Coffee, COVID-19 & White Noise

I’m at a bit of an impasse this month as several people have ‘asked Lee’ about the how the current pandemic will result in crisis in our industry. However, I do not have much of an answer. It is hard to have much insight or perspective on something so big without time and distance. I will say that I am like everyone: continually stressed. With the relentless nature of waiting, I feel slightly numb. But then shake the daze with worry and dread. Rinse and repeat. Maybe lather, rinse, repeat is the more appropriate phrase. It is genuinely surreal to fear your own body because you went shopping for groceries or have waves of nauseous due to the grim updates of hourly news.

I can provide some vague idea of what is happening at the links in the chain back to origin from the Quietly point-of-view. The justified choice to end traditional service at cafes, meant the disappearance wholesale or bulk sales at roasters. In turn, this means less demand for green. The result is a bit of a stock problem at the main hubs for coffee, like ‘continental terminal’ in New Jersey. Exasperating this surplus is the backlog at ports created by the array of containers from closed industries not moving and an overall decreased workforce.

This current surplus will likely lead into a long-term shortfall. Between ripe cherry and your brew, there are several stages starting with harvesting and moving through ‘processing’, which includes removing the cherry’s skin (exocarp), its mucilage (mesocarp), and its parchment (endocarp). This requires labour forces at the farm to pick cherries, de-pulp of the skin, and ferment the beans. The wet mill removes the last sticky layer and a dry mill cleans the parchment. Coffee finally rests at origin one to two months to stabilize moisture. Accordingly, there is a significant period of time and a huge number of steps from crop to cup.  You can likely guess how current preventative measures at farm level now will domino into gaps down the line. You take away workers or bustling mills, backlogs and delays emerge.

I am encouraged by a great deal of the proactive steps throughout the coffee growing world. In Colombia, isolated and controlled dry mills are replacing the usual on-site milling. For the first time ever, the coffee auction in Kenya occurred online this week. Countries with relatively few current cases, like Ethiopia and Burundi, have public travel bans and closed borders. However, there are a lot of question marks and, as is usually the case, the ruthless nature of global capital often trumps humanity. Those dis-proportionally affected will likely be the most vulnerable, which in the coffee chain is temporary workers, like pickers, and small-scale farmers whose entire livelihood rests on single harvests. There is no policy in place or enforcement that could operate beyond local jurisdiction, so as always, it comes down to trusting your producers, cooperatives, importers, and exporters.

Forecasting potential shortages is one thing, asking what does it actually mean is another. Large cultural events always foster attempts at understanding and comprehension. I perused some of Slavoj Žižek’s Pandemic! COVID-19 and a quote struck me: “if we search for such a hidden message … we treat our universe as a partner in communication … the really difficult thing to accept is the fact that the ongoing epidemics is a result of natural contingency at its purest, that it just happened and hides no deeper meaning”. I understand (and support) this as a response to the very misguided (aka eco-fascist) and ungrounded ‘humans are the virus’ takes but there is something that does not align to my current experience…

My answer to creeping dread is usually seeking the assurances of art. As isolation deepened over the last month, I dusted off my copy of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. In part two of the book, a chemical spill of ‘Nyodene’ forces Jack Gladney and his family to seek refuge with their fellow townsfolk in a nearby school turned evacuation center. DeLillo uses the ‘airborne toxic event’ to explore how an unexpected crisis alters and shifts our understanding of the everyday world. On route to the center, Jack stops to fill his car with gas and the resulting exposure puts him at risk of the creeping black chemical cloud. DeLillo describes Jack’s realization that “the little breath of Nyodene has planted a death in [his] body” but that the diagnosis is ultimately vague. Jack considers all the ways we can “study it objectively” because “we can take cross-section pictures of it, tape its tremors and waves” but that it remains illusive. It is beyond the everyday minutia of routine. For the family, the airborne toxic event “marks the end of uneventful things” because mortality becomes material. Death enters the personal, the daily, the present. We are “face to face with the event” and “this is the hard and heavy thing, the fact itself”.

The town survives the spill and, in fact, bemoans that it is not even a blip in the news cycle. The final section of the book explores the newly omnipresent and looming sense of impermanence. Jack muses, “we have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat, and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us … how is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is this something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing?”. And this is what I see lacking in the ‘there is no deeper meaning in our pandemic’ argument because we are living a shared collective experience as we are all feeling and fearing the affectual weight of that ‘hard and heavy thing’.

Akin to the Gladney family, I cannot help but feel a seismic shift. Fighting a loss of agency in my own small life, trying to use highly organized shopping lists and decontamination zones for delivery boxes to fight off the chaos just beyond the door. Across social media, the advice I continually see is: ‘enjoy the little things’ but it is the literal little things that scare me the most. I had never thought about how dirty my seat-belt might be or pondered, ‘who could have possibly touched this envelope? The only time I would worry about my boots drudging in some noxious substance was at a dog park. There is a terror in the world of the ‘little things’, with each object and distanced interaction. As DeLillo describes, the effect of the unknown is that “there is just no end of surprise”. You begin to “interpret danger as a state too lacking in detail and precision to be confined to a certain time and place”. There is no return when it is everywhere.

I recognize the intended meaning: seek solace in small joys. For the start of year two’s green buying at Quietly, nostalgia reigns. I went through all my cupping journals and old offer sheets and made a short list of my all time favourite cups and have started bringing them in. Once I had a level of comfort at Cut in your more common origins, I brought in a washed Sulawesi from Toarco. It was weird, vibrant, and exciting. So that is currently on offer and this morning, I lit the wood-stove in our quiet farmhouse, grabbed my book, and brewed a pot. Just like the crop from years ago, the cup had waves of sticky, spicy, chocolatey lime. A wonderful small joy. As DeLillo writes, “Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we keep inventing hope”.

The last time I read this novel was in my undergraduate degree and I had the peculiar experience of reading a former Lee’s margin notes. I have no idea why, but he underlined a simple but beautiful passage in which Jack examines a percolator and thinks “I had never looked at coffee before”. I do not mean to universalize my experience and I absolutely recognize an inability to speak beyond myself, but I do think DeLillo’s words resonate well. With my cup of Toarco in my hand, I ‘looked at coffee’: it was the temporal experience of taste, the sweet spice and brightness of fresh crop. It was the cup, a potential carrier of germs – how well did I wash this last time? It was a question about the industry as a whole, when can I sip a cup at cafes, what will happen to Toarco station, will Quietly be around next year to source this coffee again? And lastly it was the realization that we are living in a moment, where I am not alone looking at my cup and asking these questions. A world where we are all facing the illusive fear of death made material.

Like the Gladney family, the transformation of the daily leaves us with equal measures of sympathy, empathy, fear and apprehension. DeLillo ends White Noise with life continuing on and and Jack asking “What else do we feel? We don’t know what we are watching or what it means, we don’t know where it is permanent, a level of experience to which we gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass”.

💓✨☕🙏

Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila