Coffee, the constant in life
Hello, my name is Marilyn, and I am a coffee addict.
I could chart a personal history using my preferred roasts and brewing devices. Vintage percolator, Melitta filter, aluminum screw-together stovetop espresso pot, French press. Naming them dredges up memories of living quarters, lovers and friends, jobs.
Coffee kept me perky through college finals and morning news gigs. It’s been a constant through poverty and plenty, the bad boyfriend and good dogs.
Certain vices I have given up for my health and the safety of those around me. Coffee is not one of them.
In pursuing a more local diet, I’ve changed routines and foregone pleasures. Seafood has no business in land-locked Colorado. I adore mangoes, but not their food miles. How all those bananas get here mystifies me. But give up coffee? Never.
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Coffee is my guilty pleasure, the character defect I cling to.
It may not be on the local menu, but I have seen firsthand where coffee comes from.
In the Guatemalan highlands, Lake Atitlan is nearly 1,000 feet deep, fed by underground water sources and surrounded by soaring volcanoes. In the villages that ring its shimmering blue waters roosters crow and dogs bark all night, and the locals wear traditional textiles and embroidered huipiles to their noisy Protestant revival meetings.
In November, the coffee beans, which are really more like berries, hang red and ripe on their bushes. Walking in any direction, I’d find myself surrounded by coffee bushes.
A hike up 1,500-meter tall San Pedro, one of the volcanoes that enclose the lake, took four hours of struggling straight up steps of logs and sticks dug into the mountainside and stairways with ropes for handrails. Ascending the volcano, the trail threaded through more coffee plantations. At the summit my reward was a stupendous view almost straight down to the blue waters of Atitlan and the lagoon of Santiago, criss-crossed by boats that looked like toys. For the gang of local dogs that tagged along, the reward was scraps from our lunches.
In the evenings legions of men wearing white tunics and slacks filtered down from the forested mountains, burdened with enormous 100-pound sacks of harvested beans as twilight fell.
In the village of San Pedro, the greenish-white beans dried under the sun, spread evenly over concrete platforms surrounded by chain-link fences that reminded me of tennis courts.
At the time I preferred pitch-dark espresso and Italian roasts. My Guatemalan hosts instructed me that the poorest beans are typically used in the dark roasts. Why waste a good bean by burning it to a crisp? Premium beans go into the caramel-colored medium and light roasts, not their oily black counterparts. The caffeine content is higher in a medium roast coffee too, because all the go-juice hasn’t been cooked out of it.
From a Spanish school in Antigua, a field trip took me to a coffee plantation, or finca. For generations the well-heeled family has grown and exported coffee. A mural on a wall of the graceful hacienda depicted the economics of coffee; namely, that laborers earn only pennies from your $15-a-pound bag of Antigua medium roast, and the farmer not much more. Most of the money goes into the pockets of importers and roasters.
In 2014, the raw beans sold for $2.89 a pound, before layers of importing, roasting, packaging, distribution, taxes and shrinkage costs boosted the price. You may be surprised to learn that coffee is our nation’s largest food import and second most valuable commodity, after petroleum.
But in the Guatemalan highlands, the men who pick the beans and carry them down the mountains earn less than $3 a day for their 100-pound quota. These are sweatshop conditions.
Some changes have come in the dozen years since I walked among the coffee bushes. Fair trade strives to put a few more dollars in the pockets of coffee farmers and laborers through cooperatives and ethical buyers.
While we have yet to see any locally grown coffee, local roasters are a marked trend.
In Glenwood Springs, the Bluebird Café serves and sells excellent coffee roasted in a Silt warehouse. Andy Lotsberg studied under two San Francisco coffee connoisseurs and runs both businesses. He started Silver Sky Coffee in 2011 after investing in a gleaming periwinkle-blue coffee roaster manufactured in Idaho. In 2012 he launched Silver Sky as an Internet business selling freshly roasted small batches of coffee more or less to order. According to Andy, the flavor is at its peak 48 hours to 14 days after it’s roasted. Selling only fair trade organic product, he calls himself a “local coffee distributor for the nation.”
Carbondale’s Bonfire Coffee now roasts its own brews in a new warehouse in Glenwood Springs. A few doors away, Sweet Coloradough Eatery and Drinkery serves and sells Bonfire coffee and another Carbondale brand, Rock Canyon, to complement its made-from-scratch doughnuts.
Two brothers started Solar Roast coffee in Pueblo after inventing their own method for roasting coffee by focusing the sun’s rays with their Helios 3 solar concentrator. You can find their excellent fair trade, organic, solar roasted coffee locally at Vitamin Cottage, another Colorado-based company.
So far, admitting my vice hasn’t proved the first step to getting over it. But with some diligence, I can rationalize it while keeping it local.
Marilyn Gleason keeps it local on her Peach Valley farm. She writes Eating Local monthly for the Good Taste pages. Please send responses and ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “food.”
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