I’m shamefully admitting that I started this blog post over a year ago, then forgot about it, then recently remembered about it, so finished it.
I recently found the following scrap piece of paper tucked in a journal: on one side are sketches that I did in a tattoo shop lobby minutes before deciding to, yes, get a cup of coffee permanently printed on my skin. On the other side is a pro-and-con list of “doing” the Peace Corps and the number 24 (the age I will be when service ends). While I didn’t originally get the tattoo to represent deciding to do the Peace Corps or rather, deciding to do the Peace Corps in a coffee-country, I must have known there would be some correlation.
Step one: receive some fresh beans from a family member, leave them out to dry, then clean the shells off by doing this amazing flip movement with this basket (that I cannot do as successfully as Maria here).
Most people in America don’t know Timor-Leste. Those that do probably know it from the bags of coffee on the shelves of Starbucks. It is somewhat disappointing that this country, younger than me (establishing sovereignty in 2002), who experienced decades of highly violent conflict and occupation by Indonesia when information was easily spread by TV and even the Internet, is not something I learned about in school or my parents heard about in the news. But as I continue to meet wonderful people, see beautiful sites and begin to call this country home, I’m happy to know it is known for something as wonderful as coffee (and maybe scuba diving), and not just for the injustices they have endured.
The Portuguese introduced coffee to Timor-Leste in the nineteenth century (along with rats apparently) in attempts of creating coffee export activities. During the Indonesian occupation, whatever industry or organization was established seemed to disintegrate as a result of little investment and the implementation of a government-sanctioned monopoly. During the 1990s, the industry was de-regulated but Co-operativo Café Timor (CCT) entered the scene, becoming a major player who still runs supreme today.
Step 2: Roast the beans – until the neighbors can smell it or it is very black, whichever comes last.
Currently, coffee remains Timor-Leste’s largest non-oil export and provides a primary source of income to approximately one quarter of Timorese households. But without a formally organized coffee industry association, productivity, quality and therefore incomes are much lower than what the global market for specialty coffee is. Export costs are high, and coffee quality struggles to meet a sustainable level of profit.
Timorese people love their coffee. They are proud of Timorese coffee. I can’t say they are quite at the same coinsurer level as some Portlanders or Seattlates, but they’ll be the first to comment on the shortcomings of Indonesian coffee or even less-fresh Timorese coffee powder. But I’m don’t see how they can taste the difference, because Timorese people also love sugar in their coffee. Lots of sugar. To me, an unbelievable amount of sugar. A caramel macchiato would probably blow their minds. I think this is because, in my experience, home-roasted beans are often burnt, sour and very strong. Separate cups of plain (in their eyes, bitter) coffee are left out for select grandpas, and me.
Step 3: let cool for a bit, pick out the small or rotten looking beans using your fingers or that neat flipping motion mentioned above, depending on your experience with these bamboo baskets.
People here are shocked to hear that a bag of Timorese coffee in America is sold for $14.99 (almost as shocked to hear I prefer my coffee bitter). This is probably because it is vastly different than the price they are receiving. Most are probably doing the math to figure an American company (Starbucks) only has to sell approximately 9 bags in one year to breakeven on the cost they pay to the farmer (the average coffee producing family earns between $127 and $200 per year).
Step 4 and 5: pound into powder using this metal stick and heavy hallowed-out wood here. Then sift the powder through a tin bowl with small holes (made with nails), replace the still-big pieces into the wood.
But not all the blame can be placed on Starbucks or other buyers who demand the lowest price; the same aspects that make Timorese coffee specialized and unique make it of less quality and quantity. It is cultivated organically – an accidental result of expensive pesticides and fertilizers rather than for environmental reasons, which incidentally leads to smaller yields and lower quality. Hopefully, as the detached local industry becomes more united, the country and it’s coffee farmers will have more bargaining power.
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