Coffeebar’s Vertical Sourcing program was created to “connect the dots from farmer to guest”, linking coffee-growing communities to coffee-drinking ones.
As part of that commitment, we believe that caring for our shared home, planet earth, isn’t just our job as Hospitalians--it’s our job as humans. We intend to be around for your grandkids’ grandkids.
So how can we make each of those “dots” greener?
Let’s start at our first dot: origin. Coffeebar roasts and serves a lot of coffee from Guatemala. Every day is Earth Day for the coffee farmers in its misty mountains. We first-worlders are accustomed to the luxury of Instant Everything and Disposable Everything, so “doing the right thing” for Mother Earth requires extra effort on our part. But in the mountains of Guatemala, sustainable practices are a given. Industrial-scale convenience doesn’t exist in this remote part of the world, and the earth-friendly tools and techniques of 19th century coffee farming often remain in daily use.
Perhaps the most important green practice at origin is growing coffee in the shade, where wild coffee plants grow. (You’ve probably seen the “shade grown” label on some specialty coffees.) Sun-grown coffee produces a higher yield, and in the years prior to the explosion in specialty coffee, higher profit. With coffee being the second most-traded commodity in the world, that’s driven a devastating loss of 2.5 million acres of rainforest in Guatemala since the 1970s, as well as the soil and waterway degradation that comes from monocropping. Here’s a deeper dive into the benefits of shade-grown coffee, from our friends at non-profit importer De La Gente.
But the good news is that coffee quality increases when it’s grown in the shade. The beans are more dense, more flavorful, and have higher acidity--all good things. And higher quality beans can be sold at a premium. Virtually all specialty coffee in Guatemala is shade-grown.
Growing in the shade doesn’t just benefit your brew; it supports plant and animal biodiversity. Critters from frogs to butterflies thrive in the lush vegetation. Shade-grown coffee is especially good for bird populations; close to 150 species of birds have been observed in shade coffee plantations. (It’s why you’ll see some specialty coffees labeled “bird friendly”.)
And since many neo-tropical birds migrate to and from the Central American uplands, shade-grown coffee benefits birds that summer in our Northern regions, too. That sweet-sounding warbler may have just overwintered on a Guatemalan coffee farm. While there, she provided some free pest control for the farmers--devouring insects that might otherwise harm the crop and preventing farmers from having to apply pesticides.
An important note--the “organic” certification is expensive to achieve, so our coffee farmers rarely have that luxury. Most of their farming practices, however, are organic.
Shade plantings often perform dual duty, producing food crops that utilize the same land and resources. Popular shade-providers include avocado trees, orange trees, and other regional fruit trees like jocote de maranon (the fruit that surrounds the cashew nut), nispero, and nanci (a tart, distant cousin of the apple). All of this contributes to the biodiversity of coffee plantations.
Chalum is another tree grown for its canopy of large leaves. Chalum aids in nitrogen fixing, and coffee plants are fertilized by from the naturally occurring leaf fall.
Another big benefit: shade-grown plants can remain in full production for 20 years, but sun-grown coffee plants produce for half that long. That means farmers must replant more frequently, disturbing the soil and releasing carbon.
On a Guatemalan coffee farm, little goes to waste. Once the coffee is harvested and the beans de-pulped, the coffee cherry pulp is spread over the ground as fertilizer. That de-pulping machine? In the La Suiza coffee community, it’s bicycle/human-powered. That fermenting pulp is full of microbes that make the soil healthier.
This is why we were excited about raising funds for the new de-pulper project for our friends in La Suiza; the steep mountainsides made it impractical to schlep coffee cherry pulp back up the mountain for fertilizer. The de-pulper makes it easier to put the pulp to work as fertilizer. (Thank you again to everyone who donated to the de-pulper fundraiser!)
Most coffee in the region is dry-farmed, except when it’s first planted and being established. To reduce water use, the San Miguel Escobar coffee co-op outside Antigua was able to add a rainwater collection tank on the mountain slopes near their coffee plantations. (The project was funded by a school group investing in the area.) Most of our coffee is also dry-fermented, further reducing water use.
