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Saturday, April 17, 2004


a differing view too good to be overlooked in the comments

my notes are in brackets to help people who may be new to bccy understand technical coffee terms. the links are provided by me for reference as well:

"Dear Fortune,

I have been reading with great interest your thoughts on the coffee crisis, fair trade [FT], and the various mechanisms to correct the market.

While I agree with you on many points (quality is the answer, relationships, engaging in dialogue with the big 4 [multi-national coffee roasters: sara lee, kraft, p&g, nestle], etc.), I believe that much like Dean and Equal, you too are looking at this problem with a narrowed vision.

While quality coffee will always be a great way to move prices upward, we as an industry continue to have trouble defining it. I am not suggesting that the industry can not define and detect defects, taints, faults etc., I am saying that the bulk of the industry defines quality as bright, clean, sweet and free of defects.

The industry prefers washed, fermented coffees to naturals and semi-washed (except in the case of some Africans and Indonesians) and coffees that rate as HB [hard bean] or SHB [strictly hard bean, or "strictlies," a most desirable kind]. It considers "Quality" to be high quality for the drip market.

I have been doing a lot of work with organic and biodynamic growers in Nicaragua, Colombia and Peru over the past five years. What these growers are being told is, "If you are growing coffees under 1000msm[altitude] you may as well quit and plant corn and beans to sell to the farmers on higher ground." While this advice is great for a world that consumes drip coffee, it is narrow and not accurate.

If you were a 3rd generation coffee farmer who happens to live at 800msm [altitude], should you be denied technical assistance or quit growing coffee and search out a new vocation? Just because Mr. Gringo in the north is now in love with brighter coffees, you should change your whole way of existing?

We, in the north, change our preferences for wine, chocolate, coffee and bread on a whim and then ask cultures to shift their ways of creating products because we've decided to follow a new trend. On top of that, we do little if any work to find alternatives for these farmers we are abandoning. We also complain when we follow a new trend in these products and then find that their is not enough of a high quality supply channel.

There is an entire espresso culture that is developing and has the potential to erode the SHG [strictly high-grown] market. [this "anti-espresso" stance is not unknown in specialty coffee; was most recently and famously promoted as a broadside against yours truly and my pal mark prince et. al. here.] Soon we could possibly be abandoning the folks in the higher ground because their coffees are far too bright for espresso blends and seek out who ever is left in the lower ground and ask them to start natural processing, semi-washing or aging their coffees so we can make rich, syrupy blends that cater to our like of sweet espresso.

This is already happening on a small scale and as you know, this movement is growing rapidly. Just look in the growth in popularity with the USBC [U.S. Barista Championship], the WBC and the Barista Guild.

I have been teaching elevationally challenged farmers to look at alternative processing to create coffees not for the drip market, but for the espresso market. As this movement grows, espresso buyers will be snapping up sweet and mellow coffees and paying good prices to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

These farmers, who would normally get paid [US$0].35 cents for low grown washed coffees, could start receiving [US$]1.00 and up for the same coffees processed for espresso. This would not only triple their income, but it would drastically reduce the water pollution created from washing coffee.

How about purity laws -- if that would be passed, it could not only remove 500 million bags from the market, but it could instantly rebound the market. Studies show that this rebound could be as much as [US$0].20 cents. This would literally force the big 4 to buy higher quality -- much more pure coffee.

How about stimulating the coffee markets in coffee producing countries. Hardly anyone drinks coffee in Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, etc. This is similar to no one drinking wine in Sonoma and Napa (my hometown). If just Colombia would embrace coffee drinking as a cultural pursuit, the market could rebound as much as [US$0].15 cents.

The big 4 will go where the market is. As long as the public has a thirst for cheap coffee, those companies will continue to thrive. Even though I have been roasting 100% certified-organic specialty coffee for over 12 years and believe in organic and biodynamic agriculture, I realize that it is a niche and it will never be the norm.

The U.S. market is in love with: fast, cheap, fatty and sweet. The market does not live on Alicante Buochet wine, Humboldt Fog cheese, single origin dark chocolate and heirloom organic produce.

Why is FT having problems? Partly because their whole concept has holes in it, enough so that both small and large roaster have issues with it. FT will never save the world because by its design it can't. While 70% of my organic coffee is also FT certified, I know that it is doing little if nothing to correct this crisis.

Just some of my thoughts. I love your site and look forward to your future posts.


Mark Inman, President
Taylor Maid Farms, LLC

P.S. While I do appreciate your insistence on high-quality coffee, I also feel that it is important that the coffee is grown in a way that is environmentally responsible --- organically if possible.

