Like most people in the food & wine industry, my interests range widely from wine to tea, coffee, food products, farming, olive oil, water and spirits. I have just started reorganizing all of my books so that I can find what I want to read more easily and I came upon a book about coffee that I had picked up somewhere, The Devil’s Cup. I’m not that far along yet but find it fascinating.
I am always looking to see how products are grown. My mind has been on coffee this week because it is such a huge export from Kenya. I have never had the good fortune to visit Kenya but it is a country I studied while in college and whose development I have followed. I was very struck by the violence this week and hope that the country can find unity in mourning the loss of life.
One country that also produces a lot of coffee is much closer to the United States, Costa Rica. I did visit Costa Rica three years ago and spent time on a number of coffee plantations. My feelings about coffee have changed remarkably since that time.
I learned about the Nicaraguan workers who picked the coffee beans for hours a day for $1 a basket. They have to deal with wasps, snakes and other critters that make their homes in the coffee plants.
Like wine grapes, coffee beans are sorted, pressed, selected and often blended. There are two species of coffee trees: Coffee arabica (arabica) and Coffee canephora which makes what is known as robusta. The latter is easier to cultivate at lower and warmth altitudes while the former produces the more prestigious beans. Generally the higher the elevation of the coffee plantation, the better the quality of the beans. The coffee from Costa Rica is considered to be milder than say that of Kenya which has higher acidity.
Coffees, like wines, are also described according to their aromas and flavors, their body, acidity, and color. The flavor in coffee comes from the volatile oils that come from the roasting and grinding processes. In fact, if you buy beans, you are supposed to grind them only right before you use them in order to protect the aromas and flavors.
While Costa Rica is a beautiful country, I was struck by the poverty I saw in San José, the misery of the Nicaraguans working in those fields and the comparisons to the zip-lining tourists usually from the US. I know the tourists bring needed funds to the country and boost the economy but the contrast was striking.
Maybe it was my mood but what I remember most were these coffee plantations. Every time I have a cup of coffee I am reminded that someone or a chain of people have worked very hard to put that cup in front of me.