Friday, January 1, 2010


It's said in The UnDutchables that Dutch society runs on coffee. This is only half true. The other half runs on tea, but that half has a strange way of treating it, as reusing teabags seems to be the standard and not just reserved for cheapskates. I'm convinced that most of the people here have no sense of taste, since most of hot brown liquid concoctions are farily insipid--but it's still better than the US, where the aforementioned drinks are more watery than Davy Jones's locker.

Be that as it may: this Christmas I received a coffee grinder, which is a handy thing to have as it means that I can finally buy beans rather than vacuum-sealed grinds that start to lose flavor within minutes of breaking the seal. Alas, coffee beans are only sold in snobby upscale coffee-chocolate-tea shops with names like Simon Levelt, or Van Hilst, and the varieties of coffee go far beyond Java and Kenya. You can have coffee from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico, light- or dark-roasted, infused or not. For someone who's only choices, until now, have been "red or not-red" (the national coffee preference, it seems, is coffee with red packaging--Douwe Egberts, the biggest coffee seller here, has a line called "Aroma Rood" that must make up something like 99% of the coffee purchased, and supermarkets take advantage of their distinctive red packaging to offer a generic coffee that's also packaged in red), the choices can be a rather mind-blowing lot.

Example, then: this morning I've had 3 cups of Tanzania Peaberry coffee, a "mild and aromatic" coffee from the special peaberry tree, which makes smaller beans and therefore more concentrated flavor...I think. As much as I ridicule wine writers for writing things like "there is a hint of strawberries in the initial bouquet", I must play the hypocrite here, for it is indeed a rather mild coffee, with less of that astringent tang, and there is a sweeteness to the brew that lets it sit gently on the tongue. It's remarkably easy to sound like a pompous snob when discoursing on the quality of one's drink. But this is Coffee, damn it, and coffee is serious business.

Such serious business, in fact, that I am trying to come to a decision as to whether or not to purchase Fair Trade beans. Fair Trade coffee (ground) is expensive, but for someone who only has a small pot in the mornings, buying small packages is good because then you can actually finish the package before the flavor is completely evaporated. But with beans, you don't have that problem--you do have to keep them in a cool dry place, but beans keep their flavor much longer and if you don't mind grinding them afresh every morning, you'll get a much yummier drink. I flatter myself to think that my palate can discern the difference between fresh-ground coffee and sludge--but really it's not very difficult. After having had fresh-ground coffee from the Cafe T, not even the best packaged grounds-coffee comes close to that little cup of heaven.

At issue with my dilemma over Fair Trade is the question of how much do the farmers get of my [ungodly price per kilo coffee]? It's hard to say, really. On the one hand Fair Trade is usually organic, which is worth a lot, given how many pesticides are used in farming coffee. On the other--well, giving farmers a living wage usually means only penny-increases in the cost per kilo of beans for the coffee companies, and certainly far less than the near-double price that FT coffee costs. Yes, I'm a bit of a tightwad in this respect--but on the other hand, I have rent and student loan payments to make, and nobody profits if I go broke.

So I guess the real question is: what is the worth of having the Perfect Coffee Experience every morning? Worth €12/kg (bare minimum) in beans? Never mind the "doing good" bit--if I'm paying that much for coffee it will be because I can have the PCE, but if it helps out a farmer somewhere, all the better. For now (that is, until we finish the bag of Van Hilst Tanzania Peaberry) I'm starting to think that it could very well be worth the cost to have such excellent coffee.

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