Coffee

Cash Crop

Pacific Magazine, 1995

Terry McDermott

ONE ADVERTISEMENT FOR Starbucks, the Seattle coffee company, proclaims that the firm’s coffee buyers will “go to the ends of the Earth” to find the perfect beans.

This is intended metaphorically, the Earth being round and without end. The figurative end of the earth for Starbucks most days is on Airport Way South, down the hall in the company’s tasting rooms. But still, as a description of the geography of coffee-growing, the ad is approximately correct.

It is, in fact, hard to imagine a place nearer the end of the earth than the Ijen Plateau of East Java, Indonesia.

Influenced perhaps by an image of idyllic desert isles with broad white-sand beaches and waving palms, we tend to think of islands as flat. In many parts of the South Pacific, the beaches are indeed flat. The islands are not.

Indonesia lies along a 5,000-mile arc between the Pacific and Indian oceans, exactly where the vast Pacific oceanic plate crashed into the continental shelves of Southeast Asia and Australia. The 13,667 islands of the archipelago were torn from the continents or thrust up from the ocean floor as results of those collisions a couple of million years ago.

Java, fourth-largest island in the archipelago, is a long, thin stegosaurus of an island, its smooth coastal plains interrupted inland by a roughly serrated backbone that runs its 600-mile length. The coastal flats are in many places swamps, where the seas don’t so much stop and the land start as the two intermingle. Ribbons of land enclose the ocean. Eventually, the land wins out and becomes solid.

Wet rice and sugar-cane plains shimmer in the Javanese haze. The roads are thick with people: farmers following water buffalo; children in Muslim veils and caps marching to school; small buses overflowing with people, bits and pieces of people protruding at every door and window.

The water disappears altogether as the earth rises and the abrupt hills become the mountains that form the backbone. The spine rises quickest and highest at the eastern end of the island, as if hunching up just before diving straight off into the sea again.

Crops are segregated by altitude. The rice and cane give way to rubber, then tobacco, then cocoa.

Finally, at about 4,000 feet, at the end of miles of twisted, rutted roads, beyond people – which is saying a great deal when you’re talking about Java, the world’s most densely populated place of any significant size, an island the size of New York state with 120 million people on it, where it is hard to ever be out of sight of the next village, or the last one – finally, when there is nothing else but monkeys scampering across the road and mountains, some of them still steaming, here is coffee country.

The coffee business is an immense worldwide enterprise. The up-country of East Java and a couple of dozen other places like it around the globe are at one end of the business. The coffee in your Sunday morning cup is the other.

In between, the business employs an estimated 30 million people – one of every 177 inhabitants on the planet.

Seattleites often seem to think they invented coffee and have a monopoly on it. This is definitely not Seattle.

WILLIAM UKERS INCLUDED these words in the opening of his encyclopedic 1935 book, “All About Coffee”:

“All nations do it homage. It has become recognized as a human necessity … Coffee has an important place in the rational dietary of all the civilized peoples of Earth. It is a democratic beverage. Not only is it the drink of fashionable society, but it is also the favorite beverage of the men and women who do the world’s work, whether they toil with brain or brawn. It has been termed `the most grateful lubricant known to the human machine’ and the `most delightful taste in all nature.’ ”

Ukers might have gone a bit overboard, though certainly not in describing coffee as a human necessity or democratic beverage, or even as the most delightful taste in nature. Those characterizations seem almost self-evident in Seattle, the de facto coffee capital of North America. Even here, however, the “rational dietary of all the civilized peoples” seems overbroad, a touch Euro-centric to modern readers.

But Ukers is neither the first nor the last to overreach in his claims for coffee. In his impressively comprehensive survey of coffee’s history, Ukers himself details many assertions more preposterous than his own.

It has been written, he writes, that Esau sold his birthright for coffee; that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed it as a drug; that Helen, wanting something to drown her sorrows in, brought coffee back to Troy from Egypt; that coffee could cure dropsy, gout and scurvy, and prevent miscarriages; that it fosters insurrection, impotence and hedonism.

Wealthy Turkish homes of the 16th century employed full-time coffee stewards, and the failure of a husband to provide coffee for his wife was considered just cause (grounds?) for divorce.

An 18th-century German writer described coffee houses as “theatres for the exercise of profane eloquence.”

All of this for a drink of absolutely no nutritive value whatsoever, made by various methods of mixing hot water with roasted fruit seeds native to East Africa.

Coffee berries grow on large shrubs, eight to 15 feet high. The small, red, oval fruits are of a class known as drupes. Unlike other drupes, including cherries and peaches, coffee is consumed by throwing away the fruit, then baking, grinding and boiling the pits.

It is, upon consideration, an odd sort of thing to have ever come into existence. First, somebody had to find the fruit. They then had to cut through it to find the seed, remove the seed, remove two layers of skin encasing it, then dry, cook and pulverize what was left.

All in all, the process is more than a little less obvious than Eve spying an apple on the limb, plucking and handing it to Adam, who takes a bite, and says, “Oh-oh, this is good.”

The legends of coffee’s discovery reflect this. There are several.

One suggests the angel Gabriel delivered the original coffee plant to the Prophet Mohammed. Another maintains that a pilgrim was alerted to coffee berries by the particularly beautiful singing of a bird perched on a coffee tree. Yet another holds that an Ethiopian shepherd complained to the abbot of a nearby monastery that his goats were made unruly by eating coffee berries, whereupon the abbot fed the stuff to his monks to keep them awake during prayers.

