Canada: The Price of a Cup of Coffee

Coffee prices on the commodity stock market have plummeted, making the survival of most coffee producers unsustainable.

Coffe
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

As I walk down seventeenth avenue a craving for a rich cup of coffee hits me. Winter is inexplicably late this year, and the drop in temperature catches me off guard; I am not dressed for the occasion. I speed up my pace through the streets of Calgary trying to warm up. It is evident that after an unusual autumn in the prairies, scorching and humid, my body is taking time to adjust to the new season. In any case, I prefer to separate from positivisms, to put aside any lies…. I have been in Canada for fifteen years now and my tropical skeleton cannot adjust to the cold, cannot embrace the winter, and it is quite plausible that it never will.

I reach 8th Street and turn right, heading west. I consider Kawa Café one of the best establishments in the city to enjoy single origin coffee. I rush the next blocks. Upon my arrival a warm environment greets me, accompanied by the coffee’s strong aroma, and the noise of the steaming espresso machine. I stand in line. Soon I notice that the “Clover” coffee machine no longer sits next to La Marzocco for espressos. It worries me, but it does not surprise me. It might have suffered a small malfunction, nothing out of the ordinary for a commercial coffee maker. However, there are no longer spare parts available for this machine, nor can it be sent for repair to the manufacturers.

When Starbucks bought the company that developed it, they distributed the last machines to certain predominant coffee shops and shut down production immediately along with the equipment maintenance service for independent cafes. Consequently, annihilating one of the best coffee machines to sample single origin coffees on the market.  What made the Clover Coffee Machine so special? What are its attributes? Three engineers from Stanford University established the Seattle-based Coffee Equipment Company; and in 2005 developed the Clover Machine. This coffee maker brews freshly ground coffee in less than a minute, giving you the opportunity to select any source roasted beans, and boiling it one cup at the time on the spot. It has a system called proportional integral derivative controller, where it is possible to choose the quantity, temperature of the water, and the preparation time.

Three engineers from Stanford University established the Seattle-based Coffee Equipment Company; and in 2005 developed the Clover Machine. This coffee maker brews freshly ground coffee in less than a minute.

This system is responsible for getting the best out of the beans chosen at the moment by using a double brewing system, which is a combination of the French press and the vacuum pot method, patented as the VacuumPress System by the Coffee Equipment Company. It occurs to me that I may not have Clover coffee in Calgary again, or anywhere else in that case. As time passes, the 11,000 machines that once were brewing Clover coffee’s around the world, will cease to exist. If they haven’t already.

The 11,000 machines that once were brewing Clover coffee’s around the world, will cease to exist.

The line advances. The board features the coffees of the day: Timor, Kenya, Nicaragua, India, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Panama. As a Central American and the fourth generation of coffee producers in the family, I know coffee quite well. And when my turn comes, I lean towards one of my favorite coffees, a more exotic option, from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Instantly I recall its intense full-bodied flavor and its well-defined aromas where the cocoa, walnut, and citrus notes stand out. Although it has been over fifteen years since I practiced coffee cupping, basic concepts remain. The truth is, what we learn with passion is hardly forgotten, its essence remains untouched, and it only takes a bit of practice to sharpen again. Back when I lived in El Salvador, I used to cup at least twice a week during harvest. My grandfather’s coffee farm lays on the skirts of mount “El Pilon” in Los Naranjos, closely located to the processing plant, in San Jose de La Majada. The mornings I spent at the farm we would go early to the roasting room to cup coffee from the previous day’s harvest to ensure the quality of grain.

My grandfather’s coffee farm lays on the skirts of mount “El Pilon” in Los Naranjos, closely located to the processing plant, in San Jose de La Majada. The mornings I spent at the farm we would go early to the roasting room to cup coffee from the previous day’s harvest to ensure the quality of grain.

I pay for the coffee and the barista hands me the hot cup. Prudently I make my way through the tables and choose to sit at the high bar in front of the glass wall, the street view is unrestricted, fueling my fascination for people watching. I sit on the stool leaving my right leg extended. I lean forward resting the elbows on the high counter, crossed arms, cup in hand, and commence to evoke the aroma of the roasted coffee that emanates from the processing plant and expanded through the small village, the scent of the flowering coffee fields at the farm − white petals that blanketed the branches as a fragrant snow. I take the first sip inhaling the coffee with a little bit of air, creating bubbles, and pushing the coffee towards the palate and distributing it evenly through the mouth. The profile of Sulawesi’s coffee is present, with a degree of difficulty I have managed to decipher the notes; there is no doubt that my cupping skills need sharpening. In any case, I am enjoying the traces of the recognizable detonating flavors.

Organic and fair-trade certifications are expensive, some of them are inflexible and won’t accommodate requirements to different regional conditions.

I placed the receipt on the table, opposite from the newspaper I grabbed from the entrance stand; it has gone unnoticed until I discern the price of a cup of coffee and a discomfort invades me…. Coffee prices on the commodity stock market have plummeted, making the survival of most coffee producers unsustainable. The last coffee crisis in the Central American region began in 2013 due to the “Rust”, a fungus that devastated hundreds of hectares of the crop, and despite the fact that its threat and management is well known to coffee producers, that year its impact was uncontrollable. The crisis worsened then with the collapse of international prices of the green coffee beans. Unmeasurably affecting the coffee producers and the farm labourers. In contrast, for the intermediaries and other merchants within the sales chain, prices have gained margin.

These punitive circumstances are concentrating coffee production in the hands of wealthy farmers, meanwhile the small and medium operations are going out of business, their livelihood is in jeopardy.

In the 1990s the price of a 100lb bag of green coffee beans (processed beans for exporting and sale to coffee roasters), averaged $165.00 USD. While in the last decade it ranges from $ 100 – $120 (for conventional coffee). On the other hand, production costs have been rising and are now hitting the $80.00 benchmark. These punitive circumstances are concentrating coffee production in the hands of wealthy farmers, meanwhile the small and medium operations are going out of business, their livelihood is in jeopardy. Adapting to the market demands is difficult for the small and medium farmers.

Organic and fair-trade certifications are expensive, some of them are inflexible and won’t accommodate requirements to different regional conditions. Besides, in many cases, the differential paid to the farmers who have obtained the certification is minimal (slim gains that rarely trickle down to the farm labourers and coffee pickers), the return of the investment done to their farms to comply with the certification requirements will yield marginal results many years later, therefore many farmers choose not to pursue this type of certification; the benefits not worth the effort. Finish my cup and the flavor that is left, is not that of the profile that I described but is the flavor of the injustice attached to that industry and I wonder: what is the true price of a cup of coffee? Will it be the price that elites pay in fancy coffee shops? Will it be the price of the producers who year by year see their livelihood being swallowed by “the market” where only a few will stand? Or, in the worst-case scenario, will be the price paid by pickers… the lack of opportunities, the infinite cycle of poverty?

German Rodríguez
germanrodriguez.net
After graduating from El Zamorano University as an agricultural engineer, German Rodríguez (Santa Ana, El Salvador, 1982) travelled to Toronto to continue postgraduate studies in International Business. He currently lives in Calgary, where he works on different literary projects. He began writing at the age of twelve, nevertheless, it wasn't until he was in Canada when he explores his passion for literature and decides to pursue it completely. His publications includes the novel El tiempo entre sus ojos (Lugar Común Editorial, Ottawa, Canada, 2016), and the short stories A los pies del olvido (The Apostles Review Literature Magazine, Montreal, Canada, 2017) and Cuando escuches al viento (Revista cultural Carátula, Managua, Nicaragua 2017).