New Internationalist

The Boat, The Roast And Nutty Mild Colombian

Issue 271

Mr.Wright
The boat, the roast
and nutty mild Colombian
Bat an eyelid and it’s gone: Gregorio arrives in Britain to search for the missing millions.

[image, unknown] Gregorio was treated like a criminal by Immigration on his arrival at London Airport. I have to welcome him to Britain with apologies for my country. He is now sitting next to Mr Wright, a director of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company, in an armchair-sized leather seat in the back of an air-conditioned limousine.

‘With all due respect, we are in Europe now,’ says Mr Wright as we tour round the port. A genial man who has given us the most generous reception, he is in charge of the container trade with the west coast of Latin America, including Callao. Here, on the east coast of Britain, is where CECOVASA’s coffee arrives.

Mr Wright points to the cranes on the deck of a container ship just in from Colombia – necessary because some Latin American ports do not have any cranes. In Callao I saw just one monster lifting-device driving around the Agricultural Exports container depot at breakneck speed belching black smoke.

‘That sort of thing just won’t do here,’ says Mr Wright. In Felixstowe there are 18 quayside cranes, 57 rubber-tyred gantry cranes, 4 luffing cranes, 157 terminal tractor units, 135 fork-lift trucks… It has its own roads, police force, fire service, clinic… He refers a little dismissively to a ‘glass palace’ that Customs and Excise are constructing for themselves – Felixstowe is a private port with a robust attitude towards government.

A ship is due in from Callao but it’s late so we won’t be able to see it arrive. ‘No matter,’ says Mr Wright. ‘Frankly, one container is much like another.’ I can see what he means. There’s a vast expanse of red, identical containers, all of them tagged by computer and piled up in perfect order as if in preparation for the building of a new pyramid.

‘Coffee comes here from all over Latin America, and you can’t see a single bean!’ says Gregorio. ‘How long does it take to get here from Peru by ship?’

‘About six weeks,’ says Mr Wright.

Gregorio looks a little shaken by this. Perhaps he realizes, for the first time since the flight from Peru, just how far from home he is. I hope he doesn’t feel homesick already. It’s a beautiful summer’s day, not unlike winter in the Tambopata Valley, and after saying farewell to Mr Wright we take a stroll with the pensioners down the Felixstowe promenade, sit on the beach and watch the boats come in.

By now, and even before CECOVASA’s green coffee leaves Callao, something has happened to it. It has become a ‘commodity’ traded on world markets. In fact, it’s probably been bought and sold many times over already.

The reason for this, they tell us when we go on to visit the London Commodity Exchange (LCE), is that the amount of coffee produced around the world fluctuates from year to year. Last year, with the frost in Brazil, prices went berserk and doubled overnight. The coffee business needs to ‘hedge’ against this – to buy coffee ‘futures’ in advance at a fixed price. So coffee is often bought for delivery several months later. No-one can survive in the coffee business unless they ‘hedge’. In this way, says the LCE, the market is ‘stabilized’.

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Mr. Wright and the limousine [image, unknown]
Grinding the roast. [image, unknown]
Testing Sanor [image, unknown]
On the Felixstowe promenade. [image, unknown]

The trouble is that the international coffee market is anything but stable. Fluctuations in price are very much greater than fluctuations in coffee production. Why? Well, you can make more money more quickly by speculating on commodity ‘futures’ than in almost any other way. The LCE, which deals in Robusta coffee (which comes mainly from Africa), cocoa, sugar and oil ‘futures’, tells us proudly that the $30 billion odd ‘invested’ in the Exchange delivers more profit than the London Stock Exchange. (The New York Commodity Exchange, which is rumoured to be planning a take-over of the LCE, deals in mild Arabica coffee of the kind produced in Peru and the rest of Latin America. But they both work in much the same way.)

