The (Coffee) World is Flat

By Peter Giuliano 

Coffea Arabica and Homo Sapiens have a lot in common. Both evolved in Ethiopia, and crossed the Red Sea before fanning out all over the globe. The human race inhabited and spread its culture through every corner of the world, and the diversity and beauty of human expression is a marvel to behold. One of these beautiful aspects of human culture is the cultivation and preparation of coffee, which followed a path not too different from the human race that preceded it. Coffee is now grown nearly everywhere that it can be grown, from its homeland in Ethiopia to Indonesia to Nicaragua to Brazil to China. Likewise, coffee as a beverage is enjoyed pretty much everywhere that humans go, from Africa to Europe to Asia to the Americas to Outer Space. Human culture and coffee are pretty much forever linked, so much so that coffee can be thought of as an essentially human, global phenomenon.

This morning, I drank my Peruvian coffee, prepared in a Japanese porcelain filter cone (a method invented by a German woman) out of a classic American china cup. That ritual of creating my cup of coffee—the first thing I did today—was a global act. Coffee is like that. “Java,” the name of an Indonesian island, has become synonymous with the beverage itself. “Mocha,” Java’s partner word and our name for the mixture of coffee and chocolate, is taken from a port city in Yemen. Espresso, the ubiquitous coffee preparation tradition, is Italian. The French Press is from France, like the Café Au Lait and the French Roast. The Cortado—current darling of the coffee bar menu— is Spanish, and is accompanied at many coffee bars by the Austalian Flat White. Baristas (an Italian term) participate in a global competition overseen by the Specialty Coffee Associations of Europe and America, and the champions have been from all over the world.

The consumption of coffee—formerly a feature of the global north—has spread throughout the world. Brazil and India have become major coffee consumers, and China isn’t far behind. Coffee production, of course, has long been a global phenomenon, and increased communication and technology have linked producers and consumers together like never before. Today, after meeting a group of Korean coffee tasters at SCAA headquarters, I took a call from a coffee farmer from El Salvador and had an online chat with a barista in Europe. I have had the honor of representing the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Europe, Japan, and Latin America, where I collaborated with our partners in establishing the World Coffee Events nonprofit, the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative, and a program to bring SCAA training and standards to other coffee organizations all over the world.

Have I made my point? Though we call ourselves the Specialty Coffee Association of America, our commerce and tradition are completely interwoven with the fabric of the entire human race. There is no national coffee culture; there are simply different aspects of a universal coffee culture. Coffee has taught me that more than any other thing—that what we do and how we do it has global implications, and that we are completely connected: economically, socially, and environmentally interdependent.

So the challenge that faces us is: how can we make the transition from a domestic focus to an international one? How can we bridge the inevitable cultural divides, the economic disparities, and the political challenges? How can we engage in a global Specialty Coffee Community, based upon respect, collaboration, and shared prosperity? This is the challenge for this new era—an era where it doesn’t matter so much what country you live in, as long as the coffee is great.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.