Caffeine Rush

Before I got caught up on a chocolate high yesterday, I mentioned coffee has somehow become a staple of the ASB trip I’m going on. Now, I know you all know of my persistent, practically lifelong love of tea, but I have a confession: I had coffee the other day, and I liked it.

I know. Really. I couldn’t believe it myself.

So it only seems fitting I celebrate coffee for today.

In addition to monthly meetings for every ASB team, one of the required pre-trip tasks is going on a group retreat to start getting to know each other better and to do some sort of service project locally; since most of the ASB trips tend to do larger service projects worldwide, it’s nice to help out our home communities.

For our retreat the first week back in school, we did three things (in reverse order): We built a house, did a couple teambuilding exercises, and toured Larry’s Beans. Now before you narrow your eyes and say, “What in the world is that?” I’d like to tell you that a house is typically a structure with four walls and a roof that people live in.

Oh, it’s Larry’s Beans you didn’t know about?

Well, I didn’t know about them either–or it, actually, as it turns out. When I first heard about Larry’s Beans, a Fair Trade coffee supplier native to Raleigh, NC, I thought it was a cafe because, honestly, there’s only marginally fewer cafes around campus than there are pizza places (and there’s at least nine or ten of those). However, when we carpooled on a dreary Friday afternoon to the only dirt road in Raleigh (as I was told), I realized I might have been mistaken.

Larry’s Beans isn’t a cafe at all.

Larry’s Beans is a company. A company with a warehouse and a roasting plant and a green bus and a garden and about twenty thousand worms–but don’t panic, I haven’t gotten there yet.

We were greeted by a small group of really excited workers, one of whom introduced herself as our tour guide. And, of course, what’s the first thing you do at a coffee factory? You get coffee.

And you know how I don’t like coffee.

So there’s this amazing wall of mugs at Larry’s Beans, because they don’t use paper cups: You use a mug, and then you wash it. So there were all these mugs and it looked so colorful and amazing and I wanted to pick one, so I chose the brightest green mug they had–and I really wish I could’ve kept it, I really did like it. And then I asked a teammate to show me how to do it right, so I selected the Honduran blend and added some cream and sugar and then, wrinkling my nose a little in preparation (for although I love the smell of coffee beans, the taste has never settled right), I took the tiniest sip possible.

And it was a bit bitter.

And then I liked it.

Liked it a lot actually.

Anyways, the tour began on a warm note–and I do mean that literally. Once of the cool things about Larry’s Beans is how sustainable they make their practices, and this was first illustrated with their concept of work heating. Much how task lighting only lights the area where you’re working, work heating only heats the areas where people actually are. So at the front of the warehouse where the computers and offices and coffee dispensers are it’s nice and toasty, but step past the line into the greater warehouse and suddenly it’s cold again–because the blended coffee doesn’t need to be hot and when workers go back there, it’s not for extended periods.

On the other side of the warehouse, out back, are piles of trash–at least, it might look like trash to the untrained eye. Actually it’s compost. There’s a lot of bio-waste in the coffee production process–used beans, coffee grounds, etc.–that comes to die out here, and even more amazing, Larry’s Beans has an agreement with their consumers such that they bring back the compost-ready materials when they deliver their coffee and then, back at the plant, they compost it all. This is where the worms come in. It’s called vermicompost and it takes a lot of worms. And I mean a lot of worms.

I finished my coffee before I peaked inside, and you know what? If I never see that many worms again, I’d be okay with that.

Next we went to the small garden area between this first building and their second. Our tour guide pointed out three things: First, the garden space is used to give workers a comfortable place to take breaks on, and it gives them a nice way to use all that compost. Second, the walls of both buildings (even the offices) roll up like garage doors so when the weather’s nice, they can create an indoor-outdoor work environment that’s not only affordable but also productive. And finally, the large cisterns built alongside the buildings are for catching rainwater. I haven’t mentioned all that much here the importance of water or the fact that it’s one of the scarcest natural resources in the world, but trust for a moment it is (or just Google it quickly if you must). The point being, they use this rainwater in their toilets, their cleaning, their garden. It cuts down on their water consumption elsewhere, which is not just sustainable, but also economical.

