The numbers are in, and they’re astounding.

According to the USDA’s June 2016 World Markets and Trade report, 2016/2017 global demand for coffee will amount to about 156 million bags. In other words, 10 million TONS of coffee beans picked, processed, and shipped.

Most will be consumed in Europe and the USA.

If you’re a coffee lover, you know how much sugar and cream to add (if any), which brands you like best, and how you prefer your coffee to be brewed… but that’s probably about all you know about coffee.

This article is going to fix that.

Hold on tight, though, you’re in for at least one big surprise.

Brazil Coffee Flag

Brazil Leads the World – Courtesy of The Flagmakers.

10 Things You Don’t (but Should) Know About Coffee

Do you envision coffee being produced on huge plantations where the men all wear Panama hats, the ladies love iced tea, and everyone dresses in white?

Me too. But it turns out that representation isn’t quite accurate.

Our first three coffee insights will look at the hard reality behind the economics of coffee. Then, we’ll explain why you might not be drinking it much longer anyway…

  1. Coffee prices aren’t set by the growers. Coffee is a commodity. Value is set by the markets in New York and London, and swings in price can make or break the economies of the many developing regions that produce bulk beans. The next time you feel like complaining about the cost of your morning brew, you’ll know who to blame.
  2. About 25 million people are employed in the coffee-producing industry (worldwatch.org). The workers get very little of the income from coffee, though. Most of the money goes to wholesalers and commodity traders. Conditions are often deplorable – for both the people and the beans.
  3. Cooperatives seek to improve working conditions and income for the people. They also monitor production methods to ensure coffee free from chemical contaminants (a huge concern). When you see a certification label (e.g. Rainforest Alliance) on your beans, that’s a good thing. The USA is way behind many European nations in the demand for certified coffee, but more Americans are waking up to the idea that drinking chemicals is sometimes not a good idea.
  4. Coffee beans may become hard to find and really expensive by 2080. At least that’s what researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) and Coffee Forest Forum say. Climate change may destroy Arabica plants and severely impact world production of coffee. Predictions rage from a 65% decease (most favorable) to 99.7%. That won’t happen overnight. The destruction is underway now.
  5. There are only two basic kinds of coffee beans under mass cultivation: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica makes up about 80% of world production (though climate change may be forcing that to change). Of course, there are many different flavors and brands of beans, but only the two main types. Arabica is generally considered the best-tasting of the two. Robusta beans are primarily grown in Asia and are bitter in comparison.
  6. Most consumers think Colombia is the coffee-producing capital of the world, but it’s not. Brazil takes that honor, followed by Vietnam (the birthplace of coffee), then Colombia. Tourists flock to the major plantations for close-up looks (and tastes) of their favorite beans.
  7. Caffeine addiction and withdrawal are now formally recognized as mental disorders. The gold standard of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), says caffeine withdrawal may leave the sufferer with a headache, tired, and distracted. Check your insurance for coverage. Coffee, by the way, is the most commonly used drug on the planet.
  8. Hard water beats distilled water, hands down, for bringing out the taste in your brew. That’s the word from an M.I.T. chemist who performed extensive tests on coffee preparation. The results, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry also suggest that – contrary to the advice by most coffee aficionados – the beans should be frozen before they are ground.
  9. You may soon become addicted to another coffee product: coffee flour. During production, the coffee bean is separated from the pulp (the “cherry”). Typically, that part of the plant is discarded and ends up in nearby streams where it leads to environmental problems (a complicated process). Entrepreneurs, though, are now endeavoring to turn the pulp into coffee flour – an absolutely edible, nutritious, and delicious innovation. Even Dr. Oz has hopped on the coffee flour bandwagon!
  10. You may not believe this one, but it’s true. The most expensive coffee sold is actually poop! The luak, a Malaysian wild civet, loves to eat coffee berries. Natives discovered (don’t ask me how) that the excrement containing those beans could be brewed into a delicious coffee drink called “Kopi Luak.” The idea caught on, and you can now enjoy your own cup of luak poop for maybe $75, depending on the shop. Careful if you do imbibe, however, since animal rights activists are coming out enforce against the drink. Industrious farmers are keeping the little critters in cages, force-feeding coffee berries to them, and collecting the pooped-out gold for commercial gain.
luwak civet cat in cage
A luwak (civet cat) in captivity – via surtr and Flickr

How to Use Your Newly-Acquired Coffee Wisdom

In a way, coffee is just like every other product in the store. We think little about where it comes from or how it’s produced; all we really care about is package appeal and price. We hear the horror stories about sweatshop working conditions, political prisoners making Christmas decorations, and children laboring for pennies, but if the packaging looks good and the price is right, we buy it.

I don’t expect this article will change that. We don’t see and smell feedlots when we buy steak, and we don’t see or smell impoverished natives when we visit Starbucks. By the way, I’m just like you. This isn’t written from an academic hayloft or a sense of liberal snootiness.

There are some take-aways for me, though, and I hope you’ll join me in them – for health’s sake, if not for conscience.

  • Look for coffee bearing Rainforest Alliance or another certification seal. It’s good for you and good for the producing community.
  • Freeze your beans and use spring water to brew them. Get all the gusto you can muster.
  • Try some coffee flour… I mean, why not?
  • Either help fund a co-op, or tell Al Gore to put an end to climate change. Fight coffee extinction.
  • Never pay top dollar for poop. Cut the crap. No more kopi luak for me!

By the way: I’m not addicted to coffee. It’s just that I get headaches and become so grouchy my family doesn’t want to be around me when I don’t drink it. How about you?