Coffee originated in the uplands of Ethiopia and was first cultivated there by Arabs who had colonized the area. The Arabs later transplanted it to Yemen, whose port city of Mocha became the first of many place names to be associated with coffee.

The coffee trade was a closely guarded monopoly for more than a hundred years. The Arabs sold it throughout Europe but forbade the export of the plants themselves or the means to grow them.

Whatever the truth of the legend of the shepherd and the abbot, coffee did become associated with religious worship. It was common among 16th-century Muslim dervishes to drink coffee in preparation for worship.

Alternately promoted and prohibited, its use spread. It was introduced to Constantinople early in the 1500s and the demand soon outstripped the supply. Constantinople was turned into an early day Seattle. Coffee houses opened at a rate even Howard Schultz might envy.

They prospered, in fact, too much.

Soon, the clergy began complaining that the coffee houses had more customers than the churches. Prohibition once more followed. (If Seattle had clergy, perhaps there would be reason to worry. Maybe being unchurched and over-coffeed are connected, Seattle having one of the smallest percentages of church-goers and highest percentage of premium coffee drinkers in the nation.)

Historically, however, coffee prohibitions have been as apt to arise on political grounds as religious. Coffee houses in Turkey, Persia and England were at various times decried as hotbeds of sedition.

The Arabs were able to maintain their monopoly for only so long. Seeds were smuggled out to India, probably by Muslims returning from pilgrimage to Mecca, in the 17th century. Dutch traders took it from there to Ceylon and later the East Indies. One of these Indonesian plants was later given to Louis XIV of France, who raised it in a hothouse in Paris.

The French at one time tried to grow it in Dijon, but the crop failed. Cuttings and seeds from Louis’ hothouse plant then were transplanted to the Americas, forming the basis for all the coffees grown in Central and Latin America.

Coffee thrived in the New World, both as a plant and as a drink. The manifests of the Mayflower made no mention of coffee, but shortly after the ship landed at Plymouth Rock the first coffee dealer in American history, a Boston woman named Dorothy Jones, was licensed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony to beginning selling coffee.

It has been here since. William Penn recorded paying $4.68 per pound for green coffee beans. Ben Franklin owned part of a coffee house, which were quite the vogue in post-colonial America. One Boston cafe was seven stories tall, made of stone, marble and brick and cost half a million dollars to build.

By the 20th century, coffee had become part of the American culture. It was apt to be poured before water in most restaurants. Homes had percolator pots simmering on stovetops throughout the day. People drank it all day and all night. Even cowboys drank it around campfires.

There were songs about coffee. It was featured in paintings. It was so ubiquitous one name was insufficient. Coffee, joe, java, mud, mocha. By 1962, consumption of coffee throughout the country averaged 3.3 cups per day per person, man, woman and child.

But that was the peak. Coffee suffered, ironically, from its popularity. Advances in technology enabled national roasters to ship pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee across the country. Small roasters disappeared. Coffee became a prominent loss leader in supermarkets. As national competition stiffened, prices declined.

Large roasters, desperate to hold onto their shares of a shrinking market, cut prices still further and sometimes substituted lesser and lesser quality beans – bastardizing the coffee, is how one trader describes it – to compensate. Prices and consumption raced each other in a downward spiral.

“Every time somebody tried to sell quality instead of price, they got hammered back into the box they were trying to crawl out of,” says Dave Olsen, chief coffee buyer for Starbucks.

Simultaneously, many of the coffee-producing countries of the world had been thrown into disarray as the colonial era in Africa, Asia and Latin America shuddered to a close.

As colonial powers left or were thrown out of country after country, they frequently took their agricultural expertise with them. In many places, the local population did not have the training or financial wherewithal to pick up the work their colonial masters dropped. In others, cycles of war and revolution interrupted or stopped commerce altogether.

Post-colonial resentment in many countries led to the persecution, banishment and in more than a few instances murder of the commercial classes that had controlled the trade.

The result in so far as coffee was concerned was a disastrous decline in quality.

An era had passed.

By the 1970s, coffee consumption in the United States was well into a precipitous freefall that only now shows signs of bottoming out. As hard as it might be for people in Seattle to believe, coffee consumption is half what it was 30 years ago.

SEATTLE HAS BECOME A notable spot in the coffee world based largely on the phenomenal success of a single company – Starbucks – and its seemingly endless and still growing parade of followers.

Starbucks was founded in 1971 by three guys who at the time knew next to nothing about the business other than that they liked to drink good coffee and it was hard to find.

The three – Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegl and Jerry Baldwin – were at least as interested in achieving some sort of populist business ideal as amassing fortunes, which they seem to have done in spite of themselves. The goal was a sort of beverage variant of the “power to the people” ethos of the era.

The three hadn’t a clue they were entering a sinking market.

But there was a counter-trend just under way. Concentrated mainly in California, a kind of epicurean movement toward high-quality, locally produced foods was beginning. It was born largely in reaction to the homogenization of tastes implied by mass marketing, and at least in its early days emphasized quality, freshness and hand-crafting more than elitism and high prices.

