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A Semester Devoted to Coffee

CAS student took her major to the field, and learned exactly how a cup of joe is made


Most Starbucks baristas can’t say they have picked, roasted, and brewed their own cup of coffee. Julia Shaw has them beat. A passion for coffee brought Shaw (CAS’18) to Central and South America for nine months this year, where the urban sustainability major worked with a nonprofit that strives to improve the lives and livelihoods of coffee farmers.

Shaw’s java affair started last year with a job at Blue State Coffee, where her manager’s zeal for coffee inspired Shaw to treat it like more than just a job. “Her passion spread to me and I fell in love with it,” she says.

Like many serious coffee houses, Blue State sends a manager each year on what it calls an origin trip to taste the different coffees it’s considering selling. Shaw, who had recently enrolled in a Spanish-language program at the Universidad de Palermo in Buenos Aires (she is a Spanish minor and the courses would count towards her program), decided to design her own origin-esque trip before classes began. “I knew I wanted to see how coffee was produced,” she says. “A lot of people don’t even know that coffee starts out as a fruit. I wanted to go and fully immerse myself in that.”

After some digging, she signed on to volunteer with the Guatemala-based De La Gente (“Of the People”), a nonprofit that works with small farmers and cooperatives, helping them grow and sell coffee.

For one month, she lived with host families in Ciudad Vieja, about 15 minutes outside of Antigua, Guatemala, following the farmers as they ascended volcanoes to pick the coffee cherries (which contain the coffee beans) and carry the fruit down in a basket balanced on her head. The beans were picked out, processed and sorted, then roasted and packaged. Lower grade beans were sold in local markets, the rest was exported to North America.

Shaw did everything the families did, including sharing daily meals of homemade tortillas and guacamole. “They didn’t sugarcoat anything,” she laughs, while drinking her first cup of the day as she chatted via Skype from Buenos Aires, where she was working as a barista. Her favorite coffee drink is an espresso simple or coffee from the Yirgachefe region of Ethiopia (“I know that sounds really snobby,” she says).

The crash course in coffee production compelled Shaw to brew her own cup, which started after she squirreled away a water bottle’s worth of the cherries. “I did all the processing myself, and at the end I roasted them in a little sample roaster, so I can literally say I picked, processed, roasted, and drank my own cup of coffee. I think that’s something that pretty few baristas can say.” The achievement means a lot to Shaw, who thinks that most consumers don’t know enough about where their food comes from.

She also learned a lot about how climate change may threaten coffee growers. A recent report commissioned by FairTrade and written by the Climate Institute predicts that without strong actions to reduce emissions, by 2050 half of the land now used to grow coffee will no longer support a coffee crop.

“In the classroom, we talk so much about how climate change is ruining the world,” she says, “but then to hear farmers talk about lower yields, and a coffee fungus that is being spread because of warmer air temperatures, was really eye-opening.”

Shaw, who created her own major studying urban sustainability through the College of Arts & Sciences, says her experiences in Guatemala and Buenos Aires will enrich her studies back at BU. The major combines her interests in urban and environmental studies by incorporating courses from environmental science, sociology, international relations, political science, and urban affairs. She describes her dream job as working with coffee farmers and an American company that imports their coffee, something she refers to as relationship farming. “I want to help everyone realize better, more sustainable ways to grow coffee,” says the former sustainability@BU intern.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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