Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Coffee for the Journey

A Coffee Maven Contemplation

My introduction to coffee was simply as fuel for my job at a university fundraising phone bank during my freshman year at University of Maryland. We cold-called alumni across all  time zones, so the perfectly terrible coffee provided to us was perfectly fine. Throughout my undergraduate days, my friend Karl and I would share what he called "mud" -- overly strong instant coffee that I would eventually call "No Es Cafe." And in graduate school, my wife Pam and I willingly participated in an experiment that ushered in the dreaded flavored creamers that would make the world safe for bad coffee.
Photo: Jane Ng for National Geographic Traveler
I actually have one of these, though I do not use it often!
The transition to Coffee Maven came much later, and grew out of my education as a Latin Americanist geographer -- that is, a geographer specializing in Latin America. I was gradually becoming aware of the importance of conventional trading relationships in coffee as an economic and human-rights problem. In 1999, I invited Equal Exchange coffee buyer Rodney North to my class to talk about his experiences as a visitor to Central America and about the importance of fair trade as an alternative to the deleterious effects of "free" trade.

Within a few years, the social, economic, and environmental aspects of coffee were becoming an increasingly important part of my teaching. At some point I decided that if coffee was going to be part of my teaching, I should learn something about it as a beverage, and soon found myself in a class led by Rodney North (whose expertise had been expanding) and in a private tutorial with the lead coffee expert at Lavazza's U.S. division in New York City.

Rodney's class was quite interesting -- a Saturday adult-education course in downtown Boston that began with a room full of groggy foodies who became steadily more caffeinated throughout the morning. It was in the frenetic chatter at the end of the morning that I first heard of something called a vacuum press (pictured above). These experiences led me to a growing interest in Coffee Care, a term that I use to justify a bit of snobbery as a means of respecting the full potential of carefully cultivated coffee. In fact, I now own one of those vacuum-press contraptions!

All of this is by way of introducing a nice article about the third leg of the proverbial coffee stool -- if the places of origin and the beverage itself are the other two. That third leg is the coffee shop itself -- an institution that emerged in Mecca some thousand years ago, and that proliferated in each country of Europe within a few years of the first bean being introduced country-by-country in the seventeenth century.

In Travel's Secret Agent: Coffee (National Geographic Traveler, Feb/Mar 2013), Daisann McLane begins her tale in an odd place -- a yoga retreat in which coffee is strictly forbidden. When she broaches the subject with the yogi who directs the retreat, she does not address coffee itself, but rather the coffee break and the temporary community of cafes. Read the article both to appreciate all of the ways in which McLane experiences cafes as an essential part of the places she visits and to find out how Swami Devadas responds to her pleas.

Feel free to explore this blog -- and its maps -- for dozens of cafe examples that my students have found. And please visit for the rest of the story of my own coffee journeys.