“I never thought of it as the next big thing,” Bowker says. “We were just looking for a place to get a good cup of coffee.”

“I was a writer. I had just gotten a job and I had a paycheck and I thought: Now that I have money, what do I want to buy? What I wanted was, I didn’t want to drink any more bad coffee.”

Bowker began making regular trips to Vancouver, B.C., to buy coffee for himself, then for friends, then for friends of friends, until finally the U.S. Customs intervened with an explanation of the difference between shopping and smuggling. Bowker, Siegl and Baldwin decided to start a coffee company.

They scraped together $10,000, built a store in the Pike Place Market and prepared to provide good coffee to the good people of Seattle. They lacked one key ingredient: coffee.

They sent Siegl to California to find it.

Bowker recalls: “He called back and said, `I found the guy.’

“He found the guy all right.”

About the time William Ukers was composing his intoxicated account of coffee’s history, a young Dutch boy named Alfred Peet was embarking on an investigation of his own, one that would occupy much of the rest of his life.

Peet as a teenager in 1930s Amsterdam was sent to apprentice in a coffee trading house his grandfather had purchased as an investment.

“My grandfather was a butcher. He bought a coffee business. I don’t know why he chose coffee. He wasn’t a talkative fellow. I wasn’t an asking boy,” Peet says now.

Peet proved, however, to be an eager boy with an acquisitive mind. Amsterdam had been a coffee center since the 18th century and Peet soaked up the traditions and most of all the tastes. He became an accomplished coffee and tea man, working in the trading house and later in Indonesia, home of Java, synonymous with coffee.

He eventually found his way to the San Francisco Bay area, where he worked for a coffee importer.

“The stuff we were importing, I thought, `If I had to sell this, I’d be ashamed.’ ” That distaste led him to a decision, in the mid-1960s, to start his own business. He searched up and down the West Coast for a suitable location and finally settled in Berkeley, where he opened a small store, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, in 1966. He imported and roasted all of his own coffees, largely because there was no other way to get what he wanted.

“The first year I was here the only other specialty roaster on the West Coast was Boyd’s Coffee, in Oregon. The West Coast wasn’t much, really. Folgers, Hills Bros, S&W, there were a lot of roasters here, but they were all commercial.

“I never advertised. I didn’t even have my name on the door. I was roasting coffee. People came in because it smelled funny.”

Peet had opened his coffee shop in a residential Berkeley neighborhood, chosen because he would be surrounded by potential customers. Everything went well until new federal air pollution standards were enacted.

The new regulations forced Peet to move his roasting operation. He rented a warehouse in an industrial area and moved the roasting there, keeping the store where it was. He needed additional income, however, to cover the added expense of the warehouse rent. He began searching for a location for a second store and he also decided to begin roasting coffee for other retailers, something he had previously declined to do.

Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of greatness was showing up. Zev Siegl’s timing couldn’t have been greater. He showed up at Alfred Peet’s place exactly as Peet was looking for somebody to roast coffee for.

Thus was Starbucks coffee supply born, midwifery performed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

OVER THE YEARS, Peet went on to train dozens of people in the coffee business. It would be fair to say he has not been overwhelmingly impressed with most of them.

“I never saw so many people with high IQs so stupid,” he says.

Many, to put it mildly, were naive, especially compared with someone raised in Old World craft traditions.

“When Starbucks came and asked if I would roast for them I said I would, but on two conditions: One, when you get too big, you have to roast your own. And, two, each person would work in my store for at least a week so they would at least know how to answer a question.”

For all the changes the company has gone through in the intervening 22 years, and they have been many – its growth, its sale to marketing whiz Howard Schultz, its offering of public stock, its international stature – its strengths remain those Peet insisted on: good, fresh, high-grown beans, roasted dark and served by someone who knows what it is he or she is serving.

This is hardly a revolutionary concept, but in a coffee world of infinitely refillable, instantly forgettable diner mugs full of mud it might as well have been the second coming, which now is about how Starbucks promotes it.

As Dave Olsen puts it, “We didn’t invent coffee. We just started paying it some attention.”

That sounds a lot more purposeful than it was in the beginning, but Olsen embodies a corporate attitude at Starbucks that approaches arrogance, and would fall far over any restraining lines if it wasn’t cut with an evangelical enthusiasm.

These people love coffee. They have learned the truth and they are here to deliver it.

Starbucks these days is a kind of hybrid of its founders’ populist inklings, its current owners’ inspired marketing and the coffee traditions inherited from Peet and enhanced by Olsen, in particular Peet’s decidedly minority view of how to roast coffee.

Wine people politely discuss favorite vintages. Martini drinkers haggle over lemon or olives, shaken or stirred.

Coffee people argue roasting methods with religious fervor. How long, at what temperature, to what degree of doneness? These are not idle questions and the answers are variable.

For all the attention paid to the beans themselves and who grew them where, the single greatest variable most non-professional coffee drinkers will discern in coffee is something closer to home – right in the home, actually. How well was the coffee brewed?

The next greatest variable – and the last one the roaster has any real control over – is how the coffee is roasted.

A coffee bean is a chemically complex little piece of cellulose. Cooking it causes all sorts of things to happen. And different things happen to different degrees depending on how it is cooked.

