Coffee is more than a drink. For many of us — OK, for me — it’s woven into the fabric of every day.
It also connects us to far corners of the globe.
For instance, every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of Counter Culture Coffee, a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, N.C., and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.
On any random day, that truck could bring “10 bags from a farm in El Salvador; 20 bags from a cooperative in Burundi; two bags of a special coffee from Guatemala,” says Kim Elena Ionescu, one of the coffee buyers for Counter Culture Coffee. She travels the world, visiting coffee farms and deciding which beans the company will buy.
The best coffee, she says, comes from high altitudes, but you cannot grow it in places that freeze, “so you need that mixture of high altitude and warm climate, which makes the tropics the place to grow it.”
All across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, people grow coffee.
In many tropical countries, especially poor ones, it’s a pillar of the economy; exports of green coffee beans, globally, are worth $15 billion a year.
Some of these farms, Ionescu says, are idyllic places, high in the mountains. Taller trees often shade the coffee bushes. Such scenes “hearken a little bit to coffee’s homeland, which is Ethiopia,” Ionescu says. “Southwestern Ethiopia is really lush, it’s got amazingly high altitudes, it’s green, misty.”
But honestly, even though there are millions of small, idyllic coffee farms, they aren’t producing the majority of the world’s coffee.
Most coffee isn’t specialty coffee. It’s just coffee: Big cans of it, or instant coffee.
Forty percent of all coffee comes from Brazil, and the typical coffee farm in Brazil looks more like a corn farm in Iowa, Ionescu says — “coffee plants as far a the eye can see, unbroken by any kind of tree.”
When it’s time for harvest in Brazil, big machines roll through and strip off the cherry-like coffee fruit, with its valuable bean inside.
The second-biggest producer in the world is a surprise for many people: Vietnam. “Not a lot of people, especially in specialty coffee, talk about Vietnam,” says Ionescu.
Vietnamese farmers grow a species of coffee tree called Robusta. (The scientific name is Coffea canephora.) It grows fast and produces a big crop, but the bean has a bitter taste. It’s often used in blends, especially in Europe. But high-end coffee producers like Counter Culture avoid it. They stick to another species — arabica.
This is one big divide in the coffee business. On one side is “commodity” coffee; on the other, small companies like Counter Culture Coffee, or even big ones like Starbucks, or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which sell coffee that’s been more carefully harvested and graded. These companies market coffee almost like wine, labeling where it came from and how it tastes.
At Green Mountain’s headquarters in Waterbury, Vt., tasters suck in mouthfuls of fresh brew, pause to reflect, then give each sample a score and talk about what they’re super-sensitive taste buds picked up. “Chocolate, melon, lime, subtle peach,” says one taster.
Specialty coffee like this accounts for only a small part — probably 10 or 15 percent — of the global coffee market.
Sometimes, these two sides of the coffee business seem to live in different worlds. But Counter Culture Coffee’s Ionescu says they sometimes come together in surprising ways.
“You know, what’s interesting to me is the large proportion of coffee growers who drink instant coffee, even on some of these idyllic hillsides in Central America,” she says.
Instead of drinking their own top-quality coffee, they export it to people who can pay more for it, such as Europeans or Americans.
Lindsey Bolger, director of coffee for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, says if you measure the amount of coffee consumed per coffee drinker, the world champions live in Nordic countries. “Depending on which country, they’re up to eight cups of coffee per person, per day. In the U.S., we’re at maybe 2 or 2.5 cups of coffee per day,” she says.
Americans actually used to drink a lot more coffee. Per person, we drank almost twice as much during World War II.
People used to divide the coffee world neatly into producers, like Brazil, and consuming countries in Western Europe and North America.
Bolger says those clear lines are getting blurred. Brazil could soon overtake the United States to become the world’s single biggest coffee-consuming country, she says, and “we’re seeing significant growth in consumption in regions like Southeast Asia, South Korea, Eastern Europe, India, and the Gulf nations.”
The coffee experience, it seems, is more global than ever.