Unspoken Secrets of the Coffee Industry

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The industry’s favorite statistic is that Americans drink about 400 million cups of coffee a day. The industry also likes to talk about the “three Cs” of coffee: quality, convenience and cost. But there are actually four Cs: culture. Coffee is a social lubricant, a facilitator of conversation, the common thread in casual business meetings and a unifier of families.

In fact, coffee cherries are picked by hand, one at a time. And they are sorted by hand, with the help of a magnifying glass. The sorting process is slow, because the difference between coffee cherries that are perfect and coffee cherries that are imperfect is very small.

So what do you do when you have a large pile of coffee cherries, and you need to figure out which ones to throw away? You get a bunch of kids together and give them slingshots. It takes a lot of work to process a single pound of coffee cherries into one pound of coffee beans; it takes about an hour to sort ten pounds. So if you have ten thousand pounds of coffee cherries on your hands—as the owner of a big plantation in Guatemala does—you’ll be very interested in saving time.

It’s not surprising, then, that when I was visiting her plantation last year, the first thing I heard from my hostess was: “I’m going to show you something cool.” She led me over to an open shed and gestured at the long table inside.

The kids were shooting the cherries into piles. They were all young Mayan Indians and they seemed happy enough—they had been told this was good

Coffee goes through a long journey before it gets to the coffee drinker. Let’s see how a bean makes its way from the coffee plant to your mug.

On the farm: Coffee beans grow on trees, or more specifically bushes. The trees are called coffee plants. And they grow on farms. Farmers in many countries have to pick coffee cherries by hand because harvesting equipment isn’t yet available in those areas. Then they remove the cherry from the outside of the bean and throw it away. And then they dry and remove the outer skin/fruit surrounding the bean itself.

To be roasted: After that, farmers send their beans to big warehouses where an expert roaster begins working on them. The roaster has a machine with a rotating drum inside; he packs in the beans and spins them around until they get hot enough to crack open and release their flavor, then cools them down again so they can be packed into bags for shipping around the world.”

I’m not talking about the difference between Folgers and Starbucks. I’m talking about the difference between 99-cent store coffee and the $5 cups in fancy coffee shops. There is a big difference, but it’s not just in taste.

The 99-cent store coffee is less fresh. The fancy coffee is more fresh. Both of those things make a difference, but those are not the main reason the fancy coffee tastes better.

The main reason is that fancy coffee has more flavor compounds dissolved in it than cheap coffee does. That’s partly because of how long it is brewed, but mainly because of how it is roasted. Fancy roasters use more kinds of beans and more kinds of roasting equipment than grocery stores do, which means they can achieve a wider variety of flavors by varying their roasting techniques.

When you buy cheap coffee, you are getting only a narrow range of flavors — not necessarily bad flavors, but a narrow range nonetheless. When you buy expensive coffee, you are getting a wider range — maybe not all that different from what’s available at Starbucks, but still wider than what’s available at your local supermarket.*

“I’ll have a large coffee with cream and sugar.”

“Cream and sugar?” asks the barista.

“Yes,” you say. “I want my coffee sweet and creamy.”

The barista chuckles. “I’m sorry, we don’t have cream or sugar here.”

“What?” you reply. “What kind of coffee shop doesn’t have cream or sugar?”

“We’re an ethical coffee shop,” the barista says. “We only serve unadulterated coffee.”

You look at him as if he has three heads, then stomp out in disgust. Clearly this is an un-American establishment that does not know how to make good coffee.

From the 1600s onward, coffee was the most popular drink in Western Europe, a position it held for about three centuries. Although tea became more popular in the late 1700s, coffee retained its dominance until after World War I. After that, tea rose to become the world’s most popular beverage, and then declined to second place as coffee reclaimed its former title in the 1990s.

The history of tea and coffee is a fascinating tale of two important commodities–and of the merchants who made fortunes shipping them around the world.

The spice trade was a battleground, and the Dutch East India Company found itself caught up in the fight. Its first ship to sail into the Red Sea was captured by the Portuguese navy. The second made it through with just two cannons mounted on its deck. The third was sunk by a rival Dutch ship, and the fourth forced to turn back.

The following year, 1602, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten sailed to India as a member of the VOC’s new fleet and stayed there for more than 20 years. He mapped local waters, negotiated with local leaders and set up trading agreements. He also became a spy for his company: His written accounts of Indian ports and their defenses informed later military campaigns against them.

It was dangerous work. In 1605 he wrote home that he’d narrowly escaped being beheaded by an Indian king after offending him during negotiations. He had his right foot crushed by hostile locals in Ceylon and lost part of a finger to malaria.”

“I have never been so miserable in my life,” he wrote from Cochin, now Kochi, in southern India, complaining of a fever that had left him “half dead.”

And yet his letters also describe an exotic setting of sun-dappled jung

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