Beans on the move
Our beans are harvested on steep hillsides, by hand, and often moved down the mountain by the farmers, on foot. Until they leave their remote community by truck for the container ship that will ferry them to the Port of Oakland, many of those beans have not been transported by anything but human or donkey power. Virtually no electricity is required for any stage of coffee harvesting and processing.
You’ve probably guessed that the greenest “dot” in our Vertical Sourcing program is at origin. As we depart Guatemala, the story gets a bit dirtier. As you might expect, when we move coffee around the world its carbon footprint grows. Coffee will never be a local crop in the US (unless you’re lucky enough to live in Hawaii).
Unfortunately, while 90% of the world’s goods, by volume, spend time on container ships, those ships use a lot of heavily polluting diesel fuel, and that won’t change anytime soon. One positive note: because it can’t be crushed or damaged it in transit (unlike, say, bananas) a container full of coffee is one of the most densely-packed containers on the high seas.
The coffee beans arrive at the Port of Oakland and the container’s contents are emptied into trucks for transport to The Annex, a coffee storage facility in San Leandro. This immense, 325,000 square foot warehouse serves everyone from Maxwell House to micro-roasters.
Retrieving the beans from there and taking them to our Roastery is a job for our Coffeebar van. Though we make a weekly round trip, the van’s never empty: roasted beans travel west from the Roastery to our stores in the Bay, and green coffee goes east.
First World Problems
Unlike a Guatemalan coffee farm, any specialty coffee company in the US navigates an ocean of 21st century excess. Making our Roastery “dot” greener means responding to the default settings of American business: speed and convenience. In food service, that means disposable packaging, and lots of it.
While much of this stuff can’t yet be recycled, it can be re-used:
- The Grainpro plastic liners that protect coffee from dehydration during shipment become trash bags, and they’re re-used for trash or compost as long as possible before discarding.
- Our coffee goes to the stores in bulk, in buckets. Each week, this prevents us from having to use 100 5 pound bags--which are foil-lined, and not recyclable.Over the course of a year, that’s 5,000 bags saved.
- Our bean-sampling cups are re-used over multiple roasts.
- Boxes from shipments we receive are reused to transport packaged coffee to our stores in the Bay Area.
- Our cold brew bottles and growlers are recyclable; when bottled cold brew returns this summer we hope to begin a bottle exchange program to get multiple uses from each one.
- We have no shortage of takers for our burlap coffee bags, which get reused and upcycled by our “crafty” customers.
The cup conundrum
Most hot beverage to-go cups end up in the landfill because of their plastic coating. In 2019 Coffeebar started using reCUP, paper cups lined with a special coating that employs 40% less plastic and can be recycled into other paper products. Though we had to suspend the collection of cups for recycling during Covid to protect the health of our team, we look forward to being able to reinstate it.
Guests at the Coffeebar Roastery seldom take their coffee to go--they’re True Believers and here to commune with their beverages. (True coffee worship requires proper crockery or a Gibraltar glass.) Of course, there’s still an impact to washing and drying dishes. According to one study, a ceramic cup needs to be re-used about 350 times before its carbon footprint is less than that of a paper to-go cup with a plastic lid, but Roastery customers have no problem ensuring we can keep pace.
Compost with the mostest
One of our favorite re-use strategies isn’t our own. Each week, a neighbor just a block away in downtown Reno picks up our chaff from the roaster, as well as all the coffee grounds, saving them from ending up in the landfill. He spreads them on his garden as mulch.
When our friendly neighborhood tomato gardener puts coffee grounds back into the soil here in Nevada, he’s connecting one more dot--to the farmer who spread coffee cherry pulp under his trees thousands of miles away. Desert soil is enriched by the final incarnation of a rainforest crop. Our neighbor tells us that his tomatoes have never been happier.
These are just some of the small but important opportunities we have to be kind to our planet. We’ll continue to look for as many as we can find. Things may look a little different here by the time your grandkids’ grandkids show up, but the coffee will still be amazing.
Everyone here at the Coffeebar Roastery wishes you a beautiful Earth Day!