I leave the house under a grey sky. The sun struggles to beam behind a dense curtain of smoke that has crawled all the way to Calgary from the United States’ west coast as a consequence of the uncontrollable wildfires blazing through California, Oregon and Washington. I saunter the streets of Bridgeland, the old and upcoming Italian neighbor where I live, worrying about what would happen if fires of that dimension reach the pristine national parks of Canada. Immediately I remember that Canada is safer than the United States. In Canada there are no terrorist trees exploding in the middle forest causing wildfires as president Trump recently reassured the world they have during an interview.
I walk across the Bridgeland plaza. In the middle I stop to check the Tiny Library (the community-based book exchange initiative that’s been popping up in cities all over North America), hoping that one day I will find a gem, sadly the miniature wooden house was packed with sleazy romances and the inevitable Dan Brown novel. The restaurants are open and the plaza pleasantly busy. I head to the Tobacco Outlet to inquire for Reposado Maduros cigars, which lately have been scarce. To my luck they have arrived. After buying a handful I stroll to Baya Rica Café; a little coffee shop that roasts the beans right on the spot. Behind the counter with the espresso machine sits the coffee roaster occupying most of the corner. Baya Rica coffee menu features Ethiopian and Costa Rican options. I order the Costa Rican coffee with notes of dark chocolate, dried blueberries, and nuts, that I usually order. Staring at the roaster, I reminisce learning to roast coffee in the processing plant near my grandfather’s farm. It was a smaller machine, used for roasting samples for cupping, batches of 5 pounds at a time. Coffee roasting is an art. There are many moving elements involved, all of your senses must be on.
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As soon as the roasting starts the coffee beans absorb heat, the color shifts to yellow and then to increasingly darker shades of brown. During the later stages of roasting, oils appear on the surface of the bean (this is why some popular coffee chains’ coffee beans are oily, because they intentionally over roast the beans to produce that burned “smoky” flavor). The beans will continue to darken until removed from the heat source. Coffee beans also darken as they age, making color alone a poor roast determinant. Most roasters use a combination of time, temperature, smell, color, and sound to monitor the process.
Yes, sound is a good indicator of temperature during roasting. Your ears must be alert to the cracks. Audible, physical cracks. Coffee beans undergo two cracks while roasting, while the coffee bean expands and its moisture begins to evaporate. The moisture creates steam, and then pressure, which forces the beans to crack open.
The first crack happens when coffee beans begin to approach edibility. A light to medium roasts will finish somewhere between the two cracks. While a dark roast will typically be roasted past the second crack.
Coffee in hand I sit at an empty corner table and start reading the final draft of an article I have prepared for The Coffee Trade journal. The article is about the impact of climate change in coffee farming.
The coffee plant is one of the best known crops worldwide. Around 500 billion cups of the beverage are consumed annually. It is grown by millions of farmers throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia. But there is a crisis brewing on the horizon. Coffee can only be produced between the 24°N and 30°S parallels leaving a thin band globally, and climate change is reducing this zone. Various locations of Central America and Colombia, are starting to feel the offsetting impact. In the last 13 years production levels have plummeted together with the international coffee prices. To this is added completely unpredictable weather conditions.
The coffee plant takes 3 to 4 years to produce beans that after being harvested and processed (pulped, washed, roasted) are used to prepare coffee. There are around 100 species worldwide that occur in the wild. Of these only two varieties are grown for coffee production: Robusta and Arabica. Robusta is more acidic and of less cupping qualities and attributes, while Arabica produces the highest quality coffees. Both species require different conditions for their development, with Arabica the most sensitive requiring temperatures between 18°C and 21°C, and a significant period of rain accompanied by an interval of at least 3 dry months in order to induce flowering. Onerous conditions that are only reached at a specific elevation of 1000 – 2000 meters above sea level. And it is here where the adverse impact of climate change is beginning to take a hold. Carbon emissions have raised the temperature of the zone in 1.5°C since 1980; implying that Arabica coffee production should be raised to higher lands to aim for the desired climate conditions. These temperature changes have affected the rainfall patterns making it difficult to predict coffee production cycles, and have strengthened the attacks of diseases, such as coffee rust, a devastating fungus.
It is estimated that due to climate change the coffee growing area in Central America has been reduced by at least 5%, with more reductions anticipated. Many studies anticipate that the region between the parallels 24°N and 30°S will warm 1.8°C per decade. A rate suggesting that by 2050 the region for growing Arabica coffee will be reduced by 50%.
It is a bleak forecast for countries where a substantial portion of their ecomony relies on the coffee industry. International action must be taken with agreements that protect and allow fair prices for producers. Fair prices that allow farmers to invest in suitable land with apt environmental conditions to continue a similar structure of current production, to invest in research and development of new coffee varieties that can bear the climate adversities while still yielding excellent flavour profile and quality.
The cup sits empty next to my notes and papers. I am happy with the outcome of the article. I pack my stuff and get ready to leave. Outside the wind picks up. Winter will come soon, in a matter of weeks. I can’t imagine what the world would look like without coffee… How would Canada run without coffee? How would the Toronto subway look with thousands of people dragging their feet to work in -15°C, Tim Hortonsless?