Vastly oversimplified, the main differences are between light and dark roasted coffees. Green coffee is high in acidity. Roasting it removes acids. The more it is roasted, the more acid is removed and the more the sugars within the bean caramelize. To a point, this will make a coffee richer. Beyond that point, it can make a coffee taste burnt, which is what many people unaccustomed to darker roasts say they taste. Most roasters look for what they regard as the perfect balance between the acids, which give brewed coffee its most distinctive flavors, and the dark roasting that makes it pungent.

The roasting process is a matter of “steering between the lines all day long,” trying to keep within the curve that has been described by experience, Olsen says.

There is, as it happens, a geography to this. In the United States, the East Coast is the center of light roasting. Thanks largely to Alfred Peet, the West Coast, including Seattle, is dark-roast country.

One widely read consumer evaluation of different specialty coffees, not much referred to at Starbucks, expressed shock at the acrid taste of the company’s coffee as if it were a mistake rather than an intent.

Peet likens his roasting philosophy to the way a master carpenter handles different types of woods.

“I don’t roast dark because I want it to be dark. Coffee is like lumber. You have soft wood and hard wood and everything in between. If you have a hard bean coffee, that’s like oak. That takes a completely different roast than a soft bean coffee, which is more like pine. I adjust my roasting according to the beans.”

Peet no longer owns Peet’s Coffee and long since quit roasting for Starbucks, but both companies maintain his roasting style. At Peet’s, this produces what is likely the darkest roasting on the planet. Jim Reynolds, Peet’s chief coffee man, admits that even he is perplexed by some customer preferences.

“Our darkest roast is French Roast. It’s one of our most popular coffees and I don’t understand why. It has an almost burnt-toast taste to it,” Reynolds says.

Olsen says Starbucks’ darkest roast “approaches the combustion point of coffee. If it’s left uncooled out of the roaster, it will continue to roast and conceivably could catch fire.”

If you’re going to roast like this, Peet says, you’d better get some good beans to start with or you’ll have nothing left but ashes.

JAVA IS COFFEE-GROWING country, not coffee-drinking country. I once went into a hotel coffee shop in Java and ordered coffee.

Just coffee? the waiter asked.

Just coffee, I said.

The waiter looked at me quizzically, unsure of either my order or his English. He went to confer with the maitre’d. They came back to my table together.

Just coffee? the maitre’d asked.

Just coffee, I said.

The waiter headed for the waitstand, the maitre d’ for the kitchen. The shout went out.

Just coffee. He wants just coffee, the maitre d’ said.

Just coffee? the cook said.

Just coffee, the maitre d’ said.

Fifteen minutes later it arrived.

With a plate of bread. The Javanese couldn’t imagine someone sitting in a restaurant drinking coffee all by itself. Given the quality of coffee normally found here, that isn’t surprising.

When I and a photographer arrived this summer in the offices of the Association of Coffee Exporters in the East Javanese city of Surabaya, we were greeted warmly and served cold water, a plate of sweets and, of course, coffee. It was execrable.

Here, in the headquarters of one of the world’s great coffee-growing regions, we were being served, said our host, Nescafe. As it turned out, he was wrong. An aide rushed in to tell him to his relief the coffee was brewed, not instant. But the fact that he couldn’t tell the difference illustrates one of the great perplexities in the coffee trade:

Most growers don’t know much about coffee.

The basis of modern agriculture has long since shifted away from folk knowledge and custom curated by farmers themselves to science. The repositories of this knowledge have moved, as well. They reside in most countries within the government, where they are often seen as enablers of economic development, producers of money, not gourmet food and drink.

There are exceptions to this, of course, but coffee is not among them. Having never been an important part of the diet of people who grow it – having never been an important part of anyone’s diet, for that matter – coffee is purely a cash crop. It is grown to make money and it has often been cultivated almost as an industrial crop.

Indonesia is a notable example of this. Coffee is not native. It was brought here in 1696 by Dutch traders, who hoped to escape the Arabian monopoly by transplanting smuggled seedlings in the enormously rich soils of what were then called the Dutch East Indies.

Agricultural riches, in the form of spices, were what attracted European colonialists to Indonesia in the first place. The main produce of the islands were rice and spices – pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and mace.

The first commercial coffee crop was produced in 1711 and sold at auction in Amsterdam, where it fetched 47 cents a pound. (The commodity price of coffee on world exchanges this year has dipped as low as 40 cents a pound; so much for inflation.) Over the next two centuries coffee joined the spice trade as economic mainstays in the islands.

In the 19th century, the Dutch instituted a system of forced labor in Java that came to be regarded as a model – not, it should be noted, by the Javanese. Books were written about it. “Java, Or How To Manage a Colony” was the name of one admiring work.

Coffee growing flourished. Java, in particular, became so strongly identified with coffee production that its name became a slang synonym for coffee.

Others were less taken with The Cultivation System, as it was called, in that it effectively enslaved Javanese peasants. The classic Dutch novel, “Max Havelaar” (subtitled “Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company”) was written in protest by Eduard Dekker, a disillusioned Dutch colonial administrator.

D.H. Lawrence likened Havelaar to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It did not have the same effect, however. The Dutch clung to their plantations well into this century. They were finally nationalized by the Indonesian government in 1957.

The early Indonesian coffees were the traditional arabica variety. But the arabicas were almost completely wiped out by the rust-leaf pest. They were replaced by heartier robusta varieties, which are resistant to rust leaf.

