Do your bit¡

I am still waiting. Strictly speaking once I was – but now I have given up. Apparently it is vey easy to grow Oyster Mushrooms in coffee grounds. That is what I have read. Going back a few years ago, for weeks I collected coffee grounds from a local cafe. When I had collected 20 kilograms or so I bought some fungi infused plugs and I popped a few of them into the grounds as Mr Youtube suggested and I waited. As I have stated I am still waiting for the mushrooms to grow.

Possibly, in my haste to get started, I missed an important step that might have ensured success. I intend to return to the matter when the mood next strikes me. Today I want to discuss coffee and something about the environmental issues that flow from our daily drink.

We never see how much waste our cup costs the planet. Here are some of the things you should know. Rather than start with my cup I would prefer we visit the steamy hills where coffee cherries grow. Grown naturally the coffee plant grows in the shade of a mixture of other trees. This means coffee growing is a hit and miss type of subsistence farming. The coffee plant are interspersed across the landscape. When the cherries are red the coffee bean is mature. If they are picked too soon the beans will not make first grade coffee. Therefore it is up to the farmer to pick, and re-pick only the fruit that is ready. Not interested in maturing all at once the plant creates lots of work.

Normally the cherries then leave the farm and the farmer gets a few cents for each kilo. In other circumstances the farmer will earn more if the fruit is taken from the bean on site. When this is done only the valuable beans need to travel beyond the farm gate.

Either way it points to the first part in the story of coffee waste. The cherry fruit is not usually eaten and must be discarded. If it happens on farm then it will make good mulch. If it goes to a factory then it is often burnt to create biomass.

The ideal growing conditions for coffee beans is in the shade but that has not stopped the monoculture of them. In parts of the world large areas are cleared and trees are planted under shade cloth. This means more coffee can be grown per acre but it seldom results in better returns for the small grower. Because big farms make it easier to crop the ground with machinery, the harvested crop so often is. This means farms have fruit at various stages of maturity when it is harvested. This results in more waste and beans of greater and lesser value mixed together. It just highlights the stupidity of monoculture being advanced as the best way to farm.

I cannot envision the scale of size of a figure I discovered when preparing this essay. Only a tiny amount of water is needed to extract the best flavours from the coffee bean. It means that for every cup made there is a heap of grounds to dispose of. The annual crop is around 8.4 million Metric tonnes of coffee. (Incidentally this is almost as much plastic waste the enters the oceans each year.) As I say, you might have a better way of imagining it, but it is around eight and a half large cargo ships of coffee that are used once and discarded – every year. It is a mountain of coffee. Each year the problem gets bigger because of the demand for more, and more.

Some people are promoting small business opportunities for the unemployed. They promote the growing of mushrooms because mushroom mycelium loves to grow in it. How much could be used this way is only a tiny part of what is available. Coffee grounds can be great for the garden, yet for it to really help it must first be composed for several weeks. When it has partly broken down it really does help to grow things. Some coffee shops will give away their grounds, but far too many send it to the tip because they cannot get rid of it fast enough. Fortunately, instant coffee manufacturers use this waste to produce energy.

This could be the end of the story instead it all becomes grimier from here. Many people now get their buzz at home from Pod machines. Nespresso introduce the pod machine to Europe in 1996. On the face of it it makes a lot of sense. No coffee beans are wasted because the householder gets a precise dose of coffee every time. But the pods are a problem. They are made from plastic. Thirty seconds after the coffee is made the household has 18 grams of coffee and plastic to dispose of. None of it can go into the garden. It just goes into the waste bin.

America started using pod machines about twelve months after Europe. They produce so much waste the inventor regrets the damage his invention produces.

Despite that – pod machines seem to be here to stay. Some argue the neatest solution is to use aluminium pods because they can be recycled. The energy needed to do that is unsustainable. The spent coffee may well be the correct dose but it has to be removed before the aluminium can be recycled.

Which leads me to an event that stirred me to write to the chairman of the largest shipping company in the world. We were on a month long cruise. On it we visited many wonderful places. In each country we visited we were able to go to some of the most interesting sites selected by UNESCO as world treasures. Our ship was small and on it there were people of many different nationalities. In the end it didn’t seem to matter which country they came from they all wanted a brewed coffee. The service standard on the ship was such anyone, on any deck of the ship could ask and be delivered a steaming cup of coffee without moving.

Yet every day the same people went directly to the barista to get a cup of coffee so fresh the beans had been roasted at seven am that morning. Guests could choose any type of China, or glass vessel, for their coffee and still half of them wanted a paper cup to carry the drink to their place of choice to drink. What I saw was what has become a bigger problem than pods of coffee. This usage was just part of the mountains of plastic – lined, one use cups, thrown away every day. On board we were told they were burnt. Across the globe people throw them anywhere. They have become a major part of the plastic waste the world now has to deal with.

