Thursday, June 12, 2014

Coffee notes

    Coffee is one of my can't do-withouts. It wasn't until college that I became a coffee drinker, but I haven't looked back. Forty years ago, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Coffee Connection, a combination coffeehouse, roasting and retailing operation, opened, and I became a coffee connoisseur, sort of. Buying gourmet coffee by the pound, carefully grinding the whole beans and putting just the right amount into the drip pot--in those days, Chemex pots were favored. I understand they're making a comeback today, but I went over to Melitta drippers long ago. At first I liked the stronger-flavored, darker roasts; but as I've grown older the delicacy of the lighter ones appeals more. The Coffee Connection is long gone from Cambridge, and so am I; but gourmet coffee beans have been one of my very few luxuries over the years. And so it was delightful to learn, a few years ago, that a coffee roaster had set up shop here on the island. I've been a patron ever since.
    Coffee is in the news periodically because of fluctuations in wholesale prices and coffee futures, and because of the fair/unfair trade aspects of the operation with its residues of colonialism in third-world corporate capitalism. Recently, a disease (coffee rust) has reduced production drastically in South America, particularly Brazil (which produces more coffee than any other nation). Prices are rising, and a story in a not-so-nearby city paper featured an interview with some of the purveyors in the state, including the one on this island. After noting that Dunkin Donuts, the chain that pours the most non-gourment coffee in the northeast, was upping its prices by ten percent, the reporter asked a couple of the best-known roaster/retailer/pourer shops in Portland what they were going to do, and each said they would raise prices. But the one on the island is going to hold the line, the owner said--which is good, because the prices there already are higher than in Portland (just like gasoline and most everything else on the island).     

   The island roaster sells coffee for $14 per pound. These are first-rate beans, especially the ones from Middle and South America. $14 per pound is near the high end compared to other gourmet roasters in New England, but the retail prices have stayed pretty much the same over the past decade or so, while the cost wholesale to the roaster fluctuates. I supposed they thought by keeping the price constant they would make up in good times for the smaller profit margins in bad, but I had no idea how much the wholesale prices were. The newspaper article mentioned that the gourmet beans cost the roasters on average $3.50 per pound, green, before roasting. Of course, they add value, but it struck me that by charging four times as much for the finished product as they paid for the raw material, this would be a good business to be in. And that is just for beans; the per-cup price of poured gourmet coffee is about one-fifth of the retail cost of a pound of beans, whereas that pound of beans will make many more than five cups of coffee--more like forty than five. I'm not going to feel sorry for the roasters and retailers, but I do wonder about the unkind practices that must have resulted in the spread of the coffee rust.
    Brazil, I wrote, produces more coffee than any other nation; but when I was there, I found it was not so popular a drink as it is in the US and Europe. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to find coffee, and when I did I had to specify that I wanted it in what to North Americans is a normal-sized cup. The usual size there holds only about four ounces, but the coffee they pour is quite ordinary, and the effect is like having Dunkin Donuts coffee in a tiny cup. There were no coffee chains like Starbucks; and relatively few cafés in João Pessoa, where I went for a week about a year ago, staying to give a keynote at a conference of Brazilian ethnomusicologists. Nor was the coffee particularly tasty. In that regard, it reminded me of the state of Maine, whose raw products (fish, pulpwood, blueberries, potatoes) are mostly exported rather than consumed at home.

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