The Objective Virtues of Guatemalan Coffee

One criticism of columnists is that too often, we cover old ground. When we run out of real ideas, we attempt to build bridges to Readerland on rainy, or writer’s-blocked, days with off-the-shelf topics. I have read more than one column about coffee, for instance. Everyone has experience with coffee, so it is as safe a topic as you can get. OK, so Amy Q. Journalist cannot start her workday without that cup of Joe. Like, profound, man.

My coffee column will be different. You see, I loathe coffee, so when I praise it (which I will presently), I have achieved my slant on that basis alone.

Maybe my hate-hate relationship with coffee started the day my grandmother (accidentally) upended a coffee pot, sizzling my foot with roiling black liquid, circa 1963. Even today, the burn scars remain, if faintly.

When I was 8 , my Dad took me to work at his car lot during the summer. My first job, “sunrise poop patrol,” had to do with guard dogs, a broom, and a dustpan. This activity would have been a distant second to going to Disneyland; but it was play compared to the inadvertent sadism of sending me to fetch coffee.

The coffee vending machine (which also sold hot chocolate and chicken “soup”) would fill the paper cup to the literal brim with finger-scalding liquid. Butterfingered shaver that I was, I could not walk all the way to Dad’s office without spilling it on myself and nearly howling in pain.

In the retail car business, one drinks vat fulls of coffee, as if each day were the eve of a congressionally mandated prohibition. Indeed, coffee is the oil of that and many other professions. I remember one sales manager telling me how to use coffee to disarm irately dissatisfied customers (without actually throwing it).

Here is how it worked. The salesman invited the customer to the vending machine room for coffee. But, uh-oh, he had no dimes (even when he really did). So the salesman asked the customer for two dimes for two coffees. By supplying these (which he usually did), the customer had “invested” in the salesman as a problem-solver, and then calmed down in order to get his money’s worth. I can remember thinking, “Wow, they found a real use for coffee!”

I confess that, personally, I have found none except as a crutch for the few times that I crammed for exams in college; but even that is a dubious utility, since cramming is stupid. And, being apparently taste-bud challenged, I do not see what the big deal is about the taste, and much less do I understand the application of adjectives like “buttery” and “gamey” to coffee “bouquets.” Nonetheless, I go through this cycle where I start imagining there is something wrong with me, since everyone else seems to love coffee. So, every two or three years, I try a cup to see if the taste has “improved.”

Each time brings not a liking for coffee, but the old suspicion that Jiffy Lube has found a way to recycle what they bleed from dirty crankcases. Then they mix it with ground wormwood, put it in bags, and sell it to the instant coffee factory. The vaunted bouquets are imparted by adding a few drops of synthetic essences, almond or vanilla or whatever, to the mix.

We, the one-half percent of the population who do not like coffee, may be the world’s last unrecognized minority. As spokesman for this oppressed group, I would point out that nonsmokers do not have to sit in smoking sections in restaurants, and in Guatemala they never have to tolerate tobacco in any public place. I am not asking for that; but we should at least have coffee-drinking and non-coffee-drinking sections. That, and maybe Coffee Hater’s Awareness Month. I mean, let’s be fair.

That all said, it would be unfair to dismiss all the myriad social and esthetic benefits of coffee to the other 99 percent. Just because I do not “do” coffee does not mean it that it has nothing to offer. In fact, it has much.

Aside from its value as a conversation prop—think of all the friendships that begin in the presence of coffee—it has recently been discovered that coffee is quite rich in antioxidants. I can think of other ways to get these, of course. No one is quite calling it a health food yet, perhaps because dark chocolate is also on this list, and calling chocolate a health food smacks of rationalization. But, considered objectively, it may qualify.

So the question of worth, when one concedes the social and health benefits of coffee (and puts aside all subjectivity on the elusive “butteriness,” etc.), then becomes one of impact on the economy and the environment. Coffee is indeed social, but is it socially responsible?

The answer may be that it depends on the source. Tuna canneries now indicate whether their product is “dolphin” friendly. So what about coffee? Demand for it goes on growing, and in places like Kenya coffee plantations are displacing elephant habitats (I personally prefer a world without coffee to one without elephants, but I have said enough on that).

In Guatemala, and particularly the Atitlán Basin, there is responsibility on every level I have witnessed. The large coffee finqueros in the region are increasingly raising the lot of their workers, via noblesse or under the compulsion of old laws with new teeth. The machinery of fair trade is in place, enabling small growers to get a fair wage for their toil. And the coffee bushes that were planted with the help of Rotarian money following Hurricane Stan yielded their first harvest in 2009. Finally, the coffee of our region is prize-winning Arabaica.

So come on out. Enjoy our rich coffee with a clear conscience. And when they find a way to make it taste good, I will join you—for what little that may be worth.

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