"The best beans always stay in Mexico"
The relationship between coffee and value is weird.
My latest podcast episode is with Carlos de la Torre, owner of Café con Jiribilla and Café Avellaneda in Mexico City. Towards the end of the conversation, he urged listeners to buy coffees roasted by Mexico-based roasters—and his rationale was so clear, but not something I’ve heard said much before:
I really want to encourage people to buy Mexican coffee and discover the flavors and the varieties we have, take the risk of getting that coffee directly from Mexican roasters, because we have a lot of skills. And I can tell you, we keep the best beans. The best beans always stay in Mexico…
I’ve tasted the same coffee roasted by us and by other roasters. The travel itself of a green bean modifies the humidity, the weather activity. So when you have it here, you can roast the coffee at the perfect stage of its life.
Carlos points out a seemingly obvious—but quietly significant—fact: Freshly harvested coffee tastes better. It tastes better than coffee that has to move through elaborate chains of exporters and importers and sit in warehouses for months until someone in a non-coffee-producing country picks it up and starts roasting. Instead, being based in Mexico means Carlos has access to excellent coffee at the peak of its freshness, because it’s right in his backyard.
Green, or unroasted, coffee can be kept for anywhere from six months to two years before being roasted, depending on how it was harvested and stored. There is some understanding that, after an initial rest period, a coffee will begin to degrade over time—especially in the harsh environments it encounters during its transit, like uninsulated containers as they move from port to port—but there’s no linear or predictable way to chart this. (Most specialty coffees are stored in bags like GrainPro, which is meant to protect the coffee.)
Freshness is a very complex idea we’ve tackled on the show before, but at this point, most discussions only focus on two main concerns: how long a coffee sits in a warehouse after being shipped to its destination country, and the period after roasting. Why don’t we talk about the journey it makes earlier in the process, from the producing country to the consuming one? That time can be significant: From harvest to the warehouse, it can take anywhere between two to six months for a coffee to arrive at its final stop—and those timelines have certainly increased in recent years, as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on supply chains.
Until now, there’s been little discussion about how to maximize freshness during this in-between stage in a way that takes into account how much flavor coffee can lose during transport. There’s also been little willingness to explore how making that shift can give value back to coffee-producing countries.
Listening back to my conversation with Carlos brought to mind a recent Vittles piece by Jenn Rugolo, on the odd relationship between coffee and value. She discusses conflicting notions of coffee’s price—that a cup of coffee can be “too expensive” when you pay for it, but also serves as shorthand for something cheap and relatively meaningless. She notes examples like Ko-fi, where creators can accept tips or small amounts of money akin to buying someone “a cup of coffee” or marketing campaigns that evoke similar language: “For just the cost of a cup of coffee, you can support [insert cause].”
As the piece goes on, she takes the reader through the coffee supply chain, and how much each actor makes, on average, along the way. Working off the benchmark that a flat white costs £3.20, she finds that coffee farmers, on average, get just a small fraction of that price. “It’s estimated that 2.5% of the cost you pay for your cup of coffee goes to the coffee producer – or, in the case of my last coffee, £0.08.”
As coffee moves through the supply chain, its value increases, and the share later actors take of that final price grows bigger. From the exporter (£0.18) to the roaster (“nearly £0.40,” Rugolo writes) to the retail space (“a whopping equivalent of £2.48”), as coffee moves from the beginning of its journey to the end, it doesn’t just become more valuable, but it becomes exponentially more valuable.
This is why Rugolo’s breakdown of value is incredibly important to understand. As she writes, “tracing a path from producer to consumer … suggests value is created and captured equally as coffee moves along the chain – which we now know isn’t true.”
So how can we shift value back to coffee-producing countries? One way is to ensure they have control of more of the supply chain—and to then buy coffees roasted within coffee-producing countries. I don’t think this is a universal solution for your coffee-purchasing habits, but I think it is an important step. (And while coffee is never really an item that can be “locally sourced” if you live in a non-producing country, I still think you should buy coffee from local roasters when you can.)
In contrast, I recently walked into a coffee shop and saw coffees from a prominent roaster in Europe. This isn’t uncommon for many multi-roaster coffee shops: These shops are built around offering a variety of products to their customers, and there’s a lot of excitement around experiencing coffees from new roasters. However, if we’re an industry that cares at all about quality and sustainability, let’s examine how this coffee got here: It would have been grown and harvested in a coffee-producing country, shipped to Europe, roasted, then bagged and shipped again to my little corner of the United States. This coffee had literally been around the world before it even reached the shelf in front of me, and there’s no telling of the environmental cost of all this transport—nor the qualities the coffee itself may have lost throughout that process.
So far, I don’t think there’s been much incentive to explore—or challenge—this idea. As Edward F. Fischer writes in his paper, “Quality and Inequality: Taste, Value, and Power in the Third Wave Coffee Market, “The coffee trade … still largely operates as it did a hundred years ago, based on relationships that carry the beans from harvest to retail.”
That feels even more absurd when, if you’re in the United States like me, Mexico is right there. And yet, as of this writing, the only place I’ve ever gotten coffee from Carlos’ roastery is at Dayglow, a multi-roaster shop with a location in my old neighborhood in Chicago. As Carlos mentions, “I'm pretty sure if you are San Francisco-based and you buy a coffee from Cafe con Jiribilla in the web shop, you're going to get that earlier than if you buy from a roaster in New York.”
Not only is it significantly more sustainable to buy a coffee sourced and roasted within a coffee-producing country, but it transfers the value “created” by a roaster back to that country. And then there’s the question of freshness. If you can, buy some coffee from Carlos, and see if you can taste the difference. As he says, “The best beans always stay in Mexico.”
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