To All the Coffees I’ve Loved Before
What do we mean when we claim "a relationship" with the farmers and makers from whom we source products?
This story was originally published in Standart, a magazine about coffee culture, in the Autumn 2020 issue. The theme of this issue was “color,” and I tried to think of ways ideas are blurred or obscured. I had also just read Jenny Odell’s book “How To Do Nothing,” and visually, the cover of the book evokes depth through color choices: deep magentas and dark greens. I reference the book in the piece below.
I’m thrilled to share some of my printed work with you. These pieces go through so many steps: rounds of edits, research, interviews, etc… This story in particular was born out of an idea I had about language, and which I had the resources to explore further. If you’d like to see more writing like this on Boss Barista, please comment with your thoughts, and consider subscribing—that investment in my work makes everything I do here possible:
The relationships we encounter daily are complex and nuanced. From our loved ones to our co-workers to the people we choose to live with, the way we talk about our relationships colors their intricacies. When we look specifically at the relationship between coffee roasters and farmers, that language can obscure potentially dangerous power dynamics.
As a writer, the tool I secretly use the most is a thesaurus.
A quick copy-edit of the first draft of any piece I write usually reveals that it is littered with repetition: There are only so many ways you can say “creative” or “orange” or “coffee.” Sometimes, I feel that I’m not so much a writer as a find-and-replace machine, combing through lists of just-close-enough synonyms and choosing the one that feels best.
There are a few words that come up a lot in coffee, and regardless of the number of synonyms, the meaning is usually the same: Partnership. Relationship. Community. “We’ve worked with this farmer for X number of years,” a bag of coffee might proudly state. I sometimes imagine the poor copywriter (or roaster, or barista, or whoever) doing the same thing I do—typing “relationship synonyms” and hitting “search,” hoping to strike a balance between words that go too far (“entanglement” isn’t quite right—it feels reminiscent of a romantic comedy title) and words that don’t go quite far enough (“alliance” conjures up two formerly warring entities coming together to fight a common foe).
I’ve been thinking about this so much because the language of relationships often shows up on coffee websites or in product descriptions. I remember the first time I was confronted with this idea: I was working for a roasting company as an educator, and would lead weekly cuppings to tout our seasonal offerings. “We’ve been working with this farm for five years,” I’d say. I remember believing that these markers of longevity meant that the coffee was somehow better; they were a way to convince potential drinkers that this coffee was more worthy of consumption, just because we’d been buying it for so long from the same people.
But that can’t be true. Not all the time, at least.
How do we expect someone to respond when we tell them that we’ve been buying a coffee from a certain farmer for years, or that we’re good friends with the producers of one of their favorite coffees? The implication is clear and far-reaching: Not only is this coffee better, but you’re better for buying it. When one talks about relationships, naturally, the statement implies the worth of both actors in that relationship. This isn’t just about sharing how great the coffee is.
I think about the relationships I have with my friends, family members, and romantic partners. What do I expect from them? There’s a foundational phrase that my boyfriend and I exchange a lot, especially in moments of vulnerability: When you need me to be strong, I will be, and when I need you to be strong, you are.
This is my lived experience with relationships. I don’t claim that it’s true for all relationships, but I nevertheless think about the sentiment a lot, particularly the idea of equality, and giving without any expectation of reciprocity. A quick Google search equates healthy relationships with words like “mutual respect,” “trust,” “honesty,” “support,” “fairness/equality,” “separate identities,” and “good communication.”
But do we expect all that from the relationships we prize in coffee?
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There was a time when the idea of knowing who grew your coffee was novel. “I talk about relationships in coffee because I couldn’t get people to understand that they need to know that the growers need to know them,” says David Griswold, the founder of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers. In one way, the idea of coffee relationships has grown further than Griswold could have imagined, while in another, some of the intent of his foundational work might have been lost in the intervening time.
I connected with Griswold after I tweeted “What does relationship coffee mean to you?” not knowing that the term was the name of an initiative Griswold had started. He says that he tried to trademark the term “relationship coffee,” but because of an article he wrote in 1991, it was considered in the public domain.
“People don’t equate business and empathy,” he wrote to me. “But if you really think about it, what does your partner need to succeed? What do they need to make, to serve, to do things, to produce coffee at the same level [every year]?”
Empathy is a very specific word, and not one that can be replaced with a synonym. Sympathy—its close cousin—invites you to feel bad for another person’s unfortunate circumstances, but empathy demands that you imagine yourself as the recipient of something terrible. Sympathy allows for distance, while true empathy requires that your entire being be present and transformed.
