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Filter Stories - Coffee Documentaries

53 EpisodesProduced by James HarperWebsite

Filter Stories is a NPR / BBC-style documentary podcast revealing the hidden side of coffee. We visit a stateless barista stuck on a faraway island, meet an award winning coffee grower earning just $2 profit from 250 espressos, hear from a coffee producer who is almost murdered three times during a … read more

The Future of Coffee? - Episode Transcript

In this final episode of A History of Coffee, Jonathan and James explore where the specialty coffee movement came from, whether it will succeed in arresting coffee’s race-to-the-bottom, and look into the future to understand what might be the future of coffee.

James: So Jonathan I have in my hand, I believe you have in your hand too, quite a delicious coffee

Jonathan:Certainly do.

James: So this is a coffee from our friends at Dark Woods (It's a UK roastery). They very kindly sent us an award-winning coffee from Panama, grown by a chap called Don Manelia. What kind of flavor notes are you getting?

Jonathan: Well, I'm getting lovely, deep fruit, beautiful smoothness to the whole thing.

James: To me, this is like drinking Berry juice with like chocolate mixed in this is a high quality coffee.

Jonathan: Yeah.

James: And Jonathan, here's the question. How did you grind your coffee?

Jonathan: I use the Sage Grinder. Love it.

James: I use my Comandante hand grinder and you know, it gets me thinking, right? The act of grinding coffee. This is bizarre in the sense that both these grinders cost, a bit of money, like about $200 a piece.


James: And grinding coffee. Every time you want to have a cup of coffee, this is a massive inconvenience. And my mum thinks I'm crazy. A lot of my friends think I'm crazy when I'm there for like three minutes grinding.

Jonathan: Yes. And it's the inconvenience that we've over history seen taken away from us. Yeah? As we get roasting ground, and then we get instant soluble as we were talking about previously. So this is actually putting more work back on the consumer.

James: And of course it all boils down to freshness, and freshness translates to flavor, to quality. We tasted in the cup. The difference.


James: And there’s something else that's very unusual about this coffee, historically speaking, the price.


James: Just shy of 13 pounds.


James: I mean, we could have bought six jars of instant coffee for that amount of money

Jonathan: Easy.

James: And it's funny because in the last five episodes we've been looking at the race to the bottom, where coffee gets cheaper, where people are exploited along the way, the environment suffers and all in pursuit of getting that caffeine shot as quickly and cheaply as possible. But this is a different concept altogether.

Jonathan:Yeah, absolutely. This is like connoisseur coffee. Isn't it? I hate the fact that we always compare coffee with wine, but this is what we're doing. We're being like wine connoisseurs

James: Right? And it's something that you said to me at the end of the last episode I have in my mind.


James: This is not a race to the bottom. This is specialty coffee and it's a race to the top.

Jonathan:Very good.


James: So in this episode, we're going to be exploring what is specialty coffee? Why did it come from, what was the promise of specialty coffee in the historical context that we have explored of this last five episodes? And what was the outcome? Has it been achieved in what I hope to achieve

Jonathan: Will it achieve what it hopes to achieve?

James: And at the end of this episode, we're going to look into the future as well and see, you know, these very big historical arcs we've been exploring.Where might these arcs take us in the future for the next, say, 500 years of coffee history that's yet to happen.

Jonathan: Let's go back to the future. James, if the history of specialty coffee


James: I'm James Harper, the creator of Filter Stories, a coffee documentary podcast

Jonathan: And I'm professor Jonathan Morris, author of Coffee a Global History.

James: And this is the final episode. Of a History of Coffee, the six episode series, where we've explored how a tiny psychoactive seed changed the world and continues to shape our lives today.


James: Jonathan coffee 101. What is specialty coffee?

Jonathan:Original thought specialty coffee was coffee that displayed distinctive characteristics in the cup.

James: And to make that contrast with the last episode, we tasted the “World Blend” in air quotes and


James: Yeah, that tasted like hotel room, blend coffee. Whereas the coffee we just had now. Was like compote fruit compote

Jonathan:Yeah, exactly. Over the years, we've refined this definition a lot. We've brought in things about where the coffee comes from the degree it's traceable, the number of points that it scores on the scoring systems that have been defined to grade specialty coffee.


James: So Jonathan, we exploded the last five episodes is race to the bottom where coffee gets cheaper, where it's an uncontrolled system where the consumer doesn't even know the difference between at different coffees. And ultimately that leads to environmental damage. It leads to exploitation of people, it leads the consumers getting pretty bad tasting cups of coffee in our personal opinions. So what's the promise of specialty coffee against that backdrop?