Next we moved into the production plant–a bright building with almost no lights on. And by bright, I do indeed mean well-lit: They installed a number of skylights to reduce electricity operating costs, again being both sustainable and economical (are you starting to notice a trend?). At the roasting station, we were told a little more about what coffee actually is: These beans are the pits of a cherry-like fruit called the arabica berry. The coffea arabica plant grows almost worldwide in suitable climates, and much like tea, it thrives and produces a richer product in higher altitudes.

You know, the whole time she was telling us about coffee, I was thinking about tea–not out of disrespect or elitism, mind you, but because of how similar the two are. Growing up, I knew two things: tea came from tea bags and coffee came from something that looked like dirt. As I grew older, I learned two more things: tea actually comes from leaves, and that dirt? It’s just ground-up coffee beans. And a little older still, I made one final realization: Whereas tea is oxidized yet largely left in its original form from growth to consumption, preserving the natural nutrients inside it, coffee is roasted and packaged with an abundance of chemicals, some of which have caused cancer in lab rats.

So, obviously, tea is clearly the better choice.

Just as many people stop me when I’m walking around with my loose-tea-brewing water bottle and ask me what I’m drinking (one person actually thought they were insects, not tea leaves), without actually having seen coffee in its raw form, I really couldn’t appreciate all it offers. Yes, I’m sure the heavily-processed ground coffee bought commercially is generally bad for you, but perhaps the natural, organic, Fair Trade variety has a lot more health to offer–or at least not as much bad stuff.

The similarities don’t stop there. I know both through reading and through tasting that the same tea plant grown in different areas with leaves prepared in different ways can produce a wealth of varieties of final products and flavor nuances. The subtle differences in the soil and air quality affect how the plants grow and therefore change the composition of their leaves at a chemical level, giving rise to regional differences such as the iconic clash between assam tea and ceylon tea. The extent to which the leaves are oxidized and the manner in which this is done distinguishes white teas from green and black teas and can incorporate and infuse hundreds of other flavors, such as jasmine, into the final product for a truly infinite range of possibilities.

Likewise, the makeup of individual coffee beans vary from place to place based not just on soil and air conditions, but also on the methods of extracting the beans from the coffee cherries. There are also different ways of roasting coffee beans that pull out different flavors and notes in the final product. I can’t say it’s any more complicated than tea is, but it’s more than likely at least as complicated. (Don’t just think flavor is the only thing affected by where the beans are grown–we got to compare beans from Ethiopia with beans grown halfway around the world and, even in their raw state, you could see a difference in their colors–one was brown while the other was a soft, jade-like green.)

Our final stopping point on the tour was the tasting room, where they quality control each batch of coffee and experiment with new possible blending techniques. Here we were told about the flavors coffee possesses, and I was once more surprised to find a lot of the descriptive words she used are the same ones used by tea connoisseurs to describe their drink. The thing I remembered most here, however, was her encouragement to drink coffee black. She has nothing against the dairy industry, but she told us when we add cream and sugar, we’re not just adding cream and sugar–we’re completely changing the chemical composition of what we’re drinking. Obviously we’re not making it deadly, but we are compromising it’s natural flavors and expression. Only in its raw state can we truly appreciate the coffee for all it’s giving us–and for me personally, this also meant that only when I drink a glass of tea without sugar can I fully appreciate all the flavors it’s able to impart.

It’s a little hard to imagine a service trip based around chocolate farmers could give me so much to say about coffee–but it has. The special thing about Larry’s Beans isn’t just its coffee; it’s their commitment to doing business sustainably. By building their work spaces to match their work practices and using the natural resources they have at their disposal, they’re not only able to cut costs, they’re able to cut their carbon footprint. And by supporting Fair Trade, organic growers, they’re not only providing a quality product free from corruption, but also encouraging worldwide trade that can be maintained, ensuring both the continued availability of the product and the thriving farms that make it all possible.

Our trip to Belize is first and foremost about environmental issues. In the news we’re given a picture with business success on one side fighting sustainability and conservation on the other. This view is wrong, however, because these two towers are not disjoint, but uniform–and like Larry’s Beans has shown us, it’s possible to achieve business success not in spite of but because of sustainable practices.

And, honestly, who doesn’t want a world in which we can have our cake–or perhaps our coffee–and eat it, too?

(Please consider making a donation to help me pay for my trip to Belize to
work with Fair Trade cacao growers; for more information, click here.)

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