coffee, coffee shop

Coffee’s Place In Our Shops & Ecosystems

Coffee has long been one of the most integral beverages of our society. Coffee shops preceded taverns in the period of enlightenment as a place for intellectual discourse, and since then coffee has become one of the most socially acceptable vices ever. Aside from the Church of Latter Day Saints, no religions are against coffee and for many cultures sitting down for coffee is a historic routine passed on for generations. With the advent of Starbucks becoming as ubiquitous as McDonalds, everyone has the opportunity to get their coffee fix in nearly anyway possible. The bevy of flavors, milk additions, etc. available at your local coffee shop also comes with the decision to buy Fair Trade, “Bird-Friendly”, Shade-grown, or eco-friendly coffee. These have all become pretty much the norm at any café and are not noticeably more expensive than your everyday cup of coffee. It has become trendy and seen as socially forward to make the extra effort to buy more environmentally conscious coffee because it is so easily attainable. The coffee plant is an interesting plant for this to happen to because of its widespread appeal as well as the different ecosystems it inhabits. Coffee has now become conflated in some ways with not just being cultured, but with ethical living even.

Coffee Plant

With the increase in the world’s idea of coffee as a necessary luxury, coffee prices have risen in recent years along with the demand for coffee from the countries able to produce it. These coffee plantations are often in developing nations where there is a large amount of biodiversity which is affected by the increased demand for coffee. These farmers are forced to supply more as the coffee retailers reap the benefits of the rising prices abroad while the farmers sell very little domestically and must clear more and more land to meet demand and make a profit. This means that one of the most biologically diverse regions, because coffee is grown mostly near the equator, is being separated into large coffee farms making it harder for species to breed in a way that varies their genetics and improve their odds to survive, meaning that species are more likely to go extinct or endangered. All of this was of course before the spirit of change and charity took over much of the coffee world.
One of the older, more widespread, and more well known organizations working to regulate coffee is the fair trade initiative. Fair trade coffee is characterized by a certification, but is effectively a stamp of approval that workers were paid fair wages, working conditions are near the standard of developed nations, and prices are somewhat stabilized and somewhat inflated to help farmers stay profitable while keeping their farms somewhat smaller and manageable. This helps to keep small farms in business which have less of an impact on the environment as well as creates a greater yield because of the crops’ proximity to a real ecosystem like the forest which is where the plant is traditionally found.

Coffee plantation

A greater amount of stability in one of the largest and most volatile markets in the world means that smaller farms can have more autonomy with who they trade and sell to, as well as manage their farms more closely and work toward being more ecologically friendly. This has allowed for the institution of another type of certification for farmers which is far harder to get and much more of a hands on type of farming. “Shade-Grown” or “Bird-Friendly” coffee is grown essentially in its natural habitat allowing for a canopy to shade the trees and for birds to pollinate the trees naturally. This not only creates more flavorful coffee, but it means that more beans will be produced because of the pollination method. The harvesting of the beans in this way of course is more labor intensive than the usual method of monoculture, but the benefits have gotten to the point of outweighing the disadvantages at this point. Shade growing the coffee beans in their more natural habitat also makes the farms more sustainable as the nutrients are cycled between the organisms decreasing the need to constantly fertilize (Hull). Bird activity is seen as a sign of biodiversity and prosperity in the tropical forest because it is necessary for much of the vegetation to continue to prosper naturally. In the traditional monoculture style of coffee growing the plantations are referred to as “green deserts” because they contain nearly no birds and rely almost wholly on fertilizer for their nutrients meaning very little is retained in environment.

Coffee growing

The higher cost of these certifications may mean that farms will be slower to officially be a part of the environmental initiative, but as more and more farms see the benefits aside from the increased stability and value from a more forest-like farm they will begin to adopt the practices for more reasons. The small amount of money that many choose to pay at the counter, or the super market, etc. can easily be seen as worth it for the change it will continue to bring about. While it may not be enough to bring back the rainforests, or stop global warming in its tracks, it could spark other industries to bring about change. Being one of the largest traded commodities in the world means that a successful move towards sustainability and environmentalism all the while maintaining profitability could says a lot about the willingness of people to pay more for a more ethical product if it is within their means. I hope that this recent trend goes on to take over other agricultural industries so as to maintain sustainability and biodiversity. When given the choice or chance do you go for the rainforest, fair trade or organic certified coffee instead of another? Does it mean anything to you where your coffee comes from?