Jonathan:The promise of specialty coffee is first of all, that it delivers the consumer that something that's much better than they've been getting. And the on top of that, it offers there for the promise that by convincing the consumer to pay more.For a better quality coffee, we will have more money to feed back to the producer and therefore to address the issue of sustainability and value throughout the coffee chain.

James: Right. It's about getting consumers didn't know that the difference in the flavor to pay more for that difference and the farmer, the producer, to get more of that difference.

Jonathan:Yeah, exactly.


James: Who came up with the idea that. We can make coffee flavors better and pay more for them. What's that story?

Jonathan:It's a great story of little people, becoming big people two people that I would single out. So the first is a lady called Erna Knutson. She was working in a coffee trading firm in the US, San Francisco.And what Erna did was she was the first person to try and sell small micro lots of what she called “Specialty coffee”,high quality coffees.


James: And Jonathan, I'd like to add some context to help the listener understand why a micro lot is special by setting it against what was happening before micro lots came along. Picture a dark room by a warehouse near a dock, green beans come in by the container load. Right? They get dumped out. This is from Brazil. This is a Brazilian Santos coffee. It's from heaven knows a thousand farms and it's all mixed together. Now someone's gone along and scooped up a little bit of that giant container of coffee and brought these unroasted green beans into the dark room where mostly men at this point

Jonathan:Almost entirely men. And, and that was one of the other reasons why Erna was so different. Yeah.

James: Right. Men roasting up a little bit of the coffee in small little roasters

Jonathan: Yeah

James: Grinding up the coffee and then basically brewing it kind of like in a French press style, but just don't plunge it. So you have a cup of hot water with coffee grounds in it, brewing coffee and the ground sink to the bottom and they get a spoon and they'd slurp assessing the quality of the coffee

Jonathan:Now in your dark rooms. In fact, what they're doing is working out what standard of that coffee is because when they then go to Folgers or whatever, it's, this will be good in your blend. Because remember, by the time this coffee goes to the big roasters, they further blended. If you think about those supermarket coffees, what are they called? They're called things like rich or roaster's choice, or mountain grown. Mountain grown was a great one from Folgers, mountain grown or coffee grows on mountains. That's why it's there. You know, so, but, but these are very generic, bland descriptors. And the reason for that is because you can then switch between different suppliers all the time.

James: Right.

Jonathan: And of course you have to. Yeah, because you've got to have coffee coming in throughout the year.Now, therefore, one farmer who harvests, I don’t know a few bags of coffee, you know, obviously there isn't enough of that guy's stuff to supply a huge thing for a year. What it goes into is these whole standardized categories that can then be sold on

James: Right

Jonathan: So it's a whole process of amalgamation homogenization of all the coffee.

James: So if you are one of the tiny farmers whose crop made up a fraction of the ginormous container, you know, you're lost in a sea of an anonymity.


James: So along comes Erna and she's like, let's not make a country-level blend


James: Now let's try and single out the unique flavors from a very specific geographical area.

Jonathan:So Erna might be given a lot of Colombian coffee and that might just be labeled something like Excelso, which is basically the bean size, because a lot of these lots were sold by bean size.

James: Right.

Jonathan:Whereas she might distinguish that this particular lot, which would probably come from a particular region would have a distinctive characteristic. Would be somewhat different, somewhat better then you could put a story behind it. And that's the other thing that specialty coffee started doing was bring back the story behind coffee, bring the story of where this is produced to the attention of the consumer.


Jonathan:So Erna Knutsen, she said, well, give me a chance and let's see if I can actually sell these. And the clients that she found for them were a variety of very small, independent roasters. One of whom was a guy called Alfred Peet, lots of listeners now will have heard of Peet's coffee. And indeed Alfred Peet was not so much the founder of Pete's coffee, but he was the inspiration of Peet’s coffee. He opened his original store. In the sixties in Berkeley, Mr. Peet had a vision of coffee that was very different from say the coffee that you bought off the supermarket shelf and in Berkeley, and in the counterculture of that era, he started to find an audience. His coffee shop became a very alternative hangout.


Now among those audiences for quite a few people who themselves went on to set up in coffee, George Howell, who went back to Boston. I think he was an art student or some kind of historian of art, but became a, it's a huge figure in coffee as you know, A guy called Jerry Baldwin and a couple of other guys who, with Baldwin, you know, they're Berkeley students. I think of English literature went up to Seattle and founded a little company called Starbucks, which sold whole bean coffee. And they come together in the early eighties, this sort of gathering of these kinds of people from across the States and they formed this specialty coffee association and their target. And it's a movement and it's very much focused on, we are different from big coffee. We are not driving down the price we are driving up. We're showing you different varieties, different flavors of coffee, different possibilities of coffee.


