Serious Shit

RIP Coffee Kids or not the holiday greeting I hope for


Long Beach Parking Lot, 2007

I was standing in a hotel lobby gift shop surrounded by California trinkets. Printed towels, souvenir spoons with lighthouses, stuffed toy dolphins and other crap. I saw a middle-aged guy, soft around the middle with an SCAA* bag slung on his shoulder,  looking at a snow globe.

“Have a good show?” I asked.

It was the last day of the world’s largest specialty coffee conference in 2007. I was working with Coffee Kids, an NGO dedicated to helping coffee-farming families improve their quality of life.

“Yup, it went well, yours?” he asked.

We talked a bit about our work, the average trade show ‘what do you have that I might need’ banter.

We work in coffee communities, I said, supporting projects in education, food sovereignty, health care, economic diversification – whatever was the priority for the community. Our funding comes from coffee companies or others in the industry and supported a wide variety of projects.

“Hmmm… well that doesn’t sound like a good idea, sounds like you’re training farmers to get out of coffee,” he challenged. “Now why would I ever want to support something like that, something that could drive my prices up?”

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beefjerky, Serious Shit

Sticks and Stones (and Marketing Hyperbole and Such)

Did you know your coffee may have twigs, stones or even ground up ducklings? It’s true and it’s horrifying. This means that those dodgy, crafty coffee farmers are up to their old tricks again! Trying to cheat you, the hard-working consumer, out of your hard earned cash and get  you to drink extra filler swill at the same time – just like the kid wiping boogers on your burger at Hardees.

You may have seen some of the headlines over the weekend:

Besides the fact that this is probably one of the first times you’ll see Fox News and running the same angle on a story – the stories are depressingly misleading. What sounds like a major problem is just a sales pitch for the American Chemical Society who figured out a tricky way to determine what’s in your coffee besides coffee (other than milk, hazelnut flavors, bucket of sugar, etc.).

But rather than just pitch it to the coffee industry that would be interested in using this new tool, they decided to go full guns blazing and sound the alarm! Greedy coffee farmers are dumping whatever they can get their hands on into your morning cup so they can rake in the big bucks. Dear God in heaven, help us if we can’t get one by those conniving small-scale farmers! They even came up with a crappy info graphic (which shows absolutely no scope of the alleged problem).

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beefjerky, duh, Serious Shit

Insult to injury in the world of coffee

Google result when you search ‘Worst coffee website ever’

Don’t mind this link. It’s just the worst website ever on some crappy news site, but the headline ‘Coffee prices fall after bumper crop‘ caught my attention.

So back in January the whole of Central America, Peru and Colombia exploded with an infestation of leaf rust, a fungus that sweeps through coffee farms, strips trees bare, and leaves spindly zombie bushes that are shadows of their former selves. Which is bad. For you. If you’re completely dependent on coffee for income – as most farmers are in countries where coffee is grown.

But then out of nowhere Brazil comes up with a predicted bumper crop in a supposed off-season prompting the bookies setting the futures at the NY ICE to lower coffee prices further. So what you have here is a textbook case of salt being heaped into a gushing wound. While some of the finest coffees of the world come out of Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the whole gang, there’s no income if there’s nothing to sell.

And it’s cool because all sorts of people are rallying around to help coffee farmers improve things. There’s this great Roya Recovery Project, the International Coffee Organization is up to some good things, and of course Fairtrade International is putting together  funding proposals and dong trainings, and the folks at Fair Trade USA have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

Now I apologize as I will get a bit cynical here. But what is it when we’re okay with it if farmers are struggling to cover  basic costs of production and can’t even afford a full meal everyday for their families. But then if  production falls and we can’t get the special coffees we so richly desire, suddenly it’s an international crisis.

No doubt it is a crisis as this is destroying people’s only livelihood in many cases. But what if folks in these communities weren’t completely dependent on coffee? What if there was a local economy beyond the coffee monoculture, maybe this crisis wouldn’t be so bleak? Or maybe the price of coffee ought to not only cover costs, but also extra so people can invest in improving their plots and fixing things up. But with prices as they are, even if these farmers had a full harvest, that wouldn’t happen.

So this stinks.

But there’s hope and people doing cool work out there. People like Coffee Kids, Food 4 Farmers and others who have the uncanny ability to look beyond coffee and see that people need options. People who understand that the future of coffee is dependent on people having choices. So maybe you should go over there and give whatever extra you would pay for a really fancy coffee to them to do their work.

drinking, Serious Shit

A world without coffee

imagine a world without coffee

Coffee Kids is celebrating their 25th Anniversary. As part of it, they’re asking their friends, fans, donors, and accomplices to imagine a world without coffee. And it really comes down to this.

Without healthy, local economies, food security, education, and the other opportunities so many of us are used to, coffee farming families struggle year after year to make ends meet – even if they are doing Fairtrade/Direct Trade/or some variation of the sort. Coffee Kids works with coffee-farming communities to make this right.

By supporting local initiatives outside of coffee in economic diversification, health care, education, and food security, Coffee Kids and their partners help build up communities, which ultimately results in better coffee for you and a better quality of life for them.

I didn’t really drink coffee before I started working at Coffee Kids. But soon I was drawn into the whole excitement of barista championships – I’d follow the cover barista from Barista Magazine on Twitter when each new issue dropped in the mail, I started veering into thinking about the grind and water temperature, I tried to apply the even 35 lbs of pressure that Bill Fishbein said I needed to make a good espresso. I’m not close to as wonky as I should be, but I keep trying.

By the time I left Coffee Kids for Fairtrade International, I was regularly imbibing. And it was great. I continued drinking coffee daily. My lovely, ladyfriend taught me how to properly use a moka pot I found on the curb to make some delicious things. I sought out specialty roasters in my area. And so I was on my way.

Now, to take this in a different direction, as a former Catholic (I officially renounced all religion partially because of German tax laws), I still like the idea of Lent. It’s time for reflection and investigating your habits. Learning to be mindful. So this year I decided to give up caffeine.

And I’m going to try and keep up more regularly on this blog and focus on coffee and what the world would be like without it. So this one is for the gang at Coffee Kids. Go take a look, donate a few shekels to them and appreciate your morning cup. Because I won’t be able to for a while.