Thursday February 13, 2014 | 06:31 AM

Matt's Wood Roasted Organic Coffee.

Coffee may not be produced in the state, but every day the good people of Maine drink cups of the “king of the American breakfast table”.

The United States is the second-largest importer of coffee beans, bringing in 23.5 of the approximately 150.5 million bags sold worldwide. Wonder how much of that coffee ends up in Maine? Well, we can’t tell you that exactly – but know this - Mainers like their coffee! Arabica and Coffee By Design opened in the mid-1990s, Bard in 2009, Speckled Ax and Tandem came on the scene in 2012, Carman’s and Black Cat in 2013…you get the idea. According to Mainebiz, Portland, Maine has as many specialty and commercial coffeehouses per capita as Portland, Oregon, and is second in the country only to Seattle in coffee shop density. In other parts of the state coffee is a big part of the culture as well – in 2010, 44 North began roasting in the upstairs of the historic Deer Isle schoolhouse and “way way back” in 1992 Rock City Roasters quickly found a local following in Rockland.

With a general consumption of caffeine on the rise this is a relevant time to explore how coffee is grown, harvested, processed, and assigned a flavor profile.

In the Root’s newest series on coffee, we will be looking at some of the craftsmen who make up Maine’s rapidly evolving specialty coffee industry. Their coffee is the antithesis of the water-soluble instant coffee you will find in grocery stores or the over-roasted cup from the corner Starbucks.

For this series The Root is working with Anestes Fotiades, the Editor of the Portland Food Map and someone who appreciates great coffee.

Let’s get started.

Have you ever thought where the coffee you wake up to every morning comes from? How a cup of coffee connects you to people and natural environments in countries thousands of miles away?

A cup of coffee begins with “cherries” that grow high-elevation areas in places like Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Columbia, Ethiopia, India, Central America and Mexico with moderate sun and rain and steady temperatures around 70 degrees. For a map of the Bean Belt go here

To understand the journey from a bean to a cup, check out this video

In the first two articles of the coffee series we spend time with Matt Bolinder of Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee and the popular Portland coffee shop Speckled Ax. Bolinder, thirty-nine, has traveled to Latin America to educate himself on the basics of what happens at a coffee origin, to see what coffee farms look like, and find coffee. He is invested financially and spiritually in the culture of sustainably produced transformative tasting coffee.

According to Bolinder, your best chance for ethically produced and environmentally sound coffee is by drinking better tasting coffee and having a comfortable level of transparency with the person who roasts your coffee. He encourages customers interested in sustainable high quality specialty-grade coffees to connect with roasters and ask them about the coffee’s origin – what farm it came from in what country – and how it was processed. Reality dictates small business owners/roasters like Bolinder can only spend so much time visiting coffee farms, so it is key how they spend their time on the ground. “I’ve been to El Salvador twice, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica for a total of two weeks maybe,” said Bolinder. “If I’m away no coffee is being roasted, so basically I’ve only been able to go to Central American countries that I can get in and out of relatively quickly. I’ll go down there and spend three days, because I’ve got to roast.”

On Bolinder’s visits to coffee farms, he is looking for indications the farm is growing coffee in an environmentally sustainable manner and is very interested in the living/working conditions for the pickers who move around from region to region over the course of the harvest. “You can look at the housing set up on the farms for the temporary workers and see that looks pretty nice,” he said. “It’s nice and clean and sanitary and not crowded and then other times you look at where the pickers are staying and it doesn’t really look very good. So you get a sense of what kind of ethics the farm has.”

As with anything of the agricultural nature, coffee farmers experience challenges – weather, climate change, disease - that make it difficult to make a reasonable economic profit. Keeping this in mind and to help you measure how sustainable the coffee you drink is, following are some key considerations relating to how coffee is produced.

Organic or not and the issue of coffee-leaf rust.
A lot of small producers making the best coffee right now are not certified organic according to Bolinder, who explained the certification process is expensive (inspectors have to be brought in from Europe) and yield is as much as one-third lower, because synthetic fertilizers or other inputs are not used.

Generally, one argument for going organic is fewer pesticides. However, as Bolinder explains that may not be a huge issue when it comes to coffee farming. “Most really high quality specialty coffee, which is what we deal with and the better roasters in town and across the country deal with, is grown at high altitudes,” Bolinder said. “Generally those altitudes are high enough where insects are never really an issue. So there is no insectside used even on non-certified organic farms.”

For all coffee farmers, especially those who are organic certified there is also the huge issue of coffee-leaf rust, a disease that causes coffee trees to lose their leaves and for coffee cherries to shrink. According to the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture, the Central American coffee rust epidemic in the 2012-2013 harvest season ravaged crops, affecting the livelihoods of more than 2 million people and causing a loss of roughly 500,000 jobs. “Poor harvests and low market prices this year will deal a lethal blow to many marginal coffee farmers,” said Dr. Tim Schilling, Executive Director of World Coffee Research, at the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture.

Non-organic farmers have had some documented success with metallic copper fungicides in controlling spread of the disease. “Some (farmers) may be destroying 75% of the trees on their farm or they’ve decided they have to treat it and lose their organic certification,” said Bolinder, who has not personally run into the disease with any of the farmers he works with.

Responsibly grown coffee equals shade-grown coffee.
In her article “Make Each Cup Count” for Country Living magazine (2002) Monica Willis writes “In the midst of this high-energy caffeine rush, few of us stop to consider where our drink of choice originates. If we did, it might come as a jolt to know that forests are being razed and bird habitat destroyed to cultivate the beans ground to make our favorite brew.”

The World Wildlife Fund is among several prominent organizations, which continue to report on deforestation trends as a result of the rising demand for coffee and the economic challenges coffee growers face. For information on the biodiversity issues at stake check out the National Resource Defense Council’s site  and go here for the report the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center did on the benefits of shade-grown coffee production.

Other benefits – taste. “Shade slows down coffee growth, which makes beans denser and generally more interesting,” said Bolinder. “They are better able to hold onto their characteristics when you roast them. There is just much more going on with dense coffees and lower grown coffees that kind of start to fall apart when you roast them they are softer they don’t have the same kind of acidity, they can start to taste ashy quickly.”

Fair Trade certified.
Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization/third-party regulator that trademarked the term Fair Trade Certified. In his book Brewing Justice, author Daniel Jaffee writes “In its efforts to achieve social justice and alter the unjust terms of trade that hurt small farmers worldwide, fair trade utilizes the mechanisms of the very markets that have generated those injustices.”

For a look at how some independent coffee houses are bypassing the Fair Trade system and paying the farmers more check out this article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian or this one on the lucrative label in Businessweek

What not to get hung up on. Relationship coffees.
Roasters only have so much time with coffee farmers so the term “relationship” as a depiction of the interaction between specialty coffee roasters and farmers has been over simplified in the media and by coffee company’s pr and marketing departments.

“The term “relationship” is used a lot in specialty coffee and I think it’s overblown,” Bolinder said. “I live here, the people growing the coffee live 2000 or 5000 miles away depending on where it’s coming from. Even larger roasters who purchase coffee regularly from the same farm and maybe purchase a lot of it, it’s a relationship, but how much of a relationship can you have with a person you have to fly that far away to visit and interact with them a day or two. It’s an agreement, it might be a friendly agreement. Maybe I’ll go and see them again next year, but I think the term relationship implies a closeness that doesn’t actually exist for most roasters.”

“We know where our coffee comes from and we can assure or we’re pretty sure the farmers are getting a fair price for this coffee,” said Bolinder. Stop by Speckled Ax and ask him about the origin and check back here tomorrow for Part Two of our interview with Matt Bolinder.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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