The robustas, however, are widely regarded within the industry as inferior coffees – more productive, sturdier, but less flavorful. The coffee industry in Indonesia went into a long decline.

The only remaining arabica plants in Java are those that were planted later at higher altitudes, where the rust-leaf pest cannot survive. The necessity to grow arabica above 4,000 feet yet in a mild, frost-free climate with sufficient rain (an average plant needs more than 70 inches of water a year) effectively guarantees there is never going to be too much of it.

There are in all of Java only five plantations left growing premium highland arabica beans. All five of them are in the rich volcanic soils of Ijen.

THE CALL TO PRAYER from the village mosque echoes through the pre-dawn and is largely ignored. The call to work is answered. Coffee pickers gather in small platoons on the edge of Baru village, smoking, squatting, sitting on their bamboo baskets.

The pickers are heavily dressed. The cool mountain air seems cold here along the equator. Native Javanese long since quit the coffee-picking business, replaced generations ago by Madurese islanders who have emigrated to these East Java highlands.

Caps – a Red Hot Chili Peppers model is popular, but also represented are Nike, Guns N’ Roses, the Colorado Rockies and the state of Alaska – rubber boots over knee-high striped blue and white socks, a skirt, a shirt hanging over the skirt, another shirt over the first shirt, a sarong over all of it, a kind of proto-grunge look.

Squad leaders lecture. Pickers sit and wait for the light. They’re a mixed lot: men, women, children; whole families, old and young. As light leaks over the mountains into the valley, they move out over the river, disappearing into the trees, breaking off in groups of five and six.

Everybody argues over who should be picking where. It matters since they’re paid by volume. They all want to pick in the best places. The arguing is good-natured and is accompanied by a huge amount of laughing, joking, talking, giggling.

An old man controls the traffic with signals tapped out on a bamboo pipe drum he wears on a cord around his neck. He taps a constant stream of information. People move.

Once the pickers have moved deeper into the trees and can no longer be seen, the noise floats up the hillside above them, sounding like a huge flock of birds, chattering in the trees.

The rows are about 10 feet apart, with trees every six feet. Interspersed among them are taller broad-leafed poplars, planted to shade the coffee.

The coffee plants are from eight to 15 feet high. Some pickers carry small ladders to help them reach the top. Others climb up or bend the trees down to them.

The berries do not all ripen at the same pace, even on the same branch, and are supposed to be picked individually. Some of the pickers abide by this, some don’t and just strip an entire branch rather than pick individual cherries.

COFFEE PRODUCTION is a complicated, labor-intensive business.

Trees are planted in a nursery, then transplanted to fields. Three to five years later, they will begin producing in commercial quantities. In some regions, the trees produce throughout the year. In others, those with distinct wet and dry seasons, they flower at the beginning of the wet season and are picked at the end of the dry season.

When ripe, the coffee cherries are a deep red. Any one tree might produce 4,000 cherries in a year and, because different cherries on the same tree mature at different rates, an individual tree will be picked several times over about two months.

After picking, the cherries are sorted to remove those that are unripe or too ripe. What’s left is then weighed and trucked to a processing plant, where it is dumped into a water tank and soaked to soften the fruit.

After soaking, the berry pulp is scrubbed away by mechanical scrubbers. (This is true only for what are called wet-processed coffees. Dry-processed coffee is not soaked or scrubbed. It is spread in the sun to allow the pulp to dry. Then it is milled away, often by spreading it in the road so that passing cars, trucks and bikes will run over it, loosening the hardened berry.)

Once the berry is removed, seeds remain, usually a pair from each berry. The seeds are dumped into another tank of water, covered and allowed to sit, fermenting, for 36 hours. The fermentation converts a mucilaginous covering to sugars. It is akin to the process used to make alcoholic beverages.

“Except,” says Dave Olsen, “we save the barley and throw away the beer.”

The beans are then washed again to remove the fermented sugars and hauled out to drying yards, where they sit in the sun for up to two days and often receive additional drying in wood-fired drum dryers.

The drying yards at Blawan Plantation are a series of enormous concrete patios that sit out in front of the old colonial mansion.

The quarter-mile square of concrete is filled with acres of piles of golden beans. Kids, men and women, working in pairs and trios with wooden rakes and shovels, move through the beans, turning them.

Every shovelful of beans whispers its way off the shovel. The effect, with several dozen shovels working at once, is a sound like wind through broad-leafed trees, a sound just beneath hearing.

A plantation employee says the kids go to school from 7 a.m. until noon, then come to the drying yards to work. This seems reasonable, until you walk out to the yards in the early morning and see the same kids.

The patios are divided, so that each batch of beans is separate and the drying time can be monitored. With good sun, the beans will spend two days here.

On a part of the yard the beans are a startlingly darker brown, nearly black.

What are these?

Local consumption, a worker says, and laughs a sort of conspiratorial laugh. This might explain why no one here drinks much coffee.

The bean at this point is still covered with a final layer of skin (there are four coverings in total). It is removed in a mechanical huller, leaving, finally, green coffee beans.

The beans are sorted – sometimes by hand, sometimes machine, sometimes both – by size, and defective beans are removed. Hand sorting in East Java is done by warehouses full of women, picking furiously through bushels of coffee, bean by bean.