James: They were kind of like complete punks


James: Alright so, Jonathan. Here we are. It's the early eighties. We have a number of renegades who were saying, we don't want this “mountain grown coffee” in air quotes. We want the specific flavor of a specific area. And so what happens in the eighties? Things get transformed pretty quickly.

Jonathan: What happened was that this producing coffee in the store took off a little bit, particularly with the introduction, people started using espresso machines

James: And to help explain the shift to espresso machines, let's talk about what was happening before espresso machines.


James: You go into this store and you have buckets of roasted coffee and they might get a scoop, put the scoop coffee into a bag, weigh it up. They might even grind it for you there in the store. That was. Kind of how coffee was being done. Mostly what? Late seventies?

Jonathan:Yeah. And they used espresso machines to generate what we might call theater in the coffee houses. So one of the early things that the SCA did, Specialty Coffee Association, for example, the SCAA at this point, was they sponsored this program, which is called Coffee House Coffee, and this program was really about trying to set up coffee houses on US campuses.

James: Right, right, right.

Jonathan: It goes a good reason for that. Right. Students aren't allowed to drink

James:  Alcohol

Jonathan: In theory. But the thing is,  as that disseminates a bit beyond the campus, we talked about that shop in Seattle, set up by these friends from university that they called Starbucks, which was selling roasted beans, essentially. There's a guy in New York, who's basically in kind of utensils and producing sort of the kind of goods that you sell through a coffee shop, including, you know, coffee brewing equipment. And he's wondering why is this store in Seattle buying so much of my gear? So he goes out and has a look at it.And this guy's name is Howard Schultz. Bam, bam, bam. So Howard Schultz then thinks, so this is interesting and he actually sort of maneuvers it so that he becomes, I think marketing director of Starbucks and a at this stage still selling beans primarily, and then he goes on his famous trip to Italy.

Coffee shop noise

Jonathan: And in Italy he observes Italian espresso bars. I'm reciting the Starbucks narrative here in effect Howard Schultz goes wow, as he writes in his book, this is amazing. This is retail theater of coffee.

Coffee shop noise

Jonathan: Because of course, it's such a theatrical neighborhood where of course the coffee is at the heart of it, and you've got these big espresso machines making all the noise that we have to grind is going off the steam ones, going off, the guys pumping it down on the counter. I mean, you know, the thing, it's a fantastic atmosphere. We all love it. And he thinks, Hey, this is it. This is retail theater of coffee. I want to take this back to the States.So he goes back and starts making more out of coffee houses

James: Right

Jonathan: Putting in espresso machines and developing a format that basically we could call the second wave format. What I would call the coffee chain shop format, where you're using the higher price you ask for coffee can subsidize everything else you do in the coffee house.So you can make your coffee house rather attractive by charging a high price for your coffee, which you just divide because the coffee is specialty coffee

James: And the theater of the barista with a little bow tie, you know, talking with the customers, the atmosphere was one of a show.

Jonathan:Yeah, absolutely. And this is what's so funny, James, because of course he takes his concept of what he saw in Italy back to Seattle. So he leaves Starbucks sets up a store, which he calls “Il Giornale”, which by the way means the “daily paper“ in Italy. But nevermind. But he sets this up. What does he do? He puts in baristas in bow ties, he puts opera on the speakers and he has everything, a standup table because, Hey, that's how they do it in Italy.You know, because Italy is of course, very quick espresso in out. Bang. Thank you. Okay.

James: Right


Jonathan:And it bombs. So he rapidly realizes it bombing because people in America, they love the idea, but Hey, you know, we don't do stuff quite like that.


Jonathan:So the opera becomes jazz.

James: Right

Jonathan: The stand up tables, become sit-down sofas, the baristas become cool people who can have a chat with, but he carries on with that education, with that showing off the machinery, et cetera. So that's what really makes it kit at the same time, by the way, in Seattle, there's a great thing going on, which is loads of independent people are setting up coffee carts, little things that they park in the streets. So they pop these carts. By, uh, famously Nordstrom the department store by the exits and entries to the metros and the ferries, and they're selling people, these new drinks, not just cappuccino, but you know, coffee to go, but coffee to go that costs. You know, a fair whack and people start buying that in preference to the commodity coffee that they are being offered for free to drink in their office.So in other words, people start buying better coffee and from, from that Schultz builds the model of this format, whereby if my customers are paying me a nice margin on my coffee, I can give them there for a nice coffee house and they gradually standardized the design, standardized the recipe, standardized a lot, rolls out Starbucks and famously in the early nineties, 91, 92. Does this initial public offering of stock, and that enables him to rapidly rapidly expand Starbucks, and it becomes this huge megalith coffee house that it is today.


