Catherine Fellows looks at the economic implications of coffee drinking and champions a politically- sensitive brand.
Between us we drink more than 30 billion cups of coffee a year. Most of us drink it without thinking - without thinking that most instant coffee tastes awful, let alone that, after oil, coffee is the world‘s most valuable trading commodity. It shouldn’t be surprising — one third of all beverages consumed in the world is coffee — but it does seem strange that the livelihoods of so many should depend upon something so inessential. Why not have the world spinning on Ribena? At least that has vitamin C to recommend it.
Maybe it’s because coffee is a luxury that the developing world producers, or at least the high prOportion of small farmers amongst them, have so little clout. Since 1989, the international coffee agreement which provided some equity. with quotas for production and trading, has been defunct and the market has become a free-for-all effectively monopolised by the interests of wealthy importing nations. Testimony to this is that the price of raw coffee has remained stagnant for fourteen years. The governments of poor producer nations are often so desperate for coffee revenue that they collaborate with multinationals like Nestle, handing over vast areas ofland against the interests of their people.
'The effects can be devastating. In a country such as Costa Rica, whose celebrated democracy is closely linked to a tradition of small-scale, independent coffee planters, many have no alternative but to accept the pittance offered for their crop from a single village collection point and often, even when supplementing their incomes by labouring for others and growing additional crops, they
cannot make ends meet. They are forced to sell up and go to work on ever-larger estates, sacrificing their self-esteem and any power in their community. Instead ofa country made up of small, often sustainably-farmed, mixed-cropping plots handed from generation to generation, the landscape is increasingly dominated by huge homogenous green swathes which shout the profit motive.
The exciting news is that four British fair-trading organisations have collaborated to address the problem and have recently launched the fruit of their efforts, Cafe Direct. Campaign coffees as such are not new: many of us have dutifully gulped insipid, burnt-tasting Nicaraguan. But Cafe Direct is different. The combined resources of Oxfam, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange and Twin Trading mean a project of far more significant scale and a much better product. Cafe Direct is a really good drinkable coffee which can hold its own in the quality market.
As the name of the project implies, it is about two-way direct involvement. Experts are on hand to assist the young co-operatives that the smallest planters of Mexico, Peru and Costa Rica have formed; but it is essentially a matter ofenabling members themselves to coordinate and unify agricultural and business processes towards efficient
self-management. The co-operatives are responsible for collection, processing and export, avoiding costly middle-men. They then sell the beans to Cafe Direct at a price above that of the market for roasting, packaging and widespread distribution through Oxfam shops, the Traidcraft network and an increasing number of delicatessens and wholefood outlets. Economies ofscale mean that, at £1 .70 a half pound, Cafe Direct retails for no more than most, and a lot less than some, of its competitors. Cafe Direct maintains that the choice of bean grades composing the blend has been made carefully to allow integration of coffee growers from organisations in other countries as the sales volume increases: the inability to satisfy a large demand has previously prevented campaign coffees from breaking into the all-important supermarkets sector, for example.
I phoned Safeway to see what they thought of the Cafe Direct sample that I knew they had just been sent. Despite their much promoted ‘green‘ image, I was passed from coffee buyers to ethnic foods and back amidst some confusion. It was obvious that the ethical ramifications of coffee had not been an issue in this office before. But eventually, I was assured that the packet would certainly be considered. It is depressing to think though, that even ifit does find a niche on the
shelves, it will be just a trolley-ride away from the big-name offenders: a marginal product rather than one whose presence demands the reassessment of a department’s strategy.
While the supermarkets may be primarily deterred from buying Cafe Direct by worries about quantity, specialists catering for the connoisseur market remain sceptical about quality. Alex Knight of Glasgow’s Andronica‘s says that companies like his could never afford to buy direct or commit themselves to particular producers in a real world where harvests fail. They rely upon an expert broker to play the field and secure the best available.
Ifyou love coffee, it is hard not to be seduced by a treasure trove like Andronica’s, or Kinnell’s in Edinburgh. Step into this emporium and you are surrounded by jar after
aromatic jar ofshiny brown beans with evocative names like Indonesian Blue Sumatra, Kenya Kahindu Estate and Guatemalian Maragogipe. Sniff your way through the forty-odd different varieties here and it is easy to see why devotees regard coffee as comparable to wine in its richness of character. One of the things you discover here is the number of places that produce coffee: everywhere from Tanzania to India to New Guinea. It is hard to believe that it can be right to boycott
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I Weakly ulna-tasting: Branches of Oddbins are holding tastings of a wide selection of wines every Saturday in February from 2pm—5pm. All wines sell for under £5 and there is a 10 per cent case discount on any of the wines being tasted. From now until 23 February, Oddbins has reduced the price of over 300 wines to
I Paul': in trouble Worrying news for devotees of one of Glasgow's most famous delicatessen businesses, Faui Brothers. The 60-year-old company has just gone into the hands of the receivers after its ambitious expansion programme over the past couple of years fell victim
branches, in Clyde Street, Cambridge Street and Newton Mearns, are still trading normally however, and there is a hope that the £3m business may be sold as a going concern.
I Pappa'a Great American Eats Limited is holding its ﬁrst St Valentine‘s Day Memorial Massacre
Masquerade on Friday 14 February with prizes for the best-dressed gangster and moll. Booking on 225 7306 for the restaurant at 7 Victoria Street.
I El Papagayo 49 St Stephen's Street, 225 2941. The latest addition to Edinburgh’s spread of Mexican restaurants is open from breakfast onwards for a good value choice of Mexican favourites as well as burgers and steaks. All
main courses at lunchtime cost just £2.75 - evening prices are roughly double that. Worth taking note of for its Sunday brunch which offers jugs of Bloody Marys should Saturday have treated you a little too well.
I Tapas Y Flamenco Every Wednesday night from 8.30pm at the Off-Centre Club in the 369 Gallery, Cowgate , fans of Andalucian culture can enjoy sangria, tapas and
music from Los Amigos. Similar nights proved incredibly popular at the Counting House, so book early on 225 3013.
I Wlna Taatlng The Queen's Hall is hosting a talk and wine tasting on Tuesday 4 February, 7.30pm, for £4 (orill with supper). The guest speaker is David Hodges whose chosen subject is the Chablis of A. Regnard et Fils. Booking on 668 2019.
The List 31 January— 13 February 1992 65