You’ve probably never thought of your morning coffee as a public service.
Or considered that a band of itinerant workers the size of a small army 14,000km away are banking on it.
But from the farms of rural South America to the cafes of inner Melbourne, there are thousands of people whose livelihoods are tied to your daily brew.
And they are very worried right now.
The journey from farm to cup
High in Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina mountain range, workers have just started this year’s harvest.
The Fazenda Progresso farm is more than 1,100 metres above sea level and the soil in this so-called “bean belt” between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn provides fertile ground for a crop of coffee plants.
The harvest is the first step in a long process from farm to cup, which flows like this:
- The producer: They run the farm where the coffee berries are grown and picked
- The miller: They get the berries from the farm and mill them
- The exporter: They ship the bags of beans around the world
- The importer: The person in Australia who brings the beans in
- The roaster: They buy the beans from the importer and roast them
- The cafe: They buy the beans from the roaster and brew the coffee
- The customer: You buy the coffee from the cafe
The Fazenda Progresso farm is soldiering on as Brazil fights what feels like a losing battle against coronavirus.
The country has nearly 2 million confirmed cases, second only to the United States, and more than 74,000 deaths.
Farm owner Fabiano Borré is worried.
“Not just because of the pandemic, but we are also facing a very big political [issue] in Brazil,” he said.
“It’s not a good situation right now, when you join some disease with some of the economic and political things [happening].”
Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, has repeatedly downplayed the virus, even as he caught it, and it has spread like wildfire through his country.
“Life goes on. Brazil needs to produce,” he said last week.
Fabiano says he is doing what he can on his farm to keep the virus at bay — installing wash basins, keeping things clean — but he is fearful of a wider problem.
If Australian cafes close down, his farm will suffer too.
“If [Australia’s] market cannot reopen, the people here in the region will be affected as well because they need to work,” he said.
“I believe the impact would be very, very dangerous — not just our company, not just our family, but a lot of people depend on the success of the harvest.”
Then there is the problem of actually picking the coffee during a pandemic.
‘Looking for a needle in a haystack’
Brazil and neighbouring Colombia are major players in the industry, and together produce about half of the world’s coffee.
Pedro Echavarría is the founder of the Cafe de Santa Barbara company in Colombia, and says finding workers for the harvest will be one of the greatest challenges.
“Around 150,000 people have to move around the country to pick coffee. Coffee is a very labour-intensive product,” he said.
“So 150,000 people moving around the country is obviously not ideal during the pandemic.
“We’ve heard a lot of news about coffee that hasn’t been able to be picked.”
This creates a second problem that could flow on to future years.
When the berries aren’t picked, they drop to the ground and attract a nasty beetle dubbed the coffee borer. They then attack the healthy berries and trees and that can affect later crops.
So far, producers say there is still plenty of coffee to go around, but they are worried about the future of so-called specialty coffee.
This is the term given to top-quality coffee of the kind served in many Australian cafes and which fetches a premium price for producers.
It’s different from the mass-made product you buy in a jar in the supermarket, which is referred to as “commodity coffee”.
Think of it like a fine wine or single-malt whiskey, where quality and provenance is key.
The issue for producers like Pedro and Fabiano is it’s far more labour-intensive to produce speciality coffee.
“You’re going through millions and millions of bags of coffee and trying to find those lots that make a real difference in the cup,” Pedro said.
“You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.”
So in troubled times, when pickers are scarce or beetles have affected the quality of the crop, it’s easier to bundle all the beans up as commodity coffee and ship it to whoever is buying.
The problem: many Australian cafes don’t want commodity coffee. They deal in specialty.
Which brings us to urban Melbourne.
Australians drive demand in specialty
Fleur Studd runs a specialty-coffee-import business, Melbourne Coffee Merchants, and is also a co-owner of six cafes.
“Over the last decade, specialty coffee has exploded and become prevalent in many coffee shops across Australia,” she said.
“I think that’s because we’re getting access to much better quality green coffee, there’s a lot more specialty roasters in the market now.
“And it’s delicious, it’s coffee that’s been produced with a lot of care.”
Fleur credits Australia’s strong coffee culture for driving the demand in specialty, which she traces back to Italian migrants bringing espresso machines to the country in the 1950s.
She is hopeful the supply of specialty coffee will continue, both for the sake of the cafes and the producers, but she adds that things remain uncertain.
“We’re communicating every week with all of our producing partners,” she said.
“At the moment, we haven’t seen supply affected.
“There have been some delays in shipments as there’s not as many containers moving … but it is something we’re constantly monitoring.”
As for what could help?
“I think what Australian consumers can do is go and support their local coffee roaster, support their local coffee shop,” Fleur Studd said.
“That will then feed back down the chain and ensure we can continue to buy beautiful coffee from these producers who are working so hard to produce great coffee.”