This issue we are thrilled to welcome Simrit Malhi, who we interviewed in Issue 1 as a resident columnist at LOVER. Our self proclaimed Aunty Planty, this issue she's 'here to ruin your morning kaapi' telling you about everything you didn’t know you didn’t know about coffee plus recommendations for where to get a kinder cup.
A fruiting coffee shrub is a sight to behold. They drip with luscious burgundy berries against the foliage of dark green, shiny leaves that look like they are the ones to be harvested. In summer, their pretty little white flowers fill up the branches like snow. (They make great houseplants!)
It’s a sexy little plant, no doubt. Well travelled too; there are very few countries in the world where it isn’t part of the morning ritual. But in utter cultural appropriation, it’s become somehow, European. Hipster flat whites, Parisian espressos.
So how did a plant that is indigenous to Ethiopia; only capable of growing in a very specific sub-tropical climate (that also happens to be a belt of the poorest countries in the world), somehow end up becoming what people think is… Italian?
Ethiopian tribes had long known of its extraordinary powers, though the earliest substantiated evidence come from the 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. It was a closely guarded secret in East Africa-Arabia, with only boiled or sterilized beans being allowed to leave the region. Nonetheless, coffee was first smuggled out of Mecca by Baba Budan, an Indian traveller, who fastened fertile beans to a strap across his stomach. He brought them to Chikmagalur, where it has flourished ever since. Meanwhile, the Great Ottoman Empire in Turkey was where coffee was first roasted, finely ground and slowly cooked with water. This is how the Europeans got their first taste, a century later, from visiting Venetian merchants. From Venice it spread immediately through Europe, with the Dutch taking over its colonial reins.
That makes India’s coffee traditions as old as European ones.
So, how come there’s no one drinking single estate, south Indian, filter coffee anywhere else in the world?
If I stick with my conspiracy-theorist, anarchist roots, I would say it was very fishy that it was coincidently forbidden by conservative, orthodox imams in Mecca; as well as being banned by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church around the same time as European countries were busy colonizing others, solely as land to grow coffee in.
But, that’s not what I’m saying.
I’m saying Dutch botanists had a really keen eye for where coffee would grow and did a brilliant job spreading it around the world. They grew it in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Suriname and the Caribbean. From there it spread to Haiti (where it was responsible for the Haitian revolution), Mexico and Reunion Island. On this island stranded in the Indian Ocean, far off the west coast of Africa, the bean grew smaller and was deemed a different variety of Arabica known as var. Bourbon. It is the progeny of that Bourbon tree that is the Santos coffee of Brazil- now the largest producer of coffee in the world, holding the position for the last, oh, 150 years.
In an Ultimate Super Capitalist Colonist move – seeds from Brazil were later brought to Kenya for estate production. Kenya shares a border with Ethiopia. Yup, the country where coffee comes from. Now imagine an Indian consumer buying, say, Lavazza coffee, thinking the Italians know it best. That would be an Ultra Brainwashed with Marketing move on his part, since Lavazza’s beans come from South America – where coffee on the whole is of a far more inferior quality than India’s, because of its mass supply chains. Which means it’s been sprayed with fertilizers, rainforests have been razed to grow it and very, very little of that money goes to the farmer.
And so we come to the glaring issue of coffee and its economics. Second only to oil, coffee is the most valuable legally traded commodity in the world. It is estimated that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day worldwide. For some reason, the poorest countries in the world (Guatemala, Ethiopia, Peru and Honduras are some of the top producers of coffee) are growing it, while it’s the richest who are drinking it (the top five coffee consumers are all European countries), at prices that get more absurd everyday.
How is the money not reaching the ones that work hardest for that morning cup?
It is important to remember that the coffee sold at retail is a different economic product than wholesale coffee, which is traded on the commodity exchange, as green beans. And therein lies the rub. The money ends up going to those that process it. Coffee needs to be hulled, dried, roasted and ground before you can drink it. You put a big, shiny roaster inside your café and you can charge more than double the farmer that grew the bean got for it. British charity Oxfam says the price of raw coffee exported from producer countries accounts for less than seven per cent of the eventual cost of coffee to Western consumers.
I spoke to Kishore Cariappa of the famed Cariappa Coffee in Kodaikanal (with its own café), One of the few organic, single estate, single origin coffee, it’s easily one of the best in the country. Kishore is a stickler for detail, with every bean having passed through his fingers. Because the coffee is naturally rain-fed, with no artificial irrigation – the beans all ripen at different times. This means harvesting takes place several times to ensure only ripe berries are picked. They have to be plucked before they fall and rot and have to be pulped the same day. It’s time consuming and labour intensive but the only way you can compete with large coffee companies.