James: So Jonathan, you mentioned a megalith. I mean, how large was Starbucks back in the nineties compared to today?

Jonathan:In 1989. There's about in the US there's 46 Starbucks, right?

James:  Only 46.

Jonathan: I know it's so little, 1994. So this is two years after the IPO, 425. By 2000, he's got 2,776

James:  That’s a lot of coffee shops…

Jonathan: 2013 we've got 11,962. I mean, so this is a massive increment. But the other thing to explain James is how hegemonic that makes Starbucks in the US right?

James:  Right

Jonathan:Because we had this specialty coffee movement, we've got this Specialty Coffee Association, which was trying to keep track of the number of outlets it thought where specialty and it counted Starbucks. So in 1989, you could say that Starbucks was under 8% of the specialty offer with its 46 stores.

James:  Right.

Jonathan:  By 2000 it's 22%.

James: Right

Jonathan:  So 22% of all specialties outlets are Starbucks. By 2013, it's over 40%.


Jonathan:Starbucks becomes the definition to the average American of what they think a specialty coffee shop is.

James: Hold the phone, hold the phone because I do recognize this definition of specialty coffee. Like for me, specialty coffee is independent coffee shops


James: Light roasted coffee.You have the stereotype of the grumpy barista who will tell you off for using sugar in their coffee. To me, Starbucks is mainstream. It's not specialty.

Jonathan:I mean, this is an earlier version of specialty because this was very special for most people.

James: Hmm.

Jonathan: Okay. This was the first time they'd really, many people had seen an espresso based drink.

James: Hmm.

Jonathan:Of any kind, you know, café latte was very exotic. It was exotic back in the day my boy. Sorry, I'm going to show my age again here, but I mean, there are a lot of places that were very down on those kinds of drinks as being la-di-dah, fussy latte drinking liberals and all the rest of it. I mean, I remember in the UK McDonald's used to run this ad, which said, you know, we don't do largely dark coffee. We just do black coffee. Right

James: How that tune has changed.

Jonathan:Exactly. Now McDonald's writes adverts about how good its flat whites are.


Jonathan: So what you're asking me is how come that sounds like the absolute averse to you, of what you understand as specialty coffee. And the answer to that I think is because, you know, with every great sort of corporatization with every great wave comes a reaction.

James: Hmm

Jonathan: You know, what's the next level on coffee? Where do we go now? And when they see particularly the corporates doing things like, for example, using automatic coffee machines.So there's a very key moments in the history of Starbucks. People may not realize is Starbucks the people who popularized La Marzocco. For those who don't know La Marzocco, it's like a Ferrari type of version of a coffee machine.

James: You've seen the espresso machines for sure, very stylish.

Jonathan:Starbucks in 1999, as the thing absolutely takes off bigger and bigger and bigger. So they move away from Marzoccos, they move away from using traditional machines and start using fully automatic machines

James: Now by fully automatic, you mean, instead of there being a barista, grinding it themselves, measuring it out, you know, weighing the shots as they're coming out and being, you know, really fussy with the machine. Super dramatic. It's like, Bam, press a button. Bam. There's your coffee.

Jonathan: Exactly.


James: So, you know, Jonathan, we have a world in the early two thousands where there are, how many did you say thousands of Starbucks?

Jonathan: There's a great cartoon, isn't there? That somebody goes and lands  on the moon and then discovers a Starbucks store there.

James: Right? Exactly. And then at some point, Starbucks is offering a dependable, fully automatic coffee experience across its, you know, thousands and thousands of stores. Starbucks becomes the mainstream.

Jonathan: What this is like is like fashion or music you rebel against the generation before you


James: Jonathan, can you quickly paint for me that transition over the last 20 years of my kind of specialty coffee shop.

Jonathan:So there was a great moment. For example, in London, there's, it's the opening of a shop called Flat White

James: Very famous place.

Jonathan: And of course now a very famous, almost symbolic drink because the flat white is supposed to be the craft version of the latte. It's all about micro velvet in your bubbles, in your milk. It's very scientific and you use, you know, really wellprepared coffee. And this opened in London and became. It almost a rallying point for those people who wanted to take coffee culture further by becoming more artisan or not less, but becoming more interested in the varieties of approaches to coffee rather than standardizing and approach.

James: Right.

Jonathan: And going back to that whole notion of a passion project, if you like that, for many of these people, coffee was a passion and profit was secondary to what you did.

James: Um

Jonathan: It's not about making money. It's not about being corporate. It's about sharing your approach with your audience or your fans.


