Coffee is more than a drink. For many of us — OK, for me — it's woven into the fabric of every day.
It also connects us to far corners of the globe.
For instance, every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of , a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, N.C., and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.
any random day, that truck could bring "10 bags from a farm in El
Salvador; 20 bags from a cooperative in Burundi; two bags of a special
coffee from Guatemala," says Kim Elena Ionescu, one of the coffee buyers
for Counter Culture Coffee. She travels the world, visiting coffee
farms and deciding which beans the company will buy.
coffee, she says, comes from high altitudes, but you cannot grow it in
places that freeze, "so you need that mixture of high altitude and warm
climate, which makes the tropics the place to grow it."
All across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, people .
In many tropical countries, especially poor ones, it's a pillar of the economy; of green coffee beans, globally, are worth $15 billion a year.
of these farms, Ionescu says, are idyllic places, high in the
mountains. Taller trees often shade the coffee bushes. Such scenes
"hearken a little bit to coffee's homeland, which is Ethiopia," Ionescu
says. "Southwestern Ethiopia is really lush, it's got amazingly high
altitudes, it's green, misty."
But honestly, even though there
are millions of small, idyllic coffee farms, they aren't producing the
majority of the world's coffee.
Most coffee isn't specialty coffee. It's just coffee: big cans of it, or instant coffee.
percent of all coffee comes from Brazil, and the typical coffee farm in
Brazil looks more like a corn farm in Iowa, Ionescu says — "coffee
plants as far as the eye can see, unbroken by any kind of tree."
it's time for harvest in Brazil, big machines roll through and strip
off the cherrylike coffee fruit, with its valuable bean inside.
second-biggest producer in the world is a surprise for many people:
Vietnam. "Not a lot of people, especially in specialty coffee, talk
about Vietnam," says Ionescu.
Vietnamese farmers grow a species of coffee tree called robusta. (The scientific name is Coffea canephora.)
It grows fast and produces a big crop, but the bean has a bitter taste.
It's often used in blends, especially in Europe. But high-end coffee
producers like Counter Culture avoid it. They stick to another species —
This is one big divide in the coffee business. On one
side is "commodity" coffee; on the other, small companies like Counter
Culture Coffee, or even big ones like Starbucks or Green Mountain Coffee
Roasters, which sell coffee that's been more carefully harvested and
graded. These companies market coffee , labeling where it came from and how it tastes.
Green Mountain's headquarters in Waterbury, Vt., tasters suck in
mouthfuls of fresh brew, pause to reflect, then give each sample a score
and talk about what their supersensitive taste buds picked up.
"Chocolate, melon, lime, subtle peach," says one taster.
Specialty coffee like this accounts for only a small part — probably 10 or 15 percent — of the global coffee market.
these two sides of the coffee business seem to live in different
worlds. But Counter Culture Coffee's Ionescu says they sometimes come
together in surprising ways.
"You know, what's interesting to
me is the large proportion of coffee growers who drink instant coffee,
even on some of these idyllic hillsides in Central America," she says.
of drinking their own top-quality coffee, they export it to people who
can pay more for it, such as Europeans or Americans.
Lindsey Bolger, director of coffee for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, says if you measure the
per coffee drinker, the world champions live in Nordic countries.
"Depending on which country, they're up to eight cups of coffee per
person, per day. In the U.S., we're at maybe 2 or 2.5 cups of coffee per
day," she says.
Americans actually used to drink a lot more coffee. Per person, we drank almost twice as much during World War II.
used to divide the coffee world neatly into producers, like Brazil, and
consuming countries in Western Europe and North America.
says those clear lines are getting blurred. Brazil could soon overtake
the United States to become the world's single biggest coffee-consuming
country, she says, and "we're seeing significant growth in consumption
in regions like Southeast Asia, South Korea, Eastern Europe, India and
the Gulf nations."
The coffee experience, it seems, is more global than ever.
This is the first in a series of reports for Coffee Week. Along with our friends at Morning Edition, we're bringing you the stories behind the coffee in your cup — from the farms of Guatemala to the corner coffee shop.