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Your Morning Coffee, Served Just and Right

What is the most valuable item of international trade in the world today? No surprise for anyone who’s read the headlines for the past decade or two: It’s oil. But you might be surprised to discover that the second most valuable item is coffee. Oil and coffee — that’ll add a bit of perspective to the morning drive to the local java hut.

More than 16 billion pounds of coffee were produced worldwide in 2003, and about one-fifth of it ended up in the United States. Although the United States is the largest coffee-consuming nation in the world — Americans down about 400 million cups every day — it produces almost none of it domestically. While we have not yet gone to war to ensure the uninterrupted flow of coffee to our shores, there’s no question that coffee is a product of profound economic importance, and especially so for a handful of large corporations.

Four companies control the majority of the global coffee trade — at least 60%: Nestle (makers of Nescafe and several other leading brands), Philip Morris (Maxwell House), Procter & Gamble (Folgers) and Sara Lee (Chock Full o’ Nuts). Together, the global coffee industry earns some $60 billion annually, and yet, according to a report produced by the PBS series “Frontline,” less than 10 % of that $60 billion actually ends up with the people who work on the farms. Wages for coffee pickers vary from country to country, but almost without exception they are appallingly low — as little as a few dollars per day. Often economic necessity compels whole families to work. This includes children, who in many cases are forced to give up school in order to earn more money for the family. In so doing, they relegate themselves to a lifetime of manual labor.

Today, some 20 million people work on coffee farms, generally the huge, modern coffee plantations that produce most of the world’s coffee. On these plantations, as has been noted by Gregory Dicum and Nina Luttinger in “The Coffee Book” (The New Press, 1999), the coffee plants are protected from pests and disease through the regular application of chemicals, including fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, some of which include known carcinogens. (Dicum and Luttinger report that in 1994, every pound of green coffee produced in Colombia had been doused with more than half a pound of chemical fertilizers.) Of all the world’s crops that we eat or drink, coffee is the single-most pesticide-intensive.

Furthermore, the creation of these huge farms was made possible by the clear-cutting of the local forest. The result is a significant loss in tropical biodiversity, as with the decimation of the many species of migratory songbirds that have been deprived of their natural habitat in shaded trees.

So, we millions of Jewish coffee drinkers (among whom I count myself) might ask ourselves this question: Mass-produced coffee is economically exploitative and environmentally disastrous — so is it, then, kosher?

According to the basic dictates of kashrut, the answer is yes, as long as the coffee has been roasted under proper rabbinical supervision. To the adherents of a concept known as “eco-kashrut,” however, the answer is not quite as simple. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi coined the term “eco-kashrut” in the 1970s. According to Arthur Waskow in his book “Down-to-Earth Judaism” (William Morrow & Co, 1995), eco-kashrut denotes “a broader sense of good everyday practice that draws on the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom and tradition about the relationships between human beings and the earth.” Essentially, eco-kashrut posits that the foods we consume should be produced in accord with higher Jewish principles, such as safeguarding the body, honoring the earth and not oppressing others economically.

A coffee that adheres to these values — that is to say, an eco-kosher coffee — would have to be produced under a very different economic system than the one that serves today’s global coffee industry. This is just the sort of coffee sold by the Catskill Mountain coffee roasters of Kingston, N.Y. Catskill Mountain Coffee is kosher (certified by the Vaad Hakashrut of nearby Albany) and is grown organically by indigenous people working on small cooperative farms.

“Kosher refers to what’s fit to consume,” Emma Missouri, Catskill Mountain Coffee’s co-owner and master roaster, told me during a recent visit there. “And treyf is really a bigger concept than not eating an animal that’s improperly slaughtered. It also has to do with how the workers are treated, how the earth is treated.”

Catskill Mountain’s coffee beans come from 13 countries across Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, produced by small farms that are members of Fair Trade organizations. These coffee farms receive what is called the “fair market price,” usually more than twice the amount paid by the biggest coffee roasters; the fair market contract also specifies that the price cannot go down, regardless of the fluctuations of the commodities market. (In recent years, coffee prices have plummeted because of oversupply, resulting in the loss of 600,000 jobs in Central America alone.) The coffee farms themselves have been certified as organic — this is a three-year undertaking — by an international organization such as the Organic Crop Improvement Association; the certification stipulates, among other requirements, that the farmers have not used chemical pesticides or fertilizers in growing their coffee, and have planted or maintained deep-root trees such as banana and orange to provide shade and secondary crops.

Missouri, who is 57, has short red hair and a ruddy complexion. Her journey to coffee — and Judaism — was something of a circuitous one. Born in Kansas City, Mo., she was raised in a nonreligious household; not until she was in her late 20s did she discover, from her great-aunt, that her father’s ancestors included Dutch Jews who had moved to England after the Restoration. Years later, she ended up converting to Judaism: “It took me a long time to get back to my roots, but I’m very happy to be here.”

Trained as an actor and theater director, Missouri did stints in Northampton, Mass.; New York City, and upstate New York’s Hudson Valley, working as a teacher and graphic designer. Tiring of that itinerant life, she eventually decided that she wanted to have her own business, but she wasn’t sure what kind. Conversations with her friend Dean Cycon — a former Wall Street lawyer turned organic coffee seller — led her to the idea of organic coffee, and eventually to Catskill Mountain Coffee, which she founded in 1993.

Missouri roasts her beans in small batches, in a 55-pound roaster, taking pride in the fact that she roasts beans only for the orders she gets each week. She calls Catskill Mountain the equivalent of a microbrewery in its devotion to craft and the maintenance of high standards, but her references are more often to wine than to beer. (This year’s crop of Bolivian coffee, for instance, draws comparisons with a red Burgundy: fruity but not sweet, without any bitter finish.) Missouri points out that coffee beans are similar to wine grapes in that the growing characteristics of a particular region (what winemakers call terroir), such as altitude, climate and soil content, inevitably will affect the taste of the product. Some of these factors will vary from year to year, or even season to season, and so a master roaster has to make careful, fine-tuned adjustments in the roasting to maximize the beans’ flavor.

Though Catskill Mountain Coffee offers a broad spectrum of roast styles — from the lightest, driest American roast to the oily, intensely dark, almost caramel-tasting Turkish roast — Missouri tends to use a light hand at the roaster; she hews to the East Coast tradition of less-aggressive roasting, in contrast to the very dark, rather bitter roasting style popularized by West Coast-based coffee companies such as Peets and Starbucks (which she derisively refers to as “Charbucks”). Her roasting technique, she points out, emphasizes not the taste of the roast but the quality of the bean, allowing the distinct flavor of each variety to come through. Catskill Mountain’s Sumatra Full City coffee, for instance, is dark and full bodied; the Mexican Altura has a vaguely spicy cinnamon taste; the Ethiopian is more astringent, while the Guatemalan has a rich-mouth feel and what I would describe as an almost cocoa finish. (Catskill Mountain Coffee also combines these coffees into dozens of blends.)

For the last six years, Catskill Mountain Coffee has run its own cafe, selling pastries and light vegetarian fare along with the coffee, but much of its business is by mail order. A one-pound bag of coffee costs $8, and a three-pound bag costs just $6 per pound — much cheaper than the coffee at my local supplier, and probably yours, as well. “We’re in the business to make a living,” Missouri likes to say, “not a killing.”

To order Catskill Mountain Coffee, contact them at 888-SAY-JAVA or

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