Whatever you call it: café, coffee, espresso, café latte, or just a ‘cup of joe,’ coffee has been drunk for centuries and varies depending on the species of coffee plant the bean comes from – a misnomer for seed (arabica, robusta, etc.) – and the type of roast (Italian, French, American, etc.). It was discovered originally in Ethiopia, spread through Arabia into Turkey and eventually to the thriving trade port in Venice.
Today coffee drinks are big business and, for better or worse, a cup of coffee has become part of the uniform of the American worker (and an eco-disaster). Noted as one of the world’s largest, most valuable, legally traded commodities after oil, coffee has become a vital cash crop for many Third World countries. Brazil is the world leader in production of green coffee, followed by Vietnam and Colombia. Of course with all this demand comes big ecological impacts as well. A major issue concerning coffee is its use of water. According to New Scientist, it takes about 140 liters of water to grow the coffee beans needed to produce one cup of coffee and coffee is often grown in countries where there is a water shortage.
The concept of fair trade labeling, which guarantees coffee growers a negotiated pre-harvest price, began in Europe in the ’60s. Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall below the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives.
The production and consumption of “Fair Trade Coffee” has grown in recent years as some local and national coffee chains have started to offer fair trade alternatives. Starbucks, one of the largest buyers of Fair Trade Certified coffee, will double its purchases to 40 million pounds in 2009, making the company the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee in the world. A number of studies have shown that fair trade coffee has a positive impact on the communities that grow it by strengthening producer organizations, improving returns to small producers, and positively affecting their quality of life. The families of fair trade producers were also more stable than those who were not involved in fair trade, and their children had better access to education.
I used to never drink the stuff; all through high school, university, and through my twenties – not a drop. After the Starbucks craze (and, in case you don’t live in the US, there are also many independent cafes and coffee bars in the US) I was sucked in just a little and would maybe treat myself to a few coffees each month. And since I wasn’t a true coffee drinker, these were, of course, the frou frou coffee ‘concoctions’ of Starbucks – like a mocha (espresso with a shot of chocolate syrup… for me minus the whipped cream).
Now as I’ve traveled around the world and through Europe, my coffee and thus caffeine intake has dramatically increased – for a few reasons. First, when you are walking around towns and cities for months… you simply need something to do when you ‘take a break.’ And, of course, there are all these inviting cafes lining the streets beckoning you in with happy patrons laughing while they sip a cappuccino. So it was nice for me to join in. Plus if I sat down and ate something every time I wanted to take a break, I’d be as big as a house.
Next, I did actually start to appreciate the taste and differences of coffees around the world. From the surprising, yet good, café culture in Melbourne, Australia (where I worked as a barista) and the chains of Asia to the less-than-stellar instant coffee commonly served up in Eastern Europe and the pleasing café au lait of France and rich espressos in Italy. In fact, the more coffee I drink, the less milk I add. I’ve gone from a crazy Starbucks caramel macchiato (not the real macchiato—an espresso ‘stained’ with a drop of milk) to a simple, yet robust, real Italian espresso (in 3 sips you’re done). I used to never order an espresso thinking it was too strong and dark for me, but I have to tell you, these are delicious.
The one coffee I just could not force myself to like is Turkish. For me, it’s just too strong. The grounds are left in the cup which makes for a bit of a sludgy beverage. But the after show is nice… having someone read your fortune in the bottom of your cup. Maybe mine would say, ‘you are drinking too much coffee.’ Well, probably not since the fortuneteller probably gets kick backs from the establishment.