How COVID-19 Is Rippling Through the Coffee World - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How COVID-19 Is Rippling Through the Coffee World

In March, as COVID-19 swept across the globe and much of the world went into lockdown, Central America was winding down its coffee harvest, and in Brazil, the world’s largest producer, the end of the growing season was still a few months away. But some countries in East Africa were just beginning to harvest, sending producers scrambling for a way to safely bring in and process coffee. “The pandemic aligned itself almost perfectly with the start of the coffee harvest,” says Kristy Carlson, co-founder of Long Miles Coffee Project in Burundi. “Normally, the coffee harvest is a social event involving the exchange of laughter and handshakes, and hard, shoulder-to-shoulder work.”

While the Burundi government enacted few official controls, neighboring Rwanda abruptly closed its borders, implemented severe restrictions, and initiated a number of other stringent measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, including requiring coffee pickers to remain one meter apart. Picking and processing the harvest was the first hurdle for producers in these two lush, landlocked nations. Getting the sacks of dried beans across closed borders to ports on the Indian Ocean and shipped to clients around the world was another matter.

In Latin America, some farms are finding it hard to get enough labor with strict lockdown measures in place. In Colombia, such concerns should ease as restrictions are gradually reduced. The world, though, looks anxiously to Brazil, set to begin one of the largest harvests in history while being thrashed by the global pandemic. “Understanding Brazilian coffee production needs to be completely abstracted from the rest of Latin America,” cautions Josué Morales, a producer and exporter in Guatemala and Brazil, “in the sense that Brazil’s production is mechanical and almost fully automated, and because their labor laws are extremely strict.”

But the size of Brazil’s impending harvest coupled with a slowdown in consumption is already sending market prices lower and frightening producers. “One thing true about coffee farmers in general is that they’re extremely used to crisis and intense pressures,” says Geoff Watts, green coffee buyer and vice president of coffee at Intelligentsia Coffee. “Whether it’s the punishing commodities market, local political and civil conflict, or wildly shifting climate conditions, they’ve been fighting uphill and against the wind for most of their lives.”

“The difference this time is that the disruptions are also happening in consuming countries,” says Ted Stachura, director of coffee at Equator Coffees. If the coffees did arrive, would there be a market for them? Or, as Clay Parker, the recent managing director of Rwanda Trading Company, which processes and ex- ports about a quarter of Rwanda’s entire crop, says, “The logistics of moving the product is secondary to there being a market for it.”

Even as coffee was being picked, dried, milled, tasted, and trucked out, global demand was falling. “Already some of our longest-standing relationship roasters have told us they’re in no position to buy coffee this year,” says Long Miles Coffee Project co-founder Ben Carlson.

Photo by Kristy Carlson

From seed to sip, COVID-19 has touched every aspect of the coffee industry. In interviews with dozens of professionals at the end of May and early June, its profound and immediate impact was clear. And while the potential fallout is still being debated, some silver linings are appearing.

With some 125 million people owing their livelihoods to this global commodity, the coffee chain is both extensive and interlinked. On one end, about 80 percent of the world’s coffee is produced by smallhold farmers and provides an important share of the GDP and foreign export earnings for many countries. (It’s more than a staggering 70 percent for Burundi.) On the other end, the retail value of the U.S. coffee market alone is close to $88 billion, with nearly a third of that generated by retail coffee shops.

While COVID-19 may slow coffee’s journey from farm to cup, it won’t completely halt it. A number of the problems are temporary—borders will re-open, port bottlenecks will ease, people will return to work—and according to Heleanna Georgalis, a leading exporter and grower in Ethiopia, producers there are currently more concerned with other issues: local elections, locusts, the weather, and the longer-term economic fallout from so many hotels, restaurants, and cafés being shuttered for months. That latter issue is utmost in many growers’ minds. “From a producer perspective, I believe most farmers are concerned about the demand for their coffee due to the global pressure being applied to roasters and end users,” says Darrin Daniel, executive director of Alliance for Coffee Excellence and its Cup of Excellence program.

