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Coffee at Slow Food Nation, Part 2

Slow Food Nation 2008 has come to a close and what a whirlwind weekend it was. The event itself got less mainstream press than I thought it might, with coffee coverage turning out to be even thinner. The most informative segment I saw was this one in the Chronicle, which had a couple of paragraphs on coffee, specifically about one producer – Edwin Martinez – who I also had the opportunity to meet (and say more about below). But the other press I could find said little more than the word “coffee,” including it as part of a longer list of foods highlighted at the event. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The fact that coffee was included at this event at all is truly a major coup. I’ll try to include any additional press coverage (as well as blog reports) in Part 3 of this report.

The event for me turned out to be less consuming of my weekend than I thought it might be. Part of the reason had to do with the fact that we had house guests and opted to spend our Saturday at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market rather than the Civic Center Slow Food Market. While I personally would have preferred to visit the latter, the former provided me with the opportunity to reflect on my experiences with a local perspective. When I consider the fact that I have such easy and regular access to amazing, high quality foods (both this market and the multitude of smaller markets I regularly attend), it did kind of leave me wondering what value an event like Slow Food Nation really had for me – someone already familiar with the principles of Slow Food and with ready means to implement them.

Attending the Ferry Plaza Market also gave me the opportunity to consume food, specifically coffee, in an environment somewhat different than the rest of the weekend. I’m not talking about the crowds, lines, noise or sensory overload. All these were present at both the market and the tasting pavilions. But I was able to consume my coffee – a gibraltar from Blue Bottle’s south-side coffee cart – without engaging with anyone over its origins. I merely enjoyed the rich and creamy intensity of its flavors, knowing that a company I can trust was taking care of some of the intermediary steps needed to ensure a responsible relationship with the farmers producing it. Sometimes, you can’t take on all of the world’s problems yourself and just need to enjoy your food.

The second experience that really stuck with me took place in the Long Now Foundation gallery (a very cool endeavor in itself) and was organized by Tony Konecny, one of the curators of the coffee tasting pavilion. The panel was facilitated by Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee and consisted of the above-mentioned Edwin Martinez of Finca Vista Hermosa in Guatemala (who works largely with Barefoot Coffee Roasters) and Abdullah Bagersh, the mill owner and exporter in Ethiopia behind the (dare I say famous) Idido Misty Valley and Biloya natural coffees (purchased by a variety of roasters). Andrew Barnett, another curator of the pavilion, was also officially part of the panel but served more as a second moderator, humbly re-directing attention to the two producers.

This conversation with producers did more for me in terms of a slow-food-connection with the coffee than my tasting experiences at the pavilion. The small size of the conversation allowed me and others to ask questions and engage in real a dialogue about coffee and to hear first hand from some of the folks responsible for getting it to the table. One thing that struck me as particularly profound was how large the picture of coffee production is. When roasters and cafes talk about “origin”, they are referencing a hugely complex chain of transactions that move coffee from the originating farm to the point were it leaves the country. These two producers, while highly informative, were very small cogs in a much larger machine.

I don’t think I could possibly do the full conversation justice: it covered such a range of topics, including the growers own sense of obfuscation about where their coffee ends up, the way technology (the internet and cell phones) have changed the ability of local growers to control their own circumstances in the market, the advantages and risks for a small farmer to enter the specialty coffee market and why they might avoid it, and the traditions and philosophies that guide farmers and producers in their practices (e.g. say the resistance to natural vs. washed coffees). The whole experience was hardly a substitute for the years in the field someone like Peter Giuliano has accumulated, but it certainly put me that much closer to the product that I so dearly love.

Supposedly there was a cupping of some coffees from (and with) these two producers. If it did happen, I regret not being able to attend, but I had to rush off to meet my father-in-law and nephew so that we could fight our way through the crowds to the tasting pavilion.

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