Coffee beans lying on a burlap sack map the entire world, but belie the fact that the area suitable for growing coffee beans stands to be reduced by as much as half by 2050, if climate change continues, and the Arabica beans grown in tropical highlands stop receiving the year-round rains that not only enable but nourish their growth. If that isn’t a wake-up call, what is? Some 25 million farmers rely on their production of the beans–most of whom are small farmers–but rising temperatures predicted could radically reduce and effectively circumscribe what those in the know call the “coffee map” that tracks the traffic in beans, their shipping across seas, and arrival for roasting.
The sorts of disruption in growing beans that localized drought in those tropical highlands seems almost destined to bring–as the worst dry spell in decades that hit Brazil’s coffee belt, destroying a third of the crop or a decline by a half in coffee bean yields in Tanzania since the 1960s, as temperatures warm and the ground becomes more wet, stand to grow not only the price of the two and a quarter billion cups of coffee we humans consume daily, in what seems like a private experience, meaning that the beans will no longer be so abundant in those burlap bags. In Columbia alone, coffee leaf rust that is the consequence of weather that is both warmer and wetter stand to damage some 60% of the country’s agricultural land by 2050, making for a decreased abundance of beans and ever more removed cup of joe. Indeed, coffee beans are particular enough about growing conditions that to remain optimal conditions of production, the temperature should remain between 18–21°C, and once rising above 23°C, bean quality declines and the plant grows far too fast, noticeably changing its taste, flavor bouquet, and aroma . . . with a detectable shift occurs with only a rise of only half of a degree at the wrong time in the growing season, in ways that could change coffee harvests far sooner that one might expect.
More than any other sector of life, the tremendous growth of coffee consumption over the past decades invites a daily morning exercise of geographic literacy. In hubs of metropolitan coffee drinking, the local origins of beans are invested with a provenance that is supplemented by detailed descriptions of their practices of cultivation. The geographic here primarily signifies or maps to the gastronomic; provenance of coffee has a deeper resonance than the locations of their roasting, and erases the huge distances traversed in their transportation or the local climates in which they were produced. The importation of coffees and costs of coffee farming are naturalized within local coffee bars as a geographic palate, as we’re accustomed to having Sulawesi, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania among the rotating coffees of the week, and in our cups; their names, instead of the once-dominantColumbian or Brazil beans, are part of our routines that are often stripped of geographic signification as place-names–even though they might be better understood as a geographic lesson with climate warming as its subject.
The most globalist of all coffee chains, Starbucks, openly invites us, in the age of globalism, to remember a map as a decorative object, where place names are overlapping and indeed colliding with descriptors of the good on a map that seems more decorative than geographical in content, recurring as a backdrop for savoring the aromas of its blends, the global map colored, predictably, a rich coffee-shaded hue, all boundaries elided or obscured in a world that seems saturated by java, as if for the benefit of the drinker’s taste, providing a decorative map to enhance the drinking experience in a roadside Starbucks,
the descriptive or denotative content of the map quite intentionally reduced to a backdrop for taking a coffee break, pausing in one’s itinerary as one is driving along a California freeway and pausing at a rest stop. It is striking that there is barely any attempt in this mock-antique global map of even making any place legible, only vaguely treating the map as a sort of division of coffee flavors, but treating the globe as saturated by the flavor of beans–rather than of states or nations; descriptors are suspended as if disembodied, across a mock gold-leaf field, indicating the earthy, herbal, and chocolate tastes of coffees from “Asia” or the “Pacific”–rather than specifying distinctions of beans originating from Indonesia, Yemen, Java, Bali, New Guinea, or Ethiopia, where the leafs of coffee plants stretch, beneath the Tropic of Cancer. The lands are a uniform brown, saturated with coffee flavors of disturbingly uniform tone, the descriptors lie on a gold field as if to offer themselves as what we sense as coffee consumers.
Indeed, the region can be displaced by the beans’ descriptor of the beans, whose deeply colored beans provide the more compelling descriptor of the coffee that seems to have indeed displaced the very legibility of place, if not its notion in a map, as they become the site of sensing the flavors of “nutty” coffee beans, the islands are left distinctly defined but without any sense of sovereign identity, and the number of coastal islands of possible cultivation almost infinite in number.
As we drink coffee daily, and isolate the coffee-drinking experience as an ecstatic one that almost exists without place–but is based on the construction of a place to drink coffee apart from the work world or the street, in a space of selective privilege and almost private intimacy, can maps even help to process the origins of coffee plants, or the mystification of converting a place-name to a descriptor, in ways that seem to extract the beans’ flavor from their site of origin? They might not disrupt the individual experience of a good cup of coffee, an intensely pleasurable and even intensely neurologically stimulating activity, but map the names tied to the pleasure off caffeination to the broader land of the land, moving from the domestic sphere of coffee drinking and the half-private space of cafés where the precious brown liquid now circulates before being imbibed at considerable costs, all too easily concealed in the privacy of our pleasures–
Louis Marin-Bonnet, “Woman Taking Coffee” (1774) Cooper Hewitt (inked engraving)
–to the global world in which this space must be situated. and the global markets on which they our all too easily internalized habits of caffeination increasingly depend.
