Food & Drink » Flavor

Devastation in your cup



While some suppliers and importers anticipate a price increase for Sumatran coffee, Alan Hilowitz, spokesperson for Starbucks, says the company "doesn't believe that there will be an impact on Starbucks supply chain and are confident in the short- and long-term supply of Indonesian coffee." (Photo by Julie Barnett)

The tsunami hurt the supply of Sumatran coffee, not because there's no crop, but because there are few left to pick it

Coffee trees still stand in Sumatra, their beans ready for picking. Yet at the epicenter of the cataclysmic earthquake that spawned an even deadlier tsunami, there are few people left to harvest the crop.

Although the disaster that killed at least 150,000 people in South Asia and eastern Africa spared much of the Sumatran coffee crop, U.S. importers say a labor shortage and damaged roads will likely affect the supply and prices of the beans.

While paying extra for a morning addiction seems petty compared to the devastating loss of life and property, the price and supply squeeze speaks to the interconnectedness of a global economy in which exotic and foreign foods are a 15-minute drive away.

Local groceries and coffee shops including Central Market and Starbucks sell Sumatran coffee, which tastes smooth and slightly sweet. With a medium body, it's more robust than South American varieties, but not as acidic as African brews.

At least one local buyer predicts that cumulative effects from the tsunami and an El Niño weather pattern, which brought drought conditions to Indonesia, could more than double wholesale prices from $1.80 to $4-5 a pound.

"Overall, coffee prices are increasing," says Laura Vella, specialty foods director for procurement for Central Market. "The concern is not that crops were affected in Sumatra because of the incredible catastrophe; it's that there are no people left to work." Vella says that tsunami survivors could choose jobs rebuilding the country over less lucrative work of picking coffee beans.

On January 7, the Boston Globe quoted Chuck Coffman, president of Armeno Coffee in Northborough, as saying the price of Sumatran coffee has increased to about $3 per pound, almost double what he had been paying last year.

"No one knows what will happen," Coffman told the Boston Globe. "What we are fearing is that the crop will mature, but there will not be enough workers to pick it, and they may not be able to get it down from the mountains."

"The concern is not that crops were affected in Sumatra because of the incredible catastrophe; it's that there are no people left to work."
- Lauren Vella

Central Market sells Fair Trade Sumatran coffee, which guarantees that farmers receive a fair price for their crop. Without fair trade agreements, farmers can earn well below the price of production, forcing them into poverty. International watchdogs including Global Exchange, the Organic Consumers Union, and Oxfam monitor fair trade programs to ensure their compliance.

In an e-mail correspondence conducted on a listserv devoted to fair trade issues, ForesTrade, a Vermont-based fair trade importer reported that the Ache Sustainable Coffee Project, located three hours from the coast in the highlands, eluded the devastation that occurred in low-lying areas. However, the road used for transporting the coffee is heavily damaged, as were parts of the Trimaju central wet processing plant and some farmers' homes. A large warehouse is being used as shelter for displaced residents.

Located in the Indian Ocean, Sumatra is the sixth-largest island in the world and comprises the largest part of Indonesia. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of the northern part of the island on December 26, generating a tsunami that sped west across the Indian Ocean, crashing into several southeast Asian countries and western Africa.

The tsunami also affected the social and political bonds in the coffee-producing region. Seth Petchers, coffee program coordinator for Oxfam America, reported via e-mail that "In a region struggling with significant ethnic and religious tensions," the Gayo Organic Coffee Farmers Association, a fair trade coffee cooperative in Aceh, Indonesia has been "a forum for dialogue and partnership between the diverse communities."

By Lisa Sorg

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.