I had my first cup of coffee sometime around 9th grade. I’d occasionally bring thermoses to my high school when I had extra time in the morning (rarely). I slowly amped up my intake during the summers leading up to college, as I worked every day and struggled with consistently waking up so early. It was the beginning of 2nd semester—right around the time when most people make New Year’s resolutions to cut their coffee consumption—when my addiction truly blossomed. From that moment on, I lived, breathed, and dreamt coffee. My roommate and I bought matching French presses for our dorm room. We bonded over late-night brewing for our following morning classes. I even invested in a refillable mug so I could receive as many $0.99 refills as I could in one day. With that being said, it never really crossed my mind where exactly my cup of coffee came from, or what my coffee was made of (coffee came from coffee grinds, obviously).
Being from the United States, I think most people are blissfully unaware of how much work goes into agriculture. It’s easy to turn a blind eye when the nearest farm is maybe 2.5 states over to the West. We don’t think about all the decisions that go into the beautiful pineapple pyramid display at the nearest Giant Eagle. Furthermore, we don’t think about all the raw materials needed at the farms to ensure we even receive produce at our supermarkets. Regarding coffee, the processes involved in sourcing, producing, and roasting coffee are far more intensive than I ever could’ve imagined this past semester, as I sat in Hillman Library, sipping on my 4th cup of the day.
First and foremost, coffee comes from small coffee cherries. (Who knew?) These cherry producing farms can be large and mass-producing (Doka) or small and quality focused (Monteverde). In order to ensure these coffee cherries are grown successfully so that they can be outsourced to a mill, the plantations must take very specific care of the plants. This involves buying only the best seeds from ICAFE. Or in Life Monteverde’s case, ensuring seeds are available elsewhere that are better suited for their difficult climate. The farms must source pesticides to help eliminate fungal diseases and insect infestations. And perhaps most importantly, plantations must source labor. The job of picking coffee cherries is extremely rigorous, so the farm must also provide healthy working conditions for these workers. In Costa Rica, most labor is outsourced from Nicaragua, so plantations provide housing, healthcare, and daycares for workers’ children.
After the cherries are picked, they’re transported to a mill. Often times these mills are either joint with the farm or with the roaster. Within the mills, cherries are washed and then separated based on size and density, and sometimes even color. Many decisions related to sourcing within a mill depend on whether the mill is combined with the farm or roaster. In all cases, machinery must be sourced, as Costa Rica doesn’t have the resources to build such technology. From all of the organizations we visited, machinery was built in places such as London, Germany, Spain, and the United States. These processes also involve the sourcing of water—will it come from a river or spring, and will it come directly or be treated beforehand? If the mill is combined with the farm, such as Doka, then the mills will usually only separate and dry their own beans. However, if the mill is connected to the roaster, or a standalone mill, then the company must decide where to source their beans from. Will you source beans from large farms who may have mediocre quality or only small farms who have more consistent and better quality?
As mentioned above, roasting often times goes hand in hand with mills. The only addition is that roasters sell their product to consumers, while mills only sell their product onto the next step. Roasters also must decide if they’d like to source their beans from large or small farms. Life Monteverde sells premium coffee made for exportation, so they grow most of their own beans to guarantee that the beans in which they roast meet very specific standards. Café Rey, for example, markets towards local Ticos. Since they aren’t exporting the coffee, the beans they source can be lower grade beans. This means they don’t have to be extremely particular with who they source from. Additional choices include sourcing only from farms with certain certifications such as the Rainforest Alliance and/or sourcing only from farms in Costa Rica. Roasters also package the coffee in which they roast, so the companies must decide where to source the special materials, such as a breathable inner aluminum sheets that can’t be made in Costa Rica, to protect the coffee as it’s exported (possibly internationally) to supermarkets and retail stores.
Once the coffee is roasted, the packages make their way to stores and supermarkets in the United States and Europe. Retailers, such as Britt stores in airports, decide how they wish to brand themselves. Café Britt sources coffee from all over the world—Costa Rica, Columbia, Mexico, etc.—in order to create a larger pool of consumers and supporters. Additionally, companies can choose whether they’d like to sell coffee that only came from small, family owned farms/businesses, or if they’d like to sell cheaper mass-produced coffee for lower prices. Retailers also must decide if they want coffee with Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, etc. stamps to appeal to customers looking to shop “organic” or in a green manner.
Finally, the customers buy coffee from retailers all over the globe. Right now, it’s extremely trendy to shop “organically,” and help to save the environment, rainforests, and generally the whole planet. Therefore, a lot of people, millennials specifically, chose to shop only at stores that publicly brand themselves as environmentally friendly. It makes sense then, that consumers will want to buy coffee sourced from small, green farms in Costa Rica, as the country is known not only for having top-quality coffee, but also for their rainforest protection efforts.
In all seriousness, this trip really opened my eyes. I was completely ignorant to where any of my food came from, or how much work was behind produces’ origins. For how much coffee I consumed, it’s rather shameful to have been so completely clueless. Now that I feel educated in agriculture and supply chain, I have tenfold appreciation for my morning coffee. Furthermore, I feel this trip is applicable in many other aspects. Agriculture is all around us; the supply chain applies to a lot more than just coffee, and extends ever further than just produce and food. It’s extremely valuable to be mentally present and aware, and to have the reasoning skills to understand the processes behind each and every object within one’s surroundings.
I loved every single minute of this trip; I couldn’t be more appreciative of all my experiences here that have contributed to not only my person, but also my understanding of the world around me. Until next time, ¡Pure vida!