I’ve been reading God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, a pretty recent book by Michaele Weissman. It’s a travelogue and history of the most recent (2000 – present) rise in the specialty coffee industry. She spends a lot of time interviewing the roasters and barristas at ultra-hip joints such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture. She also spends quite a bit of time following them around in Central American and Africa as they visit the poor coffee growers face to face. It’s been a good read, though a little slow at times.

Anyway, these specialty folks really want to get their hands on better coffee. They have invested a lot of time and money into training the farmers in modern pruning, picking, and drying techniques to achieve a better product. Another way they’ve promoted quality is by holding contests in the countries of origin. A farmer whose beans place high are rewarded a premium at the following auction. This encourages competition and is an incentive to do a better job in the fields.

The largest of these yearly contest is called the Cup of Excellence. Remember, these farmers and their families live in tiny huts and make just a few cents an hour. They are some of the poorest folks in the world. The author had this to say about some of the contest winners:

It’s hard to imagine what $20,000 or $60,000 can mean to a impoverished coffee farmer. One year the top winner in Honduras was so poor that he couldn’t afford a bus ticket. He had to hitch a ride to the auction is Cup of Excellence earnings enabled him to get out of debt, purchase another small plot of land, and buy drying racks to prevent his coffee from rotting on the ground. In 2005 one of the top winners in Nicaragua, a small, spirited woman, used half her earnings to build a guest house; now her coffee plantation is an ecotourism destination, and she has diversified revenue stream. Not all the growers “get it,” of course. One bought a Hummer. Another gave all her winnings to her church. (p.49)

There is the heart of secular capitalism right there. The lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t “get it”.

And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”

– Mark 12:41-44

Now I applaud the farmers who got out of debt and invested in their future. That was a very wise thing to do with the money. That’s probably what I would have done! By upgrading his farm, he might now make thousands of dollars a year instead of a few hundred.

Oh, and a guest house for ecotourism. What a great idea! (Says the white Prius-driving, Berkley-educated English prof.) I’m booking a stay this summer!

The guy who bought the Hummer is obviously an idiot. It will take 3-months wages to fill it up with gas. Oops.

But the lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t get it. No she doesn’t. But she may “get it” more than anyone can imagine. The world is not worthy of her.

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