That’s a pretty radical statement isn’t it? I have been very fortunate to drink some exceptional coffees during my time working in the industry. Without a doubt, the Brazil Cup Of Excellence #1 I tasted at work last week was amazing. As was the Elida Green Tip Geisha from Panama that I used for my Brewers Cup competition last year. But what if I told you that the large take away flat white with two sugars from McCafé was also a star? Or the Grande Mocha Frappuccino® from Starbucks, upon which they wrote my name as Turtle instead of Kurtis? Or even - dare I say it - the $1 “Freshly Ground Coffee” from the 7-Eleven on the corner down the street?
Now, I know this sounds like a leap, and it feels almost jarring hearing the words “Cup of Excellence” and “Grande” or “Green Tip Geisha” and “7-Eleven” in the same sentences. However, I recently went on a trip to Mexico that completely changed my entire perspective on coffee, so please allow me to explain.
Quick background - my name is Kurtis Tupangaia and I work as a coffee trainer with Proud Mary Coffee Roasters here in Melbourne. I met Charlie last year, and after my time in Mexico, he asked if I would like to put together a post for the blog.
I was one of two Australian baristas selected to participate in ¡TRUEQUE! a two week coffee residency held in Oaxaca, Mexico, in February this year. The purpose of ¡TRUEQUE! was to share experience, knowledge and love of coffee between Australia and Mexico. While I was there, I held coffee workshops with six local baristas, and together we travelled into the mountains of La Mixteca Alta to meet coffee producers and see how coffee is grown.
Now first of all (for those of you who haven’t visited Mexico) much of the country sits at an incredibly high altitude. We were based in Oaxaca City which is a staggering 1550 meters above sea level, and as we rode the bus into the mountains this only continued to increase. As well as this, the area through which we travelled did not have motorways. Instead, you drive along winding trails fraught with speed bumps until you reach your destination, and as we drove, these roads only became more windy and less maintained. The simple fact that all of the coffee grown in the region has to make this perilous journey blew my mind.
Upon arriving at the co-op, we met the producers and walked through each their parcels of land. Once again, my expectations were met by reality. The word “farm” brings to mind perfect rows of trees, neatly separated into different lots and processing areas. In this case, the farm was in fact a forest. The land was steep and rugged and I struggled to keep my footing. Coffee was growing almost wild under a canopy of larger trees above, and as I peered into the wilderness, my eyes picked up bright red glints of ripe coffee cherries everywhere. Producers trekked through the foliage picking cherries from the trees, one by one. Once their baskets were full, they were taken to a hand powered mill where the cherries were stripped of their skins and left to ferment in tanks before being moved to mats to dry.
After leaving the Mixteca, we returned to Oaxaca and continued our coffee workshops. One day as we were discussing everyone’s favourite coffee shops, I found myself speaking about Starbucks coffee and how how bad it is. After this, one of the baristas, Victor, stopped me and told me that no, all coffee is good… It was like flipping a switch. In the coffee industry, we give every coffee produced, a score out of 100 based on taste. Anything above 80 points is deemed “specialty grade” while the rest is classified as commodity. Despite this, every single coffee we drink has to undertake the same painstaking journey before arriving in our cups.
Sure, McDonald’s might steam my milk too hot, Starbucks might mix my Frappuccino® with too much sugar, and 7-Eleven might only clean their hoppers every… well, never. But in each of these cases, the beans that were used to make those drinks have come from trees which was planted and nurtured for three years until they began bearing fruit. Those trees developed coffee cherries which then had to be removed. Those cherries were pulped, and their seeds were fermented and dried. Those seeds were packed into hessian sacks and transported to ports where they were shipped to distant cities thousands of kilometres away. Those sacks were taken to coffee roasteries so that their seeds could be cooked at temperatures over 200 degrees Celsius. And finally, those roasted beans were pulverised into millions of tiny particles to allow the flavour compounds within them to be dissolved and extracted by hot water. Phew! Did I miss anything? Move over Frodo Baggins because that’s a real journey!
This odyssey - for lack of a better word - is what I think of now, every time I order a coffee. Yes, it’s very easy to to start talking about links in a chain or boil it all down to simple statements like “crop to cup”, but the reality of this process is much, much more complicated. Just like a masterfully made Swiss watch or a carefully curated fine dining meal, there is beauty in this elaborate interconnection of parts, and if you can appreciate that, then you too will realise that all coffee is good.