We make many decisions each day, some harder than others. The first, for many, is coffee: Flat white? Espresso? Macchiato? Drip? Filter? And yet, there’s much more to that choice than meets the eye. Many small decisions culminate in that cup, decisions that reach far beyond your hit of caffeine.
The history of coffee is one of both exploitation and celebration. Coffee beans (or, more correctly, berries) have traditionally been grown in developing nations. Unfortunately, this comes with a chequered history of price gouging, poor labour conditions and unpredictable quality. While these issues are now somewhat mitigated through certification systems such as Fair Trade, a lot still does not meet the eye.
At Artificer, my brilliant local coffee shop in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the decisions start at the source. Looking further than Fair Trade, they search for the stories behind the growers.
Take, for example, the story of their Rwandan coffee. Epiphane Mukashyaka of BufCoffee lost her husband, a child and much of her extended family during the mass genocide of 1994. Left a widow, with seven mouths to feed, Epiphane turned her hands to her husband’s coffee plantation, determined to make it work.
With help from initiatives such as Partnership to Enhance Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL), Epiphane grew her business from picking to processing. She was the first woman in Rwanda to hold a privately-owned company with her specialty coffee business. She has taken the community with her, working with a number of local farmers who supply their berries. Furthermore, adding a washing station to her business has brought water and power not just to her business, but also to her neighbours and her community. And then, she shares her profits with both the farmers and processors. What a woman!
Imagine drinking that spirit each morning – knowing some of your dollars are heading not just to Rwanda, but to Epiphane and the collective of farmers she works with each year.
A quality decision
The story in the cup does not end there. Once the berries are picked, sorted, washed, fermented, dried and packaged, they are roasted. In the case of Artificer, that happens in Sydney. Bean quality has a huge impact on the level of roasting required. Lesser quality beans benefit from longer, harsher roasting; better quality shines under much less.
From there, of course, it’s the skill of the barista, the milk quality, the cleanliness of the machine. For me, this is also balanced out by personality – I’m particular about the company I keep before my first coffee!
Do your research, look into the background of a café, their focus, their coffee supplier, how transparent are they with where the coffees are from. Have these conversations. March with your wallet. (Price is a whole other kettle of fish – why is it that coffee, ranging drastically in quality for all the above reasons, are all given the same price tag?)
Beyond the cup
With a flavour profile that can run from bitter through sweet, coffee has taken up residency in the kitchen of many cultures for its unique taste.
Of course, the Italians have long celebrated it in their tiramisu, its enduring friendship with chocolate and cream also seen in ice-creams, cakes and other desserts. In the Southern states of America, it has found a place on the long and slow barbecues, used as a rub to create a deep, rich crust for brisket and short ribs. Used sparingly, it can also boost your next braise, adding complexity and earthiness.
It’s time to think of coffee beyond the caffeine, to see it for all its beauty as an ingredient. Just as wine is celebrated for much more than its alcohol content – for its distinct flavours and origins – so it should be with coffee.
Beef, chocolate, cream, venison, danishes, orange, banana, vanilla.
Select and store
Opt for freshly ground, tightly sealed, quickly used! Air, heat and moisture are the enemy here.