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From the Fruit to the Cup – Pt I

In years gone past, a casual participant in Perth’s coffee scene could easily dismiss a bad cup of coffee as being a byproduct of our small town mentality, our mining background, our lack of appreciation for the finer things, or our simple inability to get a good thing right. Perth has always been the ignorant little brother of Melbourne. Melbourne, a city where culture (especially coffee!) is actually appreciated. If you wanted a good coffee, you had no choice but to hop a flight to the East Coast so that you could finally stand shoulder to shoulder with other aficionados who are capable of appreciating the sweetest of all brews.

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Times have changed. What started as a small resistance movement has quickly flourished, and the Perth specialty coffee scene is now booming. Spiralling out from the centre of the CBD are a host of great coffee spots, and there is a clear passion for the industry that perhaps once did not exist. The rate at which new coffee shops are opening up is also quickly increasing – some filling a geographical caffeine void, others opening up directly next to or across from existing cafés. It is a fact that you can never have too many good coffee spots, and the end result is a kind of renaissance; a scene where merely offering an adequate product is not enough, and where healthy competition leads to great things.

The specialty coffee scene is complex: most people are familiar only with the end of the supply chain, the place where they hand over a fiver and receive a custom brew and some combination of coins in return. What goes into that cup is the end of a truly fascinating process that almost certainly started somewhere in Africa, South America or continental Asia.

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The coffee bean is the dried seed of a cherry, or fruit, that grows from a coffee tree where the conditions are just right. This normally means altitude and rain, which is the primary reason an agricultural nation like Australia doesn’t play much of a role as a coffee grower. Instead, famous coffee regions in Ethiopia, India, Colombia and Indonesia (where these growing conditions can be readily found) have developed massive industries and economies centred around the planting, harvesting, processing and exporting of coffee plants.

Ethical problems begin to creep into the chain somewhere around this point, as the countries where coffee readily grows tend to be developing nations. Developing nations often have three things in abundance: first, a burgeoning labour force; second, widespread industrial corruption; and third, a lack of strong labour laws governing things like minimum wage and fair working conditions. The result is a race to the bottom when it comes to costs such as labour and processing, which threatens the sustainability of the industry as a whole, as well as the future of the small farmers who have a passion for what they do (and a desire to continue making what is often a meagre living).

  Missionary Impossible

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Thankfully, there have been certain industry responses to these inherent problems; for one, an organisation called Fairtrade exists to assist producers with the promotion of fair working conditions and sustainability generally. Some go even further – for example, local wholesaler Five Senses have insisted on establishing a team to build relationships directly with coffee producers, rather than relying on interactions with corrupt commodities exchanges and governments who focus more on profitability than fairness and sustainability.

The results of these kinds of direct relationships with producers are twofold: first, traceability – consumers can be sure that their product is not the result of a chain of cruelty and suffering, but rather an industry where fairness is promoted (it is not unheard of for a wholesaler to bribe local government officials to find out where a particular lot of coffee has come from); second, the quality of the product is better, as supply processes can be improved and perfected, rather than slashed as a byproduct of the current climate of systemic unfairness.

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Returning to our local shores, the Perth specialty coffee scene is becoming increasingly aware of the myriad factors involved in the coffee supply chain. Coffee wholesalers who allow questionable ethical decisions and processes along the chain are not favoured among local cafés. Instead, café owners are increasingly importing their own beans through ethical channels, or buying from roasters and wholesalers who are committed to fairness, equality and morality.

This maturation of the local coffee scene has also led to a better quality product, as inevitably, those who have a passion for coffee knowledge also have a passion for spreading that knowledge and delivering the best quality product possible.

Over the next few weeks, I will be travelling with Five Senses to a coffee nursery in the north of Bali, to learn more about the very first steps in the supply chain. It is my intention to share this knowledge, along with any photos I can get along the way, with Flint Magazine as part of a series of articles covering, in more detail, the coffee journey from fruit to cup.

Andy owns a café in Perth. He is also the Creative Director of FLINT Magazine.

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