I have cupped a lot of coffees that many would consider to be incredible coming from farms that are eco disasters. Coffee buyers have a responsibility to ensure that they are not contributing the the continued environmental and ecological destruction of developing nations."

posted by fortune elkins | 8:04 AM | top | link to this |


Friday, April 16, 2004


latte art, squared

while latte art -- the hearts, tulips, rosettas, apples and the like drawn with microfoam in your cappuccino by a trained barista -- doesn't guarantee that the coffee's great, it does show that the coffeehouse in question cares about espresso cuisine.

it shows that the baristi takes themselves and their jobs seriously. thus today i was thrilled to read about an australian barista who's moved the art of latte art forward.

i expect madame x any day now.

long-time readers know that i'm constantly talking about the world-price depression known as the coffee crisis, and how it's harming specialty coffee by reducing the supply of high-quality beans.

the mermaid's now worried about this too. starbucks is expanding and needs more specialty-grade coffee; but it finds that farmers, after four years of reduced prices have hurtled them to the edge of bankruptcy, often just can't afford to take proper care of the crop!

i've spoken to several independent roaster/retailers who also report that they feel a squeeze, that it's just harder to find truly spectacular coffee this year. the mermaid is lucky because it has the resources to enter into relationships with farmers -- whole countries actually.

smaller independent roaster-retailers don't always have this ability. thus the roasters ("brownies") i've spoken too are thinking about new partnerships with their importers/brokers ("greenies") to see if some new mechanisms can be devised to allow them to get more involved in the relationship concept. . .

and speaking of coffee, it's just a week now until the scaa conference in atlanta. there's still time to become a consumer member and buy a cheap plane ticket!

the consumer member track just grows better by the day -- today we discovered that we had so many people registered that we need to get more espresso grinders! thanks to todd of the wonderful wholelattelove for coming thru! i'm sure other suppliers will also chip in. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 10:07 AM | top | link to this |


Thursday, April 15, 2004


forget tax day

think chocolate! and note that when the article sez "researchers at the university of scranton in pennslyvania, " it's referring to long-time bccy pal, dr. joe "square dance" vinson!

and let's give a round of applause to papua new guinea agriculture official moses maladina. he appears to be one of the very few coffee bureaucrats on the planet that gets it: quality is the key to surviving the world-price depression known as the coffee crisis.

papua new guinea (png) coffee can be quite good (for example, see the png here and here!). try finding one from your local neighborhood indepedent roaster/retailer, coffeehouse, or bean store!

the "kimel" is pretty widely available, and i agree that if you like medium-high to high-medium brightness coffees (think brisk central americans) you will enjoy this png.

posted by fortune elkins | 10:45 AM | top | link to this |


Wednesday, April 14, 2004


regional coffee culture, part xxiv

"dating is an all-new game in the caffeine holes in india’s silicon valley as polls have overtaken passion at the tables ringed by young professionals."

what has coffee wrought? what's interesting is that throughout history, and all over the globe, it's always the same: fast cultural liberalism, and then political and market reform.

from the times of the ottoman empire, to the enlightenment, to the american revolution (which basically started in boston's green dragon coffeehouse) -- it all begins and foments in the coffeehouses.

the next thing you know, people are creating free markets, à la merchant's and tontine's coffeehouses (known nowadays as the new york stock exchange) and lloyd's coffeehouse (now known as lloyds of london)!

and today here in bangalore we see the same thing. not only is dating still somewhat unusual in india, where in middle-class families arranged marriages remain common, but open talk of electoral reform is also somewhat unusual still, esp. between men and women.

my charming co-workers from south india were a little surprised when i showed them this article. . . but then again, after a moment's thought, they said they actually shouldn't have been.

i really need to track some people down and think about the historical links between coffee drinking and human rights. java is a positive, progressive social force that enlarges human potential in every culture it touches.

the question is: why? and how can we harnass that today for the benefit of the coffee farmer?

and perhaps most urgently in our contemporary world, why hasn't this potent force fully worked its magic in the middle-east?

posted by fortune elkins | 10:43 AM | top | link to this |


Tuesday, April 13, 2004


tempest in a cappuccino cup, part ii

"on friday, larry's beans of north carolina split from transfair, the company that holds the u.s. trademark for the term, 'fair trade certified.' at least three other smaller roasters -- just coffee, dean's beans, and cafe campesino -- have followed suit."

