Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!

Color pairings: Tom Bihn travel bag in Viridian with Angelrox accessories in Teal

I’m a colorful traveler as most of my capsule wardrobe posts will attest.

You might also fairly describe me as a bag addict and a brand aficionado. When I find one I like, I keep going back for more.

Today, I’d like to present a pairing of products from two different brands which go beautifully together. Assembled atop a few other items from my teal/purple/acid green travel capsule are:

Tom Bihn viridian cubelet travel Angelrox teal lagoon ocean violet Ahnu shoe Sugarpine - 2Here’s a rare case where my photograph shows the colors blending just as nicely as they do under natural light. If you like a vibrant, color-coordinated look involving shades of teal blue/green, consider these pieces by these brands.

Why Tom Bihn?

Some of the best lightweight (carry on) travel bags in America are made in Seattle by Tom Bihn. Quality and customer service are both outstanding. I use their products daily to keep my handbag organized and can say with sincerity that doing so makes my life easier and better.

Though I’m often loathe to return items, preferring to think my purchases through beforehand, I’ve exercised their reasonable return policy to try pieces out at home and create the ideal combination for the way I want to carry my stuff. Sometimes, you just have to pack a suitcase to see if it works for you.

I’ve sent back bags because they don’t work for how I pack; I’ve never seen even a hint of a flaw in workmanship in a Bihn bag. They are meticulously sewn from high quality materials.

Afraid to commit to expensive bags on just my say so? Spend some time on the very active Tom Bihn forums first. You’ll hear from plenty of other obsessives fans who share generously their opinions and experiences. I lurked for months before placing my first order.

Tom Bihn bags are made in a good range of colors that tend to be available for reasonably long periods of time. I.e., you can come back a year later and buy a second bag in the same colorway. That said, not all colors are on offer for all styles. You might need to sign up for a waiting list to be notified when the bag you want is in production, especially if you are picky about color.

There’s also a healthy market for used bags in discontinued combinations on ebay, etc.

Why Angelrox?

Angelrox is a woman owned small business in Maine where fashion is balanced by wearability (i.e., comfort!) Their signature cotton/bamboo knit can be a bit heavy (weighty) for ultralight carry on travel, but its softness, stretch, and tendency not to wrinkle keep it in contention for me.

It’s rare that I so much as leave the house without at least one pair of their “sleeves” (fingerless gloves, available in Opera/long and Aria/short lengths), however, so at least a few of their accessories have gone with me on every recent trip.

For lovers of layered, joyfully artistic styles in a rainbow of mouth-watering colors, Angelrox is worth a look.

Their customer service is personal, warm, and responsive; expect to be called an “angel” and to see a hand written thank you note on your invoice if ordering by mail. Packaging is simple/minimal, but includes a graceful tissue wrap and raffia tie that I’d say elevates it to suitable for gifting.

While not every item is available in every color on the website, I’ve had great luck talking to customer service and finding out which pieces are in the production pipeline. I also got custom hemming for a long gown at no extra expense though it was no longer returnable after customization.