Jonathan:The fact that you could share stuff over the internet meant that a lot of what became the next wave of specialty coffee, people who define themselves as artisans or third wave or whatever, would be, you know, looking at the internet and they would see, the work of certain barristers or inferences who became famous through things like the World Barista Championships through the start of a sort of set of really internet only distributed staff, who would swap ideas around, so suddenly what you had going on in London might be going on in Berlin, you know, so suddenly all over the world or Singapore, you had this sort of transnational movement growing up.


James: I remember, hopping on a flight and go into a random city across Europe. First thing you do when you touch down, get out your phone and search best coffee in this city. And my experience in that coffee shop in a random city will be so similar to my favorite coffee shop back in London with a textured milk and the flat white

Jonathan:What they call James, the “no-brand brand”

James: Right. Jonathan: So, I mean, there's another way that you could recognize specialty coffees shops would be their furnishings. Yeah, nearly always it's really stripped out this kind of, sort of industrial

James: Scandi thing.

Jonathan: Yeah, exactly. And it's all about the focus is on the coffee. So the design of the sharp actually is like, Hey, look at the big glistening coffee machine, look at how we put all the money in the coffee. You know, you can sit on a scratchy, old chair, you can freeze in the cold. You don't need wifi. Cause we don't want you doing anything, like checking your phone. You're going to look at the coffee

James: Absolutely


James: And it grows and grows and developed and you have new toys and new personalities and on and on, it goes until you get to today.



James:  If you're a coffee drinker and you have enough money to spend on all these amazing flavors and contraptions, I mean, this is a great time for you. But what about the coffee farmer? This entire series. We've covered this race to the bottom and how coffee is practically a poverty trap for millions of people who live in developing countries. Does specialty coffee solve the poverty trap?

Jonathan: No. And specialty coffee almost by definition won't solve it. If all coffee is specialty, it becomes meaningless. That's exactly what happened if I may say so too, you know, the notion of the specialty coffee being the cappuccino becomes meaningless when Dunkin Donuts is doing a cappuccino.

James: Right.


James: And just to jump in and say, if I'm a farmer, you know, I'll produce a huge range of qualities of coffee and the best 10% might get a higher pricebecause it is specialty. It has something distinctive in the cup. But a higher price and 10% might not do much if 90% of your coffee is sold at commodity prices.

Jonathan:The other thing to say that James is so much of that depends, certainly in my view, on balkanizing high quality processing and that's beyond the means of many farmers

James: Right? Careful coffee processing takes a lot of money, a lot of investment. And so what we've seen is those farmers who are able to have sustainable coffee farms growing specialty coffee were already relatively rich. If they didn't stay in coffee, they could have probably become lawyers, accountants, whatever they weren't in the poverty trap in the first place.


Jonathan: I don't want to minimize the impact of specialty coffee, because I think specialty coffee has had a big impact. It's made us think, it's created a sector where quality is rewarded and premium coffee, and it's also created a consumer awareness and aspiration, and that drives a change in the market.


James: So when I was in Guatemala, I remember the advice of a coffee buyer to a coffee producer, and they said you should try and find as many different markets for your coffee as possible.


James: So like, if you can afford it, get certified so that you can sell your coffee, maybe as fair trading at Fair Trade prices for what you can sell, they said absolutely your best coffees, you know, figure out which ones they are and then sell those at higher prices. And, you know, for the rest of your coffees, just try and get the best price you can when you shop it around at the local mills. So I see specialty coffee becoming a helpful thing, but not a revolutionary thing.

Jonathan: No, there is no one solution to referencing can't risk that.


James: So Jonathan, that gets me on to the arcs, the future of coffee

Jonathan:Yeah. I figured you'd say that.

James: Well, listen, I know you're a historian. Okay. And the last thing anybody wants to do be called out for, especially historian is getting the future wrong.

Jonathan: It's a professional obligation of all historians to say that what happened in the past helps determine what happens next, but it doesn't give us the ability to be fortune tellers about it.

James: Right. So you know, bearing in mind, or

Jonathan:I knew you wouldn't let me get away with that.

James: Um, with the information we have today, what are we going to see in Brazil?

Jonathan:Oh, in Brazil, I think. That's fairly clear. Brazil is the scale producer and it always will be, but Brazil's production at scale is very efficient. Brazil will continue to be certainly the major Arabica producer and it will be a significant Robusta producer and it will continue to be probably the world's biggest producer

James: And Jonathan I've read studies that suggest that global demand for coffee is going to increase.

