Last month, and within a week of the UN issuing a bitter warning about how climate change was decimating coffee growing around the world, the London coffee festival took place in Brick Lane. At first glance, these two events seem to lie at opposite ends of the cultural, not to mention geopolitical, spectrum. So far apart, in fact, that you suspect someone of planning a bad-taste joke.
On the one hand, you have 25 million poor rural households under threat because there are no longer enough cool mountainsides on which the highland coffee bean can flourish. Add in leaf rust and the berry borer beetle – both as nasty as they sound – and you have a recipe for misery – not to mention a poor, expensive harvest. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in the post-industrial space that is the Old Truman Brewery, there are young men with bushy beards and girls with Pocahontas plaits fussing about the relative merits of single estate v blended.
If ever there was a perfect occasion to launch into a rant about the decadence of the whole connoisseur coffee thing, then this might appear to be it. What could be more appalling than fiddling with your baby Gaggia while once-cool mountainsides burn in the heat of the unfiltered sun? But think about it for a little, and it becomes clear that these two teams – the subsistence farmers and the hipster baristas – are actually playing for the same side.
One of the impacts of coffee shortages, says the UN, will be to push up the price of your morning latte. Annoying, yes, but there’s nothing like having an everyday commodity suddenly turn into a luxury good to make you value it properly. Naturally you want to do right by it too: getting the temperature and the pressure spot-on no longer seems like fussing so much as due diligence.
In putting coffee at the heart of our lives we are returning to how things used to be. It was Britain – not France or Italy – that introduced coffee culture to Europe in the late 17th century. The first coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1650, and within two years the idea had spread to London. It was not, though, the taste of this muddy new beverage that drew people – or rather men. By the 18th century the Georgians were routinely comparing coffee to mud, old shoes and shit, although, with the muddle-headedness of consumers everywhere, they also liked the fact that you could get endless refills for a penny.
What really mattered to them, though, was how coffee was consumed. Too expensive and fiddly to be made at home, you (a male) took yourself off to a coffee shop to read the papers and talk politics – not just to friends and colleagues, but strangers too. In the democratic space of the coffee house, men of every rank sat down together and shouted in one another’s faces.
The fabulous independent coffee shops that have sprung up in the past five years aren’t quite like this. If you’re one of those contributing to the consumption of the 1.7bn cups chugged down in coffee shops annually in the UK, you’ll know that shouting at strangers while frothed up on caffeine isn’t why you go there. You’re more likely to be cocooned in your singular world, staring raptly at your laptop and savouring the flavour of a bean that has been micro-roasted just up the road. But it doesn’t matter what gets you through the door. The point is coffee has once again become both a destination and an event.
Back in the 1960s there was a television advert for Maxwell House that included the catchy line “there’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”. It turns out that there isn’t, actually, just as there isn’t all that much in Uganda or the Philippines either. Which is why we should treat it with care, creativity and even love. We need to know about the people who harvested it, and why they can’t any more. And if the other side of that concern involves getting geeky about grinds and pressure bars, then so be it.
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