Drinking Coffee with a Clear Conscience
Sébastien Blondeau, creator of the podcast Café Normal, shows us what’s beyond our morning cup of comfort.
How many of us take the time to think about coffee seeds beyond their role in our morning routine: where they come from, how they’re produced, and the way we consume them?
The coffee craze has garnered interest in its production; it has made us curious about this flourishing industry. Many a newspaper column and lifestyle blog has been consecrated to coffee. That said, it’s unfortunate that we’ve settled for a superficial approach to this topic, one that highlights again and again its power to comfort or that celebrates its various distinctions and awards.
This is why I felt the need to launch Café Normal: a francophone podcast where I talk to people who are passionate about coffee. On one hand, it gives the public a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a rapidly growing industry. On the other, it provides — at least I hope — a rigorous and accessible source of information. Café Normal isn’t alone in its treatment of this topic. A number of other publications, blogs, and podcasts have a similar educational mission.
There is a clear paradox: coffee has a fundamental role in our daily lives, but we don’t really know much about it.
Gaining a better understanding
Coffee is the fruit (usually red in colour) of the coffee plant, a tree of multiple varieties, thought to have originated in Ethiopia. It spread across the globe during colonial times. This means that though its current conditions of production and socio-economic impact differ from one country to another, its challenges are similar.
The coffee plant thrives in hot, high-altitude conditions. The fruits ripen during the dry season. Coffee pickers spend several weeks selecting the fruits one by one before bringing them to washing stations, where they are sorted again. The work is meticulous, and it requires incredible physical endurance, considering the often blazing heat and the steep slopes on which the plants are cultivated.
Next comes production: a series of steps involving different processes. Among the most common: the “wet process method,” where the seeds are stripped and washed in water before being dried, and the “dry process method,” where the seeds are dried before being de-pulped. In both, the desired outcome is a dry, solid, and greenish seed.
A slew of chemical compounds can be found in coffee, just as in wine. These are inherited in particular from the conditions of its cultivation. The possible concentrations and combinations are endless, and these determine which aromas end up in each cup. The aromas emerge during the roasting process, when heat transforms the seeds. The aim of this crucial step is to highlight the painstaking work undertaken in the country of origin while avoiding concealing the seed’s specific characteristics with a “roasted” flavour.
… the aroma?
It is perceived when water has extracted the coffee. It can be floral, sweet, spicy, grassy, fruity, etc.
… specialty coffee?
The Specialty Coffee Association has created a points system out of 100 that allows us to assess the taste value of coffee according to established criteria. Coffees ranked higher than 79 are considered “specialty coffees.” This term also refers to the industry that markets and sells them.
… an espresso?
This is coffee extracted through pressure.
This is the drying method needed for conserving freshly harvested coffee. The type of process (wet, honey, dry, etc.) will influence how it tastes in your cup.
… the fourth wave?
This is a myth! There are really only three waves, or trends, in coffee: the first refers to mass consumption in the 1960s; the second, which started in the 1980s, gave rise to concern for how the seeds tasted; and the third, in the 2000s, refers to a surge of interest in the origins of coffee, the people who grow it, and fair trade — particularly through the work of George Howell, known as the father of the third wave.
How to make it right
We’ve talked and talked, but we haven’t tasted anything yet! Despite all the attention we’ve paid to the details of the process up to this point, we extract the coffee to drink it. And though it’s tempting to believe that espresso machines are the ultimate tool, these are probably the toughest, most expensive, and most energy-intensive brewing devices to master.
In contrast, gentler methods like the French press, the AeroPress, or the pour-over are very affordable and easy to learn, and their concoctions are often subtler and easier for curious palates to perceive.
So far we’ve neglected both the grinder and the thing that makes ordinary mortals wince: the scale. In truth, these two elements are the easiest to control and yet have the greatest impact on the grind and water-to-coffee ratio.
To both do this hard work justice and best taste a seed’s distinctive characteristics, it’s imperative you grind the precise amount for the type of brew that’s been chosen.
To achieve this, you’ll need a good grinder — one with burrs, not blades — and a scale, to measure the coffee and water.
This is a slower, more thoughtful approach. It’s one step toward a deliberate experience, where we’re doing more than just tasting good coffee: we’re paying attention to it.
Drinking it responsibly
If, in addition to a better taste experience, we also feel like we’ve made an intelligent purchase, the famous cup of comfort becomes all the more beneficial!
Food companies are increasingly being encouraged to be transparent and provide product traceability. This allows us, as consumers, to make informed choices and to invest in a kind of agriculture we hope to see prosper.
We can also look for organic and fair-trade seals, and so on. But the world of coffee is complex, and this sort of distinction is not always the best guide. Here’s why: when we consider the precarious situation of many farmers, asking them to adapt to the restrictions of a certification, while also paying membership fees, can seem crazy. Some years, an unforeseen expenditure or a less successful harvest is enough for their production costs to outweigh their revenue.
Certifications are generally only helpful for big companies or certain groups with a more stable structure. Still, there are reasons to celebrate: big companies that are certified have to guarantee harvesters and farmers a set salary, and they must adhere to ethical guidelines.
Most independent coffee growers rely on the trust of their clientele. Rather than paying for certification, they build more humane business relationships. And this is where the role of community — and transparency — takes on full meaning.
Connect with a community
Get informed! The local roasting community now has many faces — people whose passion is contagious. It is very much in their interest to share their world with you and to break down the barriers to the coffee industry that might seem intimidating.
Key questions to ask:
- Where is this coffee from?
- Who grows it and who processes it?
- Where does the money go, exactly?
- Why does this coffee cost more than this other one?
Not only does coffee generally taste better (if not exceptional) when it has been carefully attended to, it also contributes, in many cases, to a more equitable distribution of revenue. This creates a kind of domino effect, an ethical rigour that can benefit an entire community.
Social inequalities are worsening, climate challenges in particular are affecting the plight of the world’s agriculturalists, and yet the global appetite for coffee is continuing to grow. But what if everything were connected and could be turned to their advantage?
Sébastien Blondeau has held various positions in the coffee industry in Montréal. In 2019 he decided to turn his enthusiasm into the podcast Café Normal. This project has given him cause to travel, to meet different actors on the coffee scene, and to share his discoveries in a simple and accessible format.
Elise Arsenault has spent the last 10 years studying and working in design. When Café Normal was launched, she offered to help Sébastien by taking charge of the visual aspects of the project.