Everything seems different with “coffee travel” these days. Maybe that’s good though …
Work has changed and approaches to work have changed. I realize people in many job roles are asking themselves “Why? “Why do I do what I do, why is this needed, what drives this particular task, what purpose does it serve, is there a different way to do this?”
Traveling to visit our coffee sources feels this way too. For me, the assumptions behind this kind of self-assigned task has always felt a bit uncertain. But I realize that’s me… I pretty much always am wanting to understand why, and in the case of coffee sourcing, what is the narrative that drives it.
(We have an audio version of this article , or read on… )
On this trip to Rwandan coffee was, at one time, rarely seen in the United States as either a Specialty grade or low-end commercial coffee. There simply was not that much coffee produced in Rwanda that went anywhere besides, and my previous one this year to Guatemalan coffee is considered a top quality coffee producer in Central America. Due to our proximity to Guatemala, some of the nicest coffees from this origin come to the United States. : Guatemalan growing regions, things felt strange. I felt a bit like I was cast in a role, acting in some way that felt both familiar from the past, but alienating too. Coffee is a global product. It makes sense that someone needs to verify quality when quality is the main driver of a sale. If someone contracted to build a high end appliance in China, they would definitely want to travel to meet the engineers, and check fabrication quality in person. So yeah, in a nuts-and-bolts way it makes sense.
But coffee is, somewhat regrettably, about stories too. There is always a narrative connected to it, marketing. Where is this coffee from, who grew it, what are the conditions it’s grown under, what explains its quality? Marketing is not a word I feel very comfortable with, but it would be disingenuous to say there wasn’t value added to coffee by the narrative that accompanies it.
What I have decided though is that the narrative should be truthful, and it should matter. It should not be bull shit. It’s not as easy as it sounds though, because some things that are “true” about coffee happen to be the easiest for consumers to digest, so what I see in the coffee trade is those particular details gain outsized importance because…. they sell coffee.
Examples? Coffee varieties. The plant Hibrido de Timor abbreviated HdT is the interspecies hybrid of C. Arabica and C. Canephora (Robusta) that was found in Timor Leste in the 1940s. It has been the bases of plant breeding for disease matters, it is true. But how much? The altitude. Yes, that matters as well, but it’s not like there is a single “good” altitude to grow coffee at … and higher isn’t aways better.
Why are plant variety and altitude so prevalent in coffee marketing (including ours) ? One reason is because they relate to other posh products, such as wine for example. But another reason I see is that they appeal to a consumer-friendly idea of intrinsic qualities, material difference.
And while true, those material differences are interesting not only because of where they draw focus to … but also what they draw focus away from. They draw focus away from human labor.
Without the manual work to farm coffee, to harvest it, process it in the In Kenya, a "Factory" is actually a coffee wet mill (called a washing station in other parts of Africa) where the fresh cherry is brought for wet-processing. It is called a wet mill usually, and, hand-select it on the drying beds, bulk it up to haul to the warehouse, and dry-mill it for export, there would be no quality. It would be bulk, undifferentiated commodity.
You can farm Gesha is a long-bean Ethiopia selection with unique cup character.: Gesha (often wishfully misspelled as Geisha) is a long-bean Ethiopia cultivar selection with unique cup character. It is most famously grown on the Jaramillo plot at 1950 Meters Above Sea Level ... altitude that is...: Meters Above Sea Level, altitude that is... and without labor, skilled and trained labor, you would have a bulk commodity product … I mean, between the wood and dirt flavors you might get a hint of fruit, as you expectorated your first sip.
I have thought about this aspirational relationship coffee marketing has to the world of wine. I don’t get it. The talk about “coffee quality” has included a lot of consumer-focused buzzwords that help distinguish a particular A term that designates not only a small volume of coffee, but a lot produced separately, discreetly picked or processed to have special character. Read the full definition!: Micro-Lot is a term ripe and ready as being “really special.” We see labels that have fanciful names, or a particular farm / A "coffee estate" is used to imply a farm that has its own processing facility, a wet-mill. In Spanish this is called an Hacienda. A Finca (farm) does not necessarily have a mill. (And Finca. It’s a bit like wine labeling. We see coffee bags that mention the coffee variety, such as Heirloom A coffee cultivar; a cross between Typica and Bourbon, originally grown in Brazil: Mundo Novo is a commercial coffee cultivar; a natural hybrid between "Sumatra" and Red Bourbon, originally grown in Brazil. It was developed or Gesha. That too is a bit like wine, right? And we see a big increase in terms for special The removal of the cherry and parchment from the coffee seed.: Coffee is either wet-processed (also called washed or wet-milled) or dry-processed (also called wild, natural or natural dry, and we abbreviate it DP sometimes)., like A line of sealed plastic yellow barrels for anaerobic fermentation at Punta del Cerro mill in Huehuetenango. Anaerobic simply means "without air", which makes this term that describes what has become quite a craze in, or Carbonic Maceration, or Black In coffee, honey-like sweetness is often found, but we use terms such as refined honey (highly filtered and processed) as opposed to raw honey rustic honey sweetness. This form of sweetness is largely a dynamic. I see that on wine labels too. In others words, terms and descriptors that make sense to consumers because they parallel a way another product is sold, in this case an aspirational attachment to a “classy” item like wine, seem to find a place in coffee marketing quite easily.
