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!

Disposable paper coffee cups aren’t good enough for a 4 star hotel like San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis

Due to my husband’s travel schedule and a favorable fare war over the flight path involved, I had the great pleasure of spending five (5!) nights in the heart of San Francisco. His professional obligation put us up at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square.

I would be unlikely to pay for a 4 star hotel in this location—unless, perhaps, it was in an historic building I admired—but I’m eminently capable of enjoying it.*

My husband in particular dislikes a hotel which increases the fussiness or snootiness of the service at the expense of obvious value added to his straightforward tastes.**

Overall, the Westin St. Francis did a great job providing the unpretentious service we prefer at a level above what we demand to be satisfied. It was a very comfortable and gracious place to stay in a bustling San Francisco neighborhood.

Housekeeping gracious manners - 1

It’s my habit to leave a brief thank you with the tip for Housekeeping. A first for me: Westin Housekeepers thanked me back!

Though not quite to the level of get-it-before-you-ask intuition shown at five star properties, we found Room Service to be quick and attentive to detailaspicky eaters on a weird schedule. Housekeeping was very thorough, friendly, and, like Room Service, paid careful attention to special requests.

I can’t fault any of the service personnel at the Westin St. Francis, though the Front Desk was often busy or otherwise slow to serve.***

There was one item both Housekeeping and Room Service failed to providefor us when asked, and I did make requests of both. I asked Housekeeping in a note, and DH asked Room Service on the phone. I was told they could not provide a reusable mug for the in room coffee service.

Even when ordering espresso via Room Serviceor seated in the lobby cafe, it was provided in a tall 12 oz paper cup with Starbucks branding. Yuck!

My complaint here is twofold:

  • I love my coffee, and it tastes better from a ceramic cup.
  • Throwing away a paper cup for a beverage I’m drinking seated and indoors is needlessly wasteful.

I prefer a paper cup to styrofoam, but we all know there’s got to be a coating on that paper to make it waterproof, right? Coffee is hot. Wax and plastic coatings melt. Plastic, even without BPA, still contains chemicals that probably impact human health.

No, I don’t think the paper cup’s interior coating enhances the flavor of my organic medium roast.

And as for the unnecessary creation of garbage for drinks I’m consuming in the comfort of my hotel room? No, just no!

I think it is tolerable—if not my personal preference—for the Westin or any other hotel chain to choose to default to paper cups for in room coffee services. I don’t know the statistics on hotel behavior, but it’s absolutely possible that most guests most of the time are preparing, then carrying out, their room-brewed morning beverage. I understand that the glass carafes on the old 4-cup coffee makers broke regularly, creating headaches and hazards for Housekeeping and guests.

In this Tower room at this Westin hotel, the location of the coffee service near the tiled bathroom, but outside of its perils on a carpeted floor, would seem to reduce the risk of broken service items. A ceramic mug also seems less likely to crack than the thinner glass of a drip coffee machine’s carafe.

Most emphatically, if guests can be trusted to eat from ceramic dinnerware and glass cups delivered via room service, there can be no increased risk from coffee mugs of the same materials!

I suspect that the partnership with Starbucks is a part of this equation. Lots of people love Starbucks. It’s viewed as a premium brand. It probably “means something” to use that mermaid logo on your in room coffee service.

Perhaps Westin has an agreement to serve all coffee in Starbucks branded cups? Provide a ceramic mug with the iconic green logo, then, but please do have one available when I request a less wasteful coffee cup. If Starbucks is forcing the use of its branded paper cups, they need to be called to account for it or change their stated intent to reduce their environmental impact to a more honest one.

In Starbucks stores, I can always get my beverage in a ceramic cup by asking for it when I order. My estimation of the company would skyrocket if they made this policy a requirement for third parties displaying the Starbucks logo for marketing purposes. That would show a real commitment to the environment.

