Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle? | Science | Smithsonian
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Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle?

Persuaded that guilt alone won't get Americans to pay more for environmentally friendly coffee, importers are trying a market approach by giving farmers the tools to grow better beans

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Early on an arid afternoon, in a building high in the hills of Nicaragua’s Las Segovias province, four North American men sit around a small table sipping freshly roasted coffee from spoons. Sipping is actually too gentle a word: it’s more like a loud slurping, interrupted by kibitzing.

“I got a Baby Ruth vibe from that one,” says Peter Giuliano, his dark eyes shining behind thickrimmed black glasses. “There was a lot of a real caramel, nutty taste that turned me on, though on balance it was too forward.” Giuliano’s title is master roaster and green coffee buyer for Counter Culture Coffee, in Durham, North Carolina.

Across the table, the tall and bearded Geoff Watts, director of coffee for Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters, shakes his head. “I thought it was leathery—in a dry, leathery way,” he says.

The four coffee buyers scribble on pads of paper, rating such things as acidity, balance, appearance, aroma and aftertaste of brews from five regional farms. Hovering over them is Paul Katzeff, who organized this weeklong tasting tour of Nicaraguan farmers’ coffee cooperatives. The 66-year-old CEO of Thanksgiving Coffee, in Fort Bragg, California, wears the proudly anxious air of a man at his daughter’s wedding.

There’s a lot on the line at this tasting at PRODECOOP, Nicaragua’s largest coffee cooperative. Katzeff believes that good coffee, sweetened with social justice, has the power to change the world, offering dignity to the downtrodden and protecting the forests that provide their income. He has invested much of the past 17 years in caffeinated nation-building in these rolling northern hills. And he’s certain he’s seeing the fruits of his labors this very minute, as the North Americans spit their spoonfuls into nearby cans, asking questions of Eduardo Videla, a stocky, smiling farmers’ representative who pours fresh cups and eagerly writes down their concerns. “If this group is happy, it will mean a lot,” Videla whispers.

The fragrant sacks of beans that have produced these roasted samples have been trucked to the “cupping lab,” a tiny roasting kitchen and café, by farmers who often don’t drink their own coffee, let alone describe it or consider comparisons with Baby Ruth candy bars. Teaching them the mysteries of marketing is the idea behind the lab, a simple tool designed by Katzeff to improve quality control, nurture relationships between farmers and buyers, and, oh yes, save the forest. “We’re bringing parts of the trade chain closer together,” he says, nodding toward Videla, who is in earnest conversation with the visiting buyers. “The sound you hear is the sound of walls falling.”

The goals of a better cup of joe, social justice and a healthier environment are nowhere more tightly entwined these days than in this small Central American nation, with its turbulent history of hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, revolution and U.S. intervention. The coffee buyers on this trip say that Nicaragua has recently become the “hot origin” for gourmet coffee, with its beans winning taste awards and its decent wages for many small farmers a hopeful beacon for a global coffee market under siege. “Nicaragua is where you see the future of socially responsible coffee,” says Katzeff.

A coffee crisis began in 1999, when new production in places like Brazil and Vietnam, among other things, caused a surplus—the international aid agency Oxfam estimates that more than five billion pounds of coffee go to waste each year—that quickly pushed prices in some parts of the world below production costs. Between 1999 and 2002, the price of coffee was halved in a race to the bottom that has trampled many of the world’s 25 million small coffee farmers, throwing millions out of work and off their land and leaving families impoverished and malnourished. And as farmers have despaired, the quality of coffee has suffered.

But what does gourmet coffee have to do with rescuing the forest, or the families who tend it? It’s all about shade: today’s crisis stems mostly from an overflow of cheap, sun-loving, easy-to-grow robusta beans from chemically fertilized plantations in Brazil and Vietnam. The best-quality coffee, most traders agree, comes from delicate, sun-intolerant Arabica plants, which tend to be grown on small farms. Here in Nicaragua, arabica is grown in rain forests more than 3,000 feet above sea level, sheltered by orange, mango, mahogany, rosewood and inga trees. The rich soil nurtures the coffee plants, while the forest canopy shelters both the berries and a host of bats and birds.

Over the past decade, U.S. and European coffee traders have worked to give the farmers here and in forests like these around the world access to better-paying “specialty coffee” niche markets. Convincing consumers to pay more for quality coffee gives farmers an incentive to farm in a way that preserves the forest—vital at a time when the planet is losing, according to United Nations estimates, some 30 million acres of tropical forest each year.

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