As we have been tracking over the past couple of years, global warming has been impacting coffee growing regions around the world — from excessive rains leading to flooding to increased temperatures minimizing the available coffee-friendly agricultural regions.
The Guardian now has another update for us: The temperatures are warming enough that they are inviting a lovely little pest, the coffee berry borer, to live in higher and higher altitudes. This little beetle wants the same thing we do — coffee, delicious coffee! — but couldn’t hang with the coffee crops all that often because they preferred a cooler clime than the beetle’s 68F degrees. Warming kicked up temps in parts of Ethiopia’s mountainous growing region to this level in around 1984 and scientists have been tracking the borer’s population expansion ever since — it’s now present in every coffee growing region except Hawaii, Nepal and Papua New Guinea.
Coffee’s commodity price has been slowly increasing as a result of environmental and economic pressures and is at its highest this year. With an estimated $500m damage sourced to the coffee berry borer crew, it will only serve to increase the cost even more.
As we wrote about in March, Nespresso’s historically proprietary capsules were slated for competition this summer — and it’s about to get real. Both Sara Lee’s L’Or capsules and the Ethical Coffee Company’s biodegradable capsules have hit the market and Nestle has begun an avid defense of their ~1700 patents on how the espresso is produced on their machines.
With lawsuits in the works and police raids of manufacturing facilities in France, it’s clear that Nestle’s Nespresso business model is designed around a lack of competition. Since we’re ardent supporters of competition and believe it to be in the best interest of the customer, it’s hard for us to empathize with Nestle’s position on this one.
As with the machines themselves, there seems to be different target markets for each of the competitive capsules being produced and that kind of diversity will only serve to increase the reach, accessibility and attractiveness of the equipment itself. If you have people concerned about the environmental impact of the capsules, they can purchase the equipment and go with Ethical Coffee Company’s capsule approach; similarly, if someone is more budget conscious and willing to take a bit of a reduction in quality, it sounds like the L’Or capsules are cheaper but maybe not quite as tasty as the original. In both cases, Nestle should see the competing products as another marketing arm that feeds into their machine sales. Obviously, their model is designed around lower cost machines that are supported economically by capsule purchases over the life of the equipment, but the biggest complaint and ‘no’ factor we see on the retail side is this lack of easily accessible capsules.
On the US front, Green Mountain and Lavazza are in final negotiations to team up and take another stab at Lavazza’s capsule-based espresso in this market, so the competition will be equipment based, as well, within the next few years. In our opinion, both pressures will result in better options for the customer at the end of the day, so we’re all for it.
Where do espresso machines and coffee makers go to die? Not in the landfill, if we can help it! At Seattle Coffee Gear, we launched a recycling program last year in an effort to keep as many fully assembled machines from landing in the trash. Many of these are pretty complex — they have circuit boards, electrical wiring and miscellaneous metals that are best kept out of our ground water supply.
Our partner in this venture is Uesugi USA, a Japanese company that (as luck would have it) have a US presence here in the Seattle-area. We pulled Henry into the mix and headed out to their facility to talk about what they do and see how they take these machines apart, break them down to their components and funnel them back into the commodity supply chain as cleanly as possible.
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.)
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 fall of 2008, we adopted a whale named Cappuccino, a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Community’s K Pod. These whales hang out in the Puget Sound during the warmer months of the year, and spend a lot of their time during the rest of the year traveling either to or fro the warmer waters off of Mexico.
Of course, we chose Cappuccino for his fetching name, but we had no idea that he was such a player! He’s rarely seen with his native K Pod when they come to town, favoring the L Pod community instead and — perhaps — its lady population.
Sightings of him lately have been few and far between and, we must admit, we were a little bit concerned that something may have happened to him. But our little renegade was actually spotted off the coast of Florence, OR, by a fisherman at the end of January — in the company of a few K Pod rowdies and, of course, some ladies from L Pod. We can’t hate the player, just the game.
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.