This may not be my last word on the topic, but it is time we put aside our want for items that are only used once. Currently about 4,000 places in Australia will offer a price discount on a cup of coffee if the customer brings along a cup. The discount is not what motivates most of these customers, it is the care they want to show the environment. To reuse a product is much more sensible that to recycle, or repurpose.

The advertisement promises 43 beans

Count the beans

Just down from the Mercer St Corner, opposite the Myer Store in Yarra St Geelong, was a cafe. In the cafe, on the tables, sat woven straw – covered glass Chianti bottles. Lodged in each bottle was a candle. At night the candles lit the otherwise gloomy room. Behind the counter the staff busied themselves serving their customers cups of steaming cappuccino. Such was the mystery of this enticing bohemian facade – all too frequently I postponed preparing my trainee teacher class lessons, due the next day, to sup late in the wicked atmosphere. This was my first mischievous deed in the world of adults three generations ago.

It was not my first cappuccino. I had had one earlier at Circular Quay in Sydney a few week before. On that occasion I met my sister Elizabeth traveling home on the liner “Oransay” after her first visit to Scotland. These big noisy drink makers took sometime to change the drinking patterns of this nation but they did. Before they became ubiquitous we endured some terrible brews. Let me introduce you to a journey through coffee.

We were (we are still) first a tea drinking family but our pretence at sophistication meant coffee was served on special occasions way back – when? War time privations meant coffee was unavailable- especially to families like ours. We made do with a delicious drink – Bushels Essence of Coffee and Chicory. This syrup was poured into a cup, to complete the ritual you then poured hot milk or water over that – And you were expected to enjoy it. Yuk.

Image Museums Victoria

It really was bad. If you would like to transport yourself back seventy years it is still possible to buy its modern substitute. Bushels Coffee Essence with added Caramel is still sold in supermarkets. (If you like the product you should stick to your choice, just don’t confuse it with a drink of coffee.)

By the time I left to start a home of my own the coffee we drank depended on how stretched our budget was. When it came to coffee we drank Instant Coffee. (It was only when I started to write this entry I made the discovery instant coffee was introduced around the years our fathers were born.) Possibly the biggest name internationally was Nescafe. In our time we have drunk litres of coffee infused by this brand. At various times we have tried dozens of other brands. You might know, or remember them. Some of them were awful. How would you rate Maxwell Hose, Pablo, International Roast, Moccona, Nescafé, Lavazza?

Sixty countries, or seventy – if Wikipedia is your source, grow coffee. The most common varieties grown are c, robusta and c. arabica. It is assumed they all originated in Ethiopia. Robusta, is to my taste, more bitter. Perhaps that is why Turkish coffee is so sweet. Perhaps it explains why an espresso in Europe is so short. Similarly no one can reasonably explain why an Americano tastes as it does. Here in this blazing dry land when it comes to fresh coffee most of us are served Arabica.

Coffee has heaped my ignorance into mountains at various times. I remember with pride producing my first coffee made in the eight cup, Sunbeam electric percolator we purchased. To make it I ground some expensive beans in a manual grinder. It took the best part of half an hour to turn out half a cup of coffee grounds. That was the quantity needed to fill the infuser. After filling the body with water, I turned it on and it percolated until the brew was as black as coal and just as tasty. We kept that thing for many years. The longer we had it the less it was needed. No one liked what it produced.

From that point I decided against filtered coffee and eventually bought a two cup Bialetti Stove Top Coffee maker. This was the first machine that we had that produced a reasonable drink. We kept that little gadget for ages. In fact we kept it until I was the only one in the house drinking coffee. By that stage I was addicted to my one strong cup a day. On Tuesday’s I lashed out and spent an hour with my former work colleague H. For nearly thirty years we have been chewing the fat over a Flat White each week in coffee shop after coffee shop.

Some time ago I expressed my individuality and spent more money than a “one-cup-day” drinker should and I bought a Rancillio Silva manual coffee machine. Now everyone will join me when I make my coffee each morning. My Faerie will have one with me if it is an Italian sweet called an Afagatto. This little drink is a double espresso poured over a serve of ice cream. (Hasn’t that caused some trouble over the years?) When we first started journeying around the country it was impossible to get one. The best reason given for not making one was given to us in a small cafe in Charlton. The waitress give us the pragmatic answer to our question. She said, “This is Charlton – not Carlton.” (Carlton is known as a centre for all things Italian.) Now it is possible to find one almost anywhere as most places can afford to buy an automatic espresso machine. However not all coffee is equal.

Good beans are more necessary than a good machine. Country stores are still reluctant to purchase good coffee, what scientists tell us it will soon become very expensive.The first reason is – coffee has replaced tea as the drink of choice. The second reason is – as the globe warms traditional places where coffee grows will become too hot. Growers are now searching the globe for new regions in which to grow it. Another major problem is the great distances the beans have to travel. Currently we are buying our Fairtrade beans from Timor Leste. This still means a journey of 5,000 kilometers before we get them.

Interestingly coffee waste is worthy of a story of its own. This will be my next story. Please revisit my site and learn a little more about this busy bean.