Beans to brew: the story of coffee production and consumption

How much do you know about coffee? Yes, as students, we all know that it takes at least two cups of strong brew to get through every night of finals week. But what do you know about the process that actually goes into making that pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks? After all, coffee beans travel thousands of miles and go through a hundred different hands before finally arriving in our coffee mugs as the beverage we all know and love.

In the coffee belt, a region closely bordering the equator, farmers handpick each Arabica or Robusta cherry. After being picked, these coffee beans are sold to middlemen, who then export the commodity to industrialized nations. Coffee roasters within the developed world earn the most profit from these transactions, as they sell the finished product to coffee sellers like Maxwell House. In this way, farmers become disconnected from the final product; by growing cash crops like coffee, less is devoted to subsistence crops that would be used by the farmer and his or her family.

Within the United States, the coffee landscape of today has undergone massive changes since companies like Maxwell House and Folgers ruled the supermarket aisles. In the early days of coffee’s First Wave, Folgers and its ilk dominated the market with their flash-frozen coffee crystals that mixed good-tasting Arabica beans with the cheaper Robusta coffee, which is of lower quality; this was a coffee that was as utilitarian as it got. It was not a coffee to drink for pleasure, but a vehicle for the caffeine.

Fed up with this lack of quality, the niche coffee culture of Seattle began to step up in the early 1970s. Within a couple of decades, a small coffee and spice roaster, Starbucks, would explode in popularity. Stores began opening across the nation, ushering the U.S. into the Second Wave of coffee consumption. Roasters like Starbucks showed America that coffee could be so much more than the store-bought pre-ground crystals of years past. For most Americans, Starbucks also meant an introduction to espresso. Now many of us cannot imagine a world without the espresso-based mixtures that make up our cappuccinos and lattes.

While many people have come to believe that Starbucks represents the pinnacle of what coffee can be, a new third wave of coffee has appeared, a specialty industry that began taking hold in the mid-2000s.

Small groups of roasters eschewing the Starbucks model of over-roasting coffee and exploiting farmers now buy high quality beans directly from these farmers for higher prices. In order to increase the quality of both the coffee and its producers’ livelihoods, they promote more environmentally friendly farming methods, such as shade-growing (which does not require deforestation).

Roasters such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia and Counter Culture are leaders in this third wave of consumption. Additionally, with the rise of interest in humanitarian and environmental issues, fair-trade roasters like Equal Exchange have also gained in popularity. Locally, there are also specialty roasters here in Massachusetts, including Acton’s Terroir Coffee and Rehoboth’s Razzo Coffee.

Whatever be your roaster or latte of choice, as educated consumers, knowing the commodity chain of your next cup of Joe is important. For every single cup of coffee, at least 2000 hours of work are required, so next time you’re getting your daily fix at the Café, spare a thought for the thousands of miles your coffee has traveled.