Tuesday, September 24, 2002

coffee, light and dark

let's start out with the light side of coffee today, shall we? an interesting article ponders a minor aspect of finnish coffee culture: the lack of table service in coffeehouses and cafes.

for those who aren't long-time readers, scandanavia as a whole appears to be in the middle of an amazing coffee renaissance, which may one of the reasons a dane walked off this year with the title of world barista champion.

the author finds that part of the reason is finland's traditional preference for speedy self-service, as well as the fact that taxes make hiring and training employees expensive there. cafe owners interviewed note that adding table service would increase the price of coffee by as much as 10 percent.

way cheap! i thought to myself as i read this piece. to get table service at many an italian cafe will double your bill. the italians understand that when you position yourself at an advantageous spot on the piazza you are paying for more than the coffee, the waiter, the china -- you are paying for the right to be seen luxuriating in some prime social space.

in another interesting note -- the world's second-most important commodity does illuminate the social fabric in surprising ways -- aspen colorado is pondering a ban on all caffeine and coffee in public schools. even high schools, even for teachers, even at football games! the article doesn't make clear exactly where this proposal comes from, but seems to suggest that it stems from a desire to protect youngsters from early exposure to coke and pepsi. as if they're not drinking it at home? buying it at the 7-11 as they walk to school? at least some people are protesting. . .

i sort of have to wonder what's going on in aspen, anyway -- they recently considered banning yoga as part of physical education, but fortunately decided to keep yoga in the curriculum once a week. if they were interested in banning soft drinks to promote youngsters' health, you'd think they would have been all over yoga, considering the rate of obesity among children these days. . .but no, the school district's attorney had to ensure that yoga asanas don't violate the constitution!

the recent oxfam report that blasted major multinationals for not doing more to alleviate the human suffering caused by the world-price depression in coffee and suggested the producing nations begin burning bags of excess coffee to reduce supply has generated much news. to follow up that report, oxfam held a conference with the coffee sector in ethiopia. the coffee traders gave their approval to the idea, but of course what's the point of that? all coffee-producing countries would have to agree to destroy some surplus. and how to enforce that agreement? it couldn't be done.

however, the report of the meeting is interesting in that an agent for one of those multinationals, kraft foods, the owners of brands of supermarket coffee like maxwell house and yuban, did pin the blame for the crisis on the world bank's decision to encourage vietnam to enter the coffee sector and flood the market in an effort to generate foreign exchange with which it could pay off the loans the world bank gave the country to develop its coffee industry.

that's an interesting circle of events, isn't it? of course the world bank, stocked like a squire's trout pond with economists, also knows that many of the other countries it lends to rely on coffee exports for foreign capital to pay off their own debts to the bank. so those brilliant economists are not only ruining vietnam but also all the other coffee countries, creating a deepening spiral of debt and economic instability. unlike many others, i'm not claiming some sort of imperialist evil in the world bank's actions -- why credit to malice what can be more easily explained by stupidity? lifting the poor is all good, but economics is scarcely a hard science. . .

still, even as oxfam and the coffee agents chat, hunger looms at the edges for ethiopian coffee farmers, many of whom are actually selling the tin roofs off their houses to pay for food, or just abandoning coffee altogether for the drug known as qat or khat.

posted by fortune | 6:43 PM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 0 comments

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