Your cup of dark roast has an even darker side

By NATHAN VOELLER/Montana State News

Studies show Americans everywhere are accustomed to their morning coffee, and they are willing to spend to maintain their coffee-drinking habits. A study conducted by Accounting Principals found that “50 percent of the American workforce spends approximately $1,000 a year on coffee.”

Statistics compiled by First Research indicate that about 20,000 coffee shop businesses in the United States collected a combined $10 billion of revenue in 2011. Even the tiny, bustling Standing Room Only Espresso coffee shop at Montana State University reflects the popularity of coffee in American culture.

“We go through 25 to 30 pounds of coffee a day,” reported a Standing Room Only Espresso employee.

Half the world away, Daniel Lorenzetti sips a cup of coffee in an ancient market and watches four vehicles drive past. Machine guns mounted on the vehicles are manned by ununiformed individuals representing an unspecified group. The passage of such groups does not cause a disturbance among the conditioned inhabitants of the coffee-producing country of Ethiopia.

Back in the United States, 58 percent of adults say they drink coffee daily, according to a study conducted by the National Coffee Association. Some Americans, from MSU students to business professionals, consume enough coffee that they find it difficult to stop drinking the beverage. According to Linda Hogg, a dietician and nutritionist at MSU, people can become dependent on coffee to the point of addiction. The caffeine present within the drink is considered by some coffee-drinking regulars as essential to optimal performance.

“The body becomes reliant on the effects of caffeine to help the person ‘seemingly’ function,” said Hogg.

How many consumers in the United States know that the raw red coffee cherries which are roasted and brewed into the brown beverages some enjoy so regularly come from countries like Ethiopia? Daniel Lorenzetti and Linda Rice Lorenzetti sought to investigate the origins of coffee to inform themselves and coffee lovers everywhere about the countries and people who sell consumers the means to satisfy their coffee cravings.

The Lorenzettis traveled to Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Yemen, Ethiopia and Indonesia over the span of three years in an attempt to acquaint themselves with the societies and people of coffee-growing nations, the couple announced at a presentation at the Museum of the Rockies. The exhibit which emerged as a result of their travels, named “The Birth of Coffee,” will be showcased in the Museum of the Rockies until May 5.

According to Linda Lorenzetti, the countries where coffee comes from are often subject to environmental upheaval in the form of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Political upheaval and violence are also common in many coffee-producing nations.

Daniel Lorenzetti said, “You cannot just walk into a field. You could be shot or arrested or whatever.”

According to Daniel Lorenzetti, coffee companies possess a vast amount of power in many nations which the couple visited. Politics can even be affected by some purveyors of coffee.

“When the president of the Columbian Coffee Federation wants to see the president, the president comes to his office,” he said.

Coffee producing companies also often work in areas close to places where terrorist groups are active, according to Lorenzetti. He described the presence of Islamic extremists and al-Qaida members in the rugged mountains of Yemen as an example.

“Where we sat down for coffee, every other man had an AK-47,” he said.

Drugs often have a powerful place in countries where coffee cherries are produced in mass quantities and draw in criminal groups. Daniel Lorenzetti described how fertile coffee regions in Colombia are also the regions where cocaine is produced. Linda Lorenzetti described how drug sales in Yemen are so pervasive that they negatively impact the production of coffee. Those working the land can earn more by growing and selling drugs.

“They have a drug they grow there called chat that is more lucrative,” she said.

The Lorenzettis described many moments when they felt they were in danger. One country, however, was specifically excluded from their descriptions of political factions, terrorists and drugs by Daniel Lorenzetti.

“Going to Costa Rica was like going on vacation. You could actually arrive on an airplane and rent a car without being kidnapped or killed,” he joked.

Coffee production in many nations may be a political and even dangerous process, but the workers whose livelihoods depend on coffee cherries are often ordinary, hardworking men and women. The Lorenzettis described a large number of employees who aid in the coffee production process as dedicated and friendly people.

Employees often struggle to produce fine products without the aid of machinery commonly found in the United States, according to the Lorenzettis. Coffee is usually picked, sorted and dried by hand. Livestock is sometimes used to transport coffee cherries or to accelerate the drying process. According to Linda Lorenzetti, workers in Yemen do not have access to fresh water to wash coffee cherries. Daniel Lorenzetti said some countries cannot even afford any form of fertilizer for their crops.

The treatment of workers in these coffee-producing countries is sometimes good, according to the Lorenzettis. Linda Lorenzetti said all of the proceeds go back into the community in Columbia, and Daniel Lorenzetti described a school and church built for workers in Brazil.

The Lorenzettis said other workers receive very limited pay and benefits. For example, Daniel Lorenzetti said employees in Costa Rica receive around $5 or $6 for a day of work.

“In some places, workers are well taken care of. But not in other areas,” he said.

American consumers like the Lorenzettis receive the benefits of the labor of many workers spread throughout coffee-producing countries in beverage form every day. Daniel Lorenzetti reminds coffee drinkers in the United States that places such as Bozeman, Mont., which may seem far removed from countries like Brazil, Yemen and Indonesia frequently import coffee from distant nations. For example, MSU’s Standing Room Only Espresso reports that it receives its coffee from Montana Coffee Traders. According to the official website of Montana Coffee Traders, the company receives coffee from Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and other foreign countries.

Lorenzetti said he remembers finding a bag of coffee from Ethiopia in a Bozeman warehouse while getting his picture taken for a magazine article. Now that the Lorenzettis know the origins of coffee, however, it seemed like more than a means of making a popular drink.

“We developed an appreciation for the beverage that far exceeded the taste of a fine cup of coffee,” said Linda Lorenzetti.

– Edited by Patrick Carroll

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