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The Bean Belt

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

June 30, 2021

One of Camberley Coffee Club's team has always been pretty lacking in their Geography knowledge and has never minded too much, on the whole. They feel a bit sheepish about not being able to point out all but the really obvious countries on a world map, are hopeless at recognising flags of the world, and their worst nightmare would be general knowledge quiz on the rivers around the globe. They are also writing this now.

Although I couldn't name all the countries in the World, I thought I might know a good cup of coffee when I started out. As with most things, the more you learn the more there is to learn, and it quickly became apparent there was more to consider. In looking at the array of countries there were many I didn't even know produced coffee, and some I'd embarrassingly never even heard of before. Simple Italian coffee of old has been replaced by labels detailing a 'Bourbon variety from Finca San Antonio', in the Chalcuapa region of El Salvador ('Finca' means Estate, as it turns out). Rwandan or Ethiopian coffees give the names of the washing stations and the villages these are in, and tasting notes and aromas grace the blackboards and brown paper coffee bags in specialty shops on a scale that starts to resemble fine wine levels. With a giddy range of choice on varieties, fermentation times, processes and terroirs, the speciality coffee industry has become an ever-expanding force.

For Armchair Travellers, coffee is a way to taste your way around countries, and there is a global thirst for it. I was then informed about something called 'The Bean Belt' by Camberley's more geographically-inclined owner (seriously, their idea of fun is a World Capitals quiz). In fact, The Bean Belt is the horizontal strip that circles the globe around the equator, encompassing all of the world’s coffee-growing regions, which have tropical climates with year-round temperatures in the 20°C's which create ideal conditions for growing coffee plants. It is within this belt almost all coffee plants are grown, and it touches primarily on Africa, South and Central America, and Asia.

Nonetheless, it doesn't come as a surprise that many of these coffee-producing countries and regions fall into the poverty traps of conflict, poor governance, and are land-locked with poor neighbours. Notably, coffee is often the only cash crop farmers produce while subsistence farming. In Ethiopia for instance, a small cupful of coffee beans are worth as much as a kilo of wheat for a farmer, according to Worldcoffeeportal.

There was more to learn during my first visit to our roastery in Dorset too, about the effort to source from coffee communities and cooperatives, groups using profits from coffee farming to overcome inequality gaps, gain better access to resources and business opportunities. The Rwanda Trading Company looks to secure economic freedom and security for smallholder farmers after the dark events of the civil war that ravaged the country in 1994, and offers financial literacy, agribusiness management and agronomy training programs. The Café Femenino movement, started by female coffee producers in Peru, which now includes thousands of women farmers from nine countries across the world, has developed a market for women-produced coffee to serve as a vehicle for social change, community betterment projects and the empowerment of marginalized women coffee farmers.

By thinking about the wider world of exactly where coffee comes from, and acknowledging that by the time the beans are imported to the roastery this is the last link in the chain, this meant looking beyond the certification seals of Fairtrade and Organic to better understand traceable supply chains, which help ensure the Farmers, Businesses and Cooperatives who produced it are being taken care of and paid properly. By knowing that transparency is the first building block to sustainable initiatives, coffee drinkers can keep learning, and be part of positive and beneficial supply chains.

In my case, perhaps ignorance isn't always bliss. On its journey from the farming communities within The Bean Belt, the coffee bean must travel vast distances from remote regions and change hands plenty of times, and we can ask to be told this origin story. If the story is to be sincere, exploring the Geography of coffee production has become part of our role in the way we exercise our choice, so there is an interconnectedness between us, the makers and the coffee we drink.

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