The Wonderful World of Coffee Part 4: Cafe Culture

Cafe culture has always been one of the things that is simply a must experience for myself whenever traveling. Many cities and countries are well known for their particular quirks, like France’s cafes always being full of smokers, Coffeehouses in Vienna being full of intelligent elites, or Amsterdam’s coffeeshops for selling pot. Coffee shops are simultaneously synonymous with productivity and creativity while at the same time well known for their ability to waste away hours of your day. This all depends of course on the time of day, day of the week, region, and even just the cafe in particular. In the same vein while it can be said that coffee shops in a certain city or area are a certain way, these are by no means steadfast rules that every cafe in town abides by. If that was true you would be able to buy a pot brownie with your mochaccino at Starbucks in Amsterdam, which is most likely at least a few years off. However, that being said there are certainly a few places that I have visited or lived in where cafe culture is something you take notice of and is quite interesting to experience because of its uniqueness.

The first country I implore you to stop into a cafe in is Croatia. Probably not the first country you think of when you think of cafe culture, but the country has a great thing going as far as cafes go. The best part is, these place for the most part are coffeeshops and that is it. Meaning that you bring your own pastry, fruit, or yogurt whatever you are having for breakfast and leave the coffee to them. This means especially for frugal travelers you can save a few pennies and get fresh baked goods elsewhere. BYO breakfast coffee shops being the norm means that places like Starbucks and other chains have not gotten any sort of foothold in the country because they rely on the sale of food. This means the country is chock full of independent coffee shops where you can waste away your day for very little money as you wonder how anybody else in the country gets anything done if they are all hanging out with you drinking coffee.

France and more specifically Paris is world famous for its outdoor cafes full of smoking Frenchmen reading newspapers. While the smoking has been declining, and you are more likely to see everyone on their phones or laughing with friends the cafes are certainly worth visiting. The Parisian cafe is the perfect place to parley a late morning coffee into an early lunch and afternoon drink all while enjoying people watching passersby. The waiters are aloof so know what you want before they come and if you are in a rush to leave make sure you can simply leave the change on the table as you will already have the bill and they won’t really care to come check on you.

Swedes put up with an astonishing amount of cold, which is presumably why they have a word specifically for the event of getting a coffee. Fika is the Swedish word for meeting up with friends over coffee and perhaps a pastry and catching up or having a laugh. Honestly when it is that cold all the time I probably wouldn’t want to meet up with people too often if it didn’t involve a coffee and maybe a cinnamon pastry as well. The Swedish are known for being closed off, so definitely pop into an old coffeeshop or two and see how they open up when the scarves and what not come off. Unlike the previously mentioned Croatians a Swedish coffeeshop experience is not complete without getting a pastry, and unlike the French your English won’t cause anybody to skip a beat when you order your coffee.

The last one I will mention here is the typical Melbourne coffeeshop experience. Renowned for its hipness and its commitment to quality coffee there is practically a coffeeshop on every corner. What you will get there will vary in decor, but you will be almost guaranteed a a quick coffee replete with foamy art in a ceramic cup. The barista behind the counter will surely love to tell you all about where your coffee comes from if they aren’t too busy and you will probably end up learning more than you wanted to and agreeing to see his or her friend’s band play tonight at a place in Fitzroy. Outdoor seating and enclosed courtyards are extremely common if you aren’t in one of Melbourne’s famous laneways in which case get ready for some fast paced people watching.

These are probably my favorite places to go to any generic coffeeshop and experience a bit of their unique community, and if you are traveling in any of these spots definitely put away an hour or two for a coffee break. No coffeeshop is the same, but there are definitely some cool trends that get picked up from place to place. Feel free to comment about your favorite cafe culture experience.

The Wonderful World of Coffee Part 2

So here we are at part two of how to drink coffee, beyond the simple instructions of sip and lift. If you haven’t checked out the first installment you can do so here otherwise just keep on reading and blame yourself if you get lost. We last covered the “luxury” coffees you can find nearly anywhere, but there are some drinks that become extremely common in some regions and fail to make a dent into others. These could be given the title of “regional favorites” if I was the type to label things, so here are some regional favorites:

If you are an American or Canadian and reading this post in the early morning hours you most likely are doing so with a generic “coffee” in your hand. In America “coffee” is the moniker given to a few different brewing styles, but simply put the drink is made with a slower process than espresso. Whether using a percolator, french press, or filtered drip machine the ground coffee beans sit while the water absorbs the coffee. This style of coffee in America is synonymous with coffee and served nearly anywhere, while in other countries it is seen as inferior or even a rare delicacy. As an American myself I will always see this as the simplest form of coffee and crave it every so often on the road. But when you ask for a “coffee” in a cafe somewhere halfway across the world and are met with a blank look what is a man to do?