In a hotel with several bars and restaurants, a full menu of room service, and a complete kitchen that must include commercial dishwashing equipment, it is simply unacceptable to tell me that you don’t have a ceramic cup for me. I find it repellent, walking through the beautiful, marbled lobby, seeing a cafe full of guests settled in to drink from cups that are, essentially, garbage. I expect much better in an environmentally aware city like San Francisco.

Since 2012, the municipality of San Francisco has demanded that consumers pay for every paper shopping bag procured from a retailer. Plastic bags were banned outright in 2007. Even luxury boutique Hermès must ask if you want to pay 10¢ for a bag to carry home your new $12,000+ Birkin handbag.

How does this align with a hotel advertising rooms available “from $620 per night” during my stay that wouldn’t provide a washable, reusable mug for my use in the hotel?

My solution was to purchase a new glass “to go” cup from local roaster Blue Bottle Coffee. Theirs was manufactured by KeepCup. Trying Blue Bottle’s single origin espresso was on my list of adventures for the City by the Bay, so I got a meaningful souvenir and solved my cup problem in one fell swoop.

Blue Bottle espresso - 1 (1)

Yes, Blue Bottle Coffee’s single origin espresso was worth seeking out in its own right.

For someone like my husbandadmittedly, not a coffee drinker, like many most traveling professionals are—whose free time in the hotel is strictly limited by the rigors of his work schedule, this wouldn’t have been an option. As it was, when I offered him a soothing cup of chamomile tea in the evening, I had to clarify that he’d be getting it only after I finished my own cup of Darjeeling. We only had my one glass mug, of course.

Travel dish soap - 1

I often travel with my own refillable coffee cup† and I always carry a tiny 0.5 oz Nalgene drop dispenser bottle of dish detergent in my toiletry kit, but I left the travel mug at home this time. We were staying in a full service, four star hotel, so I assumed there would be proper drinkware on offer. I also knew that I’d have lots of free time while DH worked. I planned to savor my beverage of choice—espresso, straight up—seated in cafes and not on the go.

A recent sale flier by U-Konserve, the company that makes most of my reusable lunchbox components, pointed out the following from this study by ScienceAdvances:

“There is now one ton of plastic garbage for every person on Earth.”

U-Konserve also gives this fact in their Environmental FAQs:

“About 25 billion single-use coffee cups end up in landfills every year. If you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 pounds of waste in one year.”

KeepCup estimates the environmental breakeven point of my reusable glass cup vs disposables to be as low as 15 uses. Put another way, if I use my new Blue Bottle travel mug 16 times instead of a paper cup, washing it between uses, I will have made the more environmentally sound choice.

Paper cups aren’t plastic bottles, but, seriously, are we still debating the wisdom of the throwaway society?

And I’m not even particularly militant on this topic. It strikes me as possible that disposables are more convenient to many business travelers, and I’m not prepared to insist that my opinions dictate what ends up in other users’ hands.

I am, however, quite wedded to my position that a hotel of the caliber of the Westin St. Francis has an obligation to provide environmentally friendlier options to guests like me who want them.

If not, it is greenwashing of the highest order by a company highlighting its sustainability mission and asking customers to “Make a Green Choice” to defer housekeeping that happens to be labor/cost saving for the hotel in addition to water-wise.

*My personal valuation of hotel class often boils down to: if the location is what I want, clean and simple will serve my needs. I prefer to pay extra for more space (i.e., two bedroom vacation rental with kitchen when traveling as a family) over luxury finishes or a more extensive range of services.

**He raved about the Philadelphia Four Seasons, mostly because room service recognized almost immediately that he prefers exactly the same menu every day. They came to answer his afternoon call with, “Are you ready for your berries now, sir?”

***When the shower knob fell off in my hand, the front desk forgot to send maintenance after my first call; I had to ring them again after 45 minutes of waiting. The service technician, once summoned, fixed the problem quickly, thoroughly, and with a total commitment to disturbing me as little as possible while he worked.

†My favorite is an unbreakable stainless steel-lined model by Liquid Solution. It has a non-slip, textured exterior, a simple lid, and holds up to machine dish washing.Coffee cup travel mug - 1