advice from a fake consultant

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Monday, October 29, 2007

On Coffee Addiction, Or, Smarter Foreign Policy, One Cup At A Time

We did not mean to write a story about economics, or foreign aid, or National Security when writing began today. We meant instead to write a story about unusual and rare coffees and the odd fixations of those who spend many months a year under gray skies.

As it turns out, all of those themes intertwine-which is why in today’s conversation we’re going to talk about Rwanda, the United States Agency for International Development, alternative methods of diplomacy and their potential effect on the Nation’s future...and the difference between “washed” and “natural” coffee.

And as I am wont to do on many a morning, let’s start with the coffee.

There’s Folger’s (Nestle for our European and Australian friends), and then there’s Starbucks, and then there are coffee companies who are even more upscale...who specialize in what are essentially the “single malts” of coffee-small batches of unique coffees produced from single specific source farms.

It is the desire of have this sort of fine coffee experience that brings me to the “living room” of Zoka Coffee Roasters’ Snoqualmie, Washington store early on Saturday morning for a “cupping” (tasting) of six premier coffees, led by Zoka’s Proprietor Jeff Babcock and Trish Skeie, the company's Director of Coffee.

Before we talk about specific coffees, let’s address the manner in which the coffee business works.

Traditionally, large “commodity” roasters (the national and private brand producers) purchase huge lots of coffee on the “spot” or “futures” markets and blend the purchases in an attempt to produce the same flavor over and over.

My Scot readers will recognize this process as the method by which “blended” Scotches are made (for the benefit of some of my American readers, Scots are people, Scotch isn’t). My Scot friends will also be aware that “single-malts” are made from one single batch, and are not blended.

This allows the discerning taster to enjoy unique flavors and characteristics that are not present in the blended varieties of Scotch-and those characteristics will change from year to year, even within the same distillery. The same is true with coffee: specific growing locations around the world produce unique “small batch” coffees; and there are roasters and shops on at least four continents catering to this market.

This is a crop that is grown in some of the poorer regions of the world, and there has been a movement to put more of the money in the hands of the growers; and to that end you may have seen Fair Trade Coffee advertised at your local retailer.

A more recent development has been the advent of the “Cup of Excellence” country auctions, in which the wholesale buyer community sends professional judges into the host country; and in a marathon “cupping” session the best coffees in these countries are identified and then offered for auction, with the money raised going to the farmer and the coop to which they belong.

The Cup of Excellence countries include Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Brazil, Honduras and other words, the Western Hemisphere’s big shots of coffee. That will soon change...but more on that topic later.

And there is substantial money involved.

Most retail consumers in the US are paying $5 to $12 or so per pound of coffee, but the coffees purchased in these auctions are selling-in the home country, at wholesale-as high as $47.06 per pound.

Yes, you heard correctly.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters paid $100,222 to the Las Golondrinas Estate in Mozonte, Nicaragua for 14 150 pound bags of what was judged to be the finest coffee presented for sale in the auction in Nicaragua this year.

Prices above $12 are not unusual in these auctions, and examples of wholesale prices between $12 and $19 are quite common, as the Guatemala results demonstrate.

So how does all this relate to international affairs?

These days there’s a new kid on the block-Rwanda is involved in the Golden Cup process, which is the lead-in to the Cup of Excellence program, in which they will participate next year as the first African nation to enter the process. This is the culmination of several years of work connecting the farmer to the international market, and there was a major amount of effort made overcoming the political barriers that existed between the groups on the ground before this could be accomplished.

But to really tell their story, we have one more bit of background to address.
Call it “coffee anatomy”, if you will.

Rain causes the coffee bush to flower and bud. Coffee beans are found inside that bud-or the “cherry”, as it’s called in the trade.

Some coffee producers use a process that involves soaking and mechanical means to remove the beans from the cherries before they are dried (“washed” coffee); while others allow the cherries to dry with the beans inside (“natural coffee”), after which the cherry is milled away.

Each method produces beans with different flavor “notes”, and neither is considered inherently better. In fact, Trish Skeie was telling us about a conversation she had with a grower’s group where that question came up, and her response was basically that you can process using either method, as long as you do it well.

Which brings us back to Rwanda.

For the past seven years, Tim Schilling of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been involved in a project to develop a coffee industry in Rwanda, including the recent establishment of about 150 “washing stations” throughout the country (with another 150 on the way). Each station combines soaking pools (the “bad” beans float, and are easily separated) with mechanical equipment that removes the cherries.

Rwanda has more or less 500,000 coffee farmers, each farming an average of about an acre, Jeff Babcock told us; and he had just returned from a trip to the country where he was one of the judges (and eventual buyers) of coffees at the event, including Karmonyi, the fifth highest rated of the coffees auctioned at Rwanda’s Golden Cup (and one of the coffees we “cupped”).

By the way, the washing stations perform two functions for the Rwandans: besides the obvious economic boost provided by access to improved production technology, the washing stations are available, without discrimination, to Hutu and Tutsi alike, creating a sort of local “cracker barrel” where neighbors can gather and maybe some ethnic healing can begin.

At this point, a word about “cupping”: this is a controlled tasting method that has very specific rituals. In front of the “cuppers” (us) are small bowls arranged in pairs. Each pair of bowls contains 14 grams of the same dry ground coffee. (Your barista uses 7 grams in that little cup they attach to the espresso machine when they make your espresso or cappuccino or latte.)