While filter coffee is becoming more ubiquitous, drinks like the Americano and Long Black have filled the void for travelers and espresso enjoyers alike for quite a while. Essentially, a long black and americano are similar drinks in every way but the order of construction. An american is an espresso of a varying amount of shots topped off with almost scalding water. This can mimic the strength and flavors of a filtered coffee in many ways but at times can also offer the nuanced tastes of an espresso to those who don’t enjoy the bitterness of one. Much like you would add a bit of water to a scotch to lengthen the experience and expand the palette, an americano offers americans abroad to try something between simple filtered coffee and the fancier drinks of cafes.

The Long Black however, is a staple of many countries as like the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australian which often will not offer americanos. The difference? Espresso is added to the cup or mug after the hot water in a long black whereas it is added before in an americano. That’s it. The long black preserves the espressos crema unlike the americano but aside from that there is really no difference. Both drinks are similar to filtered coffee and strength but allow for slightly more flavor than many traditional filtered brewing methods.

One of the weirder things is, that at the cafe I worked at in America we were taught that a Long Black was an Americano. We made sure to maintain the crema and I didn’t learn for years afterward that I was essentially making a different drink the entire time. This all just goes to show that while drinks are different region to region they can also be vastly different cafe to cafe, so maybe see if you can catch what somebody is doing while they make your drink and see how it matches up to your cafe at home. And if you are in need of a taste of filtered coffee try out a long black or americano.

The Wonderful World of Coffee Part 1

Something I have found with my love of coffee and my love of travel is that coffee, cafes and cafe culture is different all over the world. Some cities and countries are well known for their coffee related quirks, others are simply in a country or region where coffee might be served or prepared in a different way than you’re used to. Coming from a country that is staunchly proud of their coffee consumption, but one that has only in recent years yielded to more than black filtered coffees it is always interesting to see the different ways people have chosen to add milk, coffee beans and water together. The great thing about travel is that it lends you a variety of opportunities to try out coffees allover the world. I find that I’m always chasing the hours and trying to get a handle on my jet lag, especially during short trips, which means that most of the time caffeine is your friend. When you are in need of a sit and a lift from some coffee in a new city it is good to know what you will be getting, or at least what you’re trying to order. So here are the “global mainstays”:

One of the most hotly debated drinks out there is the cappuccino. It is probably one of the first drinks anyone will order when venturing into the scary world of cafe coffees, mainly because it is just a drink that is mentioned often. What it entails simply is espresso, a small amount of steamed milk and then a larger amount of milk foam to top it all off. In countries like Australia and New Zealand however, I would be crucified for forgetting to mention the cocoa topping and many others say that cinnamon is the sign of a well made cap. I say hogwash, but that is really just my opinion. Cappuccinos are somewhat unique in the fact that you can order them “dry” or “wet” in a number of countries and it is understood that a dryer cappuccino is one with more of that light foam than usual and a wet cappuccino is one with less foam and so more steamed milk to make up for it. While you may often here people say that Italians wouldn’t dare having a cappuccino any time after breakfast, who cares? Enjoy those odd looks as you enjoy that cappuccino in a Milanese cafe, you deserve the coffee you want whenever it suits you.

The second most talked about and ordered drinks typical is the latte or cafe latte. Put simply it’s all the same stuff as the cappucino, a small amount of espresso, more steamed milk and less milk foam than a cappuccino. Because every cafe, barista, and customer are different all these ratios can change from drink to drink a bit but stay reasonably the same. The amount of espresso is and should be standard throughout these drinks and their respective sizes however, unless a double or “strong” is ordered. The latte has been flavored and co-opted by tea drinkers a million times over but the building blocks will always be the same no matter where you go and they are pretty damn great.

The last “standard” drink that you can get in any and every country pretty much is the simplest and in my opinion might just be the best there it is. The espresso. It is just a few grams of finely ground coffee beans packed together before pushing hot water through them and what you get is the brown liquid that goes into nearly all of the other things you can order from your local cafe. No matter if you are in an airport in Santa Fe, a cafe in Paris or a hotel in Lesotho if a place says they have coffee you should be able to get an espresso that is recognizable as such. Some places will supply you with sugar and cream, others a cup of sparkling or still water, but most just a simple small cup. An espresso is one of the best ways to test the grit of a coffee shop and if you are greeted with a good taste and long lasting crema you might want to stick around for a second. An espresso is the type of drink that in many cases is simply the fastest way to get caffeine into your body, but can be a much more enjoyable experience if done correctly.

So it is probably pretty obvious what my favorite would be, if you hadn’t guess it is the simple espresso, but these you can get pretty much anywhere that has coffee these days. These may be replace with some regional alternatives in rare cases, but if that is so, why not just try those? Next we can take a look at some more particular and harder to find coffee drinks and what they entail in most places.