His state-of-the-art roasting and processing machinery was bought to handle 200 acres of coffee. He had dreamt of starting a co-op of the farms in his village – tribal people that grew coffee organically under the shade of forest trees. He had even set up a system by which the farmers would get a monthly salary instead of the once a year bumper price that comes with the crop.
But all the farmers in his village had already given their coffee out on 5-10 year contracts to a clan of local coffee buyers. An old money-lender/coffee buyer clan, if you will. “Educated farmers keep track of the prices in London and know what price to demand. But the average farmer doesn’t. They are not exposed to the internet and their holdings are too small for export. Add to that, they get an income only once a year, so they borrow money from this consortium of buyers and have their coffee locked on contract. This way the international market prices don't apply to them anymore.” And the middle men make all the bucks.
Kishore decided to go ahead with growing his own coffee and quickly realized that the only way to make money being a coffee farmer was to start his own cafe. It’s no dream job, though. “Growing sustainable coffee is hard. Organic coffee is so much more labour intensive; which means expensive. You get no support from the government. There are huge subsidies for farmers who want chemicals in this country, but all an organic farmer needs is manure – which can be very expensive. Even then, you can't export because you need 20 tonnes per batch at least to fill a container. Coffee has to be fresh, even the green beans, so you have to send it in batches which is another added cost.” Like with everything else, the market is skewed towards those with the cash.
Kishore continues, “You have to remember that till ‘85 it was only the Coffee Board of India who certified and bought coffee from farmers, for the government. Coffee used to be a closed market.” We just about got out of that and there has been a healthy boom of good coffee in the country, but even those days could be marked. “Now, Starbucks, one of the largest coffee retailers in the world has partnered with TATA, one of the largest coffee growers in the country. It is wholly possible that they could start dictating the prices in India.” he warns.
Organic coffee is mostly always shade grown because of the large amounts of pesticide and fertilizers required to grow coffee under the sun. South America, and Brazil in particular, got screwed by the Green Revolution (which was more like the Chemical Revolution – see Punjab for more examples) started by the US Agency for International Development which gave eighty million dollars to plantations in Latin America to basically switch to chemical, ‘technology’ based farming – meaning sun-grown coffee. These large-scale, high-tech coffee estates, which were razed rainforests to begin with, became so completely stripped of nutrients that in many areas of Brazil, the land can no longer be used for agriculture. Makes sense since sun-grown coffee is the third most heavily sprayed crop in the world.
Let me spell it out - the perfect cup of coffee would be organically grown under natural forest trees on a small holding of land by a farmer who is part of a co-op that processes its own coffee before selling it.
Nothing’s perfect but Black Baza comes very, very close.
Black Baza Coffee was started by Arshiya Bose, who did her PhD in coffee (!!) before setting it up. Named after a bird that is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, Arshiya and her team do rigorous tests and have even set up camera traps on their farms to evaluate just how healthy they are. It goes without saying that the coffee is organic but even the tree cover under which the coffee is grown has to be 80% natural forest trees. Spiders are the pest-control and butterflies, the pollinators.
Their next step is to set up a certification for coffee that actually works. It would be a first, and much needed. While certified-organic coffee is sold at a premium, the lower yields mean that farmers do not always profit in a meaningful way from obtaining the certification, so most forgo it completely. Fair Trade is pretty good because the middlemen in coffee are so notorious. Coffee importers provide credit to certified farmers to help them stay out of debt with coffee buyers. But, the certification itself is expensive and there are several brands that practice fair trade without the certification.
Then there’s Rainforest Alliance, which is basically a scam, probably created by the large conglomerates that use it (Kraft and Nestlé). Organic cultivation isn’t strictly required and its standards are so low, they are basically meaningless.
I, personally, like direct trade, where coffee roasters directly purchase from farmers. There’s no set standard, and there are no certifications but roasters directly negotiate prices with the farmer; who typically earn a higher premium for their product. I would say Blue Tokai does it best in the country.
We are blessed to be growing some of the finest coffee in the world, and there are now plenty of brands that do it well. Keep it local, nourish our coffee traditions and support those that are making a difference.
Simrit Malhi is a permaculturist living on her organic farm in Kodaikanal. She likes hanging out at the intersection between design and the natural world. Follow her at maaliwalli.tumblr.com
Subscribe to LOVER before 5th July and receive a pack of Black Baza Coffee on us.
*Image: Black Baza Coffee in a No-Mad kulhar.