A cup of coffee, as American as apple pie, is a global commodity. Traded on the floors of Wall Street, picked off trees from Indonesia to Nicaragua, coffee is a big business built on a foundation of hard work.
As easy as it is to press a button and receive a pot of freshly brewed coffee, it can be just as easy to forget the faces behind the bean — or seed, as it were. A Ventura coffee roaster is trying to put a face to your brew, though, and a local connection brings the sometimes too-distant world of coffee home.
Wake up and smell the statistics
Americans spend around $40 billion on coffee annually, according to the National Coffee Association. The U.S. is the world’s leading single country coffee importer; and the world’s leading producers of coffee are Brazil and Vietnam. A majority of American coffee comes from South and Central America, but coffee is produced around the equator in the so-called “Bean Belt,” an area that circumambulates the globe in a span stretching from Cuba to southern Brazil.
Coffee beans are one of the most-traded commodities on earth, second only to oil. Americans are consuming more coffee than ever before; the National Coffee Association reported that 61 percent say that drinking coffee is a daily ritual. Zagat’s third National Coffee Survey found an 8 percent increase in coffee purchased outside the home during 2014. An increase in average price per coffee drink followed suit — $3.28 in 2015, up from $3.05 in 2014, on average.
Coffee is also one of the most difficult and volatile crops to harvest. All coffee cherries — the fruit of the coffee tree — must be picked by hand or risk destroying the plant. Millions of migrant workers travel to various countries to work the farms as the seasons change and the seeds (no, coffee is not a bean) themselves must go through a milling process — which removes the fruit and dries the seed — and is then flown to various destinations around the world.
According to the Inter-American Development Bank, in Central America, 4 million people rely on an industry that is feeling the effects of a global commodity price increase.
The market price of coffee beans has risen by 80 percent, due in large part to drought in Brazil. Globally, the industry employs 25 million people.
To compound matters, Central and South American political instability and a ravenous fungus have made life difficult for farmers over the past few years. So why is a cup of coffee cheaper than a pint of locally brewed beer, a glass of locally sourced wine or a shot of wheat grass, and do the farmers see the result of an increase in cost?
Coffee farmers can make less than 50 cents per pound of coffee grown, and, according to Fair Trade USA, the amount of coffee in your morning cup is worth an average of 6 cents. Of that, a farmer could expect to receive a small fraction. Many farmers work at a loss year after year.
Ashes to ashes, rust to rust
roasts imported African and
Central/South American coffee beans weekly.
The doors to Beacon Coffee open early for patrons dropping by for a quick cup, an espresso to throw back before clambering off to work or a bag of beans for home. Ventura’s east side coffee bar and roasting facility opened its doors in 2010 with co-owners John and Jennifer Wheir’s ideal, to exhibit single-origin coffees and to educate the customers, on full display.
Customers peruse photos of the Wheir’s trips to Central and South America hung on the walls as they wait. Recently returned from a trip to farms in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala, John and Jennifer are eagerly awaiting this season’s new crop.
This year, however, the effects of a fungal outbreak on coffee trees have strained production across the continent and made it harder to find the heirloom varietals that Beacon and other specialty coffee shops across the country prize.
“In the last four crop cycles, we’ve experienced a la roya outbreak that is more prolific than it has been in decades past,” said John. “It’s reaching higher altitudes and reaching more cultivars than ever before.”
La roya, also known as coffee rust, affects the coffee tree by choking it off from nutrients via its leaves. The fungus’ damage is complete when leaves turn rust in color and the tree withers and dies. The outbreak has caused entire crops to be pulled from the ground and new, hybrid trees to be planted.
It can take three to four years for the new trees to begin bearing fruit, but the flavor isn’t the same as it was before. Central American governments are strongly encouraging farmers to replace the disease-prone trees with disease-resistant hybrid varieties.
In 2013, the International Coffee Organization based in London reported that 50 percent of coffee-growing areas in Central America have been affected by la roya. El Salvador has seen 74 percent of its crop affected, followed by Guatemala (70 percent) and Costa Rica (64 percent).
Some farmers have chosen to move on from coffee to other agricultural products or to simply stop farming altogether. The time it takes for a new coffee plant to bear fruit can be over three years, meaning that farmers hire fewer workers to pick the fruit and begin selling livestock and tools to make ends meet.
John and Jennifer have worked with millers in affected countries and promoted techniques developed by agronomists to dissuade the fungus. Various methods of pruning can keep the fungus from taking hold of heirloom plants, or at least that is the hope.
“What we tried to do this year is to go down and meet with our farmers and find out how many of them we could [source coffee from] that were individual cultivars,” said John, adding that he wishes “to continue to work with these great small producers and support their keeping the heirloom varietals around.”
All in the family
A nursery full of young, new coffee trees at La Finca San Ramon in Quilali, Nicaragua,
soon to replace trees destroyed by the la roya fungus.
Coffee cherries turn bright red when ready for harvesting.
Elizabeth Cornejo attended a cupping class at Beacon Coffee when the shop first opened. In general, cupping classes are offered to customers new to the roasting and tasting process wherein various varietals of coffee are brewed, guests are familiarized with aromas and flavors, and the origins of the beans are discussed.
