The SF Chronicle, ever on top of things (not really – their movie critic Mick “Meg Ryan’s Greatest Movie” La Salle just got around to reviewing a French flick, starring Lea Seydoux, a remake of a Bunuel movie, released a year and a half ago) ran an article a couple of days ago on Verge Coffee in Santa Cruz, Blue Bottle in SF and maybe other trendoid hipster establishments offering, or charging, or rather extorting the customers 20 greenbacks for allegedly rare, small batch, hand manipulated, ecologically sound and politically informed coffee, either from Yemen or from somewhere in Central America. The coffee makers/roasters/importers run through the typical adjectives or describers meant to both seduce supposed coffee connoisseurs, while pummeling them with consumerist shock and awe. These coffees are the liquid equivalent of fiction by Arundhati Roy: rare, exotic, and culturally and politically chic.
The author of the article, Jonathan Kauffman, describes this rare coffee, a kind of migrational superstar:
The coffee, grown on the Hussein al-Haba farm in Yemen, was brought to the United States by Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an Oakland coffee enthusiast who spent a year helping Yemeni farmers prepare their crop for the international market. In spring 2015, Alkhanshali escaped Yemen’s civil war on an inflatable boat to bring two suitcases of beans to an international coffee conference.
Well isn’t that special; a coffee that comes with a “thick” four-color brochure. Laffite Rothschild or Ridge York Creek don’t get this kind of attention. And, somehow, escaping a civil war with two suitcases of coffee just doesn’t quite sound believable. Too bad Yemeni refugees don’t get the same treatment, an observation which really gets to the heart of the matter. So this super rare and exclusive coffee is so hard to find, and allegedly so infinitely better than any other coffee on the face of the earth (at least according to the marketing and PR people for Blue Bottle, Verge and similar hipster outlets) that you would be LUCKY to drink it at $20 a pop. I’ve worked in the restaurant business, in SF, NY, Chicago and LA, and I’ve had to participate in the sort of tastings shown in a photo in the article, where the hipster supremo, with beard and grungy attire, tells the staff what flavors they are tasting, while they all nod and agree with her/his nuanced appreciation of the sophisticated palate offered by the coffee. I had to do one at a bistro on the Gold Coast in Chicago where we tasted water. Mineral water.
The bottom line is that while well-off tecchies get this incredible buzz and vibe from feeling like they have joined some inner sanctum of bro’hood when they are suckered into paying $20 for a cup of java, who makes the money? The roasters and importers, of course. How much you think goes to the growers themselves? Well if we know anything from the history of colonialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonialism, nothing, or at least way less than they should get. Does this help any Yemenis or Panamanians (I think it was Panama in Central America where this super-rarified and rare coffee, micro-sourced and all that, was located)? Of course not. Its just more exoticism and colonialism. The consumer, who is suckered into this, feels like they are having some rare, exotic experience unavailable to the uninitiated, or those who buy coffees of a lesser breed. But its just a case of the emperor’s new clothes; caveat emptor. The western marketers make all the money; they sucker the customer into believing that they are somehow, by this rare imported experience, doing something valuable, but it is just more consumerism run amok, and one that leaves a bitter aftertaste in the mouth, and the wallet.