As a coffee professional, one of the most consistent yet unspoken challenges is finding my way in navigating the tension between allowing coffee to remain simple and ubiquitous and peeling back the curtain to reveal the complexities and difficulties related to giving every coffee drinker his or her daily fix. At times, I revel in the simple innocence of the relatively anonymous cup I sip from: Not thinking about the farmer who grew the coffee, nor the wet mill where it sat, nor the roast profile the roaster employed in order to allow the acidity and sweetness of that particular varietal to really shine through is very freeing. At others, it's very easy for me to ponder over and try to analyze the micro-climates a particular producer may have at a particular farm, and the differences those micro-climates may or may not have upon that farm's coffees grown at, say, 1500 meters versus 1700 meters above sea level, and, assuming all other variables being equal, even though there's really no way to isolate everything because coffee isn't grown in a vacuum, how just those differences affected the roasting done for those different coffees, and how I would approach that differently with a recirculator versus a single-pass drum roaster, and how a higher mineral content in the brewing water might bring out a flat, dull tone to the coffee, and... and... and... and...
And yet, if I do my job correctly, most of you will never have to think about those complexities -- nor should you have to, because that's why I'm here.
Just last week, I traveled to Costa Rica to source coffee for Greenway Coffee. At the end of February, David and I had traveled to Guatemala to do the same. Both of those experiences gave me a renewed sense of respect for the work done not just at the farm level, but also for every step along the supply chain before coffee arrives in the Greenway Coffee roastery here in Houston. I was already quite aware that the logistics alone can be painfully overwhelming, but to see firsthand the difficulties involved in taking coffee to market was unforgettable.
The differences in logistics for those two countries is quite apparent, and in talking to the folks exporting coffee down there, it seems many of those differences have to do with economics and geography, to oversimplify for a moment. In Guatemala, the coffee growing areas are relatively spread out; driving from Antigua to Cobán, for instance, could easily take five hours or more depending on traffic, which will sometimes grind to a halt because there are no other roads available between the very spread-out towns. On the other hand, the Costa Rican farms are much less spread out, being relatively concentrated in such a way that the longest drives we had were maybe an hour or two at the most, also depending on traffic. In fact, about half the coffee produced in all of Costa Rica is grown in the Tarrazú region, an area covering little more than a hundred square miles. The Costa Rican economy is such that coffee is being produced less and less, because more lucrative options are available. This actually translates into fewer delays in processing coffee during the peak of the harvest, since less coffee has to go through the very critical wet milling stage after being picked. In Guatemala, coffee is still a prevalent portion of the economy, even though there are many current agricultural issues negatively influencing production.
Even without looking any further than the general logistical differences, it's fairly easy to understand that traveling to these two coffee producing countries and riding on roads gave me a much greater appreciation for the efforts taken to get coffee to me in Houston. Also, hearing about the local economies and respective challenges and theories in coffee production has had me thinking and re-thinking many of my assumptions regarding what goes on at coffee origins, so to speak.
Coffee is a remarkable beverage, complex in so many ways, but at the end of the day, I hope you do what you should be doing with it -- simply drink and enjoy, bringing it to the end of its journey.