NYC Summit Panel no. 1 “Coffee in a Changing Environment.”

We started on Friday without too much fanfare (after of course the delicious coffee from Stumptown & Intelligentsia). We were introduced to David Rosengarten, who would serve as our moderator for the day. David asked great questions and was a very gracious host to each of the panelists.

The first topic was “Coffee in a Changing Environment.”

NYC Coffee Summit 2009

First, Bethany Koch from The Rainforest Alliance spoke about the environmental impact of coffee – or rather, that coffee growing actually prevents some of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions – clear cutting and cattle farming. Bethany argues that coffee, with its reduced tillage and use of fertilizers or chemicals, is truly not a significant cause of deforestation or greenhouse gasses. In fact, most coffee farms could begin to sell the carbon they capture, which would further incentivize their environmentally-friendly practices. In addition, she also covered the Rainforest Alliance’s certification program, which has 94 main points growers must support (over 50% must be put into practice).

Another interesting point she brought up about certification is the shade requirements, which is something that always puzzled me. Daterra, one of the most famous coffee farms in the world, is a sun-grown coffee farm, and yet they’re RA certified. How? Bethany told us that Daterra has sequestered 50% of their property and have allowed it to return to natural habitat. That’s a truly significant commitment to creating a sustainable agricultural product, and so is considered RA certified (along with many other criteria). “Just imagine sequestering 50% of your apartment to habitat” she said.

NYC Coffee Summit 2009

Next, Edgar Cordero, who is the Vice President of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, spoke about coffee production in Colombia, and their environmental efforts. Speaking on behalf of a country for which 24% of the land is used to grow coffee, he spoke of the vested interest coffee growers have in improving both the environmental stability (he mentioned that the growing regions where Colombian coffee is produced is also most likely to impacted by global warming). “Sustainable coffee growing is more than just a trend,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”

I thought his discussion was particularly interesting after recently attending a talk from the founders of the Las Mingas Project at Gimme coffee in Brooklyn, which lamented on the fact that the Juan Valdez program, while certainly raising the awareness and therefore the price of Colombian green coffee, has also stereotyped the coffee from Colombia as “mild,” perhaps even boring, while all along the Las Mingas project has found truly exceptional coffees. This again goes back a question I keep asking myself as a coffee professional: are we trying to help as many farmers as possible (and I feel like it would be hard to argue that Juan Valdez didn’t help a great number of farmers), or should we really only financially reward the best products available? The free marketers in us want to do the latter, while the fair traders in us want to do the former. I feel like it’s always a matter of personal belief and choice when we get down to the nitty gritty of coffee politics. I personally err on the side of fiscal reward, but of course it’s always hard when we’re talking about another human being’s entire livelihood. This is why I think as much education on proper cultivation and harvest is much more crucial than almost any other aspect of the coffee industry.

Oh, I’m getting preachy and I’m only at the 2nd Panelist! Let’s move on, shall we?

NYC Coffee Summit 2009

Next up was Intelligentsia Coffee. Doug Zell was scheduled to speak, but he graciously let Geoff Watts speak for half of his allotted time. He cracked a joke about Geoff going over time and no one laughed – for a second. Geoff was surprisingly succinct and to the point, however, talking about the importance of buying and selling green coffee only when it is in season. This is a relatively new concept in the coffee industry, although it seems of such basic importance in terms of working with an agricultural product that it’s almost embarrassing that we’re only coming around to it now. But, because we are moving away from the commodity coffee model, these are factors people like Geoff Watts need to discuss so that we can continue to learn about our coffees (and enjoy them more!).

Doug then chimed in talking about bringing the fruits of Geoff’s labors to the forefront of any coffee retail program. For restaurants who focus heavily on local, seasonal menus, remember that coffee is a seasonal product as well. Offer different coffees at different price points – to show that not all coffees are created equal. Stop offering free refills. When was the last time you had a free refill of a glass of wine? A Belgian beer? Showcase your award-winning coffees for what they are. For coffee bars, work on your home-brewing program. Show your customers how to make great coffees by the cup at home. This is a huge focus for Intelligentsia right now, as we’ve seen the dip in sales of the dreaded… $4 latte. Still, all of us in the specialty coffee industry want to see the $4 coffee stand on its own.

I didn’t get to ask Geoff a question but would still love to know the answer – he mentioned that coffees lose their intrinsic sweetness and flavors because the chemicals begin to break down in the seed. I was curious if that meant that the coffee would also have less nutrional value – now that the antioxidants are being touted as the newest great reason to drink a cup of coffee. Since I usually don’t care much about nutritional theories, I let some other questions get answered.

(also hint to coffee drinkers: Both Peter Guiliano and Doug Zell have recently said “This is the cheapest time to buy the world’s best coffees. Drink them while you can still afford them!”)

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~ by Anne on May 3, 2009.

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