(Two examples of each coffee are paired to guard against the possibility that one of the bows might contain a bad bean, causing a misunderstanding of that crop’s true potential.) We are tasting six varieties of coffee, thus there are two tables, each with six pairs of labeled samples.

We then smell the samples in order from “lightest” to “heaviest” flavor-a practice familiar to wine tasters. Also familiar: we are seeking the aforementioned flavor “notes”-the hints of berry, or vanilla, or hazelnut, or any of a thousand other tastes and smells that combine to create the unique character of each coffee.

Hot water is then added to the samples. During the four minutes of steeping we again smell the offerings. I’m walking around the table, doing the old “pushing the steam to my nose” thing to try to get a more complete sense of the aromas present.

Next comes the moment that the coffee “liquor” is “cracked” (the liquid in the cups is an extraction of coffee, as is the beverage you drink. It is thus accurate to say you are not drinking a cup of coffee, but instead an extraction-a cup of coffee liquor). Cracking involves first removing the “crust“ that has formed on the surface of the liquid, then stirring the liquor-exactly four stirs-with the goal of drawing the grounds that have accumulated on the surface down into the liquor.

And now we taste.

Spoons are dipped into hot water between each taste, then into the liquor. Trish Skeie demonstrates the “sip and slurp”-in which the liquor is drawn into the mouth along with an intake of air, the better to spread the taste across the tongue. A quick swish, and then spit into the provided cups.

Repeat 11 more times, in the same order as before (“light” to “dark”, if you will), and all 12 bowls have been tasted. We will return to the samples again as the liquors cool, the better to evaluate the increase in acidity associated with the reduction in temperature.

Wine tasters would feel right at home, believe me.

Jeff Babcock tells us that his Rwanda trip involved having to perform this ritual as many as five times daily, with as many as 15 samples to be examined in each session. The coffee event was being held at the same time and place as a national soccer tournament, which was sponsored by Jeremy Torz, was who one of the Judging participants, and a co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee of London.

The farmers and their families who benefit from this project (and the communities who benefit as well) are the exact people that we need to influence in positive ways if we hope to advance American interests around the world in a successful manner; and if you ask me (which, in a way, I guess you are...) we should be creating as many Tim Schillings as we can find and sending then into the world like bees from a hive to implement Tip O’Neill’s admonition that “all politics is local”.

Jeff had a slideshow for us to see, and if I had any questions about the success of Schilling’s work, the slide showing Torz wearing the native Chief’s hat and holding the elaborately topped spear he was given as gifts suggests these folks actually appreciate what these efforts have done for their communities-and I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of 500,000 Rwandan families feel good about our country every time they go to the local washing station.

(Tip for the future: Babcock reports that the next African country to embark on this process will be Burundi.)

Finally, on to the coffees: we started with the Finca Carrizal from Costa Rica; and then a very special coffee produced at the Hacienda la Esmerelda in Panama. Jeff tells us that this crop was not sold in the usual 150 pound bags, because of its scarcity. Instead, only one dozen 50 pound bags were available worldwide, and we were tasting from the one he was able to purchase.

Next was the previously discussed Karmonyi from Rwanda (we noted a strong cherry presence in this one), and then a Sumatran coffee that I frankly found fairly ordinary. (Notice how I now assume I actually know what I’m talking about? Oh, the confidence of not enough experience...)

But the big finale was the two Ethiopian Yirga Cheffes, which were paired-except that one was washed, and the other was natural. For me-and it appeared, for the other tasters as well-the evidence of hazelnut was quick to the nose when sniffing the dry natural coffee; and the nut note was very easy to discern in the natural coffee liquor as well.

So that’s our story for today: we left expecting to try some coffee, and we came back with much more: an example of another type of American stationed overseas who is doing great work on a shoestring budget, who is setting a great example for how we should be spending tax dollars to influence world opinion, and who actually has the potential to create new foreign allies for this Nation, as opposed to new foreign enemies. All that and we’re set up to start making people’s lives better in the bargain.

And in Rwanda, where more or less 10 million folks live in an area more or less 6 times the size of Rhode Island, we seem to be moving in the right direction to do exactly that.

What’s not to love?


Count James d'Estaing said...

Most creative post indeed - very enjoyable.

fake consultant said...

thanks for the compliment...and as i've been reminding readers, burundi is next...

Ian Appleby said...

What the count said, and this comes from someone who's not drunk coffee for well over two years.

fake consultant said...

with any luck, this could be extended to other products.

for example, imagine being able to trace cotton back to its farm of origin...and then to the shirt on your back.

that's a form of affinity marketing that the fashiobn industry has not yet adopted, but you can see how they could...

Kizzie said...

Gr8 post! I love it. To be honest, the best coffee comes from Ethiopia and the best tea comes from Kenya (personal opinion). I've never tried Rwandese coffee really, mabye I should. I don't like latin American coffee that much.
The coffee bean and tea leaf seems to be doing gr8 work in Africa too! (I think its the Austrian version of starbucks)

fake consultant said...

thanks for looking...i'm telling this story sort of third hand, and to hear from someone with "eyes on the ground" is excellent.