Cornejo had another reason to visit Beacon besides an education, however.
With her that day were several bags of green coffee beans from her father’s 13 acre farm, La Finca San Ramon, in Quilalí, Nicaragua. She had asked for a few bags from her father, Fausto Cornejo, to sell at her shop, but she needed help with roasting.
So a trip to Beacon was an easy decision.
John and Jennifer roasted the green beans for Cornejo and, upon tasting the product, were “blown away.”
The varietal that Fausto had been growing 1,200 feet up the hills in Quilalí was a cross between the maragogype, also known as elephant bean coffee plant, and Caturra; both heirloom varietals. The Wheirs bought his entire harvest — around 700 pounds — marking the first time Fausto’s beans had been sold in the U.S.
“This is before harvest,” says Elizabeth as she scrolls through pictures of her family and their farm at her midtown Ventura boutique, Just Lovely Fashions. “The coffee is green. Here are some red cherries.”
Elizabeth says that her father is an independent man and runs his farm as such, whereas other farmers in the community rely on a cooperative not only to supply the workers with tools to harvest the beans but also to sell the beans to wholesalers.
“For most of the people in this area, this is the main source of income, this is their livelihood,” said Elizabeth. “If the coffee goes bad, it’s a big problem.”
La roya arrived in 2013. Seven acres of La Finca San Ramon’s 13 acres of coffee trees had to be removed and replanted with young plants, including all of the trees that produced the beans that so impressed the Wheirs.
Fausto and his daughter Marlene, a professional agronomist, have planted new trees using techniques to dissuade the fungus — cutting away canopy to allow the sunlight to reach the bottom of the forest, spacing the trees farther apart and applying the pruning techniques developed by agronomists.
Fausto gifted Marlene with 3 acres of his property to experiment using new organic and sustainable growing techniques, and John and Jennifer have provided the farm workers with color-coded wrist bands for comparing the coffee fruit to determine ripeness for picking.
Using these techniques has led Fausto to produce his largest yield to date: 2,000 pounds. Beacon hopes to purchase all Fausto’s high-grade crop this year, estimated at around 800 pounds of beans.
The Cornejos are working on construction of a mill in town that would not only allow the family to mill their coffee closer to home, but allow Fausto’s coffee growing friends to mill their coffee as well. Once complete, the mill will allow the Cornejo family to be completely sustained within their own community, a rarity in the industry.
“It’s a hard business, as it is,” says Elizabeth. “Like my dad says in life, ‘You’ve got to keep trying.’ ”
Nickel and dimed
The average cost for a brewed cup of coffee is $1.38 in the U.S., and for specialty drinks, add a dollar or two. There are two distinct types of coffee beans: arabica and robusta. Arabica, which makes up 70 percent of the world’s yield, is the varietal that includes the highly sought after beans that Beacon and other coffee shops seek.
Arabica is also more fragile and needs greater care to successfully produce. In 2010, too much rain in Columbia created a bumper crop of arabica beans that drove the market down; in 2014, drought in Brazil drove the market up. Surprisingly, fluctuations in the cost of wholesale beans more than likely aren’t being felt by the farmer, says CSU Channel Islands’ Professor of Economics Claudio Pavia, Ph.D.
“When you’re buying a cup of coffee at any of the coffee shops, you’re not paying for the coffee itself; you’re really paying for the marketing, the location, the services, the barista and the name,” said Pavia. Pavia grew up in Brazil, where he says great coffee can be purchased at any corner shop for a fraction of the cost in the U.S.
“[The farmers] benefit from [the fact that] one of the largest, wealthiest economies in the world drinks more coffee, but if Starbucks raises their price, the farmer’s not going to see any of that,” said Pavia. “What’s good for the farmer is that more people are drinking coffee.”
At Beacon, the barista places a carafe topped with a cone-style filter filled with freshly ground coffee beans under a specialized brewer. A steady drip of temperature-controlled water drops onto the grounds like a soft spring rain and the resulting elixir dribbles into the glass.
For being the source of our initial boost of energy, the process of brewing coffee can be rather meditative. A 12-ounce cup of brewed coffee says little of where it’s from, save for the aroma and flavor of the seed, roasted locally, having flown thousands of miles to end up in a cup in Ventura.
The daily life of the farmers and the battle against the rust, which John says has been “inconsistent,” is ongoing. The cost of the coffee itself is an issue, too.
“The price that farmers are being paid is insane compared to the amount of effort that goes into what 90 percent of the small producers do in order to produce their coffee,” said John. “We happily pay exponential numbers above what the market is trading at.”
“We want them to continue to grow coffee,” adds Jennifer.
“The only way to do that is to put yourself in the boat with them,” said John. “If there are holes in the boat, then you have to be willing to say that I have a couple of fingers and a couple of toes, let me help plug the holes.”
Coffee from the farms visited by the Wheirs is expected to begin arriving in May. Beans from La Finca San Ramon are expected to begin arriving in late April.
Beacon Coffee is located at 5777 Olivas Park Dr., Ventura. For more information, visit www.beaconcoffee.com.