In response to my post on the global travels of the coffee bean, a reader from Peru, raised a question that I promised I would look into. "A" said:
I work in Peru, where a lot of coffee, particularly organic coffee, is grown. What's always seemed strange to me is that quality coffee is not available in most of the country. Whereas brewed coffee is sold at every street corner in non-coffee producing countries like Chile and the US, Nescafe instant is the only coffee you'll find in most Peruvian stores, restaurants, and homes, even in cities of 70,000 people or more. It costs more than in the US (while most foods cost less), about a day's wages for a rural laborer for an 8oz/225g can of instant coffee. Instant coffee is really popular as a breakfast item, often with sugar and evaporated milk.
What kinds of economic patterns could lead to a product being less available and more expensive in the country in which it is produced? Why don't growers bring beans to markets in the highlands or the coast and undermine Nestle's monopoly with a cheaper, tastier product? I have never been able to fathom it. It may have something to do with the fact that part of instant coffee's appeal is that it is a pre-packaged product you buy in a store, not at the market. As such, it is a marker of middle class identity. Or maybe the growers have exclusive contracts keeping them from selling their beans domestically. Does anyone have ideas about what's going on?
Well, it's an interesting question. Why wouldn't Peruvians take advantage of the locality of a popular product? Are they not interested in coffee? Are there mitigating circumstances—as there usually are? I contacted Dr. Kevin Birth from the Queens College Anthropology Department to see if he could shed some light on the question for us. While Dr. Birth has not worked in Peru, his fieldwork was based in Trinidad and his experiences may allow us to understand what may be happening in Peru—interestingly, Trinidadians also grow coffee and drink Nescafe.
Birth draws attention to labor practices and the economic status of Peruvian coffee growers. He says:
First, coffee production is very labor intensive, so adding the roasting and grinding of beans is probably something that most farmers would not want to do. Moreover, to create a viable product would involve processing a lot of coffee, and then waiting for buyers. One of the interesting aspects of volumes two and three of Marx's CAPITAL is his discussion of turnaround time. For a coffee grower, the turnaround time for selling the beans in bulk is much shorter than the turnaround time for roasting the beans and selling them one cup at a time.
Second, coffee roasters are not simple devices and are rather expensive. In the US, a roaster than can handle less than a pound of beans at a time sells for $150 and up. Even for a well-off farmer, that is a significant capital expense that will result in additional labor requirements that in the end involves the sale of the product in small amounts. Even in the US, most coffee roasters prefer to sell in bulk rather than peddle small quantities for retail.
So the short answer is that for most coffee farmers, roasting coffee is more trouble than its worth and delays payment for the product. There may be other factors at work in Peru, but these two factors probably apply.
Readers may recall that "Hasufin" attempted to address this question and floated similar ideas. Hasufin noted that the roasting industry may not be present in Peru and the market may simply not exist. When combined with Birth's proposals we can suggest that labor may inhibit the development of a coffee "culture" such as that which we have in the United States.
Hasufin also suggested that growers may have their crop committed to export, which is similar to a point Birth makes about the management of commodities:
The relationship between production and consumption is always complicated. In the US, farmers grew grain and drank rum until the 1780s, at which time they began to ferment and distill grain and drink whiskey. The reasons why they shifted from rum to whiskey was not that they lacked the capability to make whiskey (some even bought molasses and made rum before the 1780s), but because the export market for flour began to decline and the price of rum began to climb--rather than let all the grain go to waste or be sold under the cost of production, they distilled it.
I want to pull this point back to my note about the ways in which coffee is valued:
One of the main ways coffee is graded is origin. This has a lot to do with the texture and flavor of the beans. And while patronage may come down to personal preference, some of the hype around origin is linked to the the idea of authenticity. Who can claim coffee? Who can wield it? And consequently speak with some authority on its properties and control the supply? Ethiopia, the country linked to the original legends of discovery, actually has the smallest output which is partly due to the socio-political history of the African continent overall.
While Peru is not one of the "top" producers of coffee, it is still a major exporter. So Peruvian coffee is likely more valuable outside of the country. For example as this article suggests, as Colombia's hold on the coffee market slips, Colombian growers are looking to roasters to help boost their sales. However, there is no word on whether the product would be marketed internally—efforts seem to be focused on a global market.
It may very well be that if market demands drop low enough, there may be a concerted effort to develop Peru as a coffee destination—a place where coffee is grown and savored, and experienced in a new way. But that change would have to begin with changing Peruvians' relationship with the drink and would required a concentrated effort from government powers and the growers themselves and would represent a significant shift in the cultural climate of Peru.
Readers interested in the relationship between consumption and production may want to read Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power.
Many thanks to Kevin Birth for his time and thoughts!