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Reclaiming the Exotic in Coffee

By Peter Giuliano

To many, a cup of coffee ranks right up there with apple pie, as one of the most ubiquitous American culinary experiences. Our parents and grandparents drank coffee, and the “Cup of Joe” seems inexorably linked with the all-American G.I. of the same name. However, while coffee’s traditional position in American culture is very real, it’s only a tiny part of coffee’s broad story. Too easily, we let coffee’s ubiquity overshadow its exotic pedigree.

Exotic simply means “from elsewhere,” but its use in our language conjures up a kaleidoscope of images, scents and feelings. A noisy Arabian souk, alive with colored cloths, braying animals, screaming vendors, gleaming brass trays, and scents of spices and smoke, now that’s exotic. So is a quiet, Pacific island, dominated by a sleeping volcano, the sea air heavy with the scent of misty forest and tropical flowers. Since both of these scenes are deeply connected with coffee’s origin to this very day, how can we think of such things as “ordinary”?

In our current marketplace, we’ve become insensitive to the many clues, which belie coffee’s exotic heritage. “Java,” for example, has become a slang term for the coffee beverage itself, rather than the name of a volcanic Pacific island, east of Krakatoa. “Mocha” has become the name of a chocolaty coffee drink, not the port city on the Red Sea Coast of Yemen. Guatemala Antigua, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Brazil Santos and Sumatra Mandheling, are commonly used to describe coffees held in airpots, much as we would describe flavors of ice cream. To our discredit, the coffee industry has done a tremendous amount to alienate the consumer from coffee’s true pedigree. Instead of talking truthfully about coffee’s origin, we surround coffee with imagery and information that speaks only to the last bit of coffee’s journey. We pick a clever name for our company, and we name blends after local landmarks, a favorite pet or an inside joke. In doing all this, the consumer is left with the sense that coffee is just another product of the American food industry.

It’s up to us -- the merchants of coffee -- to reclaim coffee’s exotic nature, and share it with the coffee consumer.

Coffee has a swashbuckling history unequaled among beverages. Legends abound regarding coffee’s origins; crafty monks, Dutch spies, obsessed would-be coffee tycoons and the legendary Baba Budans (smuggler of the first coffee seeds to leave Arabia), join the famous dancing goats in the epic history of coffee.

One can barely imagine another food with so rich a tapestry of stories. It’s tragic, however, that so few know the history of our trade, especially since the coffeehouse setting is the perfect place to share these wonderful tales. This story -- the story of a special seed that grew from a local habit in Ethiopia to a thriving international trade, with devotees so passionate that they could not imagine a day without their steaming cup -- lends an air of mystery and romance to the experience of drinking coffee. This is a value that can’t be equaled by the myriad beverages that are vying with coffee for the drinkers’ attention. Instead, it should be recognized as the rightful heritage of the coffee trade, and one of the best ways to add value to our product.

Legends aside, coffee is the produce of one of the most magical places on Earth, which are the forested mountains of Eastern Ethiopia. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that coffee is a fruit that came from the Garden of Eden, especially since the oldest human skeleton ever found was discovered in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, only a short distance from the forest where coffee first appeared. When one inhales the floral fragrance of a great cup, as the steam rising from the brew caresses the face and makes one’s cheeks flush, it is possible to be transported to that misty, primeval forest and taste the environment that conceived coffee.

The Journey
It is not necessary to indulge oneself in the contemplation of coffee’s history to get a sense of coffee’s exotic nature. Coffee is grown in some of the most astounding places on Earth, from the slopes of the smoking volcanoes of Guatemala, to the steaming forests surrounding the inconceivably vast Lake Toba in Sumatra. It is cultivated on the mountainsides, surrounding the ancient and mysterious city of Macchu Picchu, and one must pass through coffee trees while hiking to visit the enigmatic Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, a species that was thought to be a myth only a generation or two ago. One can also buy coffee grown by the heirs to the Mesoamerican Aztec culture, or shipped through the legendary straits of Malacca, or traded by the Betel-Chewing Batak Women of Lintong Nihuta.

Coffee touches some of the most exotic locales and cultures on earth. To ponder that journey, while engaging in the pleasant pastime of coffee drinking, is to truly appreciate the incredible miracle of international commerce that a perfect cup of coffee represents. If a drinker tries hard enough, it is possible to detect the smoke of volcanoes, the perfume of the Spice Islands, and the unfamiliar fruits of East Africa in the most special coffees. However, one must know the origin of their coffee in order to understand this journey, and that is why a real understanding of origins is so important.

Ways to Recapture the Exotic
This may all seem like a romantic overview, and that’s exactly the point! Coffee is an incredibly romantic beverage -- let’s not lose that sense in our everyday quest to trade profitably in coffee. There is nothing less exotic than an undifferentiated, anonymous cup of coffee.

The romance of coffee lies in the details, or the story behind the cup. The best ways to imbue the coffee drinking experience with romance is to find ways to tell that story, without turning it into a lesson. Here are some suggestions for the coffee retailer:

Transparency in Origin
Blends are great, but they say more about the roaster and blender’s art, than the origin of the constituent coffees. Coffees should be sold by their true origins, rather than under an obfuscated, confusing name. This allows for the coffee producer to be recognized for his craftsmanship, and also allows the consumer to appreciate the cultural and geographic reality of the coffee they are drinking. A great coffee trader, whether roaster or importer, will proudly provide information and details on the real pedigree of the coffees, including country of origin, growing region, name of the farm or co-op, name(s) of the producer, altitude, coffee variety, geographic landmarks, and cultural information. If you can’t get that information, find another source! Then, find a way to articulate that information into a friendly retelling of the coffee’s journey. Maps, posters and labels can be great tools in recapturing the adventure.

There’s something about a great photograph, in that it can speak directly to a person’s heart, giving the observer a great sense of the subject. A simple photo can be among the most powerful statements about a coffee’s “story.” A small picture -- next to the “Coffee of The Day” sign -- of the estate and farmer that created the coffee can have a real impact on the coffee drinker. In order for the photo to have direct impact, however, the photo must be real, not the stock imagery that usually surrounds coffee marketing. Also, pictures showing traditional costumes, foods, and the local geography of a coffee’s origin can give the drinker a real sense of the exotic place where the coffee was born.

Distinction in the Cup
Traditionally, many coffee buyers have sought coffees they thought to be broadly acceptable to consumers. Even in the specialty segment, which is purportedly dedicated to unique coffee experiences, many buyers try to find coffees that have no chance of challenging or surprising the consumer. Sadly, this robs the coffee drinker of great coffee experiences -- the most sublime coffee experiences are those that speak to coffee’s terroir, the distinct flavors that prove the place of a particular coffee’s birth. As a coffee buyer, I have seen the tragic result of this practice. Many coffee producers, rather than creating coffees in the unique style of their origin, instead pursue the “safe” route of manufacturing bland, indistinct, inoffensive and permissible coffees. These coffees represent, perhaps, the greatest challenge to the understanding of coffee’s exotic nature, insofar as they are indistinguishable from one another. A great Kenyan coffee should be imbued with “Kenyan-ness”, fairly screaming its unique characteristics to the drinker. It is only when we trade in coffees like this that we can hope to help consumers make the connection between the coffee’s name and the coffee’s place.

About the Author: Peter Giuliano is the director of coffee and owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a coffee roaster in Durham, North Carolina. He has been in the coffee industry for 18 years as a barista, manager, roaster and coffee buyer. Peter has also served as president of the Roasters’ Guild, and currently sits on the board of directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Tea & Coffee - July/August, 2006

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