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Coffee MayX addresses global issues by the cup

Students taste coffee in the Methodical Coffee roastery in Travelers Rest for the MayX course “Coffee Culture: Past to Present, Farm to Cup.” Photo by Owen Withycombe.

Last updated June 11, 2024

By Clinton Colmenares, Director of News and Media Strategy

Remember when coffee was a simple cup of rich, dark, aromatic goodness that didn’t require a small loan? Back when coffee was uncomplicated and times were simpler. Back when … yeah, that was almost never the case.

Coffee, now a $200 billion worldwide commodity, has been fraught with social complexity and wrought by global economic pressure since colonialization. But not everyone knows the 3,000-plus year history of the beverage.

That’s where the Furman University MayX, “Coffee Culture: Past to Present, Farm to Cup,” came in, to teach students that the contemporary coffee craze has finicky roots clinging to Central American and Mexican mountainsides.

roasted coffee pours out of a machine.

Coffee beans spill from a roaster at the Methodical Roastery in Travelers Rest. Photo by Owen Withycombe.

For a hands-on experience, Kelsey Hample, associate professor of economics and Tuğçe Kayaal, assistant professor of history, led the class of 14 students to Methodical Coffee roasting facility and Leopard Forest Coffee Company, both in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, and Calibration Coffee Lab in Greenville, South Carolina.

They also met with three Furman alumni in the coffee business: Adam Kelly ’09, who owns Leopard Forest, and Micah Sherer ’14 and Sam Klein ’15, who Zoomed in for a meeting. Sherer and Klein have both traveled the world as green coffee buyers, working directly with farmers in the fields. Sherer has launched his own roastery, Skylark Coffee, in Brighton, England; it’s 100 percent non-profit and transparent.

When thinking about a topic for the MayX, Kayaal said she’s always been intrigued by exploring social and cultural history, and colonialism’s impact on ordinary people, through one commodity.

Coffee has always brought people together, but that hasn’t always been good for society, said Kayaal, who is from Turkey. In the 16th and 17th century, during the Ottoman Empire,  coffee houses were male-centric outlets for discussing politics. It was also used to sexualize certain people and emasculate others. The Empire even banned coffee several times, she said.

Coffee was the perfect commodity to trace through centuries because, unlike others, it’s very labor intensive and difficult to produce, yet affordable, said Hample, who led lessons on the global economics of beverage.

Most high-quality coffee grows in the global south on small farms at high altitudes and in rugged terrain where mechanized equipment won’t go, so it has to be picked by hand. Other commodities that require as much labor are either very expensive or rare. Think: diamonds.

It takes 70 coffee beans to make a cup of java, Hample said. “The farmer who picked 70 beans for your cup of coffee this morning might have received $1 to $2 a pound. That’s after they’ve grown it for years, cared for it, harvested it, processed it, processed it again. And now farmers are coping with changing climate cycles because of global warming.

Hample wanted students to know that their daily habits play a role in the livelihoods of farmers a hemisphere away.

After posing the economic challenges of coffee growing, and the social implications of drinking it, Hample asked students to consider the point at which it’s unethical to get a daily caffeine fix from coffee.

“I was excited that our students immediately responded with, if you stop drinking coffee those farmers have no market anymore. It’s really complicated,” she said.

Hample and Kayaal felt they built a community with the class, sharing knowledge among themselves even as they engaged in the local and alumni communities.

“I think it was particularly important for us to build relationship with local companies, like Leopard Forest. All were interested in ethical consumption,” Kayaal said. “We want to keep working with our local partners, getting to know businesses in Greenville, keep talking about ethical consumption and fair trade.”

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Clinton Colmenares
Director of News and Media Strategy