How To Make Coffee More 'Local'


Coffee cherries have quite a ways to go before ending up in your morning cup. [Flickr: Caffe Vita]

Do you consider yourself a primarily local eater? Do you peruse farmers' markets, eat at field-to-fork restaurants, guzzle regional wine (not always an easy task), and stock your larder with CSA goodies?

Okay, me too (mostly). But now let me ask you a loaded question: Do you also drink coffee?

Coffee only grows between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, which means that for most (unlucky) Americans (who don't live in Hawaii), our morning cup has more in common with the on-the-way-to-work Ecuadorian banana we scoop off a street cart than the upstate New York apples we pick ourselves in late September. That is to say, it comes a long way, baby. Does that have to mean bleary, caffeine-free mornings for those of us who try to keep our food close to home? Naturally, that depends on your definition of "local."

In my mind, "local" is as much a frame of mind as a geographical limitation: Where something originally comes from isn't necessarily as important as the people involved in bringing it to my table—or, in this case, my mug. After all, there are plenty of irresponsible and unsustainable farm practices happening everywhere: Just because it's going on in your backyard doesn't mean it's inherently savory. And, when you come right down to it, sustainable agriculture undergone halfway around the world is still sustainable agriculture. Conscientiousness can go just as far over long distances as over short ones.

Support Your Local Coffee Roaster

How can we make coffee local, short of planting our own (which apparently doesn't really work so well)? For starters, luckily just about every American town has a coffee roaster somewhere within city limits (even a place as tiny as Bisbee, Arizona—population about 6,200—has two), so you're almost never out of driving range of the fresh-roasted stuff at least. Sure, that coffee has to travel thousands of miles (and pass through who knows how many capable hands) in order to go from green to brown in your neighborhood, but there's definitely something to be said for drinking a globetrotting beverage that met its final touches in your own zip code.

Even then, it helps to make sure you buy your locally roasted coffee from a source you trust. Can the people behind the beans tell you about the farms, or the farmers who tend them? Can they tell you something about the way the coffee is traded? Can they point to certifications you believe in, like USDA Organic, Fair Trade, direct trade, or Rainforest Alliance?

Get To Know Your Barista

Trickling down from the informed and involved roasters should ideally be the care and concern exuded by your local barista. Can the person making your cappuccino tell you something—anything—about the coffee's origin? Better yet, are they excited to tell you about it? If the last person to see the beans whole can and will engage with you about what they're doing, how they're doing it and why it's important, the global, caffeinated stage starts to seem that much smaller.

Speak With Your Dollars

The last bit of the responsibility is on you and I, the coffee lovers and drinkers of the world. Our hard-earned cash is as important as our discerning palates when it comes to making our voices be heard, and if we make informed and thoughtful decisions about where we get our morning jolt, we make a small but profound difference every day in the lives of real people all over the world. And that is no exaggeration.

What else do you think we can do to shrink the distance between coffee plant and coffee cup? (Short of either giving up the stuff or giving up everything else to run off and grow it ourselves, that is.)