The world in a cup

Travel from Ethiopia to Java Beach in San Fran­cisco’s cof­fee­houses

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - RE­BECCA SOL­NIT

A CAFE is a place where peo­ple in the neigh­bour­hood gather; a cup of cof­fee is where pieces of the world gather. A cup of cof­fee from Java Beach at the end of Ju­dah Street at Ocean Beach, San Fran­cisco, is it­self a re­mark­able map of re­gional and global economies.

It con­tains wa­ter from Hetch Hetchy, the reser­voir that con­cen­trates Sierra snowmelt and feeds it down­hill more than 270km to the faucets of San Fran­cisco. It in­cludes milk from the Clover Stor­netta dairies in West Marin and Sonoma, and or­ganic fair­trade cof­fee dis­trib­uted by Due Torri which could be from Su­ma­tra, Ethiopia, Brazil, Gu­atemala, Mex­ico, Costa Rica or else­where, or a com­bi­na­tion of any of these.

Which is to say that a cup of cof­fee from Java Beach — or in­deed from any cafe — holds three ma­jor land­scapes and economies: pas­toral, alpine and trop­i­cal. And that com­bi­na­tion is drunk in San Fran­cisco hun­dreds of thou­sands of times a day (though some take their cof­fee black). If you fig­ure half a mil­lion cups ev­ery morn­ing among the 800,000 in­hab­i­tants, you’re pic­tur­ing pro­duc­tion on a vast scale. And then there’s plumb­ing: the story that be­gins in Hetch Hetchy’s dammed val­ley in­side Yosemite Na­tional Park ends with the two waste­water treat­ment plants that out­flow into the bay and the Pa­cific, and with the com­post­ing of cof­fee and fil­ters in the city’s in­dus­trial-scale com­post­ing fa­cil­i­ties in Vacaville.

Learn­ing to see those peo­ple and land­scapes in your cup is among the de­mands of the world we live in, where we are con­stantly us­ing, wear­ing, re­ly­ing on and con­sum­ing prod­ucts cre­ated by forces far be­yond the hori­zon. The In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion has been about alien­ation — not only of pro­duc­ers from their work but of con­sumers from the source of the prod­ucts they use. Much of the work of the en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial jus­tice move­ments dur­ing the past few decades has been to make these forces vis­i­ble: to see sweat­shop work­ers when you see cheap clothes; to see child labour in some brands of chocolate; to see toil and ge­og­ra­phy, just or un­just, ugly or beau­ti­ful, in ev­ery­thing you touch.

This knowl­edge brings de­mands that can also be plea­sures. You can get to Ethiopia from Java Beach if you learn to read your cof­fee; and one of the big ques­tions about fair-trade ver­sus com­mer­cial cof­fee, in­de­pen­dent cafes ver­sus chain stores, is about drink­ing in mean­ing, or mean­ing­less­ness.

San Fran­cisco once was, and Oak­land now is, the port through which a huge por­tion of the nation’s cof­fee flows. Years ago, when Fol­gers and MJB were still south of the Bay Bridge, ev­ery­one driv­ing by smelled roast­ing cof­fee at all hours; you can still some­times travel through that aroma on 880 in East Oak­land near where the cof­fee is now un­loaded and roasted both by big plants and by small places like Due Torri Or­ganic Cof­fee Roaster, a dis­trib­u­tor of or­ganic fair-trade cof­fee.

Vin­cent, the pro­pri­etor of Due Torri’s two-per­son roast­ing, blend­ing and dis­tribut­ing op­er­a­tion in a con­crete bunker in a small East Oak­land in­dus­trial park, tells us one rainy morn­ing he es­ti­mates the beans have been han­dled by 100 peo­ple by the time they reach your cup. In the 22.5kg sacks of cof­fee he re­ceives raw from the Oak­land docks, he’s found many things, in­clud­ing jew­ellery, bul­lets and teeth. The peo­ple be­hind the cof­fee are real to him. His fam­ily owns a finca — a cof­fee plan­ta­tion — in Gu­atemala, and he grew up spend­ing sum­mers there.

For me, a cup of cof­fee is an in­gath­er­ing of worlds: cof­fee grow­ing in trop­i­cal high­lands, dairy farm­ing in the sur­round­ing coun­try­side, and hy­draulic en­gi­neer­ing that gets the wa­ter from the moun­tains to the plumb­ing and then cleans it for the sea. For Bob Daw­son, the pho­tog­ra­pher work­ing with me, the same cup of cof­fee, bought and drunk in a neigh­bour­hood cafe, is a sort of com­mu­nion with the peo­ple and place around you.

A cup of cof­fee is both, and the way that dual iden­tity works mod­els many other sit­u­a­tions. In the mid-17th cen­tury, Lon­don cof­fee­houses were in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal hot­beds, so much so that Charles II con­sid­ered sup­press­ing them. But even then the cof­fee it­self was a glob­alised prod­uct, com­ing in from the Arab world and the sub­trop­ics, part of the same colo­nial land­scape as tea, cot­ton, rum, sugar, slaves and plan­ta­tions; and busi­ness­men were con­duct­ing their deals in the cof­fee­houses, too. So the ma­te­rial cof­fee was most likely about ex­ploita­tion and op­pres­sion, whereas the so­cial space was about the free ex­change of ideas and the growth of ur­ban pub­lic life; early news­pa­pers were read and passed around in these places.

San Fran­cisco has al­ways been a cof­fee town: Tadich Grill, the old­est restau­rant in the city, be­gan as a wharf­side cof­fee stand in 1849, at the be­gin­ning of the gold rush, when sacks of cof­fee were as much a part of the wharves as the cof­fee fac­to­ries were of the old in­dus­trial city, now lost. But the cafes that freckle the city are a rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non. My friend Jesse Drew re­minded me that he’d lived in the Mis­sion in the days when there were two cafes: the Picaro on 16th Street and Cafe La Bo­heme on 24th — both still open daily, but now with dozens of other cof­fee­houses in be­tween.

I also re­mem­ber the hippie-ish Cafe Clar­ion at Mis­sion and Clar­ion Al­ley back in the early 1980s, but Jesse was right that there had once been few cafes out­side North Beach. They sprang up like mush­rooms af­ter a rain in the 1980s and be­came a way of pass­ing time, of vis­it­ing and work­ing and read­ing and meet­ing. Per­haps be­cause so many peo­ple live in small apart­ments, the cafes are their other liv­ing rooms; per­haps be­cause so many lead ec­cen­tric, free­lance, un­set­tled lives, they pass through these places all the time like mi­gra­tory birds. It can be as­ton­ish­ing how many peo­ple seem to be at ev­ery­thing and any­thing but work on a week­day mid-morn­ing. This is an edited ex­tract from In­fi­nite City: A San Fran­cisco At­las by Re­becca Sol­nit (Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press; dis­trib­uted by In­books, $34.95).

En­joy­ing a cof­fee in North Beach, San Fran­cisco

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