There is no ignoring the importance of coffee in the growth of the café industry, and coffee was at the centre of a recent podcast from the BBC Food Programme. In ‘Coffee and the God shot’ Dan Saladino explores a range of issues related to the specialty coffee industry. He begins by explaining a bit about his relationship with coffee, and in particular the espresso. He talks with various coffee experts to explore the world of the coffee bean from Prof Robert Thurston (author of Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean), and James Hoffman (leading coffee roaster and author of the World of Coffee). It is explained how making an espresso is one of the hardest single processes of food preparation because it is one where a difference of 2 or 3 seconds can have a real impact on the taste of the coffee you make. I remember this from my barista training at Prufrock, if you have the water running through the coffee too long, or for not enough time, by literally a couple of seconds you end up with really different results. There’s definitely a lot of skill behind making a good espresso.
It is highlighted how at the minute we are in the ‘Golden age of Coffee’ because there is such variety of different and special coffees available. But it is warned that this might not be the case for long because of the fragility of specialty coffee growing around the world – a point they return to later in the programme, and one which is of great importance to the coffee industry looking to the future.
The podcast explores how coffee has spread around the world – from its birth place in East Africa, from there to the Yemen and the Middle East, and how global trade empires ended up facilitating a more global spread of coffee growing. It is explained how the Dutch East India Company took coffee to India, Java Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and South America – all locations we associate today with coffee growing. What’s remarkable is how so many coffee growing areas stemmed from seeds originating from a plant housed in the Amsterdam botanical garden. The podcast explores how this plant led to different lines of Arabica coffee, and how this spread to a global culture of drinking coffee. Moving forward in time they explore how it was the development of espresso machine that transformed how coffee was drunk and how espresso culture developed in Italy, the US and beyond.
Another important distinction in the world of coffee is discussed – the difference between Arabica coffee and Robusta (a more tolerant plant that has beans with a higher caffeine content and usually associated with the production of instant coffee, or some old style espressos).
What is made clear is that coffee is very much a global product, and one which is susceptible to both the world’s environmental but also economic changes. Examples explored include the overproduction of coffee in Brazil in the 1930s which caused the price to drop; and how a decision to grow coffee in Vietnam, and the rise of coffee growing in south east Asia, has had an impact on some of the more traditional coffee growing communities in central and south America. It’s the Arabica varieties that have led to the specialty coffees we see today and the podcast talks to some of its producers (such as an El Salvador Coffee farmer), as well as coffee importers and roasters (such as Has Bean) and about how important these individual coffee farmers are to the industry.
Moving on to coffee preparation, Dan Saladino talks with Claire Wallace in Edinburgh about the use of an aeropress in an attempt to convince him there are other good ways to prepare coffee other than in an espresso. As a fan of the aeropress, I would highly recommend anyone who does like slightly stronger coffees to try one – it’s incredibly simple to use, and does produce a very smooth drink! Claire makes an interesting point though about the role of a barista in a coffee shop, speaking about how they are the link between the coffee producer and the consumer: “it feels like a lot of pressure on occasion because you’ve got all the hard work from the farmer, the roaster and all of that comes behind you and then it’s you, you’re the last link between all of that and the final consumer, so you have to represent all of that well”. Something to think about next time you’re ordering your coffee!
Turning to one of the most important parts of the programme is when they address some of the issues that are affecting the coffee growing industry. While the Robusta variety of plant is easier to grow and less susceptible to disease, the Arabica varieties are in a very fragile situation. In part, it is explained, that the fragility comes from the fact that because the varieties are so genetically similar they are all susceptible to some of the same diseases and pests; and the impact of climate change is creating even more problems for these plants which are more sensitive to climatic conditions (and the pests that accompany them). A combination of the lack of genetic diversity, climate change, and human activities such as urbanisation clearing land that has previously been used for coffee cultivation means the production of specialty coffee is in a very precarious situation; and this is clearly on the radar of people working in the specialty coffee industry, but perhaps needs broader awareness, particularly with consumers! An important point raised by James Hoffman towards the later part of the programme highlights that the coffee industry could be changed a lot if people had greater awareness of all that goes into making their specialty coffee, and having all these issues less hidden than they currently are. Again, something to ponder when you next go into a coffee shop and get your espresso, latte, flat white or whatever coffee product you prefer.