The lopsided distribution of this conversion of toponymy into gastronomy is evident in a map of where this huge rise of coffee consumption and importation has occurred. If coffee beans were introduced to the future United States in the eighteenth century, coffee has become among the leading importers of beans worldwide. Americans now consume some 23 gallons each day (or 22.1 according to Wikipedia)–but declined far below the 48 gallons Americans were said to consume annually in 1946–0r the 62 gallons downed annually in far chillier Finland. Yet it has become part of bloodstream–literally–and an unprecedented (although we lacked earlier metrics) 161,000 folks listed coffee making or serving as a “skill” in 2013.
We might call this the browning of North America, ignoring that the distribution of local blends, pioneered by Peets and popularized by Starbucks, before being refined by Blue Bottle or Four Barrel, masks variations in a topography of coffee drinking in the United States far more variegated than the homogeneous brown of the United States. (The fact that Canada is yellow may seem comforting, but conceals the very urban nature of this social ritual: notice how those brown dots congregate around Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa . . . ) The absurdity of nationally ranking habits of daily caffeination aside (although there’s an academic press title in here somewhere), the most striking aspect of this map is the huge area of the world left in white, shown here only from the equator since no countries below the equator import coffee beans in such quantity.
Indeed, the ten largest coffee importers, mapped in yellow, not brown, suggests an imbalance of equatorial countries whose products tend to wake up folks in northern climes.
The more detailed mapping of the production of coffee by bags of beans, mapped by Oxfam for 2001, showed a nicely skewed data distribution, with those non-growing regions left suitably blank, as if they thirsted for the brown stimulant that came pouring (or steaming) in from equatorial climes:
There is a clear “coffee belt” whose discovery and demarcation the Coffee Grower Association of Hamburg claims responsibility for:
The Starbucks map referenced geographic precision of “our coffee belt” in decorative terms, as the flower and pods of the beans overlap the geographical content, and the letters on the map are changed to almost decorative forms, colored the hue of coffee.
And a lot of imported coffee is needed–creating what has indeed long been a pretty big business interest in the US, even before the boutiques of metropolitan areas from the 1990s. Even if, once this huge amount of unroasted beans is divided per capita, rendering regions like Canada and Scandinavia distinctly darker, and measured by consumption of cups/day alone, the geographic distribution looks a bit different in 2011 when mapping coffee consumption per capita in this clickable map of circa 2008:
Which returns us to the interests that all maps conceal. By the alchemy of toponymy, the regions from which the beans themselves derive, of course, come from the very equatorial regions that are the sites of forestry.
I appreciate the hand-drawn oval projection, crafted with care in the midwest city of big shoulders, which suggests that if all roads led to Rome, all beans flow to Chicago:
A more informed map might link the cultivation not only to forested regions, but to the very “hot spots” whose local biodiversity is most threatened by global warming, and where the inefficient use of water widespread in coffee cultivation least practical and most pernicious. For it is not only equatorial areas, but from the driest areas on earth:
The overlap of ‘hot spots’ map onto coffee-growing regions alarms; coffee cultivation is widespread in 16 of the 34 most threatened ecosystems. And this is the tip of the iceberg, to use a somewhat mixed metaphor unless one considers iced coffee, of the paradox: privileging the locality of cultivation in maps of caffeine consumption reinforces the fragility of local ecosystems. This is a very different map, speaking map now, from the manner that an earlier cartographical image set the details of consumption as an inevitable but conscious choice, concentrated in one icon, as opposed to the naturalization of growing in isolated pockets of uniform unattractive gray:
Indeed, the conscious coffee drinkers at the Water Footprint in the Netherlands have mapped the severely disproportionate gross virtual water import that results worldwide:
The “flows” of coffee beans might be mapped, if somewhat less legibly, in comparison to those of chocolate, whose parallel commerce from the New World matches it as a popular stimulant from the New World, as Mary Norton reminds us, that in fact was similar in its function to coffee:
In part, this is a local story, with much of the jumping value of java able to be registered in the Port of Oakland, as shown in this bar graph which groups all beans as a whole, independent of locality, but reflects Oakland’s significance as a global hub of the importation of coffee beans.
–and note odd emptiness of the very areas where the extractive powers of coffee were so long based if we return back to the Starbucks map from which we began, the areas of Europe, now colored a dun caffeinated color, obscuring that it is the center from which the rage of coffee consumption began.
We might consider the possibility of a re-mapping our daily habits or affectation for caffeination, through this map of the network of coffee distribution and consumption, removed from most familiar geographic categories. The schematic map is courtesy San Jose-trained Roxanne Pasibe:
In the initial graphic, the beans naturally drop to the ground, and into our bags. Let’s try to map how they come to get there, and into our cups.