Coffee and the Berlin Wall

Coffee and the Berlin Wall

October 2005 - Steve Aronson

Coffee and the Berlin Wall

An unexpected effect of German reunification came to me last month, as I sipped a terrible cup of coffee in a Berlin pastry shop.

The coffee had little aroma and less flavor, as it is just about everywhere you go in Berlin, outside of a few trendy coffee shops that sell many of the world’s fine coffees, including Café Britt.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Before the Wall fell in 1989, Germany was the temple of fine coffee. Back then, all of us who exported Costa Rica’s gourmet Arabica coffee followed a similar formula. You chose the best coffee to sell to Germany and Scandinavia. What export-grade coffee was left over went to the U.S. and the rest – the dregs of the harvest – stayed in Costa Rica for local consumption.

Then the Wall fell. Germany reunified, and the western part of the country, already economically strong and flooded with consumer goods, absorbed the poorer eastern part that hadn’t seen true commerce for decades.

All of a sudden, anyone who was packaging any consumer goods, including coffee, was confronted with a huge, very price-conscious part of the market.

The big German roasters responded by changing their blends to cheaper coffees including large quantities of lower-grade Robusta beans. They invented a steaming system that "neutralizes" the Robusta taste. They used the system to process up to 30 percent of the consumer-brand coffee, increasing profits, but stretching the weak flavor and aroma even more.

Their smaller competitors did the same. Now, the whole county is awash in mediocrity. But where did the good stuff go?

Just as the Germans were working through the euphoria and challenge of reunification, U.S. coffee drinkers were beginning to discover coffee. Thanks to Peets, Starbucks and others, U.S. consumers were learning that the best coffee didn’t come in cans. They began seeking out better blends and became willing to pay for quality.

The U.S. market is today the world’s strongest for coffee. It’s the one that receives most of Costa Rica’s gourmet crop. Those few, trendy coffee shops that now exist in Berlin were inspired by U.S. gourmet coffee shops from Seattle to New York.

Café Britt further added to this market "up-side-downess" by roasting Costa Rica’s best coffee here at home and selling it to Costa Ricans eager to discover what the rest of the world already knew – that their country produced some pretty fine coffee.

The good stuff is catching on again in Germany. Young Germans who’ve sampled great coffee abroad are looking for gourmet blends at home.

But it amazed me as I sat there in that pastry shop in Berlin, how much the world has changed since the Wall came down. Germans now have a word they now use to refer to the time after the wall. The word, "wende" means "turn around," or "turning point."

A perfect word, I think, for what happened not only in Germany following this historic milestone, but also in the Costa Rica coffee market.

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