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Trip Report: Coffee Nerds in Boston

By my fifth day in Boston, my feet ached so badly I found myself laying on the carpet in a quiet corner of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, hoping no one would recognize me.


Just down the street from the convention center — Boston, looking all Boston-y.

I was there for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual trade show, which brings over 10,000 coffee buyers, roasters, and farmers together alongside baristas, NGO representatives, financiers, and assorted entrepreneurs. They come mostly from across the U.S. and Latin America, but there were no shortage of Indians, Ugandans, and Ethiopians. There are lectures in English and Spanish and classes on tasting, roasting, and brewing; there is a massive “show floor” where businesses hawk coffee-related wares; there are hundreds of hushed side-room meetings in which importers try to match sellers with buyers and earnest aid workers angle for urgent solutions; there is the United States Barista Championship and its cheering crowds. There is more caffeine than you can imagine.

I was there to report on Symposium, two days of meetings that bring together the titans of industry—CEOs, directors of coffee, sustainability managers—to discuss the common challenges facing the business of “specialty” coffee. They are many: Climate change, an epidemic of coffee leaf rust in Central America, decreasing land area for coffee cultivation nearly everywhere, food insecurity for farmers, a profound lack of genetic diversity and biodiversity on coffee farms. (Read my exhaustive summary of presentations on leaf rust and genetics.) It was an orgy of information; I could barely sort out whose limbs were whose by the end of it. For me, an outsider to the everyday work of coffee, it was a consuming immersion. Judging by the coffee-break chatter, the pros are a harder bunch to please—everyone seemed to have a different opinion on which sessions were gems and which were useless. But there wasn’t a single session I didn’t find interesting; I gathered ideas for dozens of stories I’ll never have time to write. Then again, I’m a smokejumper, parachuting into a world that is by nature flaming and exotic to me.

A birds-eye-view of the United States Barista Competition.

A birds-eye-view of the United States Barista Competition.

I was also in Boston to give a presentation at the conference about the power of stories. Coffee, uniquely among commodities (think of oil, wheat), is grown on small farms by many hands. There are massive plantations, yes, but more than 70% of the coffee grown in the world is grown by smallholders. In the last decade, significant changes have taken place in the technology used by coffee traders to trace where the coffee has come from and where it is going. Because of this, it’s possible much of the time to know not only that coffee was grown in Guatemala, but that it was grown by Arturo Aguirre on his farm Finca El Injerto in Guatemala. The vast physical distance between my kitchen and the farm where my coffee was grown begins to shrink when I know the name of the person who grew it. It shrinks further when I know that person’s story.

Rarely, though, are the Arturos of the world telling their own stories. (Finca El Injerto is one of the very few coffee farms in the world that has built brand regonition in the U.S., in part because of their forays into the world of storytelling, including via Twitter and Instagram.) When you see a coffee farmer’s face—on a bag of coffee, on a website, or elsewhere—it’s generally because a roaster or a marketer put it there. That’s not in an of itself problematic, but it can be. Coffee has a rich history of colonization and exploitation. When coffee farmers’ stories are used to sell coffee to enrich others, it extends that history of exploitation in subtle ways. In our session, we talked about strategies that farmers, roasters, and importers or others can use to share the stories of coffee while being thoughtful and ethical about it. I was lucky to be joined on stage by Oliver Stormshak of Olympia Coffee Roasters (describing how he has produced a collection of incredible videos that tell the story of the company and the farms they buy from), and Cate Baril of Sustainable Harvest (sharing how SH brings farmers and roasters together for good, old fashioned, face-t0-face story sharing through their annual Let’s Talk Coffee event).



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