• "I’ll grab a regular flat white with beans grown at 1400 metres above sea level.” (Flickr)Source: Flickr
It's bizarre to order your latte based on what altitude the beans were grown at. What Osman Faruqi wants to know is if the folk farming them were paid a decent wage.
By
Osman Faruqi

22 Apr 2016 - 8:21 AM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2016 - 8:21 AM

My relationship with coffee is as complex and varied as the taste of a cup of murky brown juice that emerges when hot water is dripped through delicately roasted and finely (but not too finely) ground coffee beans.

Like nearly half of all Australians I’m a regular coffee drinker. But I have a love-hate relationship with the beverage. The challenge, I’ve found, is to balance the desire for morning alertness and stimulation with the risk of caffeine induced over-stimulation. I used to drink 3-4 cups a day before the anxiety and stress induced by all the caffeine pumping through my system became too much. Now I’m down to one cup. It’s enough to perk me up and kick-start my day.

The whole coffee scene has always been a bit weird. We basically pump ourselves full of a drug to help us perform better at work, argue about what ratio of milk to hot, roasted bean juice is ideal, talk about “our baristas” as though this subsection of hospitality workers are our own personal employees and yell at each other when we’re presented with a drink that’s too bitter.

On top of that we’ve invented the bizarre concept of “decaffeinated” coffee, removing a significant aspect of the drink’s stimulating appeal, and apparently some people even poison themselves by consuming ridiculous drinks like “skinny soy lattes”.

Are modern-day coffee drinkers really that discerning when it comes to ordering their cup? 

But somehow we’ve managed to make coffee even weirder. And now, sadly, I think we’ve taken the whole idea of coffee culture too far.

The provenance of ones coffee beans has always been a crucial, if highly unnecessary, aspect of coffee consumption. Aficionados will fight to the death over whether beans grown in Ethiopia are better than those grown in Brazil or China. Let’s be honest – most of the people beating each other up over which nation grows the best coffee beans, or whether a latte is better drink than a flat white, couldn’t tell you the difference between them in a blind taste test. Which makes the latest trend in coffee even more bizarre.

Altitude.

Yep. This is now considered must have information when it comes to deciding what sort of coffee you want to procure. Baristas will patiently outline the different bean options available – not just providing the consumer with the bean’s country of origin, and whether it’s organic, but the specific number of metres above sea level the coffee was grown at.

“This is outrageous. I never drink coffee grown at below 1300 metres above sea level! How dare you!”

I do not understand why this information is necessary or how it is in fact useful when it comes to ordering a morning coffee. Are modern-day coffee drinkers really that discerning when it comes to ordering their cup?

“Ah yeah, I’ll grab a regular flat white with beans grown at 1400 metres above sea level.”

“Sorry sir our beans are grown at 1200 metres above sea level.”

“This is outrageous. I never drink coffee grown at below 1300 metres above sea level! How dare you!”

The craziest part is that everyone was happily drinking coffee for years, completely oblivious to what altitude their beans were grown at. But as soon as some genius marketing company came up with the idea to “differentiate” products based on a number that is actually meaningless to most people, all of a sudden we’re experts on which specific mountain range is the best to grow coffee on.

I can accept that there are probably some minor climate-induced variations to flavour related to the altitude of the coffee beans. But by the time those beans are compressed, packed onto a boat, shipped to Australia, ground, chucked into a coffee machine, boiled and mixed with hot milk, the taste difference is very, very unlikely to be noticeable.

There’s one thing we’re deliberately left in the dark about: the labour conditions of coffee growers.

But there’s actually a bigger problem with the modern state of coffee culture that goes beyond clever marketing tactics designed to make us feel smarter and more discerning. While we know basically everything about the provenance of our coffee beans in terms of geography, the kind of fertiliser used and the altitude that they’re grown at, there’s one thing we’re deliberately left in the dark about: the labour conditions of coffee growers.

Given the coffee industry is rife with exploitation, including child labour and slavery, there’s a pretty glaring chasm between the wealth of information we have on the agricultural properties of coffee beans versus the pay and conditions of the people who grow and farm them.

It’s also disconcerting that we’ll spend more time arguing about the exact amount, and the particular brand, of soy milk we put in our coffee when we order it, but don’t bother to ask whether it was actually produced with slave labour.

Look, I’m not arguing that we should all stop drinking coffee. Like I said, I need the stuff to function. But if cafes can tell us the precise number of metres above sea level our beans were grown at, they can tell us whether the folk farming them were paid a decent wage.

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @oz_f.

Image by Albyantoniazzi (Flickr).

All articles written at 1200 metres above sea level
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