Coffee Abuse

August 15, 2007

Again, I headed over to 21st Street Coffee & Teafor a mid-day boost (sandwich, Nicaraguan coffee). Part of my motivation was, I must admit, an attempt to alleviate an oncoming headache. And I thought to myself: “Self, are you abusing this experience, this story, this coffee and all it entails just so you can experience the pleasant side effects of headache alleviation? Have you lowered yourself and this beverage to the lowest common denominator of caffeine?”

And in retrospect, I don’t think I did. I could have gone any number of other places in the Strip to feed my caffeine necessity, but I chose a coffee that had care behind it, from seed to cup, so to speak. It’s interesting to me, this appreciation for coffee apart from its requisite chemical composition. Sure, it’s endlessly fascinating and limitlessly rewarding, but can I really divorce that appreciation for coffee from its raw chemical power?

I suppose the question I’m really asking is this: to what end do we use things? Are we to appreciate a thing beyond its immediate utility? Wendell Berry once wrote that the value of tools is not in their novelty but in their utility. Regarding farm implements (plow, yoke, cart, hoe), the answer is pretty simple. Sure, you can do things faster with new technology, but can it be done better? In most things, I would agree with him: have computers made our lives more convenient? Has the automobile made our lives easier? Has the global marketplace done most of the world much good? My answer to these questions is, generally, no. Call me a Luddite. I’ve done as much myself.

But I hesitate to include coffee in this list. Perhaps it’s because I’ve invested a certain amount of energy in coffee, but I’m willing to say coffee is uniquely situated in the world to reach a vast amount of people and do a vast amount of good by using technology and by looking at it as more than a vehicle for caffeine. I talk to a good number of coffee drinkers here in Pittsburgh who, when asked about their preference of coffee, reply “whatever has the most caffeine.” I’ve begun conversations about the nuance of a Mexican coffee and its fascinating story (indigenous Chiapans who don’t recognize the sovereignty of the Mexican government! Isn’t that cool!) to be rebuffed by “does it have a lot of caffeine?” This reaction, I think, is the real abuse. Not that people are utilizing coffee for its caffeination, but that they have declined or neglected to see beyond the drug to its story and the work people have put into their coffee. It’s a lot like customers at a supermarket, buying a bag of potato chips without ever thinking about where those chips came from or what processes they’ve gone through to end up in the grocery store, in their hand.

I think the chief aim of coffee professionals should be to somehow enter into this disconnect between end product and holistic appreciation for said product. To bring people to an appreciation and an understanding for coffee where they would otherwise ignore the nuance and story altogether. If this happens, consumers of caffeine would then be consumers of coffee and patrons of stories. Then imagine how consumers might then rethink all of their buying decisions. Imagine direct trade style models for all kinds of food and office supplies and pillows. Sure, maybe somebody in China might be able to make a pillow cheaper than my friend down the street, but which is better for the world? Shouldn’t Chinese pillow-makers be making pillows for their Chinese neighbors? This begins to get into complicated matters of international trade, so I’ll stop here. Otherwise, I’d probably go on and on in vague, nebulous terms about the global economy and local economies. But think about it.

I suspect this whole argument is actually specious, because coffee isn’t actually a tool, so my comparison is a bit off. It’s still something I’d like to explore.

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3 Responses to “Coffee Abuse”

  1. Jacque said

    This reminds me of an article I read (somewhere, sorry– maybe possibly in Harper’s or on the Organic Consumers Assoc. website) about Whole Foods/”natural” products industry and the creation of stories with the intent of selling products. The gist of it was about how lots of people want to believe in stories behind their purchases, stories which lead them to believe that said purchases are responsible, when in fact many of these stories stretch the truth to a breaking point or are simply fictions, but that most people will believe them regardless, unwilling to spend energy fact-checking. These are the people who, for whatever reason, are already spending more money on food and have therefore given some thought to where their food is coming from and how it was produced.
    For the majority of people, factory farms, carcinogenic food additives, and social responsiblity are just words, words they are probably not even familiar with. The majority of people in this country are just trying to survive within the system which supports destructive practices and provides economic disincentives for changing the status quo. They feel successful when they can buy as many toxic products as they wish to have.
    I am in complete support of your idea, Phil. And I think everyone who recognizes the consequences that an unthinking consumer has on themselves and on everyone else has the responsibility to try to make them a little more aware. I only write to remind you of what a big struggle this is. It is really the challenge to get people to realize that you don’t get to choose what to be thoughtful about and what you don’t; you have to think about everything you do, the lesson that everything you do can provide fulfillment. It’s a battle you’re not going to win. But I’m glad you want to try.

  2. RichW said

    Here’s the thing with sticking 100% with direct trade as it exists right now – it’s limiting. It’s like shopping an old five and dime – yes, you can get different things, but usually only one thing in each category – in this case the “category” being a country. That Intelly is going this way is great, but others have to follow faster to make this model sustainably interesting for good coffeehouses and roasters.

    I really hate thinking of social responsibility vs. what tastes great, but that’s a conundrum that’s going to be with us for longer than most of us would like.

    Btw, will say again that we thought you said you didn’t like music from before you were born… so the Iggy Pop reference threw me! Good call though.

    And even we get the, “I’d like a cup of whatever is your darkest roast” crowd. We just roll with it most of the time.

  3. tmcclearinghouse said

    Jacque: I completely agree. The sticky part is, how are consumers to trust the people who tell them stories? Does the person selling you coffee need to provide pictures and affidavits proving their relationship with a coffee farmer?

    Unfortunately, people don’t have the time to investigate every purchasing decision they make overnight. And now that we’ve completely undermined trust in authority, we’re no longer able to trust stories that are told to us to sell things. And to jump to Rich’s comment, it would be fantastic if more roasters had the money, foresight, and gumption to do their legwork and go out and invest in the lives of farmers. I know Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, and more that I’m just forgetting are starting to pursue this model and demonstrate that exceptional quality partnered with relationship is a sustainable business model.

    Always more work to be done, I suppose.

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