When strangers walk through the warehouse they face a fusillade of beans. Bing, a no-look pass stings my cheek. Pop, another one off the forehead. I turn to look to see where they’re coming from and all I see are smiles and fingers pointing to a little old lady at the end of the row.

When sorting is completed, the beans are bagged, usually in 60-kilogram, 132-pound gunny sacks, which are the standard unit of measure in the business. You buy so many bags of beans, not so many pounds, kilos or tons.

In the current market, producers will get 60 to 80 cents a pound for good arabica beans, all the way up to $4 for those in the shortest supply and the highest demand.

At 60 cents, even at 80, a coffee producer likely will lose money. He’ll pay the pickers and sorters each about a dollar a day, which works out to a dime a pound apiece. The rest goes to processing, fertilizer, transportation and equipment.

Almost everybody in the business agrees that green beans have to sell for at least $1 a pound for everybody involved to make money.

Goenarto Wahyoeno, manager of Blawan, reputed to be the best of all the Java plantations, takes me high up into the shadow of Ijen, to what he says are the best soils with the best coffee in the country. He replanted it five years ago and the trees are full of brilliant red berries and lots of them.

“You are the first man to see the secret plantation,” he says. “Not even my wife has seen it. I really love the coffee. I love the coffee. Then, I love my family.”

Goenarto is a man of enormous charm and good will. He has run government-owned plantations for 30 years and on the evidence of Blawan – with its hearty plants and eager workers – he knows what he’s doing.

But the “secret plantation” is exactly the sort of thing that makes coffee men like Alfred Peet and Dave Olsen cringe. Asked why the coffee is better, Goenarto points to the color of the berries, the luster of the leaves, the productivity of the plants. He does not mention the taste because he hasn’t tasted it.

All he needs do is look, he says, at the plants. These are a new variety he calls arabica usta, a type I’ve not heard of. Usta, Usta, he says. Finally, he fishes out a brochure describing the coffee. “U.S.D.A. Hawaii.”

Goenarto has planted the best land on the best plantation in Java with stock from the United States Department of Agriculture, which so far as anyone knows is not particularly renowned for its coffee expertise.

“A planter hopes to grow coffee,” Peet says. “It could as easily have been carrots. He looks at it as a commodity and a price. They are generally rather ignorant about the quality of the stuff.”

“It’s no different than what we did with tomatoes, right down here at Davis (site of the University of California’s famed agronomy department). It looks good. It grows well. You might just as well eat a rubber ball.”

“Oh, what I would give for the Javas of my youth.”

THE PLANE WAS AN hour late and we arrived two hours early on the advice of Javanese who had never heard of Toraja and so guessed it would be hard to get to.

They were right.

In addition to being late, the plane when it finally arrived was overbooked, overweight and underpowered. It was an old Dutch prop job that looked more like a rubber-band-powered-box than the slim, elegant jet-launched tube we tend to think of when we hear the word “airplane” these days.

The heat inside was intense, so much so that the couple in the last row seemed not to mind very much when a desk agent came onto the plane just before takeoff and escorted them away.

Overweight? asked the man, who was anything but. He had running shoes tied to the outside of his back pack and had the anorexic look of someone who used them.

With the skinny couple gone we took off and you had to wonder. Their combined weights could not have been more than 250 pounds – his wife was even thinner than him – and could that little weight really matter? Did their slim tonnage spell the difference between safety and disaster? If we were unsafe with them aboard, were we safe now? Those were not questions I wanted explored.

They weren’t. Except for a brief reconsideration when we suddenly halted because somebody forgot to shut the tailgate, we left. To say we took off would imply far too much forcefulness in the plane’s behavior.

We became airborne.

The winged box got up and flew north along the west coast of Sulawesi, another, more remote Indonesian island a hundred miles northeast of Java.

The land below was all terraced paddies. No people anywhere. Just water, rice and mountains. The latter held my attention, but the rubber-band box knew its way over and at times it seemed through them.

In a mercifully brief time we were coming up to Tana Toraja. The airport was a strip of gray on a patch of bright orange clay in the middle of an otherwise wet and completely green world.

It was the first time I had ever flown anywhere and did not descend at the end of the flight. We were still going up, it seemed, when we landed.

Toraja is distinctive, even by Indonesian standards. In a country that is 90 percent Muslim, it is animist Christian. The people are descendants of the great Khmer civilizations of antiquity.

They came here by boat centuries ago and built houses that reflect their maritime past. Toraja houses look like ships that have been swept ashore and accidentally landed on legs. They are grouped for the most part in tiny villages and you can see coffee trees dotted across the hillsides near them, by the dozens, rather than the thousands we were used to seeing on the East Java plantations.

No matter what part of the world it is grown in, coffee is grown in two distinct milieus. One is the plantation, which even on Java tends to be a more corporate endeavor, with the sorts of controls that implies. As a result, plantation coffees are predictable in supply and quality.

Some of the most distinctive coffees in the world are grown outside of plantations by individual farmers, who might have anywhere from a few acres of coffee trees to a few trees.

These coffees tend to be harder to find, more expensive to buy, and less predictable in taste. The plantations might emphasize productivity over taste but they produce consistent coffees. With coffees such as those grown in Sulawesi, buyers say they never know what to expect, but when they’re good, they’re great. The total production of the whole island of Sulawesi is less than a single plantation on Java.