Jonathan: Yeah

James: We have China drinking what I don't know about cups per person per year, but like in neighboring career in Japan, you know, they drink hundreds of cups per person per year. So we're potentially talking about hundreds of billions, more cups of coffee consumed every year. And that's just China. Africa's population is rising. India begins drinking a lot more coffee. So coffee consumption is going to increase and you'd think that'd be good for a current existing producers because more demand, with the same supply equals a higher price, but because of the efficient mechanization of Brazilian agriculture, how they can produce so much coffee, so cheaply, a lot of that excess demand is going to be met with excess supply from Brazil.

Jonathan: Yeah, well, I'm going to take only a slight disagreement with that.

James: Mhmm

Jonathan:Okay. First of all, I think also a lot of that will be met by production from Vietnam. This already is. Vietnam is China's biggest supplier and Vietnam of course has been the other major, major coffee success, if you like.

James: Right. So what's gonna happen to Vietnam?

Jonathan:Vietnam, will continue to be a major producer, continue to specialize in Robusta and use that Robusta to create instant coffee, which will supply a significant part of that growing market, particularly in Asia.

James: Gotcha.


James: How about like jumping across to maybe a more nuanced kind of part of the world Central America and Colombia?

Jonathan:Yeah. Interesting. On the one hand, those family farms that have been able to invest in processing have been the biggest beneficiaries of specialty they've produced fantastically good coffees as you and I know from drinking them, and there will be a market for that going forward. But if you're a small scale farmer in, for example, Colombia, you know, costs are high, you haven't got the money, your coffee doesn't quite fit, so I suspect that there will be a smaller specialty segment in those countries.

James: And I think that's most exemplified Jonathan, I dare I say with a coffee that we're drinking?


James: The coffee we're drinking comes from Panama and Panama itself  because it developed quite far, economically, in the same way that Costa Rica has, you know, actually it became actually quite expensive to grow coffee. And now you have a brand of coffee coming out of Panama, the Panamanian Geisha coffee, which wins a lot of awards, it's incredibly aromatic and it carves out a little niche for itself for extremely high quality coffees that are really rare.

Jonathan: I mean, what we're seeing in Panama, I think more than anywhere else actually is huge investments in producing tiny micro lots of incredibly highly priced specialty coffee

James: Yeah

Jonathan:Which scores very well, but then gets auctioned off at amazing prices so I think over $2,000 dollars.

James: And Jonathan, if we just kind of go North from Panama to Costa Rica.


James: And then we have a very interesting situation where Costa Rican coffees haven't yet got to the Panamanian level of winning awards everywhere it goes and getting extremely high prices. Yet as a country, Costa Rica is relatively the most stable and prosperous in the region, and so it's becoming harder and harder to run a coffee farm in Costa Rica because labor's quite expensive. And that's because people and I've met them, their parents work in coffee on a small little farm on the mountains, and then their children become engineers, which is a great outcome for everybody, for the family. But it does mean coffee's not going to get grown.

Jonathan: I think you're exactly right with your description, James. I suspect we won't see anything other than very specialty coffee from Costa Rica

James: Right.

Jonathan:Because that's what it will need to be to command a price that commands the labor.

James: So it needs to follow the Panama model. It can't do the Brazilian model of just like, industrialized agriculture.

Jonathan:Yeah, exactly. Remember that the Brazilian industrial model will say depends on the kind of land. So the, the fact that Brazil has some quite flat land really helps with that.


James: And Jonathan, let me just spin the globe here. I'm going to stop it by putting my finger on Africa, what are we going to see there?

Jonathan:Well, that's a big place to put your finger, James. That's my favorite place for coffee, James and truth it's an origin I visited, I've been to Rwanda, I’ve been to Burundi then to Uganda, and it's incredibly challenging. Most people growing coffee in Africa, they are people who live on small plots of land. They grow the coffee as a cast crop in with the other stuff that they grow for themselves to eat very frequently, it's a little household, maybe wife tends to plot. Man quite often goes to work in the city, may not be seen for a long time.

James: Hmm. They harvest their coffee, they take it down to the local processing station, usually a washing station. I just, just it's in my, my mind right now, as I look at it, I'm looking down a hillside to a lake and in front of me, I'm seeing loads of what they call African beds, where you put all the cherry out to dry. And, you know, if you've washed it and you've got it down to the bean, you put it out to dry, or if you're going to do a naturally, put it out and you see these whole tables of red beans in front of you, and then you see lots of people who are sorting the coffee. It's fantastic. But by God, it's hard


James: With climate change, I have read studies that suggest that 50% of all land today that is suitable for coffee, won't be by 2050

Jonathan: Correct.