long-time readers may recall that i've mentioned the beginning of this discord before.

my response to this current news remains the same: those of us with a joint interest in specialty coffee are never going to gain ground against the so-called "big four" multi-national coffee roasters, the people responsible for the stuff in the supermarket cans, if we fight among ourselves.

the now-four-year-old coffee crisis just doesn't give us time for internecine warfare. why are otherwise well-meaning people playing right into the hands of kraft, nestle, sara lee, and p&g?

paul rice of transfair understands that to effect substantial change means the big four have to participate in fair trade in a meaningful way. that should be part of the goal: to improve the lives of farmers by ensuring they can sell all their coffee at a living wage.

no farmer can make a living off of the higher prices for the small part of any crop that qualifies as specialty-grade or that will be bought by the fair-trade market.

the false purism of dean's beans and equal exchange only undermines their supposed goal, and shows not only pointless egotism, but also -- with all due respect -- seems to show a real lack of understanding as to how the coffee business works for farmers.

look: a coffee farmer who truly cherishes his crop, if the weather etc. participates, can grow good coffee and sell maybe 30% as fair-trade at the US$1.26 a pound price. the remainder will sell for some low, commercial price, maybe US$0.58-0.68 a pound.

specialty-grade quality may fetch more. . . .but again, perhaps only 10-20% of the coffee will qualify for specialty.

since it still costs at least US$0.90-0.95 to grow a pound of coffee, even a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that farmers aren't going to be able to keep themselves out of bankruptcy, pay their workers, invest in quality improvements, and live themselves off the fair-trade or specialty-grade price for that small portion of the crop.

and if the farmers go bankrupt, they stop growing any coffee. that means we coffee-lovers will lose prized specialty origins.

thus, we need the big four onboard so that they can pay a good price for the bulk of a farmer's coffee.

they need to begin to sell commercial-quality coffee that they've purchased at a fair-trade or baseline sustainable price. . . and that's what paul rice and long-time bccy pal kimberly easson are trying to get them to do!

farmers can use the extra funds to improve the overall crop quality. that means the commercial coffee in the cans could taste better. and consumers would barely feel the price increase; certainly in return they would be getting higher-quality java!

posted by fortune elkins | 10:38 AM | top | link to this |


Monday, April 12, 2004


cappuccino jello?

for some reason -- why i cannnot fathom -- gelatin desserts have suddenly returned to fashion. maybe it's irony.

anyway, thus: coffee jello. this recipe just seems so . . . anyway, if forced to make this by your warped and twisted sense of humor, i have a few improvements to offer:

  • substitute splenda, which dissolves more easily than sugar
  • let the gelatin partially set and then fold in sweetened whipped cream flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and chocolate for a "cappuccino parfait." top with caramel sauce
  • add kahlua to the mix

with all due respect, i still don't think i could eat it. . .

and this press release describes one of the highlights of the upcoming scaa conference in atlanta: the u.s.a. barista competition! believe it or not, this is a super-exciting event to watch.

once again, i urge all coffee lovers to meet me in atlanta the weekend of april 23rd. . .there's gonna be so much fun stuff for consumers to do every day, it's amazing, if i do say so myself.

and as a long-time, notorious supporter of slow food, i was pleased as punch to see this article. devoted bccy readers know this blog is all about the benefits of cooking at home as well as enjoying the unexpected relationships that come from a new orientation towards food. . .

posted by fortune elkins | 9:58 AM | top | link to this |


Sunday, April 11, 2004


regional coffee culture, part xxiii

"the younger generation are coffee drinkers and they have exceeded the tea-drinking people now."

what country is this? if you guessed taiwan, you're correct.

what's also fascinating about this article is the descripition of new coffee farming: farmers devoted to environmental and quality standards.

if they are truly growing at 1,200 meters (more than 3,600 ft.) altitude, the coffee could be good, it seems to me. i don't know if it would qualify as "strictlies" or shb (strictly hard bean) type coffee, but it seems as if there's potential there. . .

and with that in mind, it's just 2 weeks to the scaa conference in atlanta, april 24-26. coffee lovers, there's still room for you to register for the weekend and come.

i've spent months -- literally -- planning great stuff for consumers: hands-on workshops in espresso making, drip brewing, and home coffee roasting; tours of the exhibit floor; a formal zen coffee meditation; presentations by coffee authors like ken davids; a panel on environmental issues; at least 2 social events; and so much, much more.

i hope to see ya all there!

posted by fortune elkins | 10:23 AM | top | link to this |

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