Routinely, the single most expensive coffee Starbucks sells comes from here, Toraja land in southwest Sulawesi. Like Jamaica and Kona coffees, Sulawesis have become favored by the Japanese, and that has implications for both supply and price.

Coffee traders and buyers tend to agree that the most expensive coffees are not necessarily the best. Kona and Jamaican varieties command huge price premiums simply because of extremely small supplies.

Like many other goods these days, the prices have been greatly influenced by the growth of demand in Japan, which is – after the U.S. – the world’s second-largest coffee consumer. Jamaican Blue Mountain, when it can be bought at all, is going for up to $12 a pound.

“The Japanese came in and bought the whole mountain,” says Kurt Kappeli, a coffee trader with J. Aron of New York. “The price seems crazy, but people are paying it.”

The only large plantation on Sulawesi is owned by Toarco Jaya, a Japanese company that has also become a large buyer of coffees grown at nearby farms, whose average plot size is less than a quarter-acre.

Farmers in a small village a couple hours up country from Rantepao, the market town for the region, have been selling almost their entire crop to the Japanese.

Until this year, that is, when the Japanese buyers suddenly quit buying. The bottom fell out. Prices were cut in half, then half again. Nobody can even afford to fertilize, says Desa Bokin, a village chief, who points out the scrawny condition of his own plants as proof.

The sudden lack of interest in Toraja coffees by Toarco Jaya is a mixed blessing for coffee buyers from the U.S.

Litha Brent two years ago sold next to nothing to U.S. buyers. They couldn’t afford it. Now they can afford it, but quality is falling fast, Brent said.

Brent has been in the coffee business since he was 10, when he collected beans from small growers in Toraja and took them to market. He has since moved to Ujangpandang, the main port of south Sulawesi, and is now the principal exporter for Toraja coffees.

When we were at Brent’s warehouse his crews were packing aged coffee for shipment to Seattle. A Dutch trading company had agreed by fax to buy 20 tons of the coffee. As it happens, 20 tons will not fit in a single shipping container and Brent had enough of the coffee to fill a second one.

Rather than ship the second container partially empty he queried the trading company to see if they wanted another full container.

They said yes and the coffee came to Seattle, where presumably it will be sold, not because some buyer trudged through a jungle to find it, but because it filled out a container. COFFEE IS THE WORLD’S second most-traded commodity. Only petroleum surpasses it. Just at the wholesale level, 11 billion pounds of coffee changed hands last year.

This extraordinary amount of trade is the result of a cultural and agronomic curiosity. The International Coffee Organization reports that 59 different countries grow some significant amount of coffee. They are all in the tropics, usually oceans away from the people who drink it. Coffee has to move. It is bought and sold, in some cases four or five times, to get to its market.

The coffee-growing countries form a band around the middle of the earth and range from giant producers, like Brazil and Columbia, the largest, to the very small, like Hawaii, whose entire production comes from a single 22-mile strip on one island.

There is not necessarily a correlation between amount of production and quality.

Brazil’s coffee is not prized by coffee people; some of Columbia’s is, while Jamaica’s minuscule production is the highest-priced coffee on earth. Choosing among the great variety of beans is the single most important activity a coffee company performs.

The coffee business has two distinct segments, which are so distinct as to be almost different businesses entirely.

The largest of these is composed of the big national and international roasters, generally called commercial roasters, the Folgers and Maxwell Houses of the world. It is and has been for decades stagnant.

Much smaller but much more dynamic is what is variously called the specialty, gourmet or premium coffee business. With Starbucks at its head, the specialty business is growing phenomenally. Ten years ago it barely existed. Now, it is 12 percent of the entire coffee market and headed, industry analysts think, much higher.

In the commercial business, coffee beans are a commodity, bought and sold like so many barrels of crude oil. The world is awash in these coffee beans and prices are at historically low levels. Millions of bags of beans are sitting in warehouses all over the world, going bad with no buyers in sight.

In the specialty business, beans are scarce and buyers are begging to buy them.

Most of the coffee bought and sold in the world today is bought sight unseen. It is bought by reputation, habit and on the basis of sample tastings. Most coffee buyers seldom leave their offices.

The coffee buyer is much more likely to go down the hall to his company’s tasting room than around the world to a coffee plantation to try new coffee.

Even at Starbucks, the buyers spend much more time in Seattle than out beating the bush for new beans. This despite the fact that among other accomplishments, the company has manufactured a sort of swashbuckling Indiana Jones coffee-buying legend that Olsen, a former Montana wheat farmer, wears as if born to it.

The company’s extraordinary growth in the five years since Howard Schultz bought it has bound Olsen to a desk and a tasting table. In simpler times, Olsen traveled extensively, although it was never true that much of the company’s beans were discovered in foreign terrain, after fording wild rivers and fighting off deadly spiders.

Since Alfred Peet quit buying and roasting Starbucks’ beans, the company has acquired them in much the same way every other specialty roaster does – on the telephone.

Coffees are traded differently in virtually every place they are grown, but most follow a general pattern.

Small growers sell them to millers, who might or might not be growers themselves. The millers process the coffee and sell the green beans to local traders who sell them to exporters. Exporters ship them overseas to brokers. The brokers sell them to either wholesalers or directly to roasters.