James: Then you also just have this persistent low price, for all the reasons we've discussed over the series. And so, you know, the future for the small holder, African coffee farmer who has heaven knows a hundred trees or so.

Jonathan: it's going to be very tough. Because unless they are lucky enough to get into a specialty system or a very good certification system. Then they are totally at the mercy of that market. And that means they are at the mercy of the same price, that's going to those industrialized places in Brazil and to the volume Robusta places in Vietnam. So it's very tough.


Jonathan:The second thing. Sorry, you mentioned climate and the 50%. Yeah, lots of people are worried about climate change. I'm not worried about it for coffee globally. We are already seeing the work being done on that. In terms of, you know, how do you produce stronger, more climate resistant strains of coffee

James: Right

Jonathan:There's a story this week about coffee stenophylla, which was once grown in Sierra Leone. And it's a more resistant group that they've discovered has the qualities of Arabica. So maybe we'll start seeing some interbreeding with that.

James: Yeah

Jonathan:We've seen breeding policies around the world. So we'll probably come up with more climate resistant quality coffee

James: But

Jonathan: But will the 50% of people who are going to lose their livelihood, be the 50% who will grow the extra coffee.

James: Hmm.


James: Yeah so Jonathan, what you're saying is that we, coffee drinkers, will always have coffee in our cups.


James: It'll always be grown. But who's going to grow it? And a lot of people who are currently growing it won't be growing it. And millions of these people oftentimes don't have anything else that they can grow that can earn a livelihood. So there's going to be a lot of pain for millions of people.

Jonathan:The logic of capitalism suggests that that will be the case unless there is some deliberate intervention.

James: Jonathan Indonesia, what's going to happen there?


Jonathan:Indonesia was of course Java it's the first place that coffee was taken outside the ultimate domain and imposed really on the population to grow coffee, to supply the Dutch

James: Hmm

Jonathan: In recent years, Indonesia has started not only producing coffee, but actually consuming coffee

James: And Jonathan, that theme of coffee bean drank in the country where it's grown.I've seen that on my travels when I was in Indonesia.


James: The small cafes that would partner with a few farmers and drink this amazing coffee.

Jonathan: Yeah. And I mean, I think that's a wonderful development, James. Indonesians are making Indonesia's coffee history. That's a great develop.

James: Isn't that funny? Because as you say coffee was a plant imposed upon Indonesians by white Europeans with great suffering famines. So many deaths. And yet now, you know, Indonesia seems to be turning it around and owning it and celebrating it.

Jonathan:Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think that sort of taking of ownership combines a little bit with this nation of decolonizing coffee history, you know, giving them the ownership of the history and the ownership of the, of the coffee back to the people who are producing it.

James: So instead of it being a story of Europeans, it's now an Indonesian story.

Jonathan:Exactly. A story of Indonesia's heritage.


James: So Jonathan would you take us now to Yemen. What are we going to see there?

Jonathan:Oh wow. You are going to see me praying. Yemen has had so many years of conflicts right back to the time at the beginning of coffee

James: Yeah

Jonathan:And it will always be expensive and it will be incredibly expensive and very difficult to locate for as long as there is, as there currently, sadly is a complete security emergency in Yemen.So to go right back to where we started, James, you know, right now, Mokha, Al Hudaydah, the key exporting ports for the first 200 years of known coffee history they are devastated they are being attacked. There are people dying there all the time, and there is seemingly no end to this insight. I would love to visit Yemen. I would love to see this origin, but you know, let's be real. I just hope it survives.

James: Yeah.


James: Hopefully best case scenario is that. Yemeni coffee turns into what's happening with Panama. It becomes a very special coffee from a very special region.

Jonathan:Yeah. And it will always be a very small niche producer


James: So now Jonathan, let's go back into the birthplace of coffee to Ethiopia, into the cloud forest, where we began this entire series. What are we going to be seeing there in the future?

Jonathan: I think we would still be able to fly over the cloud forest, as we did in episode one and come down and hopefully find some coffee being grown. Coffee growing semi-wild being foraged.Now, Ethiopia also has always, always been. A consumer of its own coffee, about half of it. So there are people growing coffee in Ethiopia, for Ethiopian consumption, but there is of course a big problem. Ethiopia is greatly affected by climate change. That chance that 50% of the coffee growing areas will become unsuitable for growing coffee Arabica, that applies very specifically in Ethiopia.


James: So let me just zoom right back to who, you know, the promo to the entire series.


James: Well, you said, if we understand coffee history, we will understand how to make coffee going forward, a more equitable industry and one that is also more environmentally friendly.