The pandemic has heaped new pressure on the global coffee market, which has been going through a prolonged period of low producer prices, according to a recent report by the International Coffee Organization. The report noted that despite steady overall growth, coffee prices have trended downward since 2016, and that many of the 25 million coffee farmers worldwide—most of them smallholders—are having difficulty covering operating costs as the prices of inputs continue to rise.

While COVID-19 may slow coffee’s journey from farm to cup, it won’t completely halt it.

Declining farm incomes increasingly put livelihoods at risk, and if prices continue to fall, more will abandon their coffee fields, says Pascale Schuit, who manages producer relations and sustainable sourcing for East London’s Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. “Farmers that opt to stay in coffee will have no money to invest in the coffee farms, reducing yield and quality, increasing the downward spiral of quality and poverty,” she says.

If income from the harvest that farmers so significantly depend upon is slowed or reduced by buyers becoming more conservative in their purchasing, the consequences could reverberate for years, Watts says. “Since most don’t have access to financing, a lack of cash on hand means they likely can’t fertilize, plant new trees, pay for labor to prune and weed, or invest in the following harvest. It’s a vicious cycle that can take years to re- cover from.”

Pil Hoon Seu, founder of Korea’s Coffee Libre, agrees. “We believe that the reduced profitability of producers due to low sales and lower sales prices will make it difficult to reinvest in the coffee field, which will somewhat affect the quality and quantity of coffee for next year.”

Not everyone, though, thinks quality might be an issue. “Honestly, as a specialty coffee buyer, I’ve never experienced a deficit of quality in the market,” says Counter Culture’s western coffee man- ager Katie Carguilo. Instead, she’s asking a different question: “If the quality and volume is there, but the market isn’t there to buy that coffee because overall consumption and specialty retail are down, then how do we continue to ensure the sustainability of the business of farming?”

While many quality coffees are traded for low commodity prices, specialty buyers have been able to pay higher prices to the same farmers year after year. “But what is within our power to do now, if we all need to buy 40 percent less coffee?” asks Carguilo. “If the safety net for producers is the commodity market [today be- low $1], what chance for survival do those producers have, regard- less of quality?”

In the meantime, producers push on, worried about the present, looking to the future—some even optimistically. “You have to understand that those of us in agriculture aren’t thinking about a single harvest or a yearly cycle. Investments and the lifecycle of a farm require us to be thinking about multiple years,” says Josué Morales, whose Los Volcanes Coffee company works with 1,000 farms, cooperatives, and small producers in Guatemala. “We always believe next year will be better.”

Photo by Aubrie LeGault

If the impact on farmers has felt like more of a future issue, for places that survive by serving coffee, it has been a more immediate concern. In 2017, 46 percent of coffee in the U.S. was consumed outside the home. In the wake of COVID-19, small coffee shops were forced to transform or perish. Along with offering curbside pickup and going cashless, many managed to quickly pivot and find creative ways to supplement a steep drop in revenue.

While The Arrow Coffeehouse in Portland, Oregon, quickly lost a sizeable chunk of its gross sales, says owner Erica Escalante, “the COVID-19 pandemic has given us the freedom to innovate and make our own rules. Especially in the beginning, when a lot of places were not open, it was like the door of creativity was wide open to make and sell whatever we could think of. Any specialty sauce we have? Put it in a jar and sell it. Bottle the iced coffee and sell it. Feel like eating burgers today? Make and sell them. It was my housemate’s birthday and he requested cheesecake—I ended up just making six, and listing them for sale.”

Escalante says the challenges posed by COVID-19 required a rethinking of the overall business strategy. “In normal circumstances, we would absolutely allow our reputation and vibes to dictate what we’re serving and when. I would never sell cheesecake for fear of being compared to places that do cheesecake really well, even though I think mine is pretty good,” she says. “But hey, lots of places are closed, the community wants to have comforting sweets and support my business, so I’m going to sell cheesecake. The rules have changed.”