Frequently, on the last two links in this chain, the coffee is sold on the basis of samples that have been air expressed ahead of the actual shipments.

At Starbucks, which Olsen boasts has the “world’s largest supply of the world’s best coffee,” those samples arrive by the dozens every day.

Samples come in from all manner of well-meaning and profit-seeking people. Stockholders send suggestions. The Salvadoran ambassador sends a letter. Somebody traveling in the Chinese interior sends a sample from Hunan.

These days they all think Starbucks should know about their beans.

“The phone rings every day and somebody’s sister-in-law’s uncle’s aunt has seen some coffee growing somewhere and she wants us to know about it,” Olsen says.

Mary Townsend, Starbucks’ other buyer, says she has a standard answer when anybody asks her anything about a coffee.

“Send me a sample and I’ll cup it.”

These cuppings, as they are known throughout the industry, are as formal and full of ritual as any religious exercise, which, given the fervor with which the coffee is often regarded, they might well be.

Olsen and Townsend cup as many as 50 coffees on a given day. In addition to samples being tasted for possible purchase, every shipment of coffee is cupped upon arrival at the roasting plant.

On busy days, the coffees are arranged on virtually every flat surface in the small tasting room in the middle of Starbucks’ Airport Way roasting plant.

Each sample includes a tray of whole, green beans, a tray of whole roasted beans, and 7.5 grams of freshly roasted and ground beans in a cup. Each sample is labeled, telling what it is, where it’s from and what its moisture content is.

Water is heated to just below boiling. When it is poured over the grounds, a crust forms from the grounds that float to the top. When the crust is broken with a spoon, the trapped aromas waft out into the nose of the waiting taster, which is, or ought to be, right down in it, taking deep whiffs.

The trays of whole beans are visually inspected at the same time.

After the smell has been smelled, the coffee is allowed to cool for perhaps 10 minutes.

“Then commences the slurping and spitting,” Olsen says.

The tasters circle the room, loudly taking each coffee into their mouths. The forceful slurping is done to spray the coffee back into the mouth, ensuring the full measure of aroma and flavor will be gotten from it. Then it is spat into a huge brass spittoon and on to the next cup. Notes might be made, impressions recorded.

Most people’s experience of tastes – coffee, wine, whatever – is anecdotal. They don’t compare. They have sweet corn one night and it’s great. Then try it again a week later and it’s terrible. They don’t sit down and sample 100 ears of corn in one sitting.

Cupping is largely a matter of more rigorously comparing taste sensations to previous sensations. Checking the taste against the floppy disk in your brain, as Alfred Peet says.

“The sensations are real. It’s not something you make up,” Olsen says.

“Most other tasting rooms, you’re not trying to see how good it can be, but how bad it can be and still pass minimum standards. We have an ideal coffee for each of these types. As we go forward we continue to go up the chain.”

At one point, after tasting an Ethiopian coffee, which he found superb, Olsen says, “Mary, we’ve got to figure out what this is. Then we’ll know how to get really good coffee.’

Getting consistent coffee these days out of Ethiopia, as well as a lot of other countries, is “a crapshoot,” Olsen says. It is an irony of the business that just as the demand for premium coffee grows, the supply is threaten by politics and technological “progress.” And that’s in addition to all the normal things that can go wrong even when supplies are plentiful.

Olsen picks a piece of bean out a sample tray.

“One little piece of broken bean like the one in my hand can ruin a cup of coffee. It can ruin a whole pot, a bag. It can ruin your whole day.”

Townsend, reflecting on this later, said: “There are so many things that can go wrong, it’s amazing there’s as much good coffee as there is.”

THE LIQUID, which is the point of all this, is principally composed of burnt hydrocarbons, mineral salts and alkaloids suspended in a solution of hot water and vegetable oils. Dozens of gaseous compounds float above it.

As it is sipped into the mouth, other vapors are released from within the liquid itself.

Molecules from both the gases and vapors are inhaled and trapped, like nuggets in a miner’s seine, in the nasal membrane, where several million olfactory cells put down whatever they were doing – probably nothing, human olfactory cells are notoriously underemployed – and go to work sorting the molecules, matching them against the records of previous molecular travels through the olfactory network.

Meanwhile, organic compounds in the liquid – acids, salts and sugars – roll over the mucous membrane of the tongue, exciting the taste buds. The mouth and the tongue also measure the texture of the drink, feeling it, weighing the sediment and oils as they wash through.

The excitation of the taste buds, called gustation, and the sorting of the aroma, called olfaction, are combined with the textural analysis, and the whole complicated stew is forwarded to the brain.

This all happens in milliseconds and the brain of the average person, checking the event against several thousand taste memories, says something like: Oh, coffee.

The brain of the more enraptured coffee drinker – for example, any resident of Seattle older than 8 – might say: Ah, coffee.

Or, if the brain rests inside the head of a professional coffee taster and has a catalog of taste memories much larger and more frequently thumbed, it might say: Ho-hum, high-grown, high-tech hybrid, washed arabica, an agronomic miracle, productive, well-raised on a government estate in East Java, the product of a thousand years’ history and a thousand people’s labors, nice coffee.

Terry McDermott is a reporter for The Seattle Times. Harley Soltes is Pacific’s staff photographer. Fred Birchman is a Times news artist.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

 

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