James: And here we see that climate change is going to make coffee production really, really hard. And it's going to really hurt millions of small holder producers. You have very few other economic options all on the foundation of a historically low price. So what can I do as a coffee drinker to try to make coffee a bit more equitable to try and make it a bit more environmentally friendly to change coffee's history in my lifetime?

Jonathan:I think the first thing to say, and it may sound strange is please drink coffee. Okay. Because you're not helping anyone by saying, Oh, this is a bad product. You may have seen recently that there were revelations in the paper about how they still found some child labor being employed on the States, I think in Guatemala, from which both Nespresso and Starbucks were taking coffee. Now, both Nespresso and Starbucks were not taking that coffee knowingly. They in fact reacted against it. But the other thing, and the thing that really struck me in the program itself was that the very organizations, the local organizations that to expose this also said, look, please carry on drinking our coffee.This is what we need for our economics. So that's the first thing, enjoy your coffee. And when I say enjoy your coffee, identify areas that you'd like, be prepared to pay a bit more, be prepared to ask some questions.

James: Can I jump in and say, the supply chain of coffee can get very opaque and very complicated, very quickly.

Jonathan: It can

James: And it's very difficult to know as a consumer, how much a farmer's getting paid. So where possible, try to get that information where possible, put that against the information of like, well, what does it cost to produce coffee? And can a farmer have a long-term sustainable business doing this? There are green coffee merchants, there are roasters, there are people who do provide this information. You are going above and beyond to make those connections. And some of them also partner with the sorts of coffee farmers who are going to be most hit as climate change gets worse. The smaller coffee producer.

Jonathan: If you're interested enough in coffee, that you've been listening to this series, you've now acquired. An understanding of how the system works and an understanding of how it evolved. No one's expecting you to do all the trace work, but you can at least find out a little bit about your roaster and about the origin of your coffee, and you can start it into what you've learned and you can begin to make some informed choices.

James: You may think, Oh, you know, what difference does it make? You know, just little old me buying some coffee. How am I going to change the world in this ginormous system with these giant companies and uncontrolled race to the bottom? My retort to it is this: If you drink two to three cups, a day of coffee, you might be spending, I don't know, up to about 750 euros a year, potentially more.You do the math, we're talking maybe 7,500 euros over a decade. That's a lot of money in the coffee supply chain and wherever you direct that money, someone's going to benefit. So you have power.

Jonathan: You do. And James, if I could say, you know, the last two episodes that we've recorded for all that we've pointed out, the difficulties that accompanied certification, that accompanied specialty, we've also pointed out that these two movements have started reversing. The whole notion of coffees and everyday good that you don't think about on the cheapest is best. And that's being translated into changing consumer tastes. It's going to take time

James: Right

Jonathan:But it is happening.

James: And if you spread the word to family and friends and it have other people change their coffee habits too, the journey you've been on to understand where you want to spend your money to do that intentionally, you can multiply that effect two, three, five, 10, 50 times.

Jonathan:That's absolutely right. And by the way, you're going to get a lot more pleasure out of drinking your coffee. Let's celebrate the fact coffee tastes good, and you're going to direct your money back to the people who most need it, and you are going to be a part of coffee's history and coffee's future.


Jonathan: Thanks for listening to the series on A History of Coffee.

James: If you enjoyed it, it meant a lot to us. If you could write a review on Apple Podcasts or tell your friends

Jonathan:And of course, if you'd like to go deeper into coffee history, my book, Coffee, Global History, you can find the details of in the show notes.

James: And Jonathan, you mentioned decolonization. And the other day we had an Instagram Live session with a friend of yours, and we are going to be turning that into a bonus episode.

Jonathan: Yeah, I'm really pleased about this, James and it had a fantastic reception. So we did the Instagram Live session with Peter D’Sena, who is my colleague at the University of Hartford share and vice-president of the Royal Historical Society, but an expert on the whole decolonization movement in history.

James: And to be clear, the de-colonization conversation is about looking at, you know, what did colonialism do? What are the tentacles of colonialism? That's still stretch into our daily life that seeks to address some of the problems brought up by colonialism.

Jonathan:So keep an eye on this podcast channel for when that extra episode comes out, and hopefully for whatever we might be able to do in the future, James, about the history of coffee, but it's been, it's been great. Thank you everyone.

James: Yeah, thanks everyone for listening. And for all the lovely comments we've received in socials, this podcast was produced by me, James Harper and yourself, Jonathan Morris, and I also wrote and played the piano music that you're listening to.

Jonathan:Thank you everyone for following us on this series. And we look forward to speaking to you the next time that we venture out into the history of coffee.

James: But for now, enjoy your coffee, because you are drinking coffee history

Listen to Filter Stories - Coffee Documentaries


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