Coffee’s Contentments

In the mid-1990s I moved with Amie and our two sons Seth and Milo from Ithaca, NY in the USA to Costa Rica for my first post-Ph.D. venture, working with the governments and business leaders in each country of Central America.  The project combined a few then-young strategic and economic development models–competitiveness, economic clustering, and sustainable development–with several of their luminary proponents from Harvard Business School and at the Harvard Institute of International Development.  My job was to take those ideas and apply them to my area of expertise as a newly minted Ph.D. from Cornell University.

Sustainable Tourism Development was the terminology applied to this hybrid. In 1996, the third country in my regional rotation was El Salvador, after Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I have not had reason to think of El Salvador lately, but a nearly-lost article in my to-read-later folio popped out today:

Aida Batlle is a fifth-generation coffee farmer and a first-generation coffee celebrity. On the steep hillsides of the Santa Ana Volcano, in western El Salvador, she produces beans that trade on the extreme end of the coffee market, where a twelve-ounce bag may cost twenty dollars or more and comes accompanied by a lyrical essay on provenance and flavor. These beans have made Batlle an object of obsession among coffee connoisseurs and professionals–the coffee equivalent of a European vigneron–and she is willing to play the role, if it helps raise coffee’s status. Talking about coffee makes her happy; even her complaints are enthusiastic. “There are hundreds of Cabernets, and that’s O.K.,” she says. “Coffee should be the same way–they all taste different!” In a small but growing number of cafes, you can order coffee more or less the way you might order wine, specifying the varietal and the region and the farm; for the price of a glass of house red, you will receive, if you’re lucky, a cup of drip coffee that is mellower and weirder than the astringent beverage most people know. Perhaps you will detect a hint of gingerbread, or a honeyed aftertaste, or a rich, tangy sweetness that calls to mind tomato soup. And perhaps you will find it difficult to go back to whatever you used to drink…

True, that.  Further into the article, here is the surprise outcome of Ms. Batlle’s efforts:

…Central American coffees tend to taste rich and chocolaty. Kilimanjaro had some of the rich sweetness that judges expected, but it also had what professionals call “brightness”: a tart, fruity flavor more commonly associated with Kenyan coffee. Batlle was relieved to discover that she liked her own product, even though she didn’t know why. “I knew I was tasting something, but my brain could not identify it,” she says. Kilimanjaro won the competition, and at auction a Norwegian roaster paid $14.06 a pound for it, a record at the time. The open-market price was less than a dollar a pound.

Read the rest of the story here (subscription required, worth every penny), or go to your local public library to find an archived copy (worth every minute you spend doing so, especially the value of supporting your library).

When almost-lost gems like this article pop up out of nowhere, sometimes they hit me hard, in a good way.  The last time something like this happened it reminded me why I had been a Literature major as an undergraduate.  This time it is a variation on that sensation: I met Aida in 1996 at a time when El Salvador’s prospects as a war-torn country did not seem very promising, especially in my field of sustainable tourism.  But I met with a small group of “serious coffee people” that had that can-do view of their country, and the crop they were lovingly tending to.  I am more than happy to be reminded.

Chalk another one up for multi-winner strategies. Felicidades, Aida!

3 thoughts on “Coffee’s Contentments

  1. Pingback: Best Practices, Coffee Edition | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Save Soil, Drink Organic Coffee | Raxa Collective

  3. Pingback: If You Happen To Be In Amsterdam | Raxa Collective

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