Each time you sit back in your chair, with a nice hot cup of coffee, you are consuming one of the most power-laden commodities in the world. You are also sipping a product which has come on an incredible journey to arrive in your cup. The tale of coffee is a fascinating one and yet many people don’t even know the basic origin of coffee.
So, what is the story within that steamy cup of goodness which you reach for when you’re tired, bored or cold?
Home on the [coffee] Ranch
Just for a moment, imagine a rural area in Central Africa (or Central/South America or South East Asia for that matter). What is important is that there is no city for miles, only villages dotting the hillsides. The climate is warm and humid and the slopes are covered in plantations – worked by hand, by the people who live in those small villages. This is how the majority of coffee starts its life – as a tree of the coffea genus, growing at altitude in sub-tropical climates.
When the annual harvest time comes around, those villagers descend upon the coffee plants, picking the seeds (which contain the famous beans) and depositing them into sacks on their backs. They collect kilograms until the bags are full and then lug them back to the village. Sometime in the coming days or weeks, a local coffee trader will pass by the village and decide on a price for the coffee beans – inadvertently determining the farmer’s well-being for the next year. This price is determined by global demand as well as the price of fuel – the travelling trader needs to cover his costs after all.
Preparing for Market
The local trader then takes the bags of coffee into the city, and delivers it to a warehouse where hundreds of hands pick the beans from within the seeds and sort the good beans from the bad. When the price of coffee fluctuates, the sorters either gain or lose employment.
Entering the International Market
From the warehouse, the next step in the process is the auction house, where a price is settled on between the various local traders and representative traders from the international coffee roasteries.
The auction is the last time the coffee beans will be on home soil. From there, they are shipped to far-flung locations such as the UK or the USA, where they are bought, from the international traders, mainly by a small group of powerful companies who own most of the coffee roasteries – in South Africa you will recognise the names Nestle (Nescafe, Ricoffee) and Kraft (Jacob’s).
Resembling the Coffee We Know
When the beans arrive at the industrial roastery, huge batches (of mixed beans from around the world) are submitted to temperatures of over 200°C for roughly 20 minutes, before being transferred to a cooling tray where they’re sprayed with water to halt the cooking process. The freshly roasted coffee beans are then packaged and sent off to their next destination, invariably a different corner of the world, like South Africa.
Brewed to Perfection, Sipped in Ignorance
Upon arrival, the newest buyer in the chain will grind the beans and compress them just so to release the carbon dioxide they harbour. Finally, a good barrister will add water, at just the right rate and temperature and serve you a steaming cup of coffee. A steaming cup of coffee that represents the livelihoods of 1000’s of rural farmers, 1000’s of Rands and the tiniest percentage of the 20 000 tons of coffee that South Africans consume annually.
Next time you’re sipping a mug of coffee in one of the Dining-OUT listed coffee shops, take a moment to think about what it is you’re actually holding in your hands.