New Museum of the Rockies Exhibit Tells Coffee’s Story

“You never look at a cup of coffee the same way again,” Daniel Lorenzetti told me of his experiences during distant travels. Daniel and his wife Linda Rice Lorenzetti authored the exhibit “The Birth of Coffee” and a book by the same name, both of which investigate the lives and processes of coffee workers spanning four continents. The exhibit is now on display at Museum of the Rockies.

 

Besides occasional flavor notes, roasting and drinking in coffee-consuming societies is not discussed in the exhibit. Also of only brief mention are larger discussions about climate change, organic farming and fair trade. Those subjects are already widely published on, which is why the narrow but rich content of the work is unique. The focus of the work is people — as they are related to coffee’s history, culture, process and environment.

 

Daniel’s words about those people are echoed by his wife in the preface of the book, where she writes, “their faces will always be reflected on the dark surface of every cup of coffee we drink.” That simple sentence could not have better captured one of the deeper meanings of their work: What is for many of us a quick caffeine fix or a hot morning pick-me-up, is to others a lifetime of labor and love. It’s not just espresso falling into a glass out of a vacuum, it’s the product of an old Colombian man who tends a coffee-tree nursery because he can no longer pick beans on steep slopes. It’s the realization of generations spent cultivating.

 

Those generations are shown in Daniel’s photography, which has been toned by hand using actual coffee. What isn’t told visually by a glance or a motion is told by Linda through insightful text that can hardly be called a caption. Together, the photography and writing explain the world of coffee production better than any book before it.

 

Although the exhibit focuses on individuals — sometimes capturing years of their lives in a single photo — the global impact of coffee is also apparent. Yemeni traders in 800-year-old markets and carved out wooden stumps used in Java to remove pulp from coffee beans tell the tale of a crop that runs wide in geography and deep in time through human culture.

 

Even here in Bozeman, a place far removed from coffee farmers, there are traces of this culture in seemingly unlikely places. For example, MSU President Waded Cruzado comes from a family that relied mainly on ground and packaged coffee as a source of income. Speaking of her step-father’s coffee mill, she said, “I would play alongside the stacked sacks and bags of coffee, [and] my clothes would be permeated by the distinctive smell.” She still starts each day with a fresh cup of coffee.

 

The book and exhibit depict all of the many hands coffee passes through during production. There are innumerable methods used in producing coffee between the moment a seed is planted and the moment when beans are bagged. But just like the lives of the farmers, there are similarities no matter where you go.

 

The arabica species of coffee grows above 3,000 feet on a tree that produces cherry-like fruit. The “beans” are actually seeds, which grow in pairs within the cherry, flat sides facing each other. Even cherries right next to each other will ripen at different times, so it is common to pick the beans by hand. Brazil is a notable exception — with its wealthy coffee infrastructure and high plateaus, mechanized farming is king. With machine harvesters, all the ripe and unripe cherries are taken from the tree at once. Then the unripe beans are removed by hand on a long conveyor belt.

 

After picking, the beans go through some variation of removing the pulp of the cherry and drying. In Ethiopia and areas of Indonesia, it is common to dry the beans with all or part of the cherry still attached to the bean. This method, called natural processing, requires less water and imparts a sweeter and fruitier taste to the coffee.

 

In most countries it is common to remove all of the pulp before drying. This is called wet processing for its use of a water mill. Drying the bean is a delicate process. In a rainforest environment, families may have to cover and uncover beans incessantly to keep them in the sun and out of the rain.

 

After drying, the beans are stored in burlap bags that weigh somewhere between 100 and 150 pounds, depending on the country. The bags are typically stamped with a print that is unique to the farm, co-op or distributor.

 

Perhaps after reading a brief summary of how coffee is made, you only have a loose grasp of it — a few concepts in a vague order with imaginary impressions of how they might look. The strength of the Lorenzetti’s exhibit is that it turns those nascent ideas into understandable realities using rich and concentrated installments, like good espresso.

 

The exhibit will be on display until May 5. Admission to the museum is $10 for students. For more about the project, or their upcoming project “The Birth of Chocolate,” visit birthofcoffee.com.