa Rica, through Harvard’s World Teach program and decided that she wanted to give back to that area by assisting them with their primary agricultural export: Coffee.
The idea was inspired by the fact that thirteen families in the area were looking for distribution after they had a negative experience with a coffee cooperative. Schneider decided to get into the direct trade business and is now selling both green and roasted beans under the Buena Beans label. The company then donates 50% of the profits from each sale directly to the school in La Violeta, which serves about 40 children from the village. You can read more about the Buena Beans story in this excellent profile written about them for The Herald News, or you can contribute to her business by checking out the website.
Economic equality between genders is still quite disparate around the world, and the coffee cultivation industry is no different. In many places, women cannot even own the land they work and if their father or husband dies, the ownership reverts to the state or another male relative, regardless of who is inhabiting and working the land. There are many organizations that are working around the world to change this, because one of the major contributors to cyclical poverty is if a country does not support the personal ownership of land and property. Of course, the reasons for a state to not promote this kind of empowerment are varied and complex — and often can be attributed to long-held cultural beliefs around class and status. Since women are often considered a lower class in many parts of the world, they don’t have a lot of rights around changing laws and systems in order to improve their circumstances.
One project in the coffee industry that is taking on this issue is Cafe Femenino, a consortium of female coffee cultivators that seeks to secure land rights and financial security for its members. What began as a group effort by Peruvian coffee farmers in 2004 has grown into an international organization, which is supported, in part, by the Vancouver, WA, based Organic Products Trading Co. OPTCO is the sole importer of the coffee grown by member farmers and resells to many roasters and retailers around the US.
Learn more about Cafe Femenino, the evolution of the project, where you can purchase this coffee in order to support its growth and Organic Product Trading Co.’s history by visiting the project’s website.