Coffee in the past, cheap and plentiful, made in the office pot-after-pot, certainly doesn’t seem like a very elite beverage. But if you press grapes to make grape juice or table A defective flavor taint in coffee, resulting perhaps from poor processing, fermentation, sanitation.: Vinegar-like qualities are a defective flavor taint in coffee, resulting perhaps from poor processing, fermentation, sanitation. Usually, this comes from high levels, but could also grow different varieties to produce wine, seems like that’s a better financial proposition. Turning coffee from just being grape juice into being wine is certainly an upgrade as well, no? Yeah, a flawed analogy but it has some weight to it…
Really, none of this is what I think about traveling in Rwanda. It’s the stuff I think about on the way back home. The way coffee is marketed seems so strange, completely foreign to things that really matter in actually producing coffee. The marketing expresses something “added on”, what coffee is as a global product, meanings that form an overlay, wrapping the raw material in something like a metaphysical package. It’s about promise and desire, not of the producer but the consumer, and coffee is just an empty vessel to load up with this significance.
It’s good to stop there (even if there is much more to say, but I know few want to have a conversation about commodity fetishism and coffee as I do).
Another reason to stop is that the labor that goes into producing quality coffee is real, and it is obscured by both the marketing, and even by the well-meaning images of coffee pickers etc meant to represent it. Those idealized images have their own fetish in a way, whether they show a laborer holding out their hands filled with Originally coffee literature referred to the fruit of the tree as a "berry" but in time it became a cherry. It is of course neither. Nor is the seed of the coffee a bean. All to signify willing work and abundance, or show hardship that stokes implicit guilt or pity by consumers in the global north. Either form narratives that have little to do with the lived experience of a coffee laborer or their economic situation.
As anyone who takes travel photos knows, the picture taking part is easy. The real work is in looking at what you have, editing, cropping, keywording, captioning. That work is where the narrative is built, the good picture vs the bad one, the significant vs insignificant. Even in this basic editorial judgment, images become organized into communicable experiences that often fall into established narrative lines.
These narratives can be straight-forward, simplistic or sometimes fairly problematic, such as romantic notions of “the exotic”. Perspective matters a lot and when traveling without a level of self-awareness, things can get weird. For example, a traveller that pares down their photos to include only “exotic” content, things that seem “strange and uncommon” may not consider that for every local in their photo frame, it is very common. A place may seem “far-away” to this tourist, but to those “others” in your images, you are just another person in their backyard.
Yeah, it you feel something is awesome and unusual, snap that photo! I know I do. At the same time, recognize how that “unusual” quality is being generated: For me some of those factors might include a. my ability to have a vacation from work (or work that’s like a vacation!), b. my ability to buy an airline ticket and fly across the world,, c. my technical and financial advantage to own camera gear, d. my ability focus a camera on one “strange” thing and omit everything else around it, e. the magnitude of history, of Western culture that creates fanciful ideas about “other people” to create desire for consumption while mystifying the exploitation of labor that produces the product … oh it could go on and on…
One response I have is, I suppose, to just to a bad job in forming a narrative: Include the photos that don’t fit, that doesn’t promote the storyline, expand the frame.
I realize I don’t do a great job at this (I’m bad at being bad?) but in a way, just having multiple photo-interests does complicate the plot. For example, if a tourist took photos only of “scenic” parts of town on the beaten trail from a guide book …not much there. If they added local dogs, people doing daily work, the elderly meeting in the park …well, there’s some layers there. Add in photos of trash piles, some shady deal on a side street, a mysteriously-placed shoe, and the tattoo on the neck of the taxi driver … now we’re talking! I’m trying to joke here … but the idea behind it is that “disordered representations” can be a tiny bit liberating.
And an expanded frame through which to represent these “far away places” also elevates the role of the audience. It assumes they are intelligent, and might find for themselves what is interesting and what isn’t within a set of images. These are small things, but applied to something like marketing of coffee, it’s possible to see how more diverse imagery from outside the usual frame could, at a minimum, complicate the usual storylines by which products are sold.
Thanks for reading these random thoughts. Now for some random pictures. You can click on them to see larger size in a lightbox, if you want to. Thanks – Tom