While sitting at your favourite terrace, reading your favourite magazine on a sofa, or while commuting, enjoying a good cup of coffee is a landmark activity, a part of your daily routine, a moment for yourself. But while brewing the roasted beans, have you ever wondered where they came from? Who spent time and energy so you can enjoy it so easily in your everyday life?
As a former IT technician for an international coffee trading and processing company, I travelled to Asia and Africa several times and had the chance to visit coffee warehouses and processing plants. Any spare time I had would be spent visiting warehouses with my camera and getting to know the workers. I learned a lot about planting, harvesting, sorting, exporting and trading coffee but above all, I met humble and passionate people. Even though we did not speak the same language and came from very different milieux, they made me feel welcome. I learned how to taste and love coffee, to recognise a good or a bad batch. Since then, coffee brewing had become embedded in my daily routine. When you’re passionate about coffee, preparing a good cup is as interesting as savouring it.
I remember a trip to Kenya, the one that really got me into appreciating coffee for the beans’ history and the people who made it possible, as much as for its taste. Right after landing at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport, my driver and friend picked me up and took me to a small village called Thika, 50km northeast of Nairobi. Our office there was a house lost among coffee trees. As a storm was coming, clouds were too thick to allow any satellite Internet signal and a local coffee taster offered to teach me how to cup coffee to kill time. I watched (and helped as much as I could) him roasting and grinding coffee beans, pouring water into small bowls and then tasting them with a special spoon while making strange noises; to smell coffee’s sweetness, acidity and flavour, you need to deeply sniff and loudly slurp it so it spreads to the back of your tongue. It’s not really glamourous, but it’s the best way to get its taste and aftertaste.
A few days later, after I finished my work, the local staff took me to a coffee and cocoa plantation owned by a family of farmers who was living a very simple life in their farm. They took me to visit their plantations, explaining to me – in basic but understandable English – the phases of planting and harvesting coffee. I was very moved listening about their daily life and how dedicated and passionate they were in their job. They even told me even though they produced tonnes of cocoa beans each year, they had never tasted chocolate as they lived too far away from any grocery shop, plus they did not have enough money to buy chocolate. I promised myself to bring them some the next time I return. This is the kind of experience that makes you feel humbler, appreciate what you have and stop complaining about issues that suddenly seem quite derisory.
Coffee beans are made of the seeds in coffee cherries, a fruit that becomes red when it’s ready to be harvested. The first step after harvesting is to remove the pulp and skin from the beans. Depending on the local water resources, it may be done using the dry or wet method, but both eventually deliver dry, raw, parchment skin-free beans. The beans then go through a series of processes to sort them by quality and remove defective beans. They are usually rated by size, colour, shape and density. Once coffee beans are milled – they are called“green coffee” at this stage – they are ready to be loaded into 60kg-bags, containers and boats, to be shipped all over the world, to be roasted and sold by your favorite corner coffee shop. In 2015, the world coffee production was forecasted at 152 million bags.
In Nairobi, Kenya, coffee is still auctioned. Prior to weekly auctions, “green coffee” samples are sent to licensed exporters – around 50 of them – which then inform their agents to bid on their preferred lots in the auction room. With this transparent process, the best coffee is sold at higher prices as the demand is bigger.
Every day, millions of people drink coffee several times a day and I thought it would be good to pay tribute to people at every level – from farmers to baristas – who make this possible, with passion and dedication. Think about them the next time you enjoy a cup of your favourite blend and your coffee will be even tastier.