The Voice of Coffee
By Jake Fishbein
Some people seem to be under the impression that the coffee trade has it figured out when it comes to sustainability. Yet, for all of the organizations that work towards improving the quality of coffee and the quality of life at origin, many people working in coffee still live in poverty.
Even with the great work of Fair Trade, Direct Trade, specialty premiums and the multitude of NGOs working to better life at origin, the landscape of the coffee trade has remained largely unchanged. Coffee farmers continue to live on the precipice of financial disaster, unable to feed their families for several months most every year.
For the consumer, this is a hidden blemish growing beneath the shade of a flourishing tree. As a barista, you have the ability to shine a light on this blemish and heal it. You have the power to engage the consumer in a conversation about coffee from farmer to roaster to barista to the cup. Envisioned so long ago, and incubated for a generation, sustainability at origin still remains an unrealized potential. You can help to actualize this potential because you are the face and the voice of coffee.
You are not just a server or latte artist. Most often, you are the only human connection the consumer has to the coffee trade. You are the farmer, the importer, and the roaster. Your creation in the cup has come to define the profession and all there is behind every cup. You are all of the parts of the trade rolled into one.
And yet, there is a chasm between the knowledge in the trade and the knowledge of the average consumer. For many, coffee is the beverage that runs America. It’s caffeine incarnate. It doesn’t matter where it came from or how many hands touched it.
You are uniquely poised to share your knowledge with your customers, engaging them in a conversation about coffee that is not limited to the floral scents that awaken the senses or the chocolate notes awaiting their palate. You can share your knowledge about the challenges faced by producers and the importance of nourishing the entire trade from seed to cup. For this nourishment is necessary.
The coffee trade is like a tree. Right now, the soil of the tree is malnourished. The farmers, upon whose shoulders we stand on to earn our livings, are so deeply impoverished that there is no sustainability and no possibility of sustainability. Seduced by cash from coffee, farmers have lost their connection to their agricultural roots, to their ancestral ways. They have forgotten how to effectively farm their lands and how to feed their families.
This is making our trade, our tree, weak. Unless farmers can become empowered, at the very least, to recapture their ancient agricultural knowledge and feed their families, the blemish in the shade of the tree will grow to the leaves, the cafes and roasters around the world. Just as Coffee Leaf Rust has infected the coffee leaves across coffee growing regions, stripping coffee plants of their ability to produce the beans we so adore, the hidden blemish is infecting our trade by throwing farmers and their families into even deeper poverty.
Unless our trade is courageous enough to discard our belief that we are doing enough, acknowledge the blemish, and take serious steps for coffee farmers to create sustainable livelihoods for themselves, our precious tree will become even more vulnerable and the very real bitterness currently hidden even in our bests cups will soon reach our palates and taste like rust.
By engaging in conversations about coffee, you can fight this progression. Organizations like The Coffee Trust provide baristas such an opportunity. The Coffee Trust’s farmer-to-farmer development program at origin is being mirrored in our roaster-to-roaster collaboration with customers in cafes throughout the country. Our program provides knowledge and support for baristas to learn about complex issues at origin and share that knowledge with customers, while at the same time engaging customers’ support.
Coffee farmers are not the only people of coffee. We are all people of coffee. The Coffee Trust, among other organizations, is giving us the opportunity to do what we can to nourish the soil of our trade while at the same time nourishing the soul of our trade.
Let’s begin the conversation.
Jake Fishbein is a writer, public speaker, and entrepreneur living in New York City.
Photo by Jose Rene Martinez