Saint Monday might be a tiny café in a small town, but the fact that a major facet of our operation involves offering coffee to the good folk coming through our doors means that we’re part of an intricate and bewildering global coffee network. In many ways, it can be terrifying to think about the role we play as a ‘cog’ in this machine. Although the concept of ‘food miles’ is grossly inadequate in capturing the ecological, social and cultural impacts of something like coffee, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the journey a coffee bean takes from the farm upon which it was produced to a cup at Saint Monday involves mind-blowingly colossal distances (an average of about 13,000km, in case you’re interested).
Putting ‘food miles’ to one side and considering, instead, the carbon emissions involved in growing, harvesting, sourcing, selecting, packaging, shipping, roasting, repackaging, transporting locally, grinding, brewing and harnessing the multiple resources required to facilitate the serving of what seems to be a simple cup of coffee, makes it increasingly clear that that cup of coffee can be responsible for the production of some serious emissions. (As an example - albeit, a European one - a study from 2008 estimated that the farm to table CO2 emissions involved in serving Costa Rican coffee in German cafes came to about 59.12g per cup). The long and short of it (pun intended!) is that this is one product that, if handled without care, respect or mindfulness, has the potential to unravel any good we might be trying to do in other facets of our business...
Let me stop here for just a second. I hear you ask, "well, why serve coffee at all, if you aspire to difference? Is that not hypocritical?". It's a really good question, and one that we ask ourselves a lot, given that it means we're continuing to shackle ourselves to a system that we want to help change. I guess, our answer relates to the positive social and cultural properties of coffee. We love that there seems to be a power about coffee that, for centuries, has brought people together to philosophise, connect, laugh, recount stories and even plot revolutions. There is a rich and diverse cultural history attached to coffee, and we want to participate in that. We want to serve good coffee to the people we know and love in our community, and we want to do so even in the knowledge that there is this incredible gravity associated with this little bean. We want our role in this global network to have a positive impact for our community, and for communities in places we will never get to see. Knowing what we do about coffee’s impact has upped the stakes for us, and means that to feel good about serving it, we need to be very conscious of how we source and use it - we need to do it right. We need to prepare it with care and ensure that its full value (economic, social and ecological) is conveyed to those who are drinking it with us, so as to respect its origins and those other good people working so hard to grow this incredible crop 13,000km away. Hypocrites our choice may make us, but I think George Monbiot is spot on - "Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations – they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short."
Part of our attempt to address this gap between our aspirations and our actions has been working to acquaint every Saint Mondayer, whether they use our coffee machine or not, with the people and processes around the coffee we use. And so, this week, as many of us as could fit in a minivan took a field trip to our supplier, Melbourne-based independent specialist coffee roaster, Coffee Supreme. We wanted to not only meet some of the people involved in the more local side of the coffee supply chain, but also pick their brains as to how we could best use and serve their beans.
Tucked away in an industrial area of Abbotsford, Coffee Supreme’s headquarters buzz not just with the constant din of coffee beans rattling about inside the belly of their Probat drum roaster, but also the busy-ness of people talking, making, tasting and despatching coffee. Coffee Supreme used to offer Fairtrade/Fair Trade options, but for the past few years it has forgone such certification schemes and taken the extra step of trading directly with coffee producers, mills and exporters. (They’ve written a great post laying out their rationale for this decison in ‘black and white’ here - it's definitely worth taking the time to have a read.) Members of CS’s Melbourne-based team travel regularly to its principle producer-countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia and Indonesia - to not only taste freshly harvested coffee, but scrutinise coffee producers’ management strategies and social standards. They take a holistic view of the production process, with fairness and sustainability as their yardsticks. As Andre, who meets us at the door of the Coffee Supreme roastery tells us, the cornerstone of the business is its focus on cultivating strong, direct, trusting, long-lasting relationships with producers to source the highest quality green beans available. In doing so, Coffee Supreme is committed to paying producers sustainable, fair prices that reflect the fact that the product it is purchasing is grown according to high, specialty standards.
We're invited to dip our hands into hession sacks full of these beautiful green beans before we’re introduced to Matt, one of Coffee Supreme’s roasting gurus. Against a backdrop of coffee storage hoppers draped with sacks labelled with each bean’s country of origin, Matt performs something of a juggling act for us, explaining the intricacies involved in roasting the perfect batch, while keeping one eye trained on a computer screen to ensure he is able to flick off the roaster’s heating elements at precisely the right instant to achieve the ‘first crack’ - the stage at which much of the coffee beans’ moisture has been evaporated off, preserving the unique origin characteristics of the bean. We then watch as the beans are air cooled and poured into a tub for packaging. Andre whizzes us through the tech room, where coffee machines wait in various states of maintenance and repair, and the despatch room where we see one of our own coffee orders being packaged. It’s then off to the training room...
Half of our group are coffee making virgins, who may have made themselves a coffee or two on the machine at the cafe, but who have not yet made one for Saint Monday customers. So there’s an air of trepidation about touching the gleaming La Marzocco machine, let alone using it to transform these precious beans and hand-bottled Saint David Dairy milk into hot beverages. However, Andre has a knack for teaching and building confidence. He talks about controlling variables - temperature, weight, tamp pressure, hygiene - in order to produce the perfect shot. Art meets science, mathematics comes together with metaphor, and before we know it, we are - coffee virgins and aficionados alike - pulling shots and texturing milk like it’s the 11 o’clock coffee rush hour.
We leave Coffee Supreme not just with new skills, but with a tangible sense of connection to the other people scattered along the long and complicated chain that supplies us with our coffee. It’s a small step towards learning how we can fit into this network on our own terms, and do right not just by our customers, but by those who are making such high quality coffee available to us. And it's a step towards learning to articulate more clearly the full value and potential of what seems to be just a simple cup of coffee in a tiny cafe in our small town.