To-go coffee at The Arrow Coffeehouse in Portland, OR. | Photo by Aubrie LeGault

Some coffee shops offered more prepared food, while others started stocking grocery staples—flour, eggs, milk, yeast—plus hand sanitizer, playing cards, and toilet paper. For shops once focused on carefully sourced coffee beans, direct relations with farmers, and meticulous brewing techniques, this shift was jolting at first, but many owners have embraced the change. “Many of these shops are realizing their job is being at a center of a community as much as it is making coffee for them,” says Peter Giuliano, Specialty Coffee Association’s chief research officer.

At the final step of this community’s supply chain are baristas, whose role has always en- compassed much more than making coffee, says Sam Penix, co-owner and CEO of Everyman Espresso in New York and one of the city’s best-known baristas. Penix says baristas are essential members of communities, far beyond a stable, comforting part of people’s everyday lives. That notion of stability became even more important as customers living through a pandemic sought solace in the familiar. “Being a barista has always been an important and difficult job,” says Andrea Allen, co-owner of Arkansas’ Onyx Coffee Lab and the reigning U.S. barista champion. “[Baristas] are expected to know coffee deeply, to be able to execute it with the utmost quality. Much of that talent has now shifted to helping keep customers feel safe and welcome, quickly moving the transaction, working to help navigate difficult situations, all while being distanced from the customer and wearing a mask.”

Handing off a just-made coffee went from being a pleasurable moment of interaction between barista and customer to one fraught with danger. “Our customers know this time is scary. They know it’s stressful,” says Escalante. “Especially in those first weeks—everyone was so upset and scared and they knew that waking up and going to work and serving them meant a lot. Our presence and work were comforting to them, just by being open and giving them a small sense of normalcy, and they were a comfort for us, for buying what we were selling.”

Photo by Mark Jackson/CHROMA

One change wrought by COVID-19 is an increase in home brewing. While sheltering at home, people began paying more attention to what they were eating and drinking, says Menno Simons, founder of Trabocca, an Amsterdam-based coffee importer specializing in Ethiopia, and Bocca Coffee, an award-winning roastery. “People are getting out of their habits and discovering their preferences.”

“People used to get coffee at the office, at cafés, at restaurants. Now they’re making coffee at home, and they’re working on how to make it as delicious as they can,” says Eileen Rinaldi, founder of San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, noting that sales of whole beans, brewing machines, and grinders have skyrocketed in these months of COVID-19. “So many of life’s pleasures aren’t really available right now, which puts a lot of emphasis on everyday pleasures like a really good cup of coffee.”

But coffee isn’t like wine or tea, stresses industry veteran George Howell. Preparing it is a process that requires an investment not just in equipment, but also in learning. In response, there’s been a surge in online coffee education. Like many other roasters and coffee shops, George Howell Coffee has been adding content to its website and posting tips and tutorials on its social media channels.

Giuliano sees establishing and maintaining this connection as one of the industry’s challenges. “We’ve got to figure out how to make that experience work for people and feel special for people. Because the whole point of specialty coffee is to feel special—for it to be special. And not just be caffeine.”

For many coffee professionals, the uptick in home brewing is a silver lining, especially as it will likely stick around: The habit of picking up a coffee on the way to work every day has been replaced by a new normal of telecommuting with home-brewed coffee in hand. “The more intimate people get with coffee—and the less interference there is between the two—the easier it is to understand what it can offer. Consumers will be doing more of their own brewing at home and will get closer to the coffees they drink than they had been previously,” says Watts. “Having time to slow down, touch the coffee, sip and enjoy it properly does lead to a different kind of appreciation.”

Along with the tactile appreciation comes a connection to other parts of the coffee chain. “Ordering coffee online or buying it from a store forces you to become a more active consumer than you are when you leave the decision-making up to others,” adds Watts. “Even the simple act of holding a package of coffee in your hand and reading what’s printed on it brings you one step closer to the farm and can influence your understanding of coffee’s provenance and worth.”

Reconsidering the value of a cup of coffee inevitably means drinking it with a broader view. “The connectedness of our world, and the awareness of it,” says Parker, “will continue to inform and shape our new normal.”

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