The Salt
12:22 am
Mon April 22, 2013

How Coffee Brings The World Together

Originally published on Thu January 9, 2014 12:51 pm

Coffee is more than a drink. For many of us — OK, for me — it's woven into the fabric of every day.

It also connects us to far corners of the globe.

For instance, every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of Counter Culture Coffee, a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, N.C., and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.

On any random day, that truck could bring "10 bags from a farm in El Salvador; 20 bags from a cooperative in Burundi; two bags of a special coffee from Guatemala," says Kim Elena Ionescu, one of the coffee buyers for Counter Culture Coffee. She travels the world, visiting coffee farms and deciding which beans the company will buy.

The best coffee, she says, comes from high altitudes, but you cannot grow it in places that freeze, "so you need that mixture of high altitude and warm climate, which makes the tropics the place to grow it."

All across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, people grow coffee.

In many tropical countries, especially poor ones, it's a pillar of the economy; exports of green coffee beans, globally, are worth $15 billion a year.

Some of these farms, Ionescu says, are idyllic places, high in the mountains. Taller trees often shade the coffee bushes. Such scenes "hearken a little bit to coffee's homeland, which is Ethiopia," Ionescu says. "Southwestern Ethiopia is really lush, it's got amazingly high altitudes, it's green, misty."

But honestly, even though there are millions of small, idyllic coffee farms, they aren't producing the majority of the world's coffee.

Most coffee isn't specialty coffee. It's just coffee: big cans of it, or instant coffee.

Forty percent of all coffee comes from Brazil, and the typical coffee farm in Brazil looks more like a corn farm in Iowa, Ionescu says — "coffee plants as far as the eye can see, unbroken by any kind of tree."

When it's time for harvest in Brazil, big machines roll through and strip off the cherrylike coffee fruit, with its valuable bean inside.

The second-biggest producer in the world is a surprise for many people: Vietnam. "Not a lot of people, especially in specialty coffee, talk about Vietnam," says Ionescu.

Vietnamese farmers grow a species of coffee tree called robusta. (The scientific name is Coffea canephora.) It grows fast and produces a big crop, but the bean has a bitter taste. It's often used in blends, especially in Europe. But high-end coffee producers like Counter Culture avoid it. They stick to another species — arabica.

This is one big divide in the coffee business. On one side is "commodity" coffee; on the other, small companies like Counter Culture Coffee, or even big ones like Starbucks or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which sell coffee that's been more carefully harvested and graded. These companies market coffee almost like wine, labeling where it came from and how it tastes.

At Green Mountain's headquarters in Waterbury, Vt., tasters suck in mouthfuls of fresh brew, pause to reflect, then give each sample a score and talk about what their supersensitive taste buds picked up. "Chocolate, melon, lime, subtle peach," says one taster.

Specialty coffee like this accounts for only a small part — probably 10 or 15 percent — of the global coffee market.

Sometimes, these two sides of the coffee business seem to live in different worlds. But Counter Culture Coffee's Ionescu says they sometimes come together in surprising ways.

"You know, what's interesting to me is the large proportion of coffee growers who drink instant coffee, even on some of these idyllic hillsides in Central America," she says.

Instead of drinking their own top-quality coffee, they export it to people who can pay more for it, such as Europeans or Americans.

Lindsey Bolger, director of coffee for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, says if you measure the amount of coffee consumed per coffee drinker, the world champions live in Nordic countries. "Depending on which country, they're up to eight cups of coffee per person, per day. In the U.S., we're at maybe 2 or 2.5 cups of coffee per day," she says.

Americans actually used to drink a lot more coffee. Per person, we drank almost twice as much during World War II.

People used to divide the coffee world neatly into producers, like Brazil, and consuming countries in Western Europe and North America.

Bolger says those clear lines are getting blurred. Brazil could soon overtake the United States to become the world's single biggest coffee-consuming country, she says, and "we're seeing significant growth in consumption in regions like Southeast Asia, South Korea, Eastern Europe, India and the Gulf nations."

The coffee experience, it seems, is more global than ever.

This is the first in a series of reports for Coffee Week. Along with our friends at Morning Edition, we're bringing you the stories behind the coffee in your cup — from the farms of Guatemala to the corner coffee shop.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Anybody who wakes up early, as we do, knows that on some level, the world runs on coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE TIME")

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) Coffee time, let's listen to some jazz and rhyme, and have a cup of coffee...

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, over the next few days, we're going to be exploring the role coffee plays in our lives. It is a morning ritual. It's a social stimulant. Some of it's been brought into our studios this morning. Our CEO, Gary Knell, is here, has already spilled some.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And as Gary knows well, when you drink a cup of coffee, you're really connected in one way or another to people all over the globe. NPR's Dan Charles gets our new series brewing.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of Counter Culture Coffee, a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, North Carolina, and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.

KIM ELENA IONESCU: You know, 10 bags from a farm in El Salvador, 20 bags from a cooperative in Burundi, you know, two bags of a special coffee from Guatemala.

CHARLES: Kim Elena Ionescu works for Counter Culture Coffee. She travels the world, visiting coffee farms, deciding which beans the company will buy. The best coffee, she says, comes from high altitudes, but you cannot grow it in places that freeze.

IONESCU: So you need that mixture of high altitude and warm climate, which makes the tropics the place to grow it.

CHARLES: All across Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, people grow coffee. In many tropical countries, especially poor ones, it's a pillar of the economy. Exports of green coffee beans, globally, are worth $15 billion a year. Some of these farms, Ionescu says, are idyllic places, high in the mountains. Taller trees often shade the coffee bushes.

IONESCU: And that hearkens a little bit to coffee's homeland, which is Ethiopia. Southwestern Ethiopia is really lush. It's got amazingly high altitudes. It's green, misty.

CHARLES: But, honestly, even though there are millions of small, idyllic farms, they are not producing most of the world's coffee. Most coffee isn't specialty coffee. It's just coffee: big cans, instant coffee. Forty percent of it comes from Brazil, and the typical coffee farm in Brazil looks more like a corn farm in Iowa.

IONESCU: And it's just, you know, coffee plants as far as the eye can see, unbroken by any other kind of other tree.

CHARLES: When it's time for harvest in Brazil, big machines roll through and strip off the cherry-like coffee fruit, with that valuable bean inside. The second-biggest producer in the world is a surprise for many people. It's Vietnam.

IONESCU: Not a lot of people - especially not in specialty coffee - talk about Vietnam.

CHARLES: Vietnamese farmers grow a species of coffee tree called Robusta. It grows fast and produces a big crop, but the bean has a bitter taste. It's often used in blends, especially in Europe. But high-end coffee producers like Counter Culture avoid it. They stick to another species called Arabica. So this is one big divide in the coffee business between generic, industrial coffee from Vietnam or Brazil, and small companies like Counter Culture Coffee, or even big ones like Starbucks, or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Those companies sell coffee that's been more carefully harvested and graded. They market coffee almost like wine, labeling where it came from and how it tastes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

CHARLES: At Green Mountain's headquarters in Waterbury, Vermont, tasters suck in mouthfuls of fresh brew, pause to reflect, and then pronounce judgment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I give it an 84. I really like those chocolate, melon, lime, a subtle peach, nice stone fruit.

CHARLES: Specialty coffee like this accounts for only a small part of the global coffee market, maybe 10 or 15 percent. Sometimes, these two sides of the coffee business seem to live in different worlds. But Counter Culture Coffee's Kim Elena Ionescu says they sometimes come together in surprising ways.

IONESCU: You know, what's interesting to me is the large proportion of coffee growers that drink instant coffee, even on some of these idyllic hillsides in Central America.

CHARLES: They don't drink their own top-quality coffee. They export it to people who can pay more for it, like Europeans or Americans. Lindsey Bolger, director of coffee for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, says if you measure the amount of coffee consumed per coffee drinker, the world champions live in Scandinavia.

LINDSEY BOLGER: Depending upon which country, they're up to, like, eight cups of coffee per day, per person. In the U.S., we're kind of maybe two, 2.5 cups of coffee.

CHARLES: Americans actually used to drink a lot more coffee, actually. Per person, we drank almost twice as much during World War II. And you used to divide the coffee world neatly into producers like Brazil and consumers in Western Europe and the United States. Now, Bolger says those clear lines are getting blurred.

BOLGER: We're seeing significant growth in consumption in regions like Southeast Asia, South Korea, Eastern Europe, India, the Gulf nations.

CHARLES: The coffee experience, it seems, is going global. Dan Charles, NPR News.

INSKEEP: There's too much here to discuss in one morning, so tomorrow, we will travel to Central America to meet more of the faces and places behind coffee.

GREENE: In the meantime, if you want to test your coffee knowledge, we've got an online quiz up at our website, npr.org.

INSKEEP: And let's take an audio quiz now. We have a fresh pot of pop culture brewing. See if you recognize these coffee moments from TV and the movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JERRY SEINFELD: (as Jerry) I've never been any place in my life where there was absolutely no coffee. And people are constantly trying to give me coffee. Who's having a coffee? Would you like some coffee? Can I get you some coffee?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEST IN SHOW")

PARKER POSEY: (as Meg Swan) We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks, but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ELF")

WILL FERRELL: You did it. Congratulations. World's best cup of coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

MATT LEBLANC: (as Joey) Ross, listen, you want anything to drink? 'Cause I'm heading up there.

DAVID SCHWIMMER: (as Ross) Yeah. I'll take a coffee. Thanks, man.

LEBLANC: (as Joey) Sure. Coffee? Coffee? 'Cause I'm going up there.

JENNIFER ANISTON: (as Rachel) No, thank you.

COURTNEY COX: (as Monica) What are you doing?

LEBLANC: (as Joey) Just being friendly.

COX: (as Monica) You work here?

LEBLANC: (as Joey) No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Waiter.

LEBLANC: (as Joey) Yeah.

GREENE: That's a lot of coffee. OK. In reverse order, that was a clip from Central Perk from the TV show "Friends," Will Farrell very excited about coffee in the movie "Elf"...

INSKEEP: A love connection from the movie "Best in Show," and, of course, "Seinfeld."

GREENE: And there's more.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to "Coffee Talk" with your host, Linda Richman.

MIKE MEYERS: (as Linda Richman) Welcome to "Coffee Talk." I'm your guest host, Linda Richman. Now, I don't know from coffee. It gives me shpilkes(ph) in my genecktecessoink(ph), and it aggravates my hiatus hernia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOU'VE GOT MAIL")

TOM HANKS: (Joe Fox) The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEST IN SHOW")

MICHAEL HITCHCOCK: (as Hamilton Swan) I remember what I was drinking when I met you. It was a grande espresso.

POSEY: (as Meg Swan) That's right. And I thought that was really sexy.

HITCHCOCK: (as Hamilton Swan) Yeah.

POSEY: (as Meg Swan) I was drinking cappuccinos.

HITCHCOCK: (as Hamilton Swan) I remember.

POSEY: (as Meg Swan) And then I went lattes, and then now double espresso macchiato.

HITCHCOCK: (as Hamilton Swan) Right. And I'm now a big ole, you know, chai tea latte, soy milk kind of guy...

POSEY: (as Meg Swan) Yeah, soy. Yeah.

HITCHCOCK: (as Hamilton Swan) ...because of the lactose.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

SEINFELD: (as Jerry) This liquid has taken over humanity. There are coffee machines we have to call mister. Coffee, anyone? Hey, that's Mister Coffee to you.

GREENE: That was "Seinfeld," again, also the movie "Best in Show." We also heard Tom Hanks in "You've Got Mail," and Mike Myers in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch "Coffee Talk." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.