Author Jeff Koehler, who won the 2016 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for his book Darjeeling, recently held a book reading in the capital for his new title, Where The Wild Coffee Grows. The book, which traces the origins of coffee to the clouded forests of Ethiopia and the Kafa people who reside there, discusses the current threats to coffee. In this modern travelogue, packed with history and information from books, journals and scientific papers, Koehler describes the journey of the coffee bean from the innermost forests of Ethiopia to unveil how the culture of coffee drinking began and how it evolved into an essential luxury for every millennial across borders. But there’s a downside too, as he tells Ananaya Banerjee about the threats to our morning cup. Edited excerpts:
What made you explore coffee?
When I was working on Darjeeling (set against the backdrop of the Himalayas, it’s the story of how Darjeeling developed its tea industry under the imperial British rule and the challenges it’s facing today), I thought a lot about the origin of plants. Darjeeling is a story about a plant that’s not from Darjeeling. So I was thinking about the durability of a plant in its original place as opposed to a new place, which is the case with most of the world’s crops. So when I was finishing that book, I began reading about different spices, plants and products, and coffee really struck me.
It’s fascinating in its original place and I realised that there’s literally very little written about it. So the more I started looking into it, the more I was intrigued by the culture of coffee drinking and how it began, as it’s something that’s important to so many people. Thus, the original idea behind the book was basically the first part of the book, which describes the forests of Ethiopia, the original place of the coffee bean, and the community around the culture of drinking coffee.
How much did you know about it before writing?
I am from the centre of the coffee world in the US—Seattle—where Starbucks is from. I am also what you would call the ‘Starbucks generation’, as I finished high school in 1987, the time that Starbucks started off. So while I was growing up and going through college, Starbucks was becoming quite a big thing. I thought I knew quite a bit about coffee, but when I started looking into it, I realised I knew nothing.
What’s in this book, Where The Wild Coffee Grows, is not in the market. About 80% of its contents have never been published in English. So, in many ways, it’s a book that I wanted to read, and I ended up researching about it and telling this story, which also has history. For me, this is a travel book, which required enormous amounts of research and reading, which you will notice in the 20-page bibliography attached. In fact, travel books, where the narrator is a character, are old-fashioned. This is a modern travel book that focuses on the story of a place, allowing its people to tell the story.
You mention the dangers of climate change in the book. How grave is the threat to our morning cup of coffee?
The coffee industry is doing extremely well and coffee has never tasted so good. But away from the cities, the problem, or rather threat, is in the farms (coffee plantations) and in Latin America, where 85% of the world’s coffee is grown. They have enormous troubles with coffee rust (plant disease) and climate change. The crisis is significant, but it has not reflected on the production numbers until now, as we have been able to make up numbers in Brazil and by increasing the production of robusta (a variety of coffee, stronger and more disease-resilient than arabica).
In 2016, robusta production contributed 40% to the total production in comparison to 30% in the previous year. Robusta, being a tropical plant, is very resistant, but it consumes a lot of water. For instance, Vietnam is one of the industries growing enormously with the production of robusta.
Arabica, the better variety of coffee bean, has enormous challenges, as it’s not as disease-resistant as robusta. On the other hand, the market for robusta is growing, as it’s being used with arabica in more blends, especially in commercial brands of coffee.
What is a bigger issue: climate change or commercial exploitation of the bean and its subsequent mass production?
The biggest threat is climate change because that is aggravating coffee rust—the most dangerous fungal disease. They keep trying to grow arabica higher to combat the disease. This mass-market way of growing coffee, in open fields with no shade, is a big problem. I think they need to change that. The idea of mono-culture farming is something that needs to be looked at. One needs to go back to the forest to see how wild coffee is grown. It craves shade. You need to look into the forest. Arabica is a very sensitive tree and it craves shade, but that’s not how it’s being grown.
Because, for farmers, everything is commercialised. It’s about growing more and more. Full sun, lots of chemicals. If you grow organically, your yield drops. If you farm in heavy shade, your yield drops. While there’s an organic premium for tea, there’s no ‘shade-grown’ premium for coffee. There’s no price difference that can help the farmers commit to better farming practices. You have to find a way for the farmer to make up for his loss of money if he grows in shade, which will be 30% less than his current profit. He is not going to do it if you say, “You have to plant trees, but you’re going to lose 30% of your money”, unless you can find a way to make up for that.
How do you think we can bridge the gap?
There has to be some global awareness about it. It’s not just about making coffee better. By planting trees on a coffee farm, you’re helping everybody. There has to be some sort of incentive or a way to reward them by using less water, less chemicals and planting more trees. Some sort of global initiative for farmers would help from some big organisation like the UN. If you can make up for the 30% they are going to lose by growing in shade, everybody is going to plant more trees.
Shrinking forests are a reality. Do you think products like coffee and cocoa have a limited life and can there be synthetic alternatives?
I guess so. Like lab-produced meat? One possibility is that they could grow ‘neutral-flavoured’ robusta and then they could flavour it. Because robusta doesn’t have such a great flavour and this will be one of the goals of the future, to grow more robusta with less strong buds. But synthetic coffee, I don’t know.
But how do you meet the increasing demand for these products if there is no alternative?
In my books, some people said to me, “Brazil should find a different product” because the climate is too dry. But Brazil grows half the world’s coffee. Brazil is ‘required’ to produce more. The idea of telling people to stop using coffee is impossible. The industry is saying produce more, and the earth is saying produce less. It’s a battle. The demand is increasing, as people really love it. In the US, the demand is for better coffee, not for crop coffee, but specialty coffee. That’s also a problem, as I can get you half a container of specialty coffee, but not 200 because it doesn’t exist. The demand may be growing, but it’s much harder to procure because growing arabica demands more attention and time.