Q&A With Peet's Coffee

Coffee is a notoriously finicky crop, requiring just the right amount of light, heat, and moisture.  That makes coffee farmers especially vulnerable to climate change.

A recent study in Kenya, Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua showed that higher temperatures are forcing growers uphill at an average rate of three to four meters per year. Peruvian coffee harvests dropped 30 percent since 2008, and Brazilian growers are considering relocating their operations to cooler regions.

Oakland-based Peet's Coffee & Tea buys coffee beans from many regions affected most by climate change, so we spoke to Shirin Moayyad , director of coffee purchasing, about how the company is dealing with the strain on its suppliers.

Atlantic: Recent research has shown that rising temperatures are pushing small coffee growers farther up mountains and, in some cases, forcing them to relocate or grow different varieties of beans. How have these developments affected Peet's?

Moayyad: Peet's has always bought such expensive coffee that I don't think, for us, it makes much of a difference. Because we're buying such high-quality beans, we're already buying really high-altitude coffee. If I wanted to hide my head in the sand, I could. But I'm not interested in doing that. In fact, I think in the coffee industry there are huge opportunities to do things for the environment.

In our experience, though, there are bummers, and most of those have to do with what rain does to coffee. For example, in Papua New Guinea, there's only one road. It runs from the harbor into the mountains, where coffee is grown -- that's why the road exists, to transport the coffee. It rains every year, which knocks out bridges, and we're stuck if we don't have a good stock of coffee. If the rain is very torrential it can knock the coffee flowers off the trees. So those are definitely the bummers in how climate change can impact us.

But there's also the odd opportunity, which is probably not what I should be talking about. There's one coffee -- we call it Panama Esmeralda, but it's mostly known as Geisha -- that goes for $130 a pound. We call it the silver lining on a rainy day. The original growers were a Swedish family who moved down to Panama a while ago, where we were buying all of their coffees. They had a very high elevation on one small block of their farm, and this particular block was always yielding a very high-quality, extremely floral cup, but they couldn't narrow it down and figure out why.

A few years ago, it was a very rainy year in Panama, which gets absolutely battered when it rains. After this particular year, all the trees on that block, except for one, were destroyed. When the storm passed they went back to harvest the tree and discovered, completely by accident, that what remained was the Geisha variety that had been contributing this extraordinary cup. It came from a region in Ethiopia and had been sent to a coffee research center in Costa Rica, then randomly distributed throughout South America. This coffee only expresses itself in full measure, with all the flavor highlights, at a very high altitude. It was just sheer dumb luck that it showed up at this really high elevation and that the farmers discovered it because of bad weather.

Atlantic: So it sounds like high-quality coffee is well-suited to the different weather patterns brought on by climate change. In what other ways is the high-quality coffee industry adapting to these changes?

Moayyad: We are in a strong position re: global warming, but again, I'm very excited about all the different greening measures these farms are taking. The concept of carbon retention is particularly well suited to coffee because coffee grows on trees, which absorb carbon. But also, the very best coffee is shade-grown. Shade slows down growth and maturation and makes for a denser bean. That means there's something to be optimistic about in high-grown, good coffee.

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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