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Complex Coffee

by Christina Ritchie Rogers

January 5,2006

I'm throwing in the towel. I have officially joined the jittery brotherhood known as regular coffee drinkers. I know this because I recently walked into a Starbucks, their (our) preferred dealer of legal substance, and somnambulantly asked for a "grande medium coffee, please." At that moment, I knew I had crossed into a realm of dependency-a realm into which so many have crossed before me.

As a newbie in the club, I’ve taken steps to fully comprehend just what it is I now find necessary to function at full capacity. I was recently in Costa Rica, a country famous for its coffee, and had the opportunity to tour a coffee mill. Sporting a hard hat and closed-toe shoes, I followed massive quantities of beans from collection, through shelling, cleaning, classifying, drying, and finally to packaging. I learned the difference between “first level” beans and “second level” beans, and was able to compare their physical characteristics. While coffee companies perfect the flavors of their roasts, the beans possess certain flavor characteristics before roasting as a result of the way in which they were grown.

My coffee palate is naive. I order whatever the default regular brew of the day is for my grande medium cup. I doctor it with milk and sugar, giving little thought and no pause for appreciation of its original state.

My further research into flavor was quite enlightening. Whereas I used to feel like I really knew what I was talking about when I specified “lighter roast” versus “darker roast,” I now realize I might as well have been grunting and pointing. The language used by “those who know,” by the “cool kids,” to describe coffee is as sophisticated and specific as that used to describe a $300 bottle of wine. For example, should you prefer a heavier, smoother coffee with a complex flavor, chances are it was produced through dry process. This is most common and most natural, especially in areas that don‘t get regular rainfall. Wet process is a bit more complicated and results in a flavor that is brighter and fruitier with perceived acidity. The pulped natural process and re-passed methods only expand the possibilities for coffee drinker delight.

I’m not sharing all this to suggest that people take the time to swirl, smell, and swoosh their next swallow of coffee. Sure, I find it interesting that a drink enjoyed by so many is so unique, but I don’t want to be stuck in behind people staring into the black liquid, deep in contemplation...’cuz I need my coffee, man.

But something worth contemplating:

With over 540,000 people and only 30 or so Starbucks, Charlotte does not make the cut in a survey of cities with the highest coffee-to-person ratios. However we certainly consume our fair share of the stuff, and Charlotte is definitely keeping up with all the wi-fi, gift card, travel mug trends. America remains the world leader in coffee consumption, and countries like Costa Rica rely on us to continue to do so.

Caffeine isn’t the only that that gives coffee its bite. Controversy swirls around the industry and the substance. Coffee is good for you, it makes you feel better, it has antioxidents, it helps with headaches, and, good news, it may even help prevent cancer. At the same time, coffee is bad for you, it has caffeine which is addictive, it causes headaches, and, bad news, it may even cause cancer. In countries such as Costa Rica, coffee production is one of the largest sources of revenue and presents many opportunities for employment, while at the same time increases certain threats on the environment as its demands from soil and nutrients are high and coffee mills often pollute rivers with used, sugary water.

All economic and ecological debate aside (though not ignored), what I remember most about my trip to the mill is the people. They work so hard, and take pride in their work. Starbucks, as well as an increasing number of smaller chains, sources, roasts, and sells coffee that is certified fair trade. Whether you support Charlotte’s smaller- and independently owned- coffee shops such as Jackson’s Java, Java Joe’s, and Caribou, or stand in support of Seattle’s Starbucks, take a moment to support the people who stock their shelves. Cheers.

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