We trek round the LCE building near Tower Bridge as if in a world of make-believe. We peer down through glass screens at young dealers in the ‘pit’ browsing through tabloid newspapers. They keep a weather eye on their computer screens between frantic bouts of yelling at each other, closing deals. The price of coffee is falling: the rumours of another frost in Brazil have so far proved unfounded. It is now less than 150 US cents per pound.

The international price of coffee is, however, only a small fraction of the retail price coffee drinkers pay for their coffee in the shops. Gregorio and I do a few simple calculations on the back of an envelope. Suppose coffee drinkers pay two US dollars for 100 grams of roast-and-ground coffee in the shops. A sack of 46 kilos of roast-and-ground would then be worth $920. CECOVASA’s green coffee sells for $150 a sack. So there’s a $770 difference. Gregorio and I want to know where it goes.

Some of it’s gone already – on insurance, shipping from Peru and port fees at Felixstowe. More of it goes on freight to the warehouse south of the River Thames where the containers are opened, the coffee checked and stored. The warehouse does not welcome journalists. In fact the whole coffee business in Britain is shrouded in secrecy. One is forced to wonder what it is hiding.

In the case of Nestlé this might have something to do with the 40 per cent of the retail price that goes to ‘roasters’ like them – and the 40 per cent of coffee sales (mostly ‘instant’ Nescafé) in Britain which they control. What do they do for this? Well, to produce roast-and-ground coffee they cook the bean, grind it, slap it in a packet with their name on and flog it to shops (‘instant’ is rather more complex in the processes it goes through, but its popularity is peculiar to Britain). Nestlé do this all by themselves and won’t do it for anyone else. But there are several ‘contract’ roasters who supply smaller companies and supermarket ‘own-brands’. One of them, based near London, is kind enough to show us around, provided we don’t reveal its identity.

There is only the faintest whiff of roasted coffee around the gleaming new factory – environmental regulations require that the aroma must be extracted from the chimney stack. Gregorio and I put on white coats and hats and wash our hands. ‘We look like doctors,’ says Gregorio, ‘though I don’t know what illness we’re treating’.

At a loading bay we see again the familiar, friendly sight of coffee sacks, these ones from Chiapas, Mexico. They are unceremoniously ripped open with a knife and drained into a hopper. From here they go to ‘cups’ poised around an ultra-fast, computer-controlled, beige-coloured roasting machine.

‘We’re in the belly of the beast!’ I whisper to Gregorio.

‘And there’s even an oven!’ he replies.

Different varieties of beans are roasted together in exact proportions to achieve the required blend. They enter a vortex of hot air without touching the sides of the oven. The whole thing is over in just a few minutes, depending on how ‘dark’ the roast is. The roasted beans are then cooled in hoppers, ground, siphoned into packs sealed with inert gas, stuffed into boxes and dispatched through distributors to the shops. Every part of the process is computer-controlled to meet customer requirements, though the roasters never tell their customers exactly how this is achieved – it’s a commercial secret. In all I’ve seen about a dozen people at work.

Gregorio has brought with him a sample of CECOVASA’s run-of-the-mill Sanor green coffee beans. The company stages a tasting for him. A smart young man in braces sucks in the coffee from a spoon, as if it were wine, then spits it out. Should we be alarmed? Well, no: this is an art. He looks impressed, though in this business one never knows. ‘Nutty. Mild Colombian. A little thin,’ he pronounces.

The first two terms are highly complimentary. The third may have something to do with the soil. Has anyone ever tested it? No, says Gregorio. We look at the green beans, noting the variation in colour and size between them – not good.

‘How boring it would be,’ says Gregorio, ‘if they were all the same. You can make them identical with chemicals, but we’re organic farmers.’ He tells them that some cherries of the Caturro coffee variety that grows low down in the Tambopata Valley are yellow when mature. I can see that he is not believed.

My mind goes back to Peru, to Pamela and Pablo, Luis and Celestina and all the other cafeteleros. I watch Gregorio as he tries to emulate the tasting technique. It may not be good for business, but I’m secretly glad that their coffee beans are as individual as their own sweat and blood.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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