“And so, relationship coffee became a really simple concept,” David went on to say. “It [is] based around the idea of complete transparency between all the parties involved in the supply chain.”
I think back to all those cuppings I have been to. I could talk about relationships all day long, but what information actually comes across to those listening? I knew how long my firm had been buying coffee from this farm or that cooperative, but I didn’t know the basics—I didn’t know if we were committed to buying a set amount of coffee regardless of quality, if we’d pay more if a coffee scored higher than anticipated, or even what we paid for the coffee to begin with.
Some of that is changing. Many contemporary coffee roasters are releasing statements about transparency (it’s worth noting that transparency itself isn’t a virtue, especially without context, as noted by RJ Joseph in her work at the Red Fox Coffee Merchants online journal), but that feels like the tip of the iceberg. It’s not enough. There’s so much more to confront, and this is just one point of transparency in an entire market system.
“Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears,” Jenny Odell wrote in her book “How To Do Nothing.” It’s a little ironic to cite Odell in this piece, since she advocates detaching from our online lives, while one could argue that one of the best tools for promoting transparency throughout coffee has been social media.
One point that does apply here, however: The further away you are, the more things get obscured. That’s true of items in our line of sight—you take one step backwards, and an image becomes harder to see—and it’s also true of people and ideas. It’s easier to care about the things closest to us.
That idea—that we’re more easily able to distance ourselves from things that are far away—features notably in a short story by Richard Matheson called “Button, Button.” In the story, Mr. Steward offers Arthur and Norma $50,000 if they agree to press a button to kill someone that they don’t know. The couple argue about what to do, and eventually Norma decides to press the button—only to find out that it is her husband who has been killed. His life insurance was worth $50,000.
At the end of the story, Norma yells at Mr. Steward, confused as to how her husband could have been the one who was killed. He responds, “Do you really think you knew your husband?” Norma’s morality is shown to be one of proximity; we only need to care about the people around us and fuck everyone else. As morally bankrupt as this is, the language of relationships in coffee attempts to obscure the true nature of a roaster-farmer transactions under the guise of proximity. In effect, we’re saying: “This is good because we’re close to the farmers. This coffee means something because we’ve established a clear line between it and us.” It’s an attempt to paint a relationship as something that it isn’t.
And then there’s colonialism, the skeleton in the closet with which the entire industry must reckon. The history of coffee is intertwined with theft, slavery, and imperialism; coffee was exported from Africa under dubious circumstances, harvested with the labor of enslaved people in the New World, and its spread around the globe is a study of colonization. It’s easy to dismiss these facts as unfortunate but largely historical, but they are the very foundation of our industry, and the specter of past injustices remains.
Coffee is still today a tapestry of inequity; countless laborers along the supply chain, many of them Indigenous, are still employed in slavery-like conditions; our choices and actions often facilitate and perpetuate this state of affairs. These problematic truths, embedded across the industry, cannot be totally eradicated without radical change, perhaps an upheaval of how we operate the entire supply system. Coffee has stolen and continues to steal so much from Black and brown people, Indigenous groups, and the members of the supply chain who occupy its lowest-paid positions.
Is every claim to a “relationship” with a farmer or cooperative false, then? No, but the claim of maintaining a relationship with a farmer doesn’t itself yield anything of substance. Without context or transparency, an assertion about a relationship you might have with a producer offers nothing more than a talking point, a way to co-opt language meant to assuage our own consumption guilt. We are able to feel good about whatever it is that we’re consuming because someone claimed to know the person who made it.
What coffee relationships do you want to build? Perhaps one of the most salient points made in this regard, and the impetus for this question, was put forward by Vava Angwenyi from Vava Specialty Coffees and Gente Del Futuro. She once gave a talk on decolonizing empowerment (and truly, this is the umbrella under which the entire discussion about “relationships” should sit) and in a follow-up interview, she said: “Empowerment is like raising a child. You want to raise them to be independent, to make their own decisions, and you want them to eventually leave the house. As a parent, you will not keep knocking on your kid’s door after they [move out] to see what they’re doing or what they’re having for dinner. You have to give them the tools to be fully independent, and just watch from a distance.”
Relationships aren’t claimed; they are built. Anything otherwise in your coffee marketing is an attempt to assume legitimacy and intimacy without going to the trouble of delving into what it really means to be in a relationship.
Hi friends. You’ve read this entire article. I’m so humbled and deeply interested in what you think: What